Bressay Bronze Age burnt mound on the move at last to Leiraness


THE “BRONZE Age Bressay! Adopt a Monument” project is now nearing completion at the new site at Leiraness close to the ferry terminal.

A team of archaeologists and craftsmen have been working steadily since June to transport the site of a Bronze Age burnt mound from Cruester to the new site and now plans are being put in place for an official opening in August.

Original excavation of the site began in 2000, when a team of archaeologists began to excavate an impressive array of stone cells, together with a large hearth, a cistern, a stone tank and sloping chute or passageway.

These had all been built into a mound, formed from discarded stones that had been heated and then plunged into water.

At that time the team realised that they might have stumbled across a hugely important historical building or series of buildings known as a burnt mound.

Burnt mounds with structures within them are extremely rare and the mound at Cruester is one of only a handful of known ex­amples.

Since 2001 the mound has been monitored by the Bressay History Group. As the site became more and more threatened by the sea, the history group approached Adopt-a-Monument and the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) Trust in the hope that something might be done to preserve what remained.

Tom Dawson, an archaeologist from St Andrews University who is currently working with SCAPE, said the burnt mound at Bressay was a priority project.

“There are probably thousands of these Bronze Age burnt mound sites in Scotland, ranging across Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles,” he said, “and many of them having been built so close to the sea that they now face the problem of coastal erosion. When one of these sites is discovered we are presented with several options, including to leave it alone, to monitor it, or to excavate it.

“The Cruester burnt mound site however is very special, because of the structures within it. Due to the huge amount of interest shown by the local community in saving this site from the sea, we decided with this particular burnt mound to take an unprecedented step and move the whole structure in order to preserve it.

“Although burnt mounds are quite common throughout Britain and Ireland, ones with structures are very rare and most examples are to be found in Shetland.

“Coastal erosion is becoming a real problem for many arch­aeological sites in Scotland and presents archaeologists and agen­cies committed to the preservation of culture and heritage with a real dilemma in terms of what should or should not be preserved.

“The problem is likely to increase if recent climate change predictions turn out to be correct. Therefore it is important that sites like the burnt mound at Cruester gain recognition and be pre­served.”

Adopt-a-Monument archaeol­ogist Helen Bradley explained how work has been progressing through­out the past two years.

She said: “Negotiations with the Bressay History Group began in January of 2007. A project team was formed and earlier this year, work began to literally transport the site piece by piece and re-construct it in another part of the island.

“Land was purchased next door to the Bressay Heritage Centre and archaeologists along with a team of willing locals began work in June.

“Diggers were brought in to create a similar site level and each stone was individually numbered using a coding system to ensure that stones were correctly placed at the new site. Tall stones called ‘orthostats’ that formed divisions between the cells were carefully lifted onto pallets or tied up in slings to be transported to the new site a mile away.”

The re-building of the stone walls is being carried out by one of Shetland’s skilful drystane dykers, Jim Keddie, working together with Rick Barton, an archaeologist from Bradford University.

Mr Keddie has worked on several similar projects and his enthusiasm for this type of work and his recognition of the importance and significance of the work is highly apparent as he describes what needs to be done. On a windy, but sunny afternoon in Bressay he patiently lifts stone upon stone from a seeming heap of rubble to transform it into a low wall.

Mr Keddie said: “It is important to recreate the burnt mound and the surrounding structures as accurately as possible. Photographs have been taken showing the exact positioning of stones and then the stones have been coded and numbered to make sure they are placed correctly.”

“The project is fascinating, and any visitor cannot help but be drawn in, not only by the history of the project, but by everyone’s enthusiasm for the history that is being recreated here.”

Ms Bradley explained that the site was destined to become a living history project.

She said: “We have been able to excavate the site and transport it, but now the real work begins. We want to find out more about what actually happened at burnt mounds.

“The tank for example is a tremendous find. It measures about a metre along its sides and was about the same depth. The stones forming the sides were sunk into clay which sealed the tank and held in the water. The water was then heated by the hot stones thrown in from the large hearth nearby. It seems unlikely that the water would only have been used for cooling the stones.

“Dating evidence retrieved by the excavation team, suggests that the site was in use for a period of several hundred years and of course it would be fascinating and very exciting to find out how the site developed over that time. We would like to try to find out more about what type of tools were used for example.

“When the site is completed in August it will have disabled access and we be will encouraging as many people as possible to come along and find out more about it. We are already holding regular open days on Sundays and schoolchildren also make regular visits. Nearly 100 people turned up to the most recent fun day last Sunday.

“Over the coming year we hope to have more open days to show what life might have been like at the burnt mound. We will hold experiments to find out how the tank worked as well as tool making demonstrations and workshops.”

Information will also be made available via the heritage centre and a website –

It is hoped that the presence of such an important structure will bring tourists and visitors and thus boost local economy by bringing in more visitors.”
Ms Bradley will be giving a public lecture about the Bronze Age Bressay burnt mound at the Shetland Museum and Archives tomorrow evening. Doors open at 7pm and the talk begins at 7.30pm. Admission is free.

Dellin inta da past


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