A Pictish burial and Late Norse/ Medieval settlement at Sangobeg, Durness, Sutherland


Salvage excavation was carried out on an archaeological site, discovered during the North Sutherland Coastal Zone Assessment Survey in 1998, in dunes at Sangobeg, near Durness in northern Sutherland. The excavation, conducted in 2000, uncovered the fragmentary remains of probable Norse-period settlement, including stone walling, a hearth and occupation deposits that had been truncated by erosion. Sealed beneath the Norse-period remains was the burial of a child of indeterminate sex, aged between 8–10 years, who had been placed in a flexed position on a bed of quartzite pebbles and covered with a mound of clean sand, capped with larger quartzite stones. The burial was dated by radiocarbon to 170 cal BC–cal AD 30 (GU-12535). Keywords: Pictish, Norse, burial, settlement

In September 2000, the University of Glasgow’s Viking and Early Settlement Archaeological Project (VESARP) excavated an eroding site at Sangobeg, near Durness in northern Sutherland. The excavation was funded by Historic Scotland in order to rescue information from the site before its total destruction through coastal erosion. The site first came to the attention of VESARP during the North Sutherland Coastal Zone Assessment Survey, carried out on behalf of Historic Scotland in 1997 (Brady and Morris 1998). This rapid examination of a 50–100m strip of coastline extended from the west side of the Kyle of Durness to the River Borgie in Strathnaver (excluding Whiten Head). It included the small, sandy bay at Sangobeg, approximately 1.5km east of the village of Durness (Fig 1). The beach at Sangobeg (NGR: NC 242 966) is approximately 0.4km wide, a broad pocket of sand nestled between stretches of steep, craggy coastline. The eastern part of the beach contains a small outcrop of gneiss, but most of the surrounding geology is of the Cambrian period, some 550 million years old
∗ Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD), Gregory Building, Lilybank Gardens, Glasgow G12 8QQ ∗∗ Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow, Gregory Building, Lilybank Gardens, Glasgow G12 8QQ
DOI: 10.3366/E147157670800020X Scottish Archaeological Journal Vol.29(1) 51–82



Fig 1 Location of Sangobeg, Durness, Sutherland (Caitlin Evans with Gillian McSwan)

(Ross 1982, Table 1). The rear of the beach rises to low dunes covered with thin turf. The adjoining hinterland consists of gently sloping, improved grasslands, with the ground rising to hills and moorland further inland. On the improved grasslands lie archaeological remains of more recent date, which were recorded during the survey (Brady and Morris 1998). These include a revetted trackway leading up from the beach, a longhouse and corn-drying kiln, and the unroofed remains of croft houses belonging to Sangobeg township (NMRS NC46NW 17). The Sango river flows off the moorland, descends the dunes and crosses the beach to the sea (Fig 2). The river frequently changes course on the beach: during



the excavation it flowed roughly E-W, parallel to the water’s edge and to the face of the dunes containing the site, which isolated these dunes in a sweeping meander. Four years later, however, it was flowing directly down the beach, perpendicular to the water’s edge. Its direction is usually altered by large storms moving sediment onto the foreshore. By September 1997, when the site was discovered, the effects of erosion by the river and by over-grazing had denuded the dunes of much of their turf cover. The tops of the seaward dunes retained some vegetation, but the area behind (to the south) had been badly deflated, and this had been exacerbated by the temporary camp of soldiers on local manoeuvres in the 1980s (J Morrison, pers. comm.). The site, as discovered and recorded during the 1997 survey, consisted of a spread of black, charcoal-flecked sand on the seaward side of the dune top (corresponding to excavation area C3, Fig 2). Examination of the surface of this deposit yielded mammal and fish bone, two possible iron boat rivets, vitrified fuel ash, and a fragment of low-fired, grass-tempered pottery similar to Late Norse material from elsewhere in northern Scotland (for example, Freswick Links in Caithness, see Gaimster 1995, 136–141). At the western end of the dune was a concentration of stones, apparently coursed, with further stones emerging from the erosion scar at the rear of the dune. These were interpreted as potential structural elements belonging to a settlement. The erosion had disturbed and tumbled these putative structures, and it seemed likely that any undisturbed structural elements would lie under the portion of dune that was still grass-covered. It was also thought unlikely that archaeology preserved in that portion would survive if the sea broke through the dune or if grazing were to continue in this area. The river’s flow in spate was also undermining the seaward face of the dune, where the occupation deposits were exposed. This report presents the results of the area excavations undertaken in 2000 of the possible structural elements and occupation deposits first identified in 1997 and the earlier burial discovered beneath them, and also of the coastal sondages excavated in the vicinity.

Archaeological Background
The nature and extent of Viking/Norse period settlement in NW Scotland remain somewhat enigmatic (Morris, Barrett and Batey 1994; Lelong 2002). By the 13th century, the area that now comprises northern Sutherland (stretching westward from Caithness along the N coast) was known as the Province of Strathnaver. Its territorial coherence probably originated in the Norse period, when it formed part of the Norse earldom of Caithness and the bishopric of Caithness. The Orkneyinga Saga relates that Earl Thorfinn (d. c.1065) was given Caithness and Sutherland (the lands to the south of Caithness) by his grandfather, Malcolm II (Taylor 1938), and this would have included the later Province of Strathnaver. Although Strathnaver is not mentioned by name in the Norse sagas, Crawford (2000, 2) suggests that it equates to the district referred to in the sagas as the ‘Dales’ of Caithness, an argument previously put forward by Skene (1837, 361). The character of the Province, with its long river valleys and kyles opening onto the Pentland Firth, would be in keeping with this descriptive name. The period when this part of



Fig 2 Topographic Survey of Sangobeg Bay with Trench Locations (Olivia Lelong with John Arthur)



