The first ever archaeological excavation at the Iron Age fort of Dun Deardail in Glen Nevis has taken place. Over 750 visitors (including over 250 local school children) visited the site during the two week excavation to learn more about the fort and its archaeologal story.
The ambitious Dun Deardail project – which runs for three years – aims to uncover the mystery surrounding the process of vitrification and explore the rich cultural heritage of Glen Nevis.
The fort of Dun Deardail was probably built in the first millennium BC or first millennium AD, but the fort has never before been archaeologically excavated or securely dated.
So it’s probably about 2,000 years old – give or take 500 years! It may have been occupied and perhaps rebuilt on several occasions through time – from Celtic fort through to Pictish citadel.
The project forms part of the ambitious Nevis Landscape Partnership and is funded by Forestry Commission Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, in partnership with AOC Archaeology and the University of Stirling.
The archaeological excavation will continue for the next two summers and includes the experimental reconstruction and burning of a section of timber-framed stone-built rampart (to investigate the phenomenon known as vitrification); an integrated PhD (in partnership between Forestry Commission Scotland and the University of Stirling School of Biological and Environmental Science) studying the evidence of vitrification across Scotland; and a programme of public engagement, outreach and learning opportunities for local schools.
Matt Ritchie, FCS Archaeologist and Project Manager, said: “The one thing we know for sure about Dun Deardail is that it was once destroyed by fire – a blaze so intense that it melted the very rocks of the rampart. However, thanks to the Nevis Landscape Partnership we can look forward to learning a lot more about this enigmatic site over the next few years. The first season was hugely successful, combining volunteer opportunities with exciting new archaeological research. Dun Deardail is a great hillfort with an intriguing story to discover!”
Patricia Jordan (centre), one of the dig volunteers and a member of the Nevis Partnership, said of the excavation:
“For many local people this is probably the most exciting aspect of the Nevis Landscape Partnership. Taking part on the dig and learning more about our ancient history has been a wonderful experience and we are all looking forward to the next two years.”
The excavation aims to investigate the possible entrance to the fort, the techniques of rampart construction (and its destruction) and explore the nature of occupation within the hillfort, looking for evidence of houses, hearths and workshops. The results will also inform ongoing conservation management in regard to visitor pressure, particularly access pinch points and visitor erosion on the ramparts and flanks of the hillfort.
Martin Cook, AOC Archaeology Site Director, said:
“This first season focused on two main aspects of the fort – the enclosing rampart wall and two of the internal terraces. Excavation revealed the rampart wall was much thicker than we originally thought. The wall was at least 4m thick and perhaps 2.5m high – probably topped with a strong timber palisade. We also found slots for horizontal timbers (long since rotted away) within the wall, further evidence of its construction. The vitrified rock (where rubble from the wall has melted together in a massive fire) can be seen on top of the section.”
This section across the rampart shows the collapsed outer wall face, the upper vitrified section and the intact inner wall face. A section drawing shows one side of a trench – like the side of a slice of cake. The trenches within the hillfort revealed a thick layer of rubble (probably from the destruction event). Postholes and hearths indicate where buildings once stood – and radiocarbon dating will explain a lot more about the construction, occupation and destruction phases. While few artefacts were recovered, a non-ferrous metal-working crucible was identified, suggesting metal working was taken place on the fort.
Mairi Stewart, a local volunteer (standing to the right of Patricia), said:
“Dun Deardail has intrigued me since I was a child and the dig offered me a great opportunity to participate in a unique excavation. My training was great fun and I soon felt like a member of the team. A site like this is awe inspiring and working on it was truly rewarding.”
This great information poster was created by kids from StrontianPrimary School following their site visit to the excavation. We love their new Pictish creature – and Dawn the archaeologist with her trowel – but also the section across the hillfort detailing the exposed rampart. The project also ties in very neatly with our new learning resource ‘The Picts’. This learning resource aims to help teachers with a series of classroom and place-based activities and encourage the exploration of local museums, archaeological sites and historic monuments.