Dig this Ice Age discovery on Islay!

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Down Memory Lane

Archaeologists on Islay have found a campsite used by Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago.

And the secrets of Dunyvaig Castle continue to be revealed, including medieval gaming boards and the remains of a young hunting hound.

University of Reading’s Professor of Early Prehistory Steven Mithen says long flints used by pioneer travellers from the north of Germany and Scandinavia have been uncovered at Rubha Port-ant-Seilich at what could be the first preserved Ice Age campsite in Scotland.

Finding the blades, which would have been attached to an antler or bone shaft and used to clean animal skins, gives a good indication that the excavating team has found a campsite which dates to right at the end of the Ice Age.

It was a time when Scotland would still have been joined to the continent by Doggerland and experts think the explorer travellers would have come on skin boats.

Sediment taken from the Ice Age layer will now be tested for ancient DNA of plants and animals to build a more detailed picture of the everyday lives of those visitors.

The Ice Age finds were found below a preserved hunter gatherer camp from the middle of the Stone Age, where evidence of a fireplace in a dwelling, was earlier discovered.

It was only when pigs were brought in to eat bracken on the coastline that the flints started to turn up, which Professor Mithen dated to the Mesolithic period.

He said Dunyvaig Castle, a scheduled monument, also continues to reveal its secrets  below the tussocky grass, peat and rubble that bury its ancient past.

Islay Heritage and the University of Reading continued exploring Dunyvaig over three weeks in late August and September with permission from owners Lagavulin Distillery and from Historic Environment Scotland.

The dig was used as a training school for archaeology students.

A coin found at Dunyvaig dating to James VI that would have been struck in the late 16th or early 17th century

The team of 30 travelled to the island and worked there under strict Covid rules which meant there could be no public engagement, ‘tragically’, said Professor Mithen.

‘That will be made up for in 2022 with public talks and exhibitions about the new finds from Dunyvaig; these telling us more about its fascinating past and Islay’s history,’ he added.

Dunyvaig Castle, on the south coast of Islay, was the naval fortress of the Lords of the Isles and Clan Donald between the 14th and 16th centuries, and fought over by the MacDonalds and Campbells during the early 17th century.

‘Having explored several walls, buildings, and the sea-gate in 2018 and 2019, the task in 2021 was to investigate the external fortifications,’ said Prof Mithen.

‘A key target was the trace of a bastion, faintly emerging from the pebble beach of Lagavulin Bay, and whatever lay beyond the bastion outside of the courtyard wall.

‘Although we are still assessing the results, the bastion was shown to have been constructed relatively early in the sequence of building at Dunyvaig – perhaps 15th century – and was quite massive in form.

‘It had a triangular shape that is unique for Western Scotland, indicating the status and strategic significance of Dunyvaig.

‘To the east of the bastion, the walls of an equally massive building were found, the existence of this building having been quite unknown.

‘The walls had been carefully built using large boulders mortared together and plastered on the inside face.

‘Its original purpose remains unclear, as does its date, but we are tempted by the idea of a grand hall, one where visitors would have been wined and dined, alliances formed and battleplans devised.

‘After it went out of use, the building was used as a rubbish dump – providing ideal finds for archaeologists.

‘Large quantities of butchered animal bones were dumped, primarily from cattle and sheep that will tell us about the diet and the economy of the castle, while pieces of pottery came from plates and vessels which will be invaluable for dating once classified.

‘The carcass of a dog was discarded, possibly buried, into the midden. Although yet to be identified, it seems to be the skeleton of a juvenile, perhaps a hunting hound of the type sometimes depicted on medieval grave slabs.

‘An unexpected find within the midden was a collection of medieval gaming boards – pieces of slate incised with lines on which games known as Fox and Geese and Alquerque had been played.

‘An especially exciting and useful find was a coin dating to James VI that would have been struck in the late 16th or early 17th century. That indicates everything below is earlier; the original building may have been 14th century in date.’