northern Scotland first came under the influence of Vikings from Norway and, later, Norse settlers may have begun as early as the mid 9th century AD. The beginning of the Late Norse period is taken as the point from which Viking activity ended and the Norse earldom was securely established in the late 11th or early 12th century AD, through the period in which, while Norse political power was on the wane, its cultural influence continued in the far N (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 2). Place names, both habitative and topographical, attest to fairly widespread Viking/Norse activity in northern Sutherland, especially along the coast (Waugh 2000; Fraser 1979; 1995). These are scattered among Gaelic place names, perhaps suggesting that Norse settlement here was more diffuse and less intensive than in Caithness. Indeed, in 1982, Alan Small wrote that ‘the archaeological evidence for Norse settlement is even more sparse than the place name evidence’ (Small 1982, 182). ‘Sangobeg’ itself derives from the Old Norse ‘sand’ and ‘geo’, coupled with the Gaelic ‘beg’, to denote ‘little sandy creek or bay’. Within a radius of a few kilometres are numerous other Norse names (see Fig 1): Durness, Smoo, Sangomore, Eriboll, Borralie, Croispol, Keoldale and, further to the west, Cape Wrath – from hfarf or ‘turning point’, where Norse longships would turn to sail south along the west coast. Other clusters of Norse place names occur further to the east in the former Province of Strathnaver, particularly around the Kyle of Tongue and in the valley of Strathnaver, suggesting considerable Norse colonisation and/or linguistic influence in the area. However, relatively few archaeological remains of certain Viking or Norse date have so far been discovered in northern Sutherland (Lelong 2003). Almost all of the known archaeological evidence for Viking/Norse activity in the Province has been found in the vicinity of Durness (Fig 1). A single, 9th- or 10th-century burial of a young male was found in the dunes at Balnakeil Bay (Low, Batey and Gourlay 2000; Batey and Paterson forthcoming 2008), and another possible burial is known from Keoldale, less than a kilometre to the south of Loch Borralie (Batey 1993). A 9th-century midden excavated in a small cave off Smoo Inlet is thought to have been left by sailors using the inlet for shelter during the 9th to 12th centuries, although evidence for cereal processing in the cave might indicate links to more permanent local settlement (Pollard 2005). Ongoing excavation near Loch Borralie by the Strathnaver Province Archaeology Project is uncovering evidence for later Medieval (14th- to 15th-century) settlement (Gazin-Schwartz and Lelong 2005). Most of the firm archaeological evidence for Norse to Late Norse settlement comes from coastal Caithness: from Freswick Links on the east coast (Morris, Batey and Rackham 1995; Morris, Barrett and Batey 1994) and from Robert’s Haven on the N (Barrett 1995). The discovery of a potentially Norse-period site at Sangobeg, therefore, was a significant one in the regional context. Because of this potential importance and the imminent threats to the site, Historic Scotland commissioned its excavation.

The fieldwork was carried out over four weeks in September 2000. First, the high water mark, the course of the river and the extent of the site and of vegetation



were surveyed using a total station. The resulting topographic map (Fig 2) will provide a useful comparative tool for future analysis of the rate of dune erosion. The survey also included visual assessment of eroding faces to identify potential archaeological deposits. These were recorded photographically and their locations were surveyed. The excavation strategy relied upon targeting areas deemed the most likely to produce settlement evidence, based upon the visual assessment. Eroding sections in four areas (A, B, D and E in Fig 2) were cleaned and recorded by photograph and measured drawing. Each area was then investigated by means of a large sondage, the sides of which were stepped for safety reasons as cleaning and excavation progressed. Two other areas (C and F) were also cleaned, recorded and investigated in plan.
Areas A and B

These two small trenches to the west of the main settlement site were excavated as box-sections or columns through the stratigraphy visible in the eroding section, in order to recover samples from all anthropogenic layers below the turf-line to the rock platform at the base. The trenches measured three metres E-W by two metres. Their locations were chosen because erosion in the western part of the bay was thought to be less severe than in the centre, although the seaward-facing deposits had clearly suffered storm damage and been undermined by the river. Although no structural remains were visible in the eroding sections, layers of very dark, humic deposits were evident after cleaning. The deposits were excavated stratigraphically and samples were retrieved for on-site sieving. The column excavated in Area B had to be stepped due to health and safety considerations. The lower c. 50cm of the trench were excavated by stepping the column to the N in an area contiguous with the already excavated vertical face.
Area C

Two concentrations of stone in Area C were initially interpreted as possible cairns. These were planned and then partially excavated in quadrants to establish their character and date. To the N of these was a thin spread of midden-rich material, which had been evident when the site was first discovered in 1997 and had produced Norse-period artefacts. This area was excavated in plan, and samples from the anthropogenic deposits were recovered for on-site sieving.
Area D

Area D lay along the northern, steeply sloping side of the turf-covered dune. Although modern beach sand had been blown up against the side of the dune, small patches of darker, organic sand were visible in the upper part of the 3m long section. At the base of the section, what appeared to be the top of a human cranium was discovered during cleaning. After recording of the section, it was covered to protect it during excavation of the overlying deposits. The later structural elements, occupation deposits and windblown sand were removed and recorded in plan.



Once exposed, the skeletal remains and associated features were recorded using standard burial recording techniques, lifted and bagged. The bones were extremely light and fragile, and despite the care taken they partly disintegrated during lifting.
Areas E/F

A trench was opened over Area E, to the east of Area D, as the dune was highest at this point and the turf cover was largely intact; it was hoped that the sand and grass would seal intact structural elements. After de-turfing, it quickly became evident that this area concealed only amorphous concentrations of stone, along with isolated and presumably water-borne boulders, and the sand was heavily burrowed by rabbits. This area became subsumed within Area F, to the east. At the eastern edge of the main dune system, structural elements were observed in an eroding face. These included a metalled floor or path surface and two to three courses of a dry-stone wall. This was the clearest evidence of structural survival at the site. The dune overlay the wall to the west and a trench was opened to expose further the archaeological features. At the suggestion of the land owner, a mechanical earth mover was brought on to site to combine the two trenches into one large area (E/F on Fig 2). The volume of sand to be moved meant that this could not be done by hand over one season. Once the full extent of the archaeology was exposed, the features were investigated in plan and section, with samples taken for on-site sieving.
Sieving programme

All archaeological deposits sampled during the excavation were floated using a modified Sirâf tank rigged with a 1mm mesh and Endicot sieves (250 micron and 1mm) to maximise recovery of palaeo-botanical evidence. The tank, connected to a free-flowing water supply, was set up adjacent to the site to allow for flexible processing. To facilitate feedback to the excavation, the heavy residues (>1mm) were quickly scanned and sorted by hand after processing to retrieve organic and inorganic materials. Four samples taken from around the inhumation burial were retained for dry sieving under laboratory conditions.

Excavation Results
Areas A and B: Midden deposits and ploughed horizon

While the excavation of Areas A and B uncovered no structural features, it did demonstrate that there were several phases of human activity in this part of the bay, including cultivation and midden dumping, interspersed with periods of wave incursion. The various phases of midden development suggest habitation very close by, probably related to the fragmentary structures excavated in the dunes to the west. The buried plough horizons also attest to attempts to work this land by combining the domestic refuse with the sandy soils. At the base of the column excavated in Area A was a layer of medium to dark brown, coarse sand with a high humic content (A010), an old ground surface. Overlying and mixed in with it was the lower storm beach deposit (A013), which



directly overlay the low, natural rock platform. The stones appeared to have been deposited while the humic layer was developing and may have been the result of one particularly large storm. Overlying both deposits were layers of fairly clean, loose, coarse sand (A009 and A011), which indicated a period of time before the accumulation of an overlying humic layer or old ground surface (A008). A second storm beach deposit (A012), up to 0.35m thick, overlay the clean sand. Another very dark brown clay-sand (A008) sealed the stones and had partly filtered through them. A further layer of humic, dark brown sand (A007) sealed this. It was in turn sealed by a probable ploughed horizon, consisting of grey/brown fine sand (A006). This was sealed by a substantial deposit of midden material (A005), up to one metre thick and consisting of very dark brown clay sand; it was striated with lenses of clean, windblown sand that suggested the midden had accumulated over a period of time. A patch of black compact sand (A015) sealed it. Windblown sand overlay the latest midden deposit. At the base of the column excavated in Area B was a humic old ground surface (B009 = A010) directly overlying the low, natural rock platforms. As in Area A, the storm beach material (B010) had been thrown onto the ground surface while it was developing. Clean, loose sand deposited by the wind (B008 = A009) overlay the storm beach. A thick layer of clean, orange/brown, fine sand (B006) above contained a second humic layer (B007 = A008). Overlying this was a thick midden deposit (B005 = A005). Above this was a very thin layer of clean, wind blown sand (B016), which was only evident at the east of the trench. The ploughed horizon noted in Area A was also present here (as B003). Overlying it was (B013), a clean pinkish yellow sand marking an interlude in ploughing in the immediate vicinity. Thick deposits of clean, windblown sand (B002, B001) capped the stratigraphy.
Area C: Possible Norse-period remains

