Ten years digging at Bornais: Cardiff in the Western Isles 1995 to 2004

Professor Niall Sharples
Cardiff University

When I took up my post as lecturer at Cardiff University in 1995 I was involved in a project researching the settlement history of the Western Isles with my friend and colleague Mike Parker Pearson. We had completed our excavations of a broch at Dun Vulan and were considering what else we wanted to dig. The idea was to develop our knowledge of the periods either side of the Middle Iron Age periods that were represented at Dun Vulan and which were less thoroughly explored on the island. Mike had field walked a large mound near to Dun Vulan and a trial excavation in 1994 supported the survey interpretation that this was a Norse settlement that may well have continuity back to the Late Iron Age that was identified at the end of the sequence of settlement at Dun Vulan. 

I was persuaded by Mike that this would be a good field project for Cardiff University students and I began taking them up to South Uist in the summer of 1996. The initial years of excavation at Bornais were relatively small scale and involved survey  (undertaken by Mike Hamilton) and trial trenches of the various mounds to try to define the settlement.  

It soon became clear that this was a very large Norse settlement that covered a large area. Late Iron Age settlement was present and the sequence eventually exposed spanned at least a millennium from the 5th century AD to the 15th century AD.  

Most of the later years focussed on the excavation of two areas, known as mounds 2 and 2A, in the centre of the settlement. Large teams of Cardiff students worked on these areas for eight weeks in the summers of 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2004 and exposed complex sequences of archaeology that provided evidence for the structures occupied and the  social and economic life of an exceptionally large Norse settlement.  

The logistics of this excavation were problematic as getting everyone all the way to South Uist with all the equipment and provisions,  accommodating about 30 people on a small sparsely populated island and returning and processing all the finds and samples every summer was challenging. It also required a substantial budget; petrol and food are much more expensive on these small islands and the transport costs were significant as the ferries are not cheap. Fortunately as the sites were threatened by erosion Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) provided a substantial grant and have supported the post excavation analysis through to publication.  

The information recovered from the excavations has been considerable and resulted in the publication of four substantial volumes as well as many specialist papers and numerous PhDs and undergraduate dissertations. There are many important discoveries but amongst these have been the excavation of a range of important houses that have very well preserved floors that provide very important information on what people were doing in their homes.  

Two houses were exceptional. A Late Iron Age house dating to the fifth century AD was burnt down and the carbonised remains of the roof timbers were preserved between the primary occupation and a secondary reoccupation.  On the floor of this house were a clusters of stone tools that appear to have been in bags hanging from the roof around the edge of the house. Slotted between two of the rafters in the roof was a whalebone axe that may have been used to cut the turves for the roof. In the floor deposits were a range of bone tools and amongst the more prosaic objects was a bone dice and an unusual decorated astragalus which it is argued these might have been used in act of divination to decide whether the house should be rebuilt and reoccupied. 

A later Norse house dating to the late eleventh century AD is possibly the most impressive and well preserved Norse longhouse excavated in Britain. It had stone walls surviving over one metre high which indicated a bow-walled almost 20 m long and over 5.8 m wide. It was divided into three aisles with a central area covered in ash from the central hearth.

The floor deposits produced an amazingly rich assemblage of finds that is one of the most spectacular assemblages recovered from this period in Scotland. The most exceptional finds included an antler cylinder incised with a beast in the distinctive Ringerike art style, a fragment of green porphyry ultimately from Lakonia in Greece, a fragment of amber cross, two cut coins, a folded strip of gold, glass beads, antler finials and large quantities of bone pins and composite combs. These were accompanied by large numbers of tools such as bone points, whetstones, iron knives and pottery.  

The careful excavation of this floor resulted in very detailed understanding of how this material was deposited and provides invaluable information on the nature and organisation of activities in the house. The interior was divided into a cooking area at the west end of the house away from the door which was located in the south east corner. Immediately in front of this cooking area was a living space where most of the finds were deposited, apparently just left lying around on the floor. The east end produced far fewer objects and may have been used for sleeping and storage. 

As we move into the later 13th and 14th centuries the architecture of the houses evolves and the way the internal space was used changes significantly; small well-defined hearths being located opposite the entrance in the final houses.  This probably reflects the changing nature of gender relations as we move from the Scandinavian influenced societies of the 11th and 12th centuries to the much more Gaelic influenced societies of the 13th and 14th centuries.  

There is much more that could be discussed but this provides an insight into some of the interesting things we discovered on our summer holidays in the ten years from 1995 to 2004. 

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