Archaeologist Lachlan McKeggie of Highland Archaeology Services is irrepressibly enthusiastic, even in the face of a driving deluge (hence the rather dark photos).
I should first explain that while fascinated by the past I am not an archaeologist, or even a historian. I am also slightly dyscalculic (like dyslexia but with numbers) so don’t expect many dates or measurements in this blog.The words I have retained from Lachlan’s empassioned if soggy guided tour today are ‘big’ and ‘massive’ and ‘important’. Oh, and ‘old’. Very old. That will do for now.
This major three-year Heritage Lottery Funded archaeological dig led by NOSAS (North of Scotland Archaeology Society) has peeled back the skin of a stubble field not far from Muir of Ord to reveal a tantalising glimpse of the Black Isle’s distant past.
It all began with the crop circles. Where soil is disturbed, even millennia ago, it can change what grows above it. Where ditches were dug around long-vanished structures, when seen from above they can still show in barley growing above today.The site was a massive place of burial, they think. Round ditches, square ditches, some smaller, some vast, most dug with a respectful distance between them and any other. Dug over centuries, perhaps over millennia, neolithic, mesolithic, Pictish. Above them would have risen burial mounds – ‘barrows’.
Each, according to experts, containing just one body? I found this unlikely for the size of ‘enclosure’ revealed (confusing term, as this is very much a 2D landscape today after centuries under the plough). Who knows though how a tribe might have wished to commemorate the memory of a great leader? The protective ditches, the great mounds above, are all gone today. Just an elusive echo of them remains in the subsoil.
Mention of the word ‘body’ above will instantly trigger thoughts of the Pictish Man discovery in Rosemarkie in recent years. Cave conditions are very different from an open, cultivated field. It was not to be at Tarradale, where the acidic soil has eaten through every bone, every tooth, rendering the bodies, quite literally, as dust to dust.The later Pictish burials (which may or may not be the square ones, some with curious open corners) are likely to have been early Christian. No bodies and no grave goods – did belief in a heavenly afterlife supplant the need to ‘pack for the journey’?
So does this lack of ‘finds’ reduce the achievement of this epic dig? Not in the slightest. These shadows of past structures here allow us to wander in our minds, ghostlike, between the barrow burials of Tarradale. We can do this with the conviction that the evolving succession of cultures – the ancestors of some of us – who chose to bury their dead at this site were real, with mighty men and women among them. They desired to cherish their memory, just as we do our dead today. Clear evidence of a belief in an afterlife.
Most poignantly, no digging has as yet been carried out at the very centre of the largest enclosure to be discovered. ‘Good practice’, said Lachlan as the rain dripped off his nose. Something has to be left to future generations, perhaps with new technological techniques allowing better analysis.This dig will continue to reveal its mysteries through investigation of samples as the comfortable soil settles again over this ancient burial site and time rolls forward in Tarradale.