This area of deflation lay between the turf-covered dune and the more stable ground to the west (Fig 3). Measuring approximately 25m E-W by 10m, it consisted of a stretch of sand dominated by two sandy mounds up to c. 4m in diameter, with boulders and smaller stones concentrated on and around the mounds (Areas C1 and C2 on Fig 2). The boulders visible on the surface were of varying geological origins and most were not water-worn beach stones, so it was thought they had been deliberately deposited here, perhaps to form cairns. Along the northern edge of the area, above the edge of the dune leading down to the river, was an expanse of black, humic sand (Area C3 on Fig 2) from which marine shells and low-fired grass-tempered pottery were recovered during the 1997 survey. Here, the remains of a stone box-hearth and associated burnt deposits were discovered.
Areas C1 and C2

The two putative mounds were excavated in quadrants. The mounds and concentrations of stone proved to be natural products of wind erosion and dune formation; however, they each sealed fragmentary occupation deposits (Fig 3). Evidence for intensive burrowing was found in both Areas C1 and C2, and as a



Fig 3 Fragmentary Norse structural remains in Area C3 (Caitlin Evans)

result the layers were discontinuous and difficult to interpret within each area, let alone between areas. In the western mound, recent wind-blown sand (C001) partly overlay a spread of boulders (C006). These in turn sealed a layer of mid brown sand (C007) that contained occasional flecks of black, humic material and limpet shells, but was otherwise fairly clean. The mostly articulated skeleton of a sheep was found in it.



It overlay a thick deposit of clean, pale brown sand (C015), which proved to be heavily burrowed. Excavation halted at this point. In the eastern mound (C2), recent wind-blown sand (C001) overlay a concentration of boulders and smaller stones (C003). The stones sat in a layer of windblown, more humic sand (C005), up to 0.28m deep. This sealed a thin layer of black-brown, highly organic sand (C008) which produced two small sherds of lowfired black pottery (SF 12). This overlay another clean layer of windblown sand (C009). Below this was a thick (up to 0.2m) layer of mid brown sand containing frequent lenses of black, organic clay sand (C010), which yielded a fragment of burnt peat (SF 5) and sealed another patchy, thin layer of black clay sand (C011). A discrete patch of black clay sand (C012), measuring 0.35m N-S by 0.28m, was found in the NW corner of the trench at the same level as (C011), in association with some large stones measuring up to 0.3m across. Separating these two organic deposits was a spread of clean, pale brown windblown sand (C025), which also continued beneath them. This clean layer was excavated to a depth of 0.15 m before excavation of the area halted. These spreads of dark, organic material encountered in Areas C1 and particularly C2 may have related to those investigated in Area C3, including C019 and C024 (see below).
Area C3

Located immediately to the north of Areas C1 and C2, this small excavation area of two metres by two metres was opened to recover samples of the compact, black occupation deposit that first brought this site to the attention of the excavators. The midden deposit (C019) was 0.15 to 0.20 metres thick in this area and consisted of dark brown/black, organic-rich sand, containing abundant shell, fish and animal bone. Sherds of grass-tempered and Scottish White Gritty Ware pottery (SFs 47, 50, 52–3, 55–6, 59, 62–3) were also recovered from it, as well as iron nail fragments. As the midden was excavated, two small upright stones (C023) were observed protruding through the adjacent sand (C021). After removal of the midden deposit to the N, this potential structural feature was investigated further. Below the midden deposit (C019) was a light, loose, clean sand (C020). There had clearly been some mixing of this layer, as occasional flecks of charcoal and pieces of shell and fish bone were found in it. This deposit, and the midden (C019) above, had been truncated on the NW by waves that had deposited clean, very light sand (C021) and scoured the archaeological deposits. Below this beach sand (C021) was a thick (0.1–0.15m) layer of compact black charcoal (C022) with occasional shell, fish and animal bone inclusions. This overlay a large, flat rectangular stone, which clearly formed a hearth with the two orthostatic stones (C023). The hearth measured c. 0.55m E-W by 0.16m. The hearth stone lay immediately N of the orthostats. The compact burnt deposit (C022) continued for approximately one metre to the N of the hearth stone and was up to 0.7 m wide. Sherds of 12th- to 15th-century cooking pot were recovered from the midden deposit (C019), as well as a sherd from a possible Martincamp-type vessel, dating to the 16th or 17th century (see Will, below).



Fig 4 Pre-excavation plan of the Pictish cairn (Caitlin Evans)

Area D: The inhumation burial and Norse period remains

In Area D, a flexed inhumation represented the earliest event in the archaeological sequence. It had been sealed by a mound of clean sand, capped with quartzite pebbles. After windblown sand accumulated on top of the mound, a structure was built and occupation deposits accumulated, probably during the Norse period. The body lay flexed on its right side, on a carefully packed layer of pebbles (D034) (Fig 7). The skeleton was aligned NNE/SSW (25◦ east of magnetic N), with the head to the NNE. Most of the long bones were present, but all were eroded at either end and, analysis showed, had been gnawed by rodents (see Roberts below). The cranium was in situ but had been partly crushed by the weight of the overlying sand and stones. The bed of pebbles on which the body had been laid measured about 3m NWSE (as visible in the N-facing section) by 0.95m as exposed during excavation, although the NE side had been eroded away. Its original shape, based on the visible portion, may have been oval. The stones were all rounded beach pebbles,



Fig 5 East-facing section through the Pictish burial mound and overlying Norse structural remains (Caitlin Evans)

Fig 6 North-facing section through the Pictish burial cairn (Caitlin Evans)

generally under 0.10m across, many of them quartzite and predominantly bluewhite, pale grey or cream in colour. Among them were 14 red stones, most of them placed close to or directly beneath the body. The head and upper chest rested on a large, flat stone. Larger, sub-rounded boulders lay around the edges of the pebble platform on the east, south and west; these appeared to form a rough kerb. The pebble platform and kerb lay on clean beach sand (D013/014), which in turn overlay several thick layers of dark brown, peat-stained sand packed with sorted, rounded stones (D016-023), the glacial till. The body had been covered with a mound of clean, light yellow-brown coarse sand (D012), up to 0.4m thick. This had been capped with a layer of sub-rounded stones (D015/033), mostly comprising white or pastel quartzite (Fig 5). The stony capping was sub-rectangular in plan as exposed, measuring about 3m NW-SE by 1m, although it had been truncated by wave action on the NE. The east-facing section (Fig 5) through the burial mound and overlying deposits illustrates the subsequent events in the sequence; Fig 6 shows the



