Road to the past: exploring the prehistoric heart of Galloway

The construction of a new bypass on the A75 near Dunragit has uncovered a wealth of archaeological finds, illuminating around 8,000 years of human activity within a rich and complex historic landscape on the south-west coast of Scotland. With the project’s findings now published in full, Current Archaeology's Carly Hilts surveys some of the key discoveries.


Located on the south-west coast of Scotland, Luce Bay has long been a well-connected area. The closest edge of Northern Ireland lies just 30 miles to the west, while the Isle of Man is clearly visible to the south. Beyond that, open water offers clear sailing to Wales and even to south-west England. It should not be surprising, then, that evidence of far-reaching sea routes and cultural links between this region, the Irish Sea zone, and wider northern Britain can be traced back into prehistory. And it is thanks to another, rather more modern, symbol of connectivity – the construction of a bypass at Dunragit – that vivid glimpses of this rich past have come to light once more.

It all began with a bridge: to be precise, a low bridge over a curve of the A75 trunk road that had long hampered lorries transporting goods to the ferry ports at Cairnryan. The A75 bypass was intended, literally, to get around this problem – but the development also had another benefit. Between 2012 and 2013, GUARD Archaeology was commissioned by Amey plc and R J McLeod on behalf of Transport Scotland to excavate the course of the planned road corridor at Dunragit, with its combined route and new side roads providing a 7.4km ‘linear snapshot’ of what lay beneath the surface. Over the course of 19 months, GUARD recorded features spanning the Mesolithic to the post-medieval periods, and the diversity of their discoveries – recently published in the form of a monograph and a booklet by Warren Bailie and colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ on p.33) – has led the team to dub this area ‘the Prehistoric Heart of Galloway’.

GUARD Archaeology’s excavations along the route of the A75 bypass have uncovered traces of human activity spanning around 8,000 years. Here we see one of the investigated sites, Myrtle Cottage, where GUARD uncovered the remains of an unenclosed Iron Age settlement.

Mesolithic markings

Beginning with the earliest evidence of human activity uncovered by the scheme, it has long been known that Luce Bay was visited by hunter-gatherer groups during the Mesolithic period, as long as 10,000 years ago. Concentrations of flint scatters have been documented around its shores for decades, but these finds speak of only sporadic stays, and few of these sites have been excavated. The Dunragit bypass works, however, uncovered traces of what appears to have been a much less fleeting occupation. At one of the excavated sites along the route, West Challoch, GUARD Archaeologists uncovered a 4m-diameter horseshoe of post-holes that yielded stone tools consistent with a Mesolithic date. The arrangement of the post-holes – a curve of seven to the south, with two more holes possibly marking the northern return of a circuit – is not unusual for this period, and similar outlines observed elsewhere have been interpreted as windbreaks or frames for smoking meat or fish. Rather less typical, though, are the dimensions of the West Challoch post-holes: at an average of 0.35m in diameter and 0.19-0.28m deep, they are much more substantial than might be expected for a transient or temporary structure. Rather, the GUARD team suggests they could have supported a fairly sturdily constructed, if modestly sized, timber hut.

The bypass route, with key excavation sites marked. In this article we focus mainly on West Challoch (home to a possible Mesolithic hut), Myrtle Cottage (Iron Age settlement), East Challoch (Bronze Age burials), and Boreland Cottage Upper (Neolithic timber alignments).
Known Mesolithic sites around Luce Bay; most of them have produced evidence only of fleeting visits by hunter-gatherer groups, but Dunragit has yielded hints of more substantial activity.

Outside this structure was a hearth and a number of pits – some of them lined with flat stones – that contained hazelnut shells and other organic materials, and around all of these features was a series of gullies that may have been designed to channel water to keep the living space dry. Such determined interventions on the landscape are not what you might associate with the nomadic seasonal activity generally attributed to the Mesolithic, but radiocarbon dates obtained from four samples placed this cluster of features c.6640-7060 BC, squarely in the later part of the period. This would make the possible ‘hut’ the earliest Mesolithic structure yet found in south-west Scotland.

