A CREMATION pit containing a human jaw bone mixed with animal bones is one of a treasure trove of finds currently coming to light in an archaeological dig in the Isles. Other finds include a perfectly preserved hearth, with a clay foundation scratched with a cross, and a plethora of worked bone, shell and pottery artefacts.
Archaeologists say the finds promise a breakthrough in understanding the mysterious ways of the pre-historic Hebridean.
The Iron Age site at Sloc Sabhaid on the tidal island of Baleshare, North Uist comprises a settlement of wheelhouses, round structures divided by internal radial walls forming rooms within the building.
A huge storm in 2005 tore away more than 150m of Baleshare’s fragile coastline to reveal the 2,000 year old settlement, which appears to extend some distance under neighbouring croft land.
In a race against time, Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) has been working to excavate and record the site before it is lost for ever to the sea.
Part of the settlement was dug out and recorded last year, shortly before a high August tide ripped away a further 3m of coastline and the excavated area with it.
This year, professional archaeologists, funded by Historic Scotland, have been joined on a three week dig by volunteers from the local archaeology group, Access Archaeology.
Senior archaeologist Tom Dawson, a research fellow at St Andrews University and a founder of Scape, is managing the Baleshare project.
He said: “This appears to have been an animal cremation with a bit of human skull thrown in. The Iron Age does have a skull cult in some places. It could be someone they’ve revered from their own family, or they’ve taken as a trophy. This kind of deposit could be interpreted as being part of a ritual closing, as if you have finished using the building for something and want to move on.
After the discovery of the jawbone, the cremation pit yielded one more extraordinary secret: a small, perfect hole appeared in the ground underneath the charred remains. Mr Dawson thinks this is a rotary quern or grindstone, used as an integral part of the cremation pit, perhaps to create a flue. It remains to be fully excavated.
Finds include a layer of at least four hearths. This indicates a long period of habitation of the wheelhouse. The top hearth is perfectly preserved, outlined by stones and with a clay foundation, marked with a cross. Mr Dawson says: ‘It looks like it’s been scratched on wet clay with the three middle fingers, but we have no idea why. I’ve never seen anything like it before’. There are also bones – human and animal and crafted artefacts made from bone, shell and pottery.