Fig 7 Pictish burial on the quartzite pebble setting, with red pebbles indicated (Caitlin Evans)

N-facing section, which had been truncated by storm erosion. After its construction, the south part of the burial mound was sealed by a small dune, made up of several layers of clean, windblown sand (D007). An old ground surface of firm, orange-brown sand (D005) had formed on the dune, while to the north a deposit of clean, light brown sand and rounded boulders (D006) appeared to be a storm beach deposit that had been thrown up on its seaward side. A thick wedge of clean, windblown sand (D027) partly overlay the old ground surface to the south, creating a level surface for subsequent activity. The artefactual evidence (see Batey below) suggests this subsequent activity took place in the Late Norse period. A drystone wall (D003) running NE-SW was built on the level surface of the dunes. As exposed in the trench it measured 3.5m long; the NE end had eroded away, while the SW end ran into the section. It appears to have been at least three courses high (see section drawing, Fig 5) and of rough double-skinned construction. A small iron fishing hook (SF 91) was found between two courses of the wall. To the N, an occupation deposit of black-brown humic sand with pale lenses (D028) had built up against the base of the wall. A small iron object (SF 80),



possibly a nail head, was found in it. A more compact occupation deposit of mixed, dirty grey-brown sand (D026) had accumulated over it and had also built up to the south of the wall. Two fragments of indeterminate iron (SFs 23 and 29) and two sherds of black, grass-tempered pottery (SF 34) were recovered from it, along with abundant marine shells. A thin deposit of clean, windblown sand (D004) lay over the wall, and small sherds of black, low-fired pottery (SFs 20–22, 27) were recovered from it. A final occupation deposit, consisting of black, humic clay sand (D024), sealed the windblown sand to south of the wall. This appeared to represent continuing occupation during the use of the structure. Thick layers of clean, windblown sand, interleaved with turf lines and capped by the modern turf, sealed these features and postdated the abandonment of the site.
Area E/F: Possible Norse period/post-Medieval remains

In Area F, thick deposits of windblown sand (F001) were removed by JCB to expose as much as possible of the denuded drystone wall (F004) observed in the eroding section and any associated deposits or features. Fig 8 shows the features as originally exposed by hand, while Fig 9 shows their full extent after exposure by machine. A very compact layer of sand and gravel (F006) extended to the east of the wall [F004] and appeared to be a metalled path or floor surface which overlay storm beach deposits (Fig 8). The gravel component of the metalling was angular, suggesting that it was quarried for its use here as opposed to deriving from the beach. A sherd of brown-glazed redware (SF 72) was recovered from the storm beach material. Mechanical removal of the thick sandy overburden to the NW of this concentration of structural remnants established that the wall [F004] continued in a straight line for some two metres to the N before turning to run west for approximately 1.3 metres, forming a corner. The walling petered out at this point, and here the building had presumably fallen victim to the sea in an earlier phase of erosion. The removal of several tonnes of sand failed to uncover any substantial structural elements surviving to the west of the walling and metalling. Due to pressures of time and resources, and given the rescue nature of the excavation, a slot trench, c. 8.2m SE/NW by 1m wide, was excavated perpendicular to the wall [F004] and extending two metres to the west of it (Fig 9). This would cross the putative interior of the structure and expose any surviving floor or occupation deposits. The only other structural feature it revealed was a more fragmentary stretch of walling [F017], running along a similar alignment to wall [F004] and about four metres to the west of it (Fig 9). Only 1.4 metres of this wall were exposed in the course of the excavation, but its construction and the stone used were similar to those of wall [F004]. Burrowing in the area between the two walls had destroyed any stratigraphic relationship between them, but together they may have defined a building. The deposits exposed in the slot trench displayed a high degree of mixing, due to burrowing and previous periods of marine or riverine incursion. The slot trench was excavated to a depth of up to 0.6 metres below the base of wall



Fig 8 Walling and occupation deposits in Area F (Caitlin Evans)



Fig 9 Fragmentary walling and occupation deposits revealed in the slot trench in Area F (Caitlin Evans)

[F004]. The patchy remains of organic-rich, dark brown sandy occupation deposits (including F019/F023) were encountered in the area between the two walls, with clean windblown sand (F024) surrounding them. It proved impossible to relate the occupation deposits stratigraphically either to the walls or to the associated metalled surface (F006). The base of the slot trench lay below the bases of both walls and it was clear that no intact floor layers remained. The organic-rich deposits encountered did not appear sufficiently compacted to represent floors; they may have been midden material deposited at a later stage over an abandoned building. It is also possible that this area had been scoured by the sea or river and that the mixed, humic sands represented redeposition of floor/midden deposits. The lowest layers encountered (F030/F031), well below the wall bases, still displayed organic content and mixing. The antiquity of the features uncovered in Area E/F is unclear. The sherd of brown-glazed redware (SF 72) sealed beneath the metalled surface (F006) would suggest that it and the associated walling [F004] date to the 18th or 19th centuries. However, the extent of burrowing and mixing of the deposits means that it is difficult to be confident of the sherd’s stratigraphic security. A sherd of low-fired, grassimpressed pottery (SF 66) was recovered (unstratified from Area F). The character of the walling and fragmentary occupation deposits are similar to the Late Norseperiod features elsewhere on the site (Areas C and D), and the unstratified sherds of



Norse and Medieval pottery could indicate that activity took place in these periods in Area F. The evidence, however, is too slight to allow certainty either way.

Julie Roberts The remains analysed from the flexed inhumation in Area D were those of a single individual. The skeleton was approximately 60% complete, and it was in a very poor condition. All of the elements were fragmented to some degree and heavily eroded. The cortex of the bones was thinned and there were multiple root impressions on the surfaces. In addition, there was evidence of rodent gnawing at the ends of all the long bones. There was good (almost 100%) recovery of the dentition, but they too were degraded and eroded. The age at death of the individual was based on dental development and eruption (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). No epiphyseal ends of the long bones or actual epiphyses had been preserved, so epiphyseal fusion could not be assessed. Good recovery of the dentition meant that it was possible to determine an accurate age at death of 9 years ± 24 months. As yet there are no acceptable osteological standards for determining the sex of immature individuals. DNA analysis (if it were possible) would therefore be the only means of establishing the sex of the child. The condition of the skeleton precluded the identification of most pathological disorders, because of the extreme fragmentation and erosion. Each element was examined for evidence of pathology, but nothing conclusive was found. Both the right and the left femur were flattened antero-posteriorly at the proximal and distal ends of the shafts, but this may have occurred post-mortem, as a result of their having been compressed after burial. No oral pathology was observed, but the deciduous teeth were very heavily worn. This would suggest a very coarse diet during childhood. The permanent teeth were healthy and developing normally. As there were no intact long bones, it was not possible to assess the growth and nutritional status of the child by comparing the lengths of the long bones with dental development.

