Crannogs; a Diminishing Resource? A Survey of the Crannogs of Southwest Scotland and Excavations at Buiston Crannog

By Barber, J. W.; Crone, B. A. | Antiquity, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Crannogs; a Diminishing Resource? A Survey of the Crannogs of Southwest Scotland and Excavations at Buiston Crannog


Barber, J. W., Crone, B. A., Antiquity


Investigations in the 19th century demonstrated that Scottish crannogs, the distinctive waterlogged settlements in the shallow waters at the edge of lochs, were very rich in organic remains of all types. Have the crannogs survived, years after so many of the lakes were drained? Are there organic remains left? A new survey and new excavations at the Buiston crannog shows how much has gone, and the great value of what remains.

Introduction

Within the archaeological community the increasing emphasis on environmental reconstruction and the concomitant importance of organic deposits has refocused attention on sites in wetland environments where the waterlogged, anaerobic conditions have preserved the organic dimension of human habitation, the dimension that is usually missing on 'dryland' sites (Coles 1986). This interest parallels a world-wide change in the public's perception of marginal environments, such as wetlands. Areas that were once considered marginal wastelands are now perceived as a precious resource where forms of life, vegetable, animal and human, have been preserved free from the 'polluting' aspects of 20th-century life (Maltby 1989). There is a growing public awareness of the value of marginal wetlands, and concern with the rapidity with which they are being damaged and destroyed. It is against this background that the survey of the crannogs of southwest Scotland and the re-excavation of Buiston crannog were conceived. Both projects were funded by Historic Scotland and carried out by the writers.

Historical and archaeological background

The term 'crannog' is commonly used to refer to any wholly or partly artificial island and, as such, covers many variations on the theme in terms of construction, function, location and date. Morrison (1985: 16--20) calls them 'builtup islets', a term which encapsulates two general and unvarying aspects of their form. They are always built with solid foundations of timber, peat, brushwood or stones, dumped on the loch or river bed or used to extend a natural island, and they were always intended to be surrounded by water. With a single exception in South Wales, crannogs are confined to the lochs and rivers of Scotland and Ireland.

Interest in Scottish crannogs peaked during the 19th century when land improvement schemes resulted in the drainage of many small lochs to create cultivable land or to extract marl for use as fertilizer. Many previously unknown crannogs were exposed while other known crannogs became accessible for the first time. In a surge of antiquarian interest, stimulated by Keller's (1866) reports of continental discoveries of submerged lakeside dwellings, many were 'investigated', often by the landowners themselves.

Between 1850 and 1920 some 36 Scottish crannogs were examined and recorded, to a varying degree (Oakley 1973: 23). Elaborate wooden structures and a rich assemblage of artefacts are described but, unhampered by the rigours of stratigraphic control, accounts of the excavations are often unclear and the modern researcher is given only a tantalizing glimpse of the wealth of the revealed evidence. The most thorough and well recorded of these excavations, by the standards of the day, were carried out by Dr Robert Munro on the trinity of Ayrshire crannogs, Lochlee, Lochspouts and Buiston, accounts of which he published, together with all known information about Scottish crannogs, in his Ancient Scottish lake dwellings of 1882. His observations on the construction, chronology and distribution of crannogs, recorded in that volume, have not been substantially challenged until very recently.

Munro (1882: 248) believed that the distribution of crannogs was concentrated in southwest Scotland and felt that the investigations, by Rev. Odo Blundell and others, on the Highland crannogs (summarized later by Blundell 1910) would not radically alter the general distribution. Crannogs lay mainly within 'those districts formerly occupied by Celtic races' (Munro 1882: 248) and the artefact assemblages were predominantly Romano-British with a strong Celtic element (Munro 1882: 277). …

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