100 years ago, mothers, wives and sweethearts in Abernethy received letters from their beloved boys in the trenches of Flanders and Northern France . In 2017, texts, tweets and Facebook posts were sent from the lads and lassies in two trenches on the archaeological dig at the top of Castle Law during two weeks at the beginning of July.
All that could be seen from the Glenfoot Road was the TARDIS-like appearance of two portaloos, but at the top there was a hive of activity. Two large trenches were carefully, and lovingly, dug out with back breaking hard work. Many different skills were brought to bear on to the site: GPS mappers; photographers; archaeologists; drone operators; geophysicists; artists; historians and good old fashioned dirt-shifters.
This was the first dig on the site for over 120 years and it was a nice feeling to think that you were the first person to be in that spot since the 19th century. At the end of the last dig, the archaeologists had left the site open to the elements to a large extent, so there had been some deterioration over time. However, it was wonderful to see how much still remains of the substantial inner and outer walls that are probably 2,500 years old.
Over the course of the dig, we did wonder why they built the fort all those centuries ago. Was it meant to be purely defensive, or was it a statement saying “Don’t mess with us, because we are well hard” or was it all just bling on the part of a wealthy local war lord. There are no written documents from that period, so we will never know for sure.
Here are the dig’s aims from the formal project design document:
“The proposed aims of the project are to increase our understanding of Abernethy Law within the context of the the neighbouring hillforts around the Tay estuary and the Ochil hills. More generally, excavations of vitrified hillforts are still relatively rare, and this project provides the opportunity to further investigate a hillfort type. The objectives of the proposed project are:
to establish a chronology for the development and occupation of the site.
to identify any phasing of activity.
to assess the condition of the site 120 years after the excavation.
Assess degradation of walls after 100 years after not being backfilled and compare with historic photographs
And here are the all-important facts and figures from the dig:
113 volunteer days
£16,971 value of volunteer time
Total group elevation climbed 11300m (100m ascent from portaloos)
39 people involved
6 from Abernethy
2 from nearby places (Newburgh & Bridge of Earn)
7 from Perth
Furthest travelled - Joshua from Milngavie (69 miles) and Iain from West Linton (59 miles)
2 (maybe more) students getting dig experience for their degree
132 Tunnocks Caramel Wafers (3960g/3.96kg)
60 Tunnocks Snowballs (3600g/3.6kg)
Tunnocks Caramel Wafers are a long running joke on these digs. There are complex mathematical equations linking the number of Tunnocks bars consumed to the volume of earth shifted. One day, I was given the honour of carrying the Tunnocks bars up the hill. I became the bearer of good Tunnocks and was able to shout at the top -“The Tunnocks Bars are on me”. You get the drift.
You may wonder why volunteers are prepared to travel long distances to do dirty, sweaty hard labour for no monetary gain whatsoever in sometimes inclement weather. Well, basically, it was fun. We enjoyed physical work in the open air. There was a sense of camaraderie and lots of really funny banter, also, there was the thrill of the hunt. The hope that you might be the one who finds the iron-age brooch that hits the headlines. Grant in trench B actually found the remains of an ancient Safeways carrier bag.
For me, the least fun part of the project was after slaving away to open up the trenches, we had to backfill and say goodbye not only to the site but to each other. The archaeological aims have been achieved and enough carbon dating samples have been taken to be able to get a timeline on the inner and outer walls. Interim and final reports are yet to be written and published, but there are already lots of happy memories of fun and friendship.