Late Norse material Colleen Batey

The initial identification of the site as Norse rested on the recovery of a few sherds of grass-tempered pottery. These can be assigned to the period by comparison with other assemblages, such as that from Freswick Links in Caithness (e.g. Gaimster 1995) and Robertshaven (Barrett 1995). However, a total of only eight finds units scattered across several contexts on the site is a very small quantity on which to base a discussion of period. There is a small group of indeterminate fabrics (such as SF 20) and others which have gritting to varying degrees in their make-up (such as SF 32 from D024 and SF 53 from C019), but their chronological significance cannot be confirmed. A small quantity of wheelthrown sherds may also fall into this phase of activity or slightly later (such as SFs 50, 59 and 105; see Will, this report) This is, however, probably consistent with the fact that the Norse-period middens had been almost completely lost by 1997, when the site was identified,



Fig 10 Small Finds: Worked pumice SF 102, Glass Bead SF 111, Iron Rivet Plate SF 096 and Decorative Plaque SF 089 (Caitlin Evans)



and certainly by 2000 when it was excavated. The single bead of black, opaque glass (SF 111; Fig 10) may have a Norse origin, but in its form it is not especially diagnostic. Among the small collection of ironwork, rivets such as SF 78 or SF 96 (Fig 10) may relate to this phase of activity on the site.
Medieval material Robert Will

Three body sherds are from Scottish White Gritty cooking pots (SFs 50 and 59, context C019, and SF 105, Area A midden). This type of pottery dates from the late 12th century through to the 15th century and is found on many excavations, particularly along the east coast of Scotland. This sherd may date to the late 12th or 13th century. One of the best assemblages of this material was recovered from the excavations at Kelso Abbey (Tabraham 1984), where these distinctive straightsided cooking vessels with thin walls were recovered. These vessels are thought to date to the late 12th century and mark the beginning of the Scottish White Gritty industry. Similar vessels have been found at a number of sites throughout Scotland, including Aberdeen (Murray 1982) and more recently Robert’s Haven in Caithness (Barrett 1995). One sherd (SF 62, context C019) could be part of a Martincamp Type III flask; this would date to the late 16th or 17th centuries. Although Martincamp vessels are relatively common in Scotland, it is usually the Type I or Type II vessels that are found, although a Type III sherd was recently excavated at Drumoig in Fife (Haggerty 2006, Gazetteer D2j, 1). These vessels, in general, date to from the mid15th century through to the 17th century and are thought to have been made in or near Martincamp in NW France, between Dieppe and Beauvais (Hurst et al. 1986). The vessels are mainly long-necked globular flasks. Although this is a small assemblage of pottery, it does confirm the trading links within Scotland and across Europe in the Medieval and post-Medieval period. In addition, the presence of both hand-made and wheel-thrown pottery in the assemblage again confirms that wheel-thrown ceramics did not completely replace hand-made wares and that the local hand-made tradition did continue through the Norse/Medieval period.
Post-Norse to modern material Colleen Batey

A small number of artefacts may relate to immediately after the late Norse period. However, the majority of identifiable items suggest a 19th -century presence (in the form of clay pipe stems, SFs 14 and 15) and 20th -century activity in the form of the stoneware base (SF 104) as well as the brown glazed vessel sherd (SF 193 from area A). The most diagnostic item is the small decorative metal plaque (SF 89; Fig 10), commemorating a gift to a church organist named Mr John Young by his choir in October 1901, from a church at Lugar in Ayrshire. Pieces in the assemblage which cannot be assigned to a specific phase of activity on the site include waterborne pumice (SFs 101 and 102; Fig 10) and two small chips of whalebone (SFs 28 and 61), both from area C.



PALAEOBOTANICAL ANALYSIS Jennifer Miller and Susan Ramsay

The carbonised macroplant remains are fully discussed and tabulated in the site archive, and are summarised here. In Area A, botanical remains from the midden layer (A005) were abundant. They included quantities of birch, heather family and willow charcoal, together with substantial quantities of burnt peat/turf, some brown (Fucoid) seaweed and numerous cereal grains. Cereal types identified included oat and both naked and hulled barley. Other carbonised seeds included one of ribwort plantain and two of bilberry/cowberry. This mixed assemblage represents general occupation detritus, including hearth deposits and possibly cereal processing waste. The seaweed may suggest small domestic-scale industry, such as ash production for detergent or, less likely, metallurgy. In Area B, the midden deposit (B005) contained a similar carbonised assemblage to its equivalent midden layer (A005) in Area A, suggesting a similar provenance. Charcoal of alder, birch, hazel, heather family, Scot’s pine type and willow was recorded, together with substantial quantities of burnt minerogenic peat/turf and turf indicators, including sedges and heath grass remains. Several cereal grains, including oats and hulled barley, were also recorded, as was burnt seaweed. This very mixed assemblage is indicative of waste deposits from various sources, including probably fire waste and/or general occupation sweepings, consistent with the midden (A005) in Area A. Interestingly, these two midden deposits contained the only evidence for fucoid seaweed from the entire site. Tiny quantities of burnt minerogenic peat/turf were recorded from four contexts from area C2 (C008, C010, C011 and C016) and one deposit (C007) from Area C1, possibly from anthropogenic activity in the immediate vicinity or from natural events. The midden spread (C019) in Area C3 contained a variety of cereal grains, some arable weed seeds and a mixed charcoal assemblage, suggesting origins from both domestic hearth waste and crop processing events. A deposit of black ash and charcoal (C022) lay directly on the flat slab of the box hearth, while a surrounding burnt deposit (C024) was interpreted as material swept out of the hearth. Indicators of heathland minerogenic turf dominated the botanical assemblage from both deposits, with heather seed capsules and leafy shoots and bearberry leaves observed, together with grass/sedge rhizomes and prolific numbers of heather family twigs. The latest occupation deposit (D024) in Area D produced charcoal of alder, birch, heather family and pine, together with mineral turf/peat and a few cereals, primarily barley. This is evidence of a domestic midden deposit, probably including both hearth and cereal processing waste. A mixed occupation layer (D026) that built up around the base of the Norse-period wall [D003] contained similar evidence of domestic activity, albeit with less variety of charcoal types. In Area F, scant carbonised cereal grains and minerogenic heathland turf remains were recorded from two layers (F019, F023), suggesting they were the residues of domestic activities.