Blue post-holes pick out the footprint of Structure 1, which has been interpreted as a possible hut, and the earliest Mesolithic structure yet found in south-west Scotland. The purple gullies around it are thought to have been intended to channel water.

There were echoes of even earlier activity on the site, however. Careful excavation of the surrounding area using a grid system led to the recovery of more than 15,000 flint tools and fragments of knapping waste, mainly representing techniques and tools of mid-Mesolithic types. Meanwhile, two hearths just to the west of the structure produced dates from the early Mesolithic period, c.7810-7530 BC, suggesting that groups had been making use of the site long before the ‘hut’ was built. Nor had they been the first visitors to this fertile coastal strip: while analysing the Mesolithic debitage, GUARD discovered a rare kind of curved piercer known as a ‘zinken’, an Upper Palaeolithic tool bearing witness to the presence of humans on this spot up to 14,000 years ago.

This curved piercer is known as a ‘zinken’; it dates to the Upper Palaeolithic.

A forest of posts

It has also long been understood that Dunragit was a significant place during the Neolithic period. Previous excavations and aerial surveys have revealed the Luce Bay area to be rich with sites of this period, some already protected as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, and these were a spur for the archaeological investigations in advance of the bypass construction. Seen from above, its landscape is peppered with cropmarks suggesting that it was once dominated by imposing wooden constructions; in their publications, GUARD Archaeology evoke a forest of posts forming palisaded enclosures, cursus monuments, and long alignments of tall timbers striding across the landscape, representing ‘one of the densest and longest-lived traditions of oak post erection in Neolithic Britain,’ Academic Editor for the work, Dr Kenneth Brophy says. Complexes like these were a key feature of the ‘Neolithic package’ – dramatic cultural changes that arrived in Britain from Continental Europe c.4000 BC, sweeping away mobile hunter-gatherer traditions in favour of a more settled way of life of agriculture, domesticated livestock, and pottery production, as well as a host of new ceremonial practices that involved ‘monumentalisation’ of the landscape (see CA 290).

Excavating the area next to Structure 1 using a methodical grid system led to the recovery of more than 15,000 tools and waste flakes of probably mid-Mesolithic date.
Some of those recovered lithics.

Constructing these monuments would have been a major undertaking, involving not only huge investments of time and labour – taking people away from agricultural activities – but also consuming significant natural resources. In the case of timber monuments like those around Luce Bay, this meant felling hundreds of trees. Professor Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester excavated at Dunragit between 1999 and 2003, uncovering the remains of a triple palisaded enclosure, and he estimated that this c.4,800-year-old monument alone could have comprised 365 posts. Moreover, in 1999 a study at Brighouse Bay, around 30 miles from Dunragit, recorded a decline in oak pollen occurring around 2800 BC – could this be linked to the huge numbers of oaks that were being cut down to create posts? The resulting transformation of the landscape might have been intended as a symbol of ownership, and perhaps the pre-eminence of its owners’ new religious ideas, GUARD suggests – but the large monuments would also have reduced the amount of cultivable land, a significant trade-off for the fledgling pastoral economy.

During the bypass excavations, stone tools, pottery fragments, and radiocarbon dates testified to Neolithic activity along the entire course of the development, and although no domestic structures were identified during the works, GUARD’s findings have added to our understanding of the area as ceremonially significant. Chief among these were discoveries at Boreland Cottage Upper, not far from Droughduil Mote – a large augmented natural mound immediately south of the bypass route, which was long thought to be a medieval motte until Julian Thomas’ investigations, using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating, established its earliest use during the 3rd millennium BC. Thomas also obtained dates for a cursus monument at Dunragit dating from 3700 to 3600 BC, with later palisaded enclosures dating from 2700 to 2900 BC, possibly being contemporary with Droughduil mound. Post alignments at Boreland Cottage Upper, aligned with Droughduil Mote to the south-west, some of which contained oak charcoal suggesting in situ burning, were dated to c.3800 BC, roughly contemporary with the earliest, cursus phase of the complex at Dunragit.

