Seeking Answers Through Analysis at Drumnadrochit

Ongoing archaeological work over the last four years has identified extensive Neolithic activity and a Bronze Age cemetery at Lewiston, Drumnadrochit. The site occupies a highly visible location on a flat fertile plain between two rivers, shadowed by towering hills and with a dramatic vista to the southwest where Glen Urquhart opens out onto Loch Ness and the Great Glen.  The archaeology has mostly been restricted to a slight ridge of land running northeast-southwest on the northwest side of the development, which could have been drier than the lower-lying surrounds of the alluvial plain and may have been considered a significant and liminal space as a result.

Post-excavation analysis has been carried out with the intention of refining our understanding of the archaeological remains.  ­­­

The Neolithic period is represented mainly through refuse pits and a few pit-dug hearths, often containing burnt cereals like barley and wheat, and hazelnut shells. Artefacts were often incorporated within these pits, including sherds of Carinated pottery, flakes of flint and quartz, and the occasional coarse stool tool. Finer flint Neolithic tools – a horseshoe scraper and an endscraper – were also identified, with the material for the latter likely originating in the Yorkshire Wolds. Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modelling for these pits have indicated a very short span of use of less than 40 years sometime between 3661 cal BC to 3532 cal BC, at the cusp of the Early to Middle Neolithic period. There is no evidence for any structures associated with these features, indicating either that the structures were too ephemeral to have survived in the archaeological record, that the settlement was not in this location, or that the pits and hearths relate more to an event or series of events, rather than a settlement.  An estate map of 1801 depicting Lewiston immediately south of the modern A82 road, and historical accounts of the Glenurquhart area, inform us that the area was once covered in stone cairns with a particularly large one, Carn Glas (the Grey Cairn), located just south of the site.

The Bronze Age is represented through six burials: five cists and single burial pit, stretching in a rough linear arrangement measuring c.300m. Where orientation has been visible, the burials have been aligned roughly northeast-southwest. Cist 1 and the Burial Pit were identified in 2015, with the former containing a single adult inhumation radiocarbon dated to 2140-1960 cal BC, and the latter containing the remnants of a zone decorated, short necked Beaker and a stone wrist guard. Phosphate analysis of sediments from the burial pit indicate the presence of human remains that have long since been lost as a result of the soil’s acidity. The Beaker was finely decorated with comb-impressed geometric designs, and lipid analysis of the sherds suggest that the vessel may have been waterproofed using animal fat and filled with a dairy product on two different occasions.  

Cist 2 was a neatly built small cist containing a small weakly carinated all-over decorated beaker (below) with plain rim on its side, decorated with a simple linear incised line below the rim and haphazard nested diamonds and chevrons. This Beaker appears to have been incomplete at the time of deposition.     

Beaker from cist 2, with illustration

Beaker from Cist 2

Cist 3 was discovered with one slide collapsed inwards and the capstone lost completely. Deep plough scars along the top of one of the side slabs indicated that the burial was likely disturbed within the more recent past, within the period of agricultural improvements. Despite the relatively poorly preserved cist, fragments of a rare decorated bowl that shares characteristics of both Beaker and Food Vessel type pottery were recovered.

Beaker from cist 3, and carved slab from Cist 4

Left: beaker from Cist 3. Right: carved slab from Cist 4

The very disturbed remains of Cist 4 contained a slab of stone with geometric rock art carved along one edge. This type of decoration typically is seen in the 4th millennium BC, predominantly in Ireland but with examples known from Orkney and west coast mainland Scotland. Considered passage grave art, the Lewiston rock art has probably been re-used from an older Neolithic monument. The reuse of significant and already-ancient rock art by Early Bronze Age peoples within their burial monuments is a phenomenon seen elsewhere, most closely at Balblair 12 miles north, where another Early Bronze cist burial has re-used three decorated slabs that may have derived from a nearby Neolithic chambered cairn. Carn Glas may have been such a monument.   

Plano-convex knife from Cist 5Cist 5 was also badly disturbed, the suspected capstone for which was located 10m away from the cist site. A cremation containing the remains of a single adult individual were recovered from the base of this, with a broken plano-convex flint knife grave good (right) associated with it. The bone was radiocarbon dated to 2287 - 2182 cal BC.

Radiocarbon dating of the human remains from the site, and typological dating of the Beakers, indicate the cemetery was in use during the Early Bronze Age. Whilst there was no convincing evidence during excavation to suggest stone cairns or earth mounds, or indeed any other kind of marker, existed over the tops of these, the fact that Cist 1 and Burial Pit 1 were so closely situated may indicate there was some kind of visible marker present, and the historical evidence of the existence of numerous cairns to the immediate south of the site. It is hoped that further analysis of the grave good assemblage will help to shed some light on the cemetery, and as works are ongoing we are certain more archaeology will be uncovered in time that may help to determine the exact function of the Neolithic pits.