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A diver holds a Neolithic ca. 3,500 BC Ustan vessel found near a crannog in Loch Arnish, Scotland.      Source: C Murray/ Antiquity

Diver’s 5,500-Year-Old Discovery Hauls History of Scottish Crannogs Into Question

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Archaeologists in Scotland have made “astounding discoveries” in a murky loch which finally determines when ancient homes known as crannogs were first used, and it’s thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

In 2011, a diver from Lewis recovered a set of remarkably preserved Neolithic treasures submerged around a Scottish ‘crannog’. These artificial stone built islands were “previously assumed to have been inhabited between the Iron Age and the post- medieval period” but it is now evidential that at least four crannogs in the Outer Hebrides were lived in c.3640–3360 BC, demanding a re-dating on the crannog historical timeline by some two thousand years.

Aerial views of the crannogs in Loch Bhorgastail. (F. Sturt / Antiquity)

Aerial views of the crannogs in Loch Bhorgastail. (F. Sturt / Antiquity)

A Wide Spread Of High Technology

Like many good archaeology stories, this one begins with a diver, Chris Murray, a former Royal Navy diver who lives in Lewis. One day, while he was exploring the waters around a crannog he found  a “series of extraordinarily well-preserved Early/Middle Neolithic pots lying on the loch bed.” According to a new paper published today in Antiquity, Murray teamed up with Mark Elliot who was at the time the conservation officer at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, and the pair discovered similar artifacts at “five more crannog sites across Lewis.”

The project involved a wide array of scientific disciplines, each with its own technologies and testing equipment. The underwater survey required photogrammetry, the science of taking measurements from high resolution photographs and typically outputting maps and 3D models, and Palaeoenvironmental coring and excavation which is observing and visualizing ancient earth system processes.

Investigation of the crannog at Loch Langabhat (F. Sturt / Antiquity)

Investigation of the crannog at Loch Langabhat (F. Sturt / Antiquity)

The team of divers and archaeologists recovered hoards of well preserved Neolithic ceramic vessels from the lochs which are thought to have been ritually deposited from the crannogs, which themselves might have symbolically represented “separation from everyday life,” according to the paper. But now, it is understood that the engineering task of gathering and piling up hundreds of tons of boulders on loch beds was undertaken thousands of years earlier.

Aerial photographic comparison of the six islet sites known to have produced Neolithic material (all shown at the same scale): 1) Arnish; 2) Bhorgastail; 3) Eilean Domhnuill; 4) Lochan Duna (Ranish); 5) Loch an Dunain (Carloway); 6) Langabhat (images © of Getmapping PLC).

Aerial photographic comparison of the six islet sites known to have produced Neolithic material (all shown at the same scale): 1) Arnish; 2) Bhorgastail; 3) Eilean Domhnuill; 4) Lochan Duna (Ranish); 5) Loch an Dunain (Carloway); 6) Langabhat (images © of Getmapping PLC).

Ironing Out Press Headlines From Archaeological Reality

According to A. O’Sullivans's (1998) The Archaeology of Lake Settlement in Ireland, the Emerald Isle offers 1,200 examples” while Scotland has “around 340 crannogs.” Of these, the paper points out that “Only 10% have been radiocarbon dated, and only 20% in total have been dated at all” and the archaeologists concerned with this project say, “They represent a new type of site for the British Neolithic , with new deposition practices.”

Distribution of island dwellings (including ‘crannogs’ and ‘island duns’) in Scotland (data from Lenfert 2012: Appendix 1). Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019. (Antiquity)

Distribution of island dwellings (including ‘crannogs’ and ‘island duns’) in Scotland (data from Lenfert 2012: Appendix 1). Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2019. ( Antiquity)

What should be remarked is that this is not the first time this more ancient dating of the crannogs has been presented. In 1996 Dr Ian Armit, Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh University published his seminal book, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles in which he wrote “In areas such as the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, timber was unavailable from the Neolithic era onwards. As a result, completely stone crannogs supporting drystone architecture are common there.”

Furthermore, in 2011, Dr Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage published one of the most user friendly architectural history books ever published, British Fortifications Through the Reign of Richard III: An Illustrated History . In this magical journey explaining our ancient relationship with stones, it is written; “Archaeological evidence at Crannogs in the western Isles shows evidence that they were used during various periods between (4000 - 2000bc”).

The new report states:

“our research has demonstrated the widespread presence of Neolithic crannogs in the Outer Hebrides, finally confirming previous scholarly speculation about the possibility of their existence.”

Pioneers like Dr Armit and Dr Lepage, in 1996 and 2011 respectfully, will no doubt be thrilled with this new research which has scientifically demonstrated - for the first time - that crannogs were indeed a widespread feature of the Neolithic, being built as early as 4000 BC, with the evidence of radiocarbon dating to back up the timeline.

Top image: A diver holds a Neolithic ca. 3,500 BC Ustan vessel found near a crannog in Loch Arnish, Scotland.      Source: C Murray/ Antiquity

By Ashley Cowie

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