This post-hole alignment, excavated at Boreland Cottage Upper, would have supported a long line of timber uprights.

Dunragit’s jet set

While Neolithic monuments fascinate us today, they also seem to have attracted the attention of later prehistoric populations who visited the already-ancient sites to place objects in their features and bury their dead. Dunragit was no different, and the bypass excavations have revealed traces of diverse funerary activities dating to the Bronze Age. The earliest burials of this period uncovered by GUARD were a series of four graves found at East Challoch, an area of raised beach overlooking the estuary with views towards Droughduil Mote. Although varied in size, they all shared a similar design, with stones lining their base. Three were grouped closely together, with another lying around 80m to the north – located on a patch of higher ground and capped with a cairn, this latter burial would have been visible from some distance away.

The cluster of three graves seems to have come together over multiple generations: one yielded a radiocarbon date of 2570-2300 BC, placing its creation in the earliest part of the Bronze Age – it also contained a distinctive Beaker vessel associated with this period (see CA 338) – while another contained a beautiful three-strand, 31-piece jet necklace suggesting a date of c.2150-1950 BC. The cairn-topped burial produced a matching set comprising a bracelet and a necklace. These were finely worked objects speaking of high-status owners, as well as far-reaching connections: analysis of their materials revealed that the jet had been sourced from the Whitby Bay area, over 200 miles away on the other side of Britain. Although no human remains survived within the graves, where similar jewellery has been found in association with bones elsewhere, they have been the burials of women.

This distinctive Beaker vessel was found in a stone-lined grave at East Challoch, suggesting a very early Bronze Age date. This was confirmed through radiocarbon analysis that placed the burial in 2570-2300 BC.

All of the ornaments show patterns of marks indicating that they had been worn for some time before they were committed to the ground – perhaps by the deceased, or by a mourner who then bequeathed them to the burial – but in the years after the jewellery was placed in the grave, the threads connecting their pieces had decayed, leaving archaeologists faced with mixed masses of beads. (The seven-strand necklace and two-strand bracelet set had become commingled, suggesting that they had adorned a woman laid to rest on her side, with her hand drawn up close to her face.) The painstaking task of sorting the beads and spacers – with 137 in a single burial – belonged to Dr Alison Sheridan, who carefully analysed each fragile piece and rearranged them based both on their recorded location in the grave, and on microscopic traces of wear on each component. The resulting restrung necklaces are rigid collars with an internal diameter suggesting that they would have been worn tightly around the neck, almost like gleaming black versions of lunulae, the gold crescents marked with geometric patterns that were worn by some elite individuals in the early Bronze Age. Lunulae are more common in Ireland, but around a dozen examples have been found in mainland Britain, mostly in Scotland and Cornwall.

Two of the cists found at East Challoch contained finely worked jet jewellery.

As for what enabled Dunragit’s early Bronze Age inhabitants to access ostentatious ornaments like the jet jewellery, in her report on these finds Alison Sheridan suggests that the community ‘may have participated in controlling the flow of Irish metal’, or alternatively that they had generated their wealth through ‘amassing surpluses from their agricultural activities’. Further hints of a wealthy society come from the fourth burial in this group, with a date of 2137-1955 BC suggesting it is contemporary with those containing the jet jewellery. It produced no grave goods but preserved rare traces of a wooden coffin in the form of the remains of oak planks with possible bracing.

The jet necklaces and bracelet from East Challoch, following careful analysis and restringing by Dr Alison Sheridan.

