Illuminating St Kilda’s Iron Age inhabitants

A newly published report from GUARD Archaeology has revealed evidence for the Iron Age inhabitation of St Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and isolated archipelago located 64km west of the Outer Hebrides.

A newly published report from GUARD Archaeology has revealed evidence for the Iron Age inhabitation of St Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and isolated archipelago located 64km west of the Outer Hebrides (see CA 263 and 312).

GUARD Archaeology was commissioned – by QinetiQ on behalf of the MOD – to carry out a near-continuous programme of archaeological work between May 2017 and September 2019 in advance of the development and refurbishment of a Ministry of Defence base, located on the main island of Hirta overlooking Village Bay (Below right).

The team found large quantities of middle Iron Age pottery across the entirety of the site. While no domestic structures were discovered, the extensive ceramic finds suggest that a settlement must have existed nearby. A stone-lined channel was also uncovered, with evidence that it may have directed water from a nearby stream in order to drive a click-mill – a horizontal mill that gets its name from the distinctive sound it makes while operating. Several saddle querns, which would probably have been the milling tool of choice during the Iron Age in this region, have previously been found in Village Bay, supporting this idea.

PHOTO: GUARD Archaeology Ltd
PHOTO: GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Some of the pottery sherds that had been washed into this channel preserved carbonised food remains, and these have been radiocarbon dated, suggesting that the site was most likely in use some time between the early part of the 4th century BC and the end of the 1st century BC. While the majority of the finds were dated to the Iron Age, fragments of a possible early Bronze Age Beaker were recovered, suggesting that this area may have been in use even earlier.

While the occupation of St Kilda during the Viking period is apparent from placenames and some small finds, and medieval occupation of Hirta is known from the remnants of a village on the north head of the bay, archaeological evidence for earlier inhabitation of the islands is sparse, with few excavations carried out. Stone tools that are similar to late Neolithic/Bronze Age examples found in the Hebrides have been recovered in Village Bay, and possible Bronze Age cairns have previously been identified on Hirta, but these most recent excavations represent the most extensive evidence for the prehistoric inhabitation of St Kilda yet discovered.

Alan Hunter Blair, who directed the excavations, said: ‘One of the most significant problems facing archaeologists working on