Bressay’s answer to the Time Team
By LAURA FRIEDLANDER
TWELVE months of working “flat out” brought about the opening of the Bronze Age Bressay – Cruester Burnt Mound project on Saturday.
MSP Tavish Scott performed the official opening ceremony in front of a crowd of nearly 100 people. He cut the official “cord”, a bronze age rope made from grasses, using a stone knife made by archaeologist Tony Sherratt.
Mr Scott said: “I am delighted to be here today to perform the opening of this site and celebrate with you what is a wonderful local achievement. The work carried out here has really increased local historical knowledge, but has also brought about a closer understanding of the importance of these sites in centuries past and how important it is to preserve them so that we can continue to learn from them.”
Mr Scott went on to say how he remembered playing at the Cruester site as a boy and even then he could see how the site was being lost into the sea and so there was a real debt of gratitude to the Bressay history group and to SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) and Archaeology Scotland for taking the project on board and preserving the site in the way that they have.
Mr Scott said: “I think that all the people involved in the project have actually shown great foresight in preserving the burnt mound. As has been shown from the various experiments that have been carried at open days and today, there are still gaps in our knowledge and if we can find out more answers to current speculation, then it will benefit future generations in their learning of history.”
The original burnt mound from Cruester has now been transported to its new site at Leiraness next to the Bressay Heritage Centre and it is remarkable to see how quickly the bare ground next to the centre has been transformed into a living history project.
Dry stone dyker Jim Keddie was instrumental in helping to reconstruct the stone cells and low walls of the burnt mound, and as some of the cells are corbelled, meaning that the walls from an arch shape as they reach the top, the work required a great deal of skill. The end result is an example of ancient engineering as well as artistry. On Saturday, archaeologists and members of Bressay History Group were on hand to show off the site to its full advantage and to explain to the curious visitors the workings of the site.
The whole site is of enormous archaeological significance but it is perhaps the stone tank that has aroused the most interest. From the corbelled stone cell above the tank, stones were heated and then rolled or perhaps shovelled down to a stone tank that held water.
The original tank from Cruester has been relocated to the new site but it is now too fragile to be used, so an exact replica has been built.
Archaeologist Rick Barton explained that the fire in the cell above the new tank had reached a temperature of 700° Celsius and the water in the tank had nearly reached boiling point at some stages but would usually reach a temperature of about 80º Celsius.
On Saturday the water was certainly far too hot to put your hand in, so it was unlikely that the water was used for washing. It has been speculated that the heated water could be used for less pleasant tasks such as the tanning of skins as the tank was sited well away from living quarters. It might have been used for cooking but this seems unlikely as the dwellings nearby would have had their own fires for cooking.
However, lamb shanks were placed in the bottom of the tank to see if they would cook.
Archaeologists Keith Prosser and Tony Sherratt from the Timezone living history team added a touch of authenticity to the day by dressing in bronze-age costumes.
Mr Prosser stayed on hand to stoke the fire in the cell and later in the afternoon he showed visitors a smaller cell near to the tank.
This roofed cell could have been used as a kind of sauna. Experiments were being carried out at the site to see if it would actually work and with a few minor adjustments and patching of small gaps in the walls it would seem that the cell might have indeed made a very effective sauna using steam from the tank.
After the cord had been cut to open the site, Mr Sherratt showed visitors how the rope had been made from local grasses.
Visitors were given a chance to have a go at making a rope themselves. Several strands of marsh grass are twisted together and there is a knack to doing it.
It is actually easier for left-handers to learn the technique. The technique of holding the strands in one hand and twisting the grass in the other hand in a certain direction to get the rope to remain taught is quite a skill. Some people learned the knack quite quickly.
Mr Sherratt explained that the ropes would be made in all different lengths and thicknesses and some could be as thick as a man’s wrist.
Moving round the site, a dug-out hollow in the ground made a very effective kiln that had produced a whole variety of pottery bowls, pots and ornaments. The temperature again in the kiln was very high and was perfectly sufficient to fire the clay. Children had great fun making pinch pots and some of the pottery being removed from the kiln after the firing process looked very professional indeed.
Other activities throughout the afternoon included spinning with a drop spindle. A fleece had been washed in the stone tank the day before and several people remarked at how soft the fleece had become from just one wash in the tank.
Bressay History Group committee member Douglas Coutts was delighted with the way the whole day had gone.
Mr Coutts said: “It is so good to see all this coming together in the way it has today. There was a lot of administration work to do before we began the actual physical work of moving the stones, but we have worked ‘flat out’ for 12 months and I think it is quite remarkable to think that only in May this site was still bare and now the whole thing is up and running.
“There are so many people to thank, from Bressay History Group, the archaeologists who have given so willingly of so much time; everyone has been so enthusiastic too. This is really just the start of another phase of the burnt mound and I’m sure it will prove to be a great attraction for a long time to come.”