|24 September 2005
Scottish stacs inhabited since prehistoric times
Isle of Lewis, Scotland. A new archaeological survey of sea stacs off the Western Isles uncovered evidence suggesting that the rocky outposts were inhabited much earlier than previously thought. This survey may revolutionize current thinking about who used the stacs and why. A fragments of land that is wider than its height is considered to be an island, otherwise it is a stac.
Hundreds of sea stacs protrude above the sea along the Isle of Lewis. Some stacs are joined to the mainland by a rocky outcrop and others are completely surrounded by water.
Members of the two year old Severe Terrain Archaeological Campaign (STAC) test their advanced climbing skills to conquer the sheer cliffs and access inaccessible sites. The group uses information collected from old maps and oral history before visiting a stac. Upon exploration, a detailed map of each stac is made.
Little has been known about the stacs, although they were thought to be mainly Iron Age and used for defense. The Iron Age was a period of conflict as can be seen by the number of brochs and wheelhouses on Lewis. It has been logical to think that the buildings on the stacs were from the Iron Age and used for defense.
"On one stac, Dunasbroc, we found high-quality pottery and some beautiful leaf-shaped flint arrowheads. We can't confirm until we get a specialist to analyze the pottery, but it looks like being of late Neolithic period," Field archaeologist Ian McHardy says. This period - between 3,000 BCE and 2,500 BCE - would put the use of the stacs much earlier than previously thought.
Along the contour of the walls on Dunasbroc the group uncovered a small platform that showed signs of being repeatedly burnt. The wall’s function is still a mystery, and McHardy finds it easier to say what it wasn't used for. "It is in the wrong place for a beacon. Where it is situated would have been hidden by the headland. And it can't be a kiln. Why would anyone want to build a kiln on a hard-to-reach sea stac?
"One possibility that we're looking into is that it could have been a cremation pyre," says McHardy. "We know from burial tombs of the same period that they cremated people and this could link the two." The group are awaiting tests on a partially burnt bone fragment found close to the site. If the bone proves to be human, we would gain better knowledge of how people from the Neolithic period ritualized death.
Another stac McHardy's remembers is Stac a Chaisteil because of the artifact they found, and because of the effort involved. "It was the most difficult to access, it took an hour to get on and off every day, but we did find a block house (a precursor to the broch), which is rare in the Western Isles."
STAC is opening up a number of different sites for exploration. McHardy enthusiastically points out that there are more places - especially in Shetland and Orkney - that could benefit from an archaeology team who have been trained in rope safety and climbing.
Source: The Scotsman (21 September 2005)
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