From cists to cremations

Although the presence of a possible coffin, together with the positioning of the necklace and bracelet set, indicate that the cists had contained inhumations, towards the late 2nd millennium BC cremation became the predominant funerary practice in the Dunragit area – in keeping with a wider trend seen across northern Britain at this time. Back at Boreland Cottage Upper, just east of East Challoch and occupying the same stretch of raised beach, cremation burials representing two distinct populations using the site around 500 years apart were uncovered.

The first phase of burials came in the Early Bronze Age, c.1954-1691 BC, and took the form of an arc of pits, each containing a small amount of burnt human bone. These early cremations were without urns and were all strikingly low in weight, with none of them representing the remains of a complete body, and certain elements of the skeleton, especially those associated with the shoulder, pelvis, and ribs, were particularly underrepresented, perhaps suggesting that only token deposits had been made, with the remainder of the burnt bone being retained or buried elsewhere. Accompanying grave goods were also notably scarce, though two miniature food vessels and a short end scraper, heavily burnt as if they had been placed on the pyre with the deceased, were recovered.

The mingled remains of a necklace and bracelet, with a scale-flaked flint knife (in the lower left part of this photo).

When burials returned to the site in c.1449-1231 BC, though, the Middle Bronze Age practices that they represent were very different. This time the burials were focused on three ring-ditches, traces of small (less than 7m in diameter) barrows or fenced enclosures, two of which also contained central cremation deposits. These later burials were an eclectic mix, with some vessels placed upright in the ground and others inverted. Whichever way they were oriented, though, these urns all shared a common design element: a horizontal ring of perforations running just below the rim. This is not thought to have been a decorative feature, but a practical one: GUARD suggests that they might have been used to secure a cloth or leather lid that has not survived.

These were also more substantial, heavier cremations than in the first phase, containing better-preserved bone fragments that have allowed GUARD’s Osteoarchaeologist, Iraia Arabaolaza, to learn more about some of the individuals that they came from, and to identify a number of multiple burials. One inverted urn contained the remains of two adults, with some of the bones pointing to a person in their 40s, while others suggested the presence of a woman. Another unurned deposit produced fragments of bone associated with three people: an adult, a juvenile, and a possible infant. This analysis shed light on particular pathologies, including signs of healed infections and trauma, as well as evidence for osteoarthritis, while one piece of bone preserved a possible cut-mark that may hint at post-mortem processing of the body. Other than the urns, no objects accompanied the burials, although one skull fragment bore a green/blue stain suggesting that it had come into contact with something made of copper alloy during cremation. No such artefact was recovered from the burial, however.

Three ring-ditches, shown here under investigation (marked out in darker soil) formed the focus of Middle Bronze Age cremations at Boreland Cottage Upper.

Signs of settlement

Moving into the Iron Age, one of the most important discoveries uncovered during the bypass excavations was an unenclosed roundhouse settlement identified at Myrtle Cottage. This site was located towards the middle of the bypass route, a short distance to the east of West Challoch’s Mesolithic features and south of the Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial activity at East Challoch and Boreland Cottage Upper. There, the outlines of some nine structures have been at least partially revealed within the narrow road corridor, and cropmarks suggest that there may be more to the west of the excavated area.

Curving stone-packed foundations picked out the exposed footprints; some were strikingly well preserved, with their entire circuit still present, while others were more ephemeral. Unenclosed settlements of this period are extremely rare in Dumfries and Galloway, and it is not known if all of the structures were in use at the same time, but none of the outlines intercut, despite being fairly tightly grouped, which might suggest that they were contemporary for at least part of their use, or that each had been abandoned or built in quick succession while their predecessor was still standing to some extent.

The best preserved of the group was Structure 1, which was represented by an outer wall forming a ring 8m in diameter, as well as an inner wall marking out the sunken floor of its internal living space. Its entrance, facing west, was defined by two large post-holes, and inside the structure GUARD identified a series of occupation layers and a hearth. Dating evidence from these, and from the structure’s wall slots and post-holes, suggests that it was in use between 200 BC and AD 100, though not necessarily continuously.

