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. 

Viking Combs Revisited

Ian Dennis, Archaeological Illustrator
Cardiff University

I‘m an archaeological illustrator (traditional and digital), field and experimental archaeologist at Cardiff Uni, since graduating in 1992. I teach archaeological skills (including illustration) and run excavations at Piepenkopf Iron Age Hillfort near Detmold, Germany.

Archaeological illustration of artefacts over the years has allowed me to examine them in an extremely close way. I have illustrated numerous Norse composite (made up of many parts) antler combs, especially from the Norse site of Bornais, on the Isle of Uist in the Western Isles, Scotland. The varying detail and complexity of these objects captured my attention, I love illustrating them. It was during illustrating these wonderful objects, that I was able to de-construct how they were possibly made (fig 1.).

Fig. 1. Illustrated Norse combs from Bornais.

While illustrating, I notice how objects are made, and sometimes am even able to identify the tools used in manufacture, from the tool marks left on them. For example, during the illustration of the combs I was able to identify that the incised line decoration was created using fine saws, which were also used for cutting the fine teeth (which were only 0.5mm to 2mm apart). The dot and ring decoration, which occurs regularly on the combs was made using a two-pronged tool, and not a stamp.  The literature is limited on how these combs may have been made in the past, so I thought why not just knock one out?  I could use the sequence of construction observed when illustrating the combs and test this against the literature available. This gave me the motivation to experiment with making objects from the past using the tools they probably would have had at hand, supported by evidence for tools found from archaeological excavations.

Now it was beginning to escalate, I decided to do an experiment and make a comb or two. I quickly realised that when making combs, not only would I need antler from a red deer (most commonly used), I would also need tools similar to the ones used by the Norse/makers of the combs to make it a valid experiment. I based these on some of the iron tools recovered from the Bornais excavations.

To describe the whole making process here would take a few thousand words, therefore if as they say a picture is worth a thousand words, several pictures are worth several thousand words! Here are some images showing the process I undertook to produce the combs, using various techniques and tools. Enjoy.

Fig. 2. Cutting up the antler following the tool/saw marks found on discarded antler waste from Bornais.
Fig. 3. Splitting the cut-up antler beams to make the tooth plates. Splitting them with antler tines and chiseling them flat, this was quick and easy.
Fig. 4. Shaping the side plates and grinding the tooth plates smooth.
Fig. 5. Decorating the side plates before assembling the composite comb.
Fig. 6. Applying the dot and ring motif decoration using a two-pronged tool.
Fig. 7. Drilling the holes for assembly and riveting, using hand made rolled sheet rivets, as observed in the original combs.
Fig. 8. This illustrates the sequence used to assemble the combs. Top, a single sided comb (note how the rivets are every other plate, this replicates how the earlier combs were made). Below a double sided fish tail comb (note here, in the later style they are rivetted completely differently).
Fig. 9. Trimming off the not required parts of the antler tooth plates and finishing before the teeth are cut.
Fig. 10. This shows examples of how the comb may have been held/clamped for the teeth to be cut. The microscope image shows how fine the saw cuts are and an antler tine with a possible tang from a broken saw from Bornais.
Fig. 11. Probably the most nerve wracking and worrying part of making this comb: cutting the teeth. One mistake and you will have to pop out some rivets and replace the incorrectly cut plate (Phew, stressful!).
Fig. 12. Three examples of the types of composite combs found from Bornais.
Fig. 12. Previous reconstruction found in the literature.

People are often surprised at how hardwearing these replica combs are, they are also fairly easily repairable. My experiments making theses combs, proved my suspicions regarding the straight line decoration being saw cut and the dot and ring motifs being made with a two pronged ring boring tool. I was also able to estimate roughly how many combs you could make from one antler: one, if you’re lucky! This is a much smaller amount than the literature had suggested. My most signifiacant finding was that combs are actually fairly easy to make. It is the tools that required extremely high skill to make, and then the techniques that are employed using the tools. This hierarchy of skill and importance is backed up by evidence from early medieval Irish Brehon law, where a blacksmith was ranked higher in importance than a lowly combmaker. A combmaker was not particularly valued and could be made fun of by all other professions, just like me!