The remains of minerogenic, heathland turf dominated the carbonised assemblages from the samples, indicating that this had been was the primary fuel during the Late Norse and possible post-Medieval occupation. The exposed coastline of northern Sutherland would never have had full, dense tree cover; however, the woody taxa recorded (birch, alder, hazel, cherry and Scots pine types) probably do represent fairly local, albeit not abundant, scrub woodland resources. This is likely to have been present as small tracts growing in sheltered spots slightly inland, and was probably also washed up as driftwood from further afield. This situation is similar to that interpreted for the Norse settlement at Freswick, Caithness (Morris et al. 1995), where the very low tree pollen levels recorded by Jacqui Huntley also indicated an almost treeless landscape other than small pockets in sheltered areas (Dickson and Dickson 2000). Turf and heather are valuable commodities in a marginal landscape. Heather can be used for thatching, bedding, cereal parching, rope making or textile dyeing, while minerogenic heather turf is the fuel of necessity when more satisfactory woody resources are in short supply. It is also the main component of walls or wall cores in many marginal environment dwellings, and forms satisfactory underfelt to heather thatch. Both the thatch and underlying turf can then be burned as fuel when roofing repairs are made, and the soot-blackened turf is an excellent source of enrichment for impoverished soils. These uses are well documented from ethnographic studies in the Northern Isles (Fenton 1978), where they continued to be applied well into the 20th century. Midden material would also have eventually been reused for soil enrichment. Fragments of brown (Fucoid) seaweed from midden in Areas A and B may have resulted from potash production for domestic use, but could also have been burned for soil enrichment. The cereals recorded from Sangobeg include both naked and hulled barley, and oats. This is entirely in keeping with the suspected Late Norse and potentially later periods of occupation for the areas examined. There are many northern Scottish examples of this type of cereal assemblage from Norse occupation, including at Freswick (Morris et al. 1995), Howe (Ballin-Smith 1994) and Birsay Bay (Morris 1989; 1996). In some instances, naked barley may be an indication of an earlier Norse occupation, although in such a marginal landscape as Sangobeg naked barley may well have remained as a relict within crops far longer than it would have done in a wealthier economy, since every grain would have valuable at this site.
ANIMAL BONES Louise Gidney

A very small assemblage of animal bone was recovered from the excavations. Stratified finds from Area F included fragments of sheep-size longbone (SF 76 from occupation deposit F023) and cattle teeth (SF 81, from fragmentary occupation deposit F025). In Area C3, cattle-sized long bone fragments and teeth (SF 51 and SF 33) were recovered from midden spread (C019). The assemblage included two unworn, deciduous calf teeth and a calf astralagus (SF 33 and an unstratified piece from Area E). A high proportion of calves were noted in parts

Table 1 Fish species representation according to area
Species/Area Cod Gadus morhua Haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus Saithe Pollachius virens Saithe Pollachius sp Gadidae Gurnard Eutrigla gurnardus Triglidae Rocker Raja clavata Tope Galeorhinus galeus Elasmobranchii Herring Clupea harengus Dab Limanda limanda Pleronectidae Butterfish Pholis gunnelus Ammoditae Total A 13 11 B 72 98 C 5 53 1 1 C1 C2


C3 43 93

D 16 44

F 39 37

49 1 2 2 2 93



10 1


31 8


78 7

23 1

31 18 8 1

2 1

2 1 1

6 1 2 8 2 1 31 319 120 2 11 255 97 149 1 1

of the assemblage from Late Norse contexts at Freswick Links (Gidney 1995, 195, 200). The killing of calves was carried out not only so that milk could be collected from the mother, but also to obtain the rennet from the calf’s stomach for making cheese.
THE FISH REMAINS Ruby Cerón-Carrasco

The level of preservation of the fish bone was consistent throughout the site in terms of fragment size and condition. Elements were most frequently 20–80% complete. Their condition score was generally in the range of 6–9, indicating wellpreserved to extremely poorly-preserved bone (after Nicholson 1991). A total of 15 taxa were identified, consisting of 10 identified to species and five to family level. Haddock (Melannogramus aeglefinus) was the main species represented in the assemblage. Other species of the same group (Gadidae) recovered included cod (Gadus morhua), saithe (Pollachius virens), Pollachius sp and other unidentified Gadidae. The other species recovered included gurnard (Eutrigla gurnardus), unidentified gurnard species (family Triglidae), skate

Table 2 Gadidae size category representation
Area S 20–30 cm 4 62 COD M 30–60 cm 1 9 4 L 60–120 cm 8 1 1 S 20–30 cm 5 65 20 1 1 42 26 24 184 Haddock M 30–60 cm 6 30 33 L 60–120 cm 3 VS 15–20 cm 23 13 Saithe S 20–30 cm 24 6


M 30–60 cm 2

A B C C1 C2 C3 D F Total

6 8 12 92

33 4 25 76

4 4 2 20

50 18 13 150


17 4 57

16 6 9 61 2


(Raja clavata), tope (Galeorhinus galeus) and other unidentified Elasmobranchs, Dab (Limanda limanda), other unidentified flatfish (family Pleuronectidae), herring (Clupea harengus), remains of the tiny butterfish (Pholis gunnellus) and unidentified sand eel (family Ammoditae) (see Table 1). From the range of species, particularly the range of Gadidae, and the different sizes represented, fishing at Sangobeg appears to have been a broad-based activity. Gadid bones were also dominant in the assemblage, and their size range implies that fish were caught from rocky shores, inshore and deeper water using boats (see Table 2). The importance of Gadids, the cod family fish, to the inhabitants of Scotland is well known; they were common in all periods, but their relative importance did change through time (Barrett et al. 1999). In all the excavation areas, the most common species was haddock. In most fish bone assemblages belonging to the Late Norse period throughout Caithness and the Northern Isles, cod has been the main species present (Barrett et al. 1999). Other contemporary assemblages with substantial proportions of haddock remains include Smoo, about 2km from Sangobeg, and Earl’s Bu in Orkney (Barrett 1997). The presence of substantial haddock remains at Sangobeg may also indicate that these were caught to be consumed on site fresh, and were not meant for trading. Haddock, unlike cod, is less suitable for preservation through salting or drying, as its flesh is more delicate than any of the other gadids (Lockhart 1997). Cod was preserved using these methods in the Northern Isles as far back as the 11th century AD (Cerón-Carrasco 1994; 1998a; 1998b), and it became part of a substantial trade in stock-fish from at least the 15th century (Barrett 1995). None of the elements recovered showed cut-marks, which usually indicate the production of stock-fish. The earliest record of haddock preservation involved smoking and dates to the 19th century (Walker 1982; Lockhart 1997). Therefore, it is more likely that the haddock was consumed fresh at the site. The Sangobeg fish bone assemblage is quite significant since it provides further evidence that the Norse took advantage of their knowledge of the available marine resources to exploit the areas they settled. Knowledge of the availability



of these resources appears to have played an important role in settlement and subsistence. Recently-analysed fish bone assemblages from the Western Isles, for example, indicate that during the Norse period herring was the main species exploited (Cerón-Carrasco 2002), a very different trend from those in Caithness, the Northern Isles and (with Sangobeg) northern Sutherland (Barrett et al. 1999). The Sangobeg assemblage shows that haddock, not cod, was the main object of fishing during the site’s occupation. In the Norse period, fishing appears to have been a year-round activity, carried out for subsistence. Fishing from rocks or from boats in shallow water would have produced young saithe, which could have been eaten fresh or preserved for later consumption; their livers may also have been used for oil. Other species would have been caught while fishing for this species, including young cod and haddock. The capture of mature haddock and cod would have required the use of boats for venturing into deeper waters and hooked hand-lines, and these would have also caught other species such as gurnards, rocker, tope and herring. This pattern of exploitation appears to be in evidence in all the excavated areas that produced fish remains.
A note on hand-collected fish bones

A very small amount of fish remains were collected by hand during the excavation. However, no reference was made to size categories and since the remains are so few these were not incorporated into the main sieved fish remains analysed by Ruby Cerón-Carrasco. The only significant aspect of this small hand-collected assemblage is the presence of ling (Molva molva), which is generally a deepwater fish and normally requires the use of boats for its capture. However, since no remains of ling were recovered in the sieved material, it is better to assume that this element belongs to a specimen that was caught while fishing for mature haddock and cod, which require similar fishing techniques.