One of the cremation urns from Boreland Cottage Upper. The vessels all had small holes running in a ring beneath their rim; it is thought that they might have been used to secure cloth or leather lids, a practical decision given that many of the urns were placed in the ground upside-down.

Artefacts recovered from the settlement – coarse stone tools used for pounding and grinding, fragments of quern stones – speak of a community for whom arable agriculture and cereal processing were a key focus of everyday life. So too does the scattering of grain found throughout the structures, which suggests that a range of plants were being cultivated, including oats, barley, spelt, and emmer wheat. There was also evidence of industry, in the form of Structure 3. This building was marked out by a simple ring-groove some 8m across, with internal roof support post-holes; it is thought that its walls may have been made of wattle-and-daub panels supported by evenly spaced posts. Inside, in the centre of the floor, a heat-cracked stone and a flue extending towards the east-facing entrance testify to the presence of a furnace. Charcoal from the flue yielded a date of 168-19 BC, while fragments of glassy slag and hammerscale suggest that the structure may have been used for ironworking. The wide range of artefacts, resources, and activities revealed in this settlement demonstrate that the community here possessed a much wider skillset than most other contemporary settlements in Galloway, and was perhaps a place of innovation and the sharing of ideas, the team suggests.

A thought-provoking brooch

One more unusual object, recovered from an upper floor layer within Structure 1, hints at more outward-looking interests held by this community. This was a rather unprepossessing little brooch – a plain copper-alloy bar forming a low-arched bow with a hinged pin – based on a Roman type that today is called an ‘aucissa’. The name comes from numerous brooches found in Gaul which were marked with this word, presumably signalling their manufacturer, almost like a brand name. They were a popular military fashion that arrived in Britain on the clothes of Claudius’ soldiers, and, once they were here, were eagerly adopted by local communities who developed their own derivatives, particularly in Dorset. The Dunragit example is thought to be one of these indigenous interpretations rather than an imported original – the lower arch to its bow, its material, and the way the pin is fixed all suggest that it was made in Britain. While this fashion flourished in southern England, they are rare further north – in fact, just one other has been discovered in Scotland, an antiquarian find of unknown context from Dores, near Inverness.

This brooch may look like a simple, unprepossessing artefact, but it speaks of contacts with the Roman world long before the imperial army extended its reach into the region. It is known as an ‘aucissa derivative’, and is thought to be a British interpretation of brooches more commonly found in Gaul.

In his report on the brooch, produced for GUARD’s publications, Dr Fraser Hunter (Principal Curator of Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at National Museums Scotland) writes that ‘the Dunragit brooch points to contacts with the Roman world in the decades before the empire extended its military reach to this area.’ Could these contacts have come in the form of trade links – or, the GUARD team wonders, might the brooch reflect early Roman explorations of the coastline, scouting the area long before any official military push?

The remains of an unenclosed Iron Age settlement were excavated at Myrtle Cottage. Structure 1 was the best preserved of the buildings; it can be seen under investigation in the opening image of this feature.

Today Dunragit is a reasonably small, rural village, but the bypass discoveries, as well as the questions explored during their analysis, have added to a picture of a thriving local power centre that flourished thousands of years ago. They also highlight how infrastructure projects can greatly add to our understanding of the past, allowing us to explore archaeology on a landscape scale. As GUARD Archaeology’s Warren Bailie writes in his concluding remarks to the monograph: ‘Some 19 months of fieldwork… uncovered one of most significant, previously unknown, collections of archaeological sites ever discovered in Dumfries & Galloway. The discoveries made are also an indication of the serendipity of archaeology: it is likely that most sites and material culture would have remained beneath the ground, undiscovered, had a decision not been taken to upgrade the road here.’

Further reading
Both the monograph, and the booklet aimed at a more general reader, can be downloaded for free at
You can read more about the Dunragit excavations at
ALL images: GUARD Archaeology.