Excavating the CA Archive: Central Belt

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For the final two legs of my tour of Scotland, I will head south and east – first, in this column, to the Central Belt, including the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and then, in the next issue, to the Borders. As a reminder, these columns on Scotland are dedicated to the memory of Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022), an old friend, outstanding archaeologist, and proud Scotswoman.


Current Archaeology’s visits to this part of Scotland have, it is fair to say, been infrequent and, to use an archaeological turn of phrase, unstratified. There are some great sites and finds, but no consistent story to be told. Heading broadly west to east seems easiest, so I will begin on the Isle of Arran, whose prehistoric settlements were explored in CA 83 (August 1982), then specifically the prehistoric stone circles of Machrie Moor in CA 176 and 294 (November 2001 and September 2014). Those interested more generally in the prehistoric and later landscape archaeology of this part of Scotland should also examine CA 138 (April/May 1994), which explores the recessed platforms found in quantity in this area.

To take a complete turn of topic, my next visit is to Pollphail – a short hop geographically north across the Firth of Clyde but a world, and millennia, away. Pollphail is home to an abandoned 1970s settlement, a legacy of the early optimism of the North Sea oil boom. It featured in CA 243 (June 2010) in one of the most unusual, and most recent, sites yet visited by the magazine. The location is an eerie one, more akin to the set of a zombie movie than an archaeological site, even more so given its atmospheric coastal setting.

CA 138 explored the recessed platforms of western Scotland, particularly in and around the Firth of Clyde, while CA 243 delved into more recent archaeology in the area at of the abandoned 1970s settlement of Pollphail, a legacy of the early optimism of the North Sea oil boom.

A very different type of settlement featured further east at Ardnadam, looking across Holy Loch on the Firth of Clyde, in CA 92 (June 1984). This site was home not only to a cell of 7th-century monastics who stuck to the Celtic rites that first spread Christianity across the Irish Sea, but also preserved evidence of much earlier inhabitants, with Neolithic layers below those of its later occupants. Sticking to this theme of unexpected discoveries in Christian locations, I head next into central Glasgow on one of Current Archaeology’s rare forays into the city. (In passing, this absence of archaeological news from Glasgow is notable. Given the vibrancy and pace of change that the city is famous for, I suspect there are some amazing sites and finds that have never made it into the pages of Current Archaeology – do let the magazine know, if so!) But, to return to my story, CA 198 (July/August 2005) visited Govan Old Church, a parish in the middle of Glasgow that is home to one of the richest collections of Viking Age (10th- to 11th-century) sculpted stones in the British Isles. Thirty-one stones are displayed inside the church, but as many as 46 were recorded in 1899, and there is good reason to believe there were once many more, some of which may still lie buried in the churchyard. Most of the stones were probably grave markers, raising the question of whether these were the remains of a Viking Age cemetery. Between 1994 and 1996, a team went looking for – and discovered – just this, providing the sought-after evidence not only for an early Viking church but an even earlier 6th-century Christian cemetery. With such finds, Govan Old took its place alongside sites like Iona and Whithorn as one of the earliest known centres of Christianity in Scotland.


For the latter half of this month’s column, I will jump eastwards to Edinburgh and the Lothians, down and around along the coast. First up is Newbridge, with CA 178 (March 2002) reporting from a sprawl of industrial estates, on the western edge of Edinburgh Airport, abutting the roundabout that feeds drivers on to the M9 motorway. Rescue excavations there (undertaken swiftly amid the winter snows of 2001- 2002) revealed a suitably transport-themed find: a Bronze Age/Iron Age chariot burial on a par with similar examples known from Yorkshire at Wetwang/Garton Slack. Even more unusually, it had been buried intact (in Yorkshire they tended to dismantle the vehicle, which leaves a lot of uncertainty about how it was constructed). Keeping on a transport theme, 11km further east, a similarly unexpected and spectacular find featured on the cover of CA 155 (December 1997), one of my personal favourite covers of all time: the huge Roman sculpted lioness spotted in the Almond River at Cramond by the keen- eyed local ferryman. Moving east into Edinburgh itself, two more transport-related discoveries were then reported in CA 131 and 242 (October 1992 and May 2010): the first covering excavations at Edinburgh Castle during construction of improved visitor access routes, and the second featuring finds made during the building of the notoriously delayed tram system.

Lothian is home to lots of splendid archaeology, including a huge Roman sculpted lioness that was found in the Almond River at Cramond in 1997, and featured on the cover of CA 155, as well as the Traprain Law hillfort, where the largest hoard of Late Roman hacksilver yet known was discovered.

Inveresk, 10km east of Edinburgh, featured in CA 294 (September 2014), and is a fantastic starting point for a rapid examination of the coastal settlements there. A Roman presence was long suspected due to its strategic location on the line of the Antonine Wall, and proven by Ian Richmond in 1946-1947, but more recent housing developments enabled a reassessment, showing it to have been a cosmopolitan place attracting bustling civilian settlements, visiting VIPs, and exotic religions. Continuing on this theme, CA 256 (July 2011) reported from nearby Musselburgh, when two Roman Mithraic altar stones were discovered during the redevelopment of a cricket pavilion. This was the first evidence for the cult of Mithras in Scotland, and it changed our view of Roman religion on the northern frontier. Another, more famous Roman site not far from there then featured in CA 203 and 283 (May/June 2006 and October 2013): that of Traprain Law. This is a site that dominates the local landscape and imagination in equal measure, and these two articles tell its remarkable tale with aplomb. The contents of the remarkable hoard recovered from the site were revisited in CA 393 (December 2022).

There are many other such fine sites and finds in this rich part of Scotland, but in closing I will flag two that particularly caught my eye. The first of these is Broxmouth, on the edge of Dunbar, which featured in CA 307 (October 2015); the second is Auldhame, just south of Tantallon, which featured in CA 293 (August 2014). At Broxmouth, rescue excavations prompted the largest investigation of an Iron Age hillfort ever mounted in Scotland: the results revolutionised knowledge of life on the fringes of the Roman empire. At Auldhame, another set of rescue excavations revealed a lost Anglo-Saxon monastery and related cemetery, within which lay an unexpected 10th-century Viking warrior burial. These two sites, separated by a few kilometres in space, reflect the stunning cultural diversity of this part of Scotland through the ages.

Two massive rescue excavations featured in CA 307 and CA 293: the first, at Broxmouth, uncovered an Iron Age hillfort, while the second, at Auldhame, revealed a lost Anglo-Saxon monastery and related cemetery, with an unexpected Viking warrior burial.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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