The Pictish burial

The burial found at Sangobeg was the most dramatic discovery of the excavation, and a wholly unexpected one. It occupied a secure position in the relatively complex stratigraphy in Area D, pre-dating the later, Norse-period occupation of the site. The burial itself merits discussion on at least three levels: comparison to other excavated burials of broadly similar form and date; the symbolic aspects of the burial itself, and the juxtaposition of the burial with later, Norse-period settlement. Analysis of the human remains has shown that they were those of a child, aged between 8 and 10 years old. A platform of small, quartzite pebbles probably gathered from the beach had first been laid. Several red stones were placed close to the body, a flat slab was set beneath the head and a rough kerb of larger stones defined the platform. The child had been laid on its right side with the head to the NNE, the body flexed, and covered with a mound of clean beach sand. This

Table 3 Radiocarbon date from the burial (calibrated using Oxcal v 3.9)
Lab code SUERC −4527 (GU12535) Lab.Age Sample material Human femur from flexed inhumation (Sk 1)


*13 C −19.4%0

Calibrated dates 1 sigma (68.2% probability) 2 sigma (95.4% probability) 110 BC–AD 10 170 BC–AD 30

2050 ± 35

was capped with a layer of larger quartzite stones that were probably also gathered from the beach. Because of the poor condition of the bones, little could be said about diseases or lifestyle, other than that the child had a very coarse diet. The ends of the long bones had been gnawed by rodents, but the articulated state of the skeletal remains suggests this occurred after the body had been buried, as a result of burrowing. The burial appeared to be isolated. While it is possible that there were formerly other burials to seaward that were later washed away by encroaching waves, there are no local traditions of other human remains in the vicinity and no evidence to indicate there was a cemetery here. The Sangobeg burial has certain affinities with other excavated burials in the N and W of Scotland, both in its form and its date of 170 cal BC–cal AD 30 (see Table 3). Ashmore (1980) has reviewed the corpus of low ditched mounds and low kerbed cairns in Scotland and has pointed out that some of these, found predominantly in northern Scotland, date to the pre-Viking Iron Age. That discussion focused upon extended inhumations. However, several aspects of the Sangobeg burial fall within the broad traditions that Ashmore discusses and that are represented by more recently published burials. A brief discussion of these will help to place the Sangobeg burial in its chronological and regional context. The geographically closest comparable site is a cairn partially excavated near Loch Borralie, to the east of the Kyle of Durness and about 4km to the WSW of Sangobeg (MacGregor 2003). Two inhumations were recovered during rescue excavation here in 2000. One had been placed on a platform of stone and earth and covered with a low mound of sand, while a second had been cut through this mound and covered with another layer of sand. A layer of sub-angular and subrounded (including quartz and quartzite) stones and cobbles sealed both burials. Both were extended and supine and aligned E-W, with their heads to the east. An iron ring-headed pin was recovered from near one of the skeletons. One of the skeletons was radiocarbon dated to 40 cal BC–cal AD 210 (OxA-10253). The burial at Sangobeg is also somewhat similar to two kerbed cairns excavated at Sandwick, on Unst in Shetland (Bigelow 1984). Here, one inhumation lay aligned NNW–SSE and extended on its left side, facing downward, in a shallow trench. It had been covered with a thick layer of clean sand, which was sealed with a carefully-packed layer of angular rubble defined by a kerb of upright slabs. This had been capped with beach pebbles, many of them white quartzite. The second cairn, built on the same old ground surface, was very similar except that it lacked



an occupant. The inhumation was dated by radiocarbon to cal AD 370–520 (GU1291). Another extended inhumation was discovered about 80m to the south on the same beach in 2006. It was aligned WSW/ESE and lay in a shallow trench cut into sand; the trench had been filled with clean beach sand and large stones had been placed above it, forming a small cairn at the head (Lelong 2007). This inhumation was dated by radiocarbon to cal AD 130–390 (SUERC-10745). The Sangobeg burial might also be compared to burials at Ackergill in Caithness, considered by the excavator of the later Sandwick burials to be that site’s closest parallel (Bigelow 1984, 123). Seven low, square or rectangular cairns were found in two groups, along with two separate long cists and one round cairn (Edwards 1926). All of the cairns sealed long cists, generally orientated NWSE but also ENE/WNW and NNE/SSW, which contained extended inhumations. The cists were typically surrounded by a layer of waterworn stones defined by a kerb. Several of the cairns had been covered with white quartzite pebbles. No radiocarbon dates have been obtained from any of the Ackergill skeletons. A bronze chain was found around the neck of a skeleton in the round cairn, but it has not been possible to determine its origins (Close-Brooks 1984, 97). Comparable burials are also known from the Western Isles. At Galson on the Isle of Lewis, a flexed inhumation in a cist and an extended inhumation in a shallow cut were excavated and found to date between the 1st and 5th centuries AD (Neighbour et al. 2000, 562–74). At An Corran, Boreray, a contracted inhumation in a small cist and a flexed inhumation in a long cist were excavated along with a small corbelled structure; the inhumations dated to cal AD 20–250 and cal AD 120–340 (Badcock and Downes 2000, 206). A square kerbed cairn (very similar to the Sandwick cairn) at Cille Pheadair on South Uist contained an extended inhumation dated to cal AD 620–780 (AA-48605) (Mulville et al. 2003, 25). In the Northern Isles, oval cairns at Birsay Brough Road (Morris 1989, 113) might be compared to the Sangobeg burial; inhumations from these dated to the 5th to 7th centuries AD. Certain phrases from a shared symbolic language appear again and again in these burials, and at Sangobeg. Like the burials at Loch Borralie, Sandwick, Birsay and Ackergill, as well as at Dunrobin in eastern Sutherland, Pityoulish in Strathspey and Lundin Links in Fife (see Ashmore 1980, 347), the body at Sangobeg had been covered over with a sterile sandy layer. As at Sandwick, Loch Borralie and Ackergill, white quartzite pebbles were used for the capping material. While at some of the sites reviewed above the inhumations lay in cists, this was not the case at Sandwick, Loch Borralie and in one of the Galson burials. Burial in short or long cists appears to have been a tradition dating from later prehistory and adopted as a Christian rite, but clearly it was not considered mandatory in the later Iron Age; it may have depended on the availability of suitable stone. Commenting on the lack of a cist at Sandwick, Bigelow (1984, 123) noted the dearth of flagstone in the vicinity for building a cist. The same is true of the geology around Sangobeg and Borralie, which consists mainly of Lewisian gneiss and limestone. The other, perhaps more significant difference between the Sangobeg burial and most of the others reviewed above is in the body’s position – flexed rather