Llangorse: a unique Irish crannog in Viking Age Wales

Dr Alan Lane, Senior Lecturer
Cardiff University

The crannog in Llangorse Lake is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Wales. A unique example of a crannog, its construction is precisely dated by dendrochronology and its destruction by historical documentation. 

 It was first discovered and dug in the 1860s by two local antiquarians but the absence of datable artefacts and the failure to find similar sites in Wales or England led to scepticism about the identification. Archaeologists don’t like unique sites as they challenge our ability to get comparative meaning from them. But in the early 1980’s I visited the site and was amazed to find oak planks sticking out of the water and apparently encircling the site just as the 19th century excavators had claimed. 

I realised it was what it claimed to be – a crannog or artificial island settlement. With a small Cardiff team, Ewan Campbell and I cut pieces of oak for dendrochronological dating which showed that the trees from which the planks were split had been cut down some time after the mid- 9th century AD, indicating the crannog was built in the Viking Age.  

At this point we were joined by a team from the National Museum of Wales led by Mark Redknap, an experienced underwater archaeologist, and a series of water and land explorations of the site were launched. This work with student and professional teams ran intermittently from 1989 to 2004. The whole of the exposed shore and adjacent waters of the island was examined but only limited areas could be excavated. Post-excavation analysis has taken decades and involved many different specialists leading to publication in January 2020 of the definitive report. 

The combined underwater survey and land excavation has allowed us to understand its process of construction, to date it, and place it in precise historical context.  

At the core of the crannog is a small natural peat island which was enclosed by a series of oak plank palisades. It began as small D shaped enclosure some 20 metres from the north shore of the lake. An oak plank palisade enclosed a brushwood raft, pinned down by oak beams.  

This supported a stone mound and probably turf and soil. This initial enclosure was expanded several times till it was about 35m by 45m across. An entrance probably lies on the northern edge of the site where posts for a bridge ran out to the shore. 

Erosion of the site has eaten into the southern half of the island and removed any surface structures from the small areas we were able to excavate.  

Tree ring analysis of the oak palisades encircling the site show that the site was constructed in the 890’s.  This places it in the middle of the Viking wars when Welsh kingdoms were faced with threats from competing English, Viking and Welsh kings. The detailed Anglo-Saxon accounts of the decades around 900 allow us to see movement of Viking armies through Wales and provide a context for the crannog construction. Remarkably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 916 Brecenanmere, the English name for the lake, was destroyed by Aethelflaed, the Mercian queen, and the queen of Brycheiniog was captured. It seems clear that the crannog was a short-lived royal site. 

The erosion of the site stripped the surface deposits but dumped objects and food remains in the lake. These finds allow use to see something of the status and life of the crannog. This site was not a farm but was receiving food supplied probably as food rents as recorded in the medieval Welsh laws. Large quantities of well-preserved animal bone show pigs, sheep, and cattle were being supplied to the site but the remarkable quantity of wild species suggest that deer hunting and feasting was an important part of the aristocratic behaviour of the residents. 

The artefacts in iron, copper alloy, bone and stone indicate domestic occupation, but a few finds are exceptional and confirm its royal identification.  Two objects, a fragment of religious ‘house shrine’ and a penannular brooch are probably of Irish origin. 

However the most remarkable find was the fragments of a linen, silk embroidered tunic decorated with animals and birds. This find required many years of highly skilled conservation work and analysis to understand and preserve it, and it has rightly been regarded as one of most remarkable archaeological discoveries of any period from Wales.

The crannog remains unique in Wales and it seems that crannogs did not become a feature of the Welsh cultural landscape. But the crannog helps give credence to the origin legend of the kingdom of Brycheiniog which claims part Irish descent for Brychan from whom the kingdom is named. The site is remarkable evidence of the genuine links with Ireland and the dramatic, but poorly recorded, history of the Viking Age in Wales. 

You can also read more about Llangorse in the latest issue of Current Archaeology!