Community Archaeology at Dun Deardail Hillfort, Glen Nevis

In August 2015, AOC led two weeks of excavation at Dun Deardail, a hillfort that sits at approx 300m above sea level in Glen Nevis, to the west of Ben Nevis. The site occupies the summit of a natural rocky knoll on the north facing spur of Sgurr Challum, and enjoys dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. It is on Forestry Commission Land, and is a popular destination for walkers.excavation of rampart

Though long believed to be a hillfort, the site had never previously been excavated. The summit of the hill is clearly defined by a ruinous, grass-clad wall, which survives up to 2.5m in height. You can see early plans of the fort and its topography via Canmore. The wall is vitrified, meaning it was burnt at such a high heat that the stones began to melt and fuse together. Vitrified forts occur across Scotland, although few have been excavated and fewer confidently dated. They are generally thought to date to the Iron Age (begninng in around  700 BC) and early historic periods (ending in around the 9th century). Craig Phadraig, near Inverness, is another great example of this type of site. Debate continues around whether vitrification represents intentional destruction or accidental burning.

The first season of investigations at Dun Deardail comprised the excavation of six archaeological trenches, along with topographic and geophysical survey of the hillfort.

lower enclosure excavationTwo of the trenches excavated within the upper fort crossed the vitrified defences which run around the summit of the hill (above). In both of the trenches a massively thick drystone wall, at least 5m thick and surviving up to 2.8m high, was exposed and considerable evidence for the structure of the rampart wall was revealed. In situ charred timbers demonstrate that the drystone rampart was of timber-laced design, with a framework of timber beams built into the rampart. Medial wall faces within the thickness of the rampart were also recorded, and these may also have been key to the structural integrity of the rampart. Vitrified stone is apparent around the circuit of the ramparts. The excavations showed that the upper areas of the rampart had undergone the greatest amount of vitrification, possibly suggestive of a superstructure above the ramparts.

The vitrification of the rampart did not mark the end of the life of the hillfort, but did result in the collapse of the ramparts. They were subsequently roughly refaced and the rubble collapse in the interior of the hillfort leveled, and the hillfort was reoccupied. The consistent sequence of deposits and structures revealed in all of the trenches will allow for secure radiocarbon dates of the major phases identified so far, notably the construction of the ramparts, the vitrification of the ramparts and the later re-occupation of the hillfort.

Few artefacts were recovered from the excavation, which is to be expected for an Iron Age or early historic site. However, a crucible – a small ceramic vessel used for smelting of non-ferrous metals – was found prior to our investigations, during construction of a path up to the hillfort from the lower terrace. This gives us an interesting snapshot of life at the hillfort.

The outer enclosure (above) was picked up on the geophysical survey along with a large wall separating the upper ‘citadel’ area (below) at the eastern end of the hillfort from the lower areas. These successive enclosures give Dun Deardail the appearance of a nuclear or citadel fort, often seen as typical of the Early Historic period. In some cases however Iron Age hillforts were remodeled in the Early Historic period and vitrification appears to be both an Iron Age and Early Historic phenomenon.

Excavation of the citadelThe structural evidence, secure dating sequence and artifacts recovered at Dun Deardail will contribute to our understanding of how and when these sites were used and their place in the Iron Age and Early Historic political landscape.

2015’s work at Dun Deardail formed the first of three seasons. Over the next two years, two of 2015’s trenches within the interior of the hillfort will be re-opened, looking to reach the early occupation deposits in this area. A trench will be excavated over the wall separating the upper eastern ‘citadel’ of the hillfort to determine the character of this feature, and the possible entrance to the hillfort in the west will also be investigated. Trenches in the lower terraces will further explore the nature of the occupation in this area.

Running in tandem with the excavations is a comprehensive programme of enagagement and outreach, which saw around 100 schools pupils learn about archaeology through visits the site and in-school workshops delivered by AOC’s community archaeologists. We will build on this work when the project continues in 2016 and 2017.

Work at Dun Deardail is delivered as part of the Nevis Landscape Partnership with the support of Forestry Commission Scotland.

Find out about visiting Dun Deardail with the Foresty Commission Scotland’s leaflet, Forests around Fort William.