than extended. In broad terms, the preferred mode of burial during the Iron Age in northern Britain appears to have been for inhumations in crouched or flexed positions (Close-Brooks 1984, 87; also see Whimster 1981). Flexed inhumations dating to the late first millennium BC are more abundant in southern Scotland (Ashmore 2003, 39); during the first few centuries AD, extended inhumation burial appears to have become the preferred rite (Close-Brooks 1984, 89). The overlap in dates between the burials at Boreray (Badcock and Downes 2000) and Galson (Neighbour et al. 2000), where both flexed and extended inhumations were found, appears to indicate that chronological distinctions between these body positions are blurred. The date from the Sangobeg inhumation is somewhat earlier than most of these examples cited here; this may reflect an earlier preference for flexed inhumation that was soon to fade. The burial at Sangobeg is particularly striking in the evident care and delicacy with which it was composed. During the excavation, it evoked a sense of poignancy in visitors and excavators alike, partly because it appeared to be that of a child. The components of the burial are worth closer contextual consideration for their potential symbolic qualities. The use of white quartzite pebbles, with red pebbles placed close to and beneath the body, and the sterile sand that covered it are part of a burial vocabulary that, as the above examples suggest, appears to have been current in northern Britain over much of the first millennium AD, and perhaps had more ancient roots. Quartzite pebbles were clearly an important component of that vocabulary. They had a broad and long-running symbolic currency. A number of painted quartzite pebbles have been found in Pictish domestic contexts in Caithness and the Northern Isles; some of these may date to the late first millennium BC (Ritchie 1972, 298). St. Columba reportedly used a white stone for healing when he visited the court of the Pictish king Bridei in c. 565 AD (Sharpe 1995, Book II 33, 181). In more recent centuries, pebbles were used to convert water into a healing potion for cattle (Hutcheson 1900), and they were deposited as offerings at sacred sites such as holy wells during the Medieval and post-Medieval periods. Coloured pebbles are less commonly found, but some instances of their selective use are known; for example, a red pebble was buried with the body of a child, who died between cal AD 1150–1280 (AA-45873), outside the chapel of St. Trolla in eastern Sutherland (Lelong 2005). White or coloured pebbles may have been perceived as charms, possessing magical properties, and therefore fitting objects to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. The sand that covered the burial at Sangobeg was absolutely free of carbonised domestic detritus, which suggests that it was gathered at a spot well away from human settlement. That purity, and the place from which it was collected, may have been considered important. It was most likely gathered from the beach, where the sea or wind had deposited it and where it had been washed by the tide. An intertidal context for the covering sand would have marked it as distinct from the zone of everyday domestic life, and its use may have underlined the deceased’s departure from that sphere to another. The decision to bury the child at the head of a beach, a position similar to many other burials from later prehistory and the early Medieval period (including most of those noted above), also seems significant. The liminal



nature of the foreshore, poised between land and sea, may also have reflected the transitional status of the dead and a way for their communities to negotiate that transition (see Pollard 1999 for a more comprehensive exploration of this notion). Finally, the juxtaposition here of a Pictish burial with Norse-period settlement is worth a brief comment. In the far N of Scotland, at least two other examples of Norse-period settlement that overlay or stood near Pictish burials are known: at Sandwick on Unst (Bigelow 1984) and at Cille Pheadair, South Uist (Mulville et al. 2003). There are even more examples known, of course, where Viking Age settlement was established on the site of earlier, Pictish settlement (such as at Jarlshof on Shetland, Hamilton 1956). At Sangobeg, the absence of carbonised botanical remains in the pre-settlement ground surface in Area D suggests there was no pre-existing settlement on the site when people settled here in the Norse period. At Cille Pheadair, the cairn covering the burial would have been highly visible when the later farmstead was established (Mulville et al. 2003, 26). At Sandwick, the Pictish burials lay close to a complex orthostatic cellular structure of later prehistoric date, which lay in ruins and had been partly covered with windblown sand by the time the first inhumation was put into the ground between cal AD 130–390 (Lelong 2007). The dataset of Pictish burials juxtaposed with later, Norse settlement is far too small to represent a pattern, but it does raise questions: Did Norse settlers on these spots know of the earlier burials? Did they deliberately choose places that the indigenous population left alone because of their spiritual or symbolic connotations? Did their settling at such spots represent a kind of cultural insult, or was it purely coincidental? Even if we cannot answer these questions based on present evidence, they are worth asking. Future fieldwork, along with processes of coastal erosion and recording, may reveal more instances of juxtaposition and provide some answers.

The Late Norse phase

The initial identification of the site at Sangobeg as a Norse site hinged on the small amount of artefactual material which was recovered from the heavily eroding middens in 1997: a small bead and ceramic fragments, iron rivets and scattered large fish bones. However, by the time excavation was undertaken in 2000, much of the midden material had been lost to the elements and a few sherds of grasstempered pottery associated with the wall which was found to overlie the Pictish burial and localised midden scatters in Area C were all that remained. It is clear that originally the settlement extended closer to the sea, and that it had already been mostly washed away. However, the significance of even this fragmentary survival is clear in the context of the paucity of evidence for contemporary activity in the far N of Scotland (see above). The site at Sangobeg provides a valuable addition to the series of Norse sites so far identified in northern Sutherland, which include Smoo Cave (Pollard 2005), Balnakeil (Low, Batey and Gourlay 2000) and probably Borralie (Gazin-Schwartz and Lelong 2005).



The post-Medieval phase

The upper levels of sand and parts of the rock-strewn beach had obviously been battered by the sea. These deposits produced evidence of the latest stages of the site’s use, where casual loss of items shed a little light on the character of more recent visitors to this beautiful bay. Of most interest is a small metal plaque, perhaps originally affixed to a box or a walking stick, gifted ‘By the Choir and Office Bearers of LUGAR CHURCH on 25 October 1901’ to their organist Mr John Young. The plaque also notes that his wife was given a token of esteem in the form of a pearl brooch. The rest of the material culture from this phase of activity is mundane by comparison: indeterminate fragments of iron, clay pipe stems and waterborne pieces of pumice – the common detritus of everyday life mixed with that left by the waves.

The excavation and post-excavation analysis were funded by Historic Scotland. John and Joyce Morrison, crofters at Sangobeg, kindly permitted access to the site and assisted the team in many ways. The excavations were directed in the field by Kevin Brady with additional supervision by Dr. Olivia Lelong and Dr. Andrew Baines. Aileen Maule supervised the on-site flotation, with assistance from Chris Connor. Professor Chris Morris gave advice during the fieldwork. The illustrations were prepared by Caitlin Evans, with additional work by John Arthur and Gillian McSwan. The authors would also like to thank the students whose hard work made the excavations successful. The site archive will be deposited with the National Monuments Record of Scotland and the deposition of the artefacts will be allocated through the Treasure Trove Panel.

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