Dig this on Islay!

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Archaeologists on Islay who may have found an Ice Age campsite  continue to reveal more of the island’s secret past.

The latest discoveries are at Dunyvaig Castle and included medieval gaming boards and the remains of a young hunting hound.

This summer a 30-strong team of archaeology students from the University of Reading, along with Professor Steve Mithen, spent three weeks uncovering more of the castle’s ancient past hidden below the tussocky grass, peat and rubble.

In partnership with Islay Heritage, and permission from site owners Lagavulin Distillery and from Historic Environment Scotland, the dig went ahead under strict Covid rules which meant there could be no public engagement, ‘tragically’, said Prof Mithen.

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

Dunyvaig Castle, in 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. 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 graveslabs.

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. ‘

Long flints made in the ice age and used by pioneer travellers from the north of Germany and Scandinavia have been uncovered at Rubha Port-an t-Seilich.

The trace of ice age hunters  was first discovered in 2010, when archaeologists from the University of Reading were investigating a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer campsite at Rubha Port-an t-Seilich.

The site was originally discovered by pigs rooting around in undergrowth in 2009 when they turned over the flints which Prof Mithen identified as debris from making Mesolithic hunting weapons.

The University of Reading is gradually piecing this evidence together to reconstruct a picture of Mesolithic life at the site. Excavations are gradually removing all the Mesolithic deposits and continue to find traces of an earlier ice age campsite. ‘We expect to reach that level in 2022. But what will we find there?’ said Prof Mithin.

A view of Rubha Port an -t-Seilich, showing the excavation site marked by the white marquee
The Mesolithic floor being excavated


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

To hear more from Prof Mithin listen to his lecture on October 11 by following this link  www.sal.org.uk/event/searching-for-the-ice-age-pioneers

For details of his new book Land of the Ilich out next month, go to birlinn.co.uk/product/land-of-the-ilich