The Neolithic Timber Hall at Balbridie, Grampian Region, Scotland: The Building, the Date, the Plant Macrofossils

Article excerpt


In the dry summer of 1976, aerial reconnaissance by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland resulted in the recording of the cropmark of a remarkable timber building on the farm of Balbridie, Banchory-Ternan parish, Kincardine & Deeside District. The site (NGR NO 733959) was located on a fluvio-glacial terrace immediately south of the River Dee and east of Banchory. One of several such structures located in the Commission's flying programme that year, this building was selected for excavation by the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate in advance of further ploughing; and its field examination occupied five seasons between 1977 and 1981. The excavations were mounted from the Department of Geography, University of Aberdeen, and were co-directed by Ralston and Mr Nicholas Reynolds.

One of the contributory factors which led to the selection of the Balbridie structure for excavation was the quality of detail visible on the Royal Commission's photographs. These showed an apparently isolated rectangular structure some 24 x 12 m in overall dimensions, with a range of internal features and, seemingly significantly, bowed gable-ends. The best excavated parallel within Scotland for a building of this size and proportions was that examined in the mid 1960s by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor of the University of Cambridge at Doon Hill, near Dunbar, East Lothian District. The Doon Hill structure (Hall A; Reynolds 1978: 54, figure 9) also shared with Balbridie the trait of bowed gable-ends. Apparent differences in detail between the two structures could be explained partially in terms of more severe erosion at the southern site: for example, Balbridie was delimited by an outer construction trench, whereas at Doon Hill only vestigial traces attributable to such a feature had survived.

Hope-Taylor's meticulous excavation demonstrated that Hall A was replaced by another hall at the same position within a polygonal palisaded enclosure. This latter structure (Hall B), in a rather different architectural tradition, could readily be paralleled in the sequence of major Anglian timber buildings examined at Yeavering, Northumberland (Hope-Taylor 1977); and thus it was proposed on stratigraphical and other grounds that Doon Hill Hall A, in which Hope-Taylor was able to detect elements of rebuilding, ought to pre-date the Anglian expansion into lowland Scotland in the 630s AD by some decades. No radiocarbon dates have been obtained for the Doon Hill structures.

The excavation

The architectural parallel provided by Doon Hill Hall A thus offered the nearest frame of reference for the hypotheses that were to be field-tested at Balbridie. In particular, Hope-Taylor's excavations of North British timber structures had demonstrated that detailed dissection in the field could provide evidence of elaborate carpentry even in relatively unpromising gravels. We set out with the express aim of attempting to duplicate this approach to recover as much detail of Balbridie's timberwork as was feasible. More generally, given the cultural mosaic of Early Historic Scotland, we hoped to demonstrate that the architectural type under consideration, proposed by Hope-Taylor as a British construction in Lothian, was also employed by the Picts. Fuller discussion of the background of the project is contained in Reynolds' initial account (Reynolds 1978).

The first season of excavation at Balbridie did nothing to shake the prevailing hypotheses. Given the ploughed-down condition of the remains, artefactual finds were unsurprisingly few in number, and generally undiagnostic. In the absence of mainland comparanda, for example, there seemed little reason to discount the possibility that the undecorated body-sherds of pottery recovered might be Pictish. A significant discovery was that the structure had burnt down, providing a suite of carbon-rich contexts and thereby increasing our hopes that architectural minutiae would be recoverable through detailed excavation. …