Saturday the 2nd Of October was the date of the Applecross Broch conference.
Even though I am a member of the Applecross Archaeology group I sadly hadn’t had any free time to go and join in with the dig at the Broch site over the last couple of summers. The dig is now at an end for now and the occasion was marked with this event to discuss the findings. Workloads and cash flow also meant I missed the morning section of the event where there was an on site visit and lunch at the award winning Applecross inn.
I turned up at 2 pm for the afternoon’s discussions and presentations from various experts. To my surprise the parking had overflowed right out up the road. I suppose I had expected around 30 people. Not the packed hall with people from all over UK. The attendance is testament to the archaeological importance of this site, and to the level of community involvement and pride in the work. This was reflected in some of the talks, where Archaeologists spoke about how they usually drop in do a dig then leave with the artefacts, whereas this project has been very much community led.
It started Five years ago when the Family who run the campsite where the Broch is situated contacted Time team and the TV crew descended for 3 mad days. Mike from the Time team has stayed in touch and supported the project since then.
But perhaps I should explain what a Broch is first? What I though a Broch was had fundamentally changed by the end of the conference. I love ancient history, so imagine my frustration to find out that my knowledge on the subject is very out of date! It seems ancient history is being continually updated and re- considered. When we look back into history, or imagine the future, or try to understand different cultures, even languages and other people- we do so from our own preconceived reference points. We can only imagine things based on our own current understanding. The society that taught me about Brochs at School in the 1970’s is very different to the one now. Archaeology tended to view things as defensive structures for a war- like people then. Now they are more focused on social / community based interpretations. I remember when every object was considered a votive offering placed in line with celestial bodies, or was it all throwaway rubbish. In the Thatcherite 1980’s I was outraged when wonderful ‘magical’ artefacts were seen as objects of wealth and material value. Removing these fashion filters is one of the challenges to academics and archaeologists.
( Owen Kilbride from Applecross chairs the conference )
I was taught that Brochs were Iron age / Pictish defensive round towers, which villagers retreated to under times of attack. They are an anomaly, particular to Scotland. The hollow walls were a mystery; they may have had roofs but were certainly depicted without them. There are a couple of brilliant examples south of here at Glenelg. There is a report of there having been one or two around lochcarron from a traveller in the 17th Century. I have looked for their sites but not found anything yet.
The first speaker Ian Armit, from Bradford University. He Immediately blew this idea away. Brochs need to be seen in the wider perspective of Iron age dwellings and Iron age society in general. These are a type of round houses, complex tall round houses, but part of a wider tradition of round dwellings at this period of history. One speaker preferred to use the term ‘CAR’ Complex Atlantic Roundhouses to move away from the ‘Broch’ problem. In the purest previous understanding of what defined a Broch only 5 buildings would have qualified, whereas there are over 700 which roughly fit into this Tall roundhouse category.
It looks like early Broch structures emerged after 400BC and went on into 900AD + ? They were lived in, would have had roofs and floor levels, the chambers in the walls would have been warm sleeping compartments but also have been easily lit to create bright workrooms, as evidence of pottery kilns and smelting attests. The Applecross Broch seems to have had a predominance of artefacts which were being worked on, half finished, or broken during production, indicating a site of production rather than of consumption. There were Antlers which had been used to create large beads, one suggestion is that they would be used in netting and ropes; this had yet to be tested. There was also a mound for making ingots; the copper alloy could then have been hammered into various shapes. A small spiral ring 1cm across, body piercing was suggested, but those of us with piercings would quickly reject the notion of wearing bronze in them! A quern had been deliberately broken and placed in the entrance. A dagger had been buried in its sheath. Coal shale bracelets had been imported from the lowlands or far north Brora.
We were treated to a talk from Steve Birch, The archaeologist who has been working at the ‘High Pastures Cave’ dig on Skye. This site is mind boggling in its complexity and mystery. It would have been in use before and during the use of Applecross Broch and mirrors some aspects, for example the quern stones placed upside down strategically. By examining all these sites together in a wider context some questions might get answered.
( photo yoiked from the website of Deri Jones & Associates to did the 3D laser scanning the site )
Beverly Ballin-Smith from Glasgow University talked to us about her work on very complex sites like Old Scatness on Shetland. From this they discovered that when the rock from later villages was removed, there was a big broch, underneath, and older smaller Broch, underneath that a souterrain, and under... It looks like some of these sites were in continuous habitation and evolving use right back into the Mesolithic period. The Applecross Broch has had a souterrain uncovered, so this too could go right back in time. I was taught that these chambered structures were burial places; it seems that this too was a crude misunderstanding.
( from Bradford University website Old Scatness-Shetland Complex broch site )
The High Pastures Cave may be able to eventually shed light on the use of these dark chambered structures.
I took 12 pages of notes, and came away giddy, needing to research the latest finds and reappraise all the sites and mounds I know- or thought I knew!
If you get a chance to visit any of these sites it’s highly recommended. Life gets faster, further removed from nature and our ancestors, we think we have more information at our fingertips, but studying where we have come from may be really important in determining where we go, who we think we are and our place in the human story. There’s nothing more inspiring for me that to stand at an ancient site and try to understand the people and landscape that stood here before me, before the noise of engines in the sky, before the rumble of distant roads before electronic social networks in my pocket. As an artist I feel Lucky that creativity gives me a connection to the past whether it is scratching a pattern on a rock or weaving twigs into a vessel. I can feel the same as the creative people who stood before me doing the same thing; I can listen to the folk stories and work my own colours into them. Science, archaeologists and scholars do not detract from the magic and mystery of it all, they open it up into a bigger, wider, brighter, richer, mystery. It’s awesome!
( A big thanks to all those involved ! More technical information here at Applecross Blog site)