First evidence of prehistoric occupation on Staffa?

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Staffa is best known for its towering basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave (pictured here) – geological wonders that continually attract tourists to its shores. Were Bronze Age communities as taken with the island’s natural beauty?

The first clear evidence for possible prehistoric habitation on Staffa, a small island in the Inner Hebrides, has been uncovered during a recent excavation.

Today the island – which is characterised by towering basalt columns and its famous sea cave – is uninhabited, and has long been better known for its geological beauty, folkloric history, and 19th-century Romantic appeal than for its archaeology. But this is now set to change thanks to the discovery of a probable Bronze Age structure, defined by a series of ditches and pits that had been cut into the distinctive yellow clay subsoil.

The find came during an excavation under the Historic Archaeology Research Project, Staffa (HARPS), a partnership between the National Trust for Scotland, the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) School of Simulation and Visualisation, and the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling, with funding support from the Trust’s London Members’ Centre and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. It is not the first trace of prehistoric activity on the island – previous work by HARPS has revealed Bronze Age finds including a small pit containing a single sherd of decorated pottery and a burnt grain of hulled barley that was recently radiocarbon dated by SUERC to c.1880-1700 BC – but it is the first evidence that can be linked to occupation.

Archaeologists on the HARPS project recently uncovered evidence that Staffa was not always uninhabited – a possible structure suggests that humans may have settled on the island during the Bronze Age. (PHOTO: National Trust for Scotland)

‘This is our fifth season out at the island to investigate its past. Each time we go there we add another little piece of the jigsaw,’ said Derek Alexander, the National Trust for Scotland’s Head of Archaeological Services. ‘This is a really significant find. It seems likely that people in the past were just as curious about their surroundings as we are. We can only imagine what Bronze Age people may have thought of the geological marvel that is Fingal’s Cave. Our next objective is to understand whether this evidence represents domestic occupation on the island or something a bit more ritualistic.’

Stuart Jeffrey, Reader in Heritage Visualisation at Glasgow School of Art, added, ‘These finds are really important, enabling us to push our knowledge of human activity on the island back thousands of years. The ways in which Staffa has excited the modern creative imagination must surely have had echoes in the past. This evidence clearly shows significant prehistoric activity on the island and allows us to start thinking about how this activity relates to Staffa’s stunning landscape and geology.’

This article appeared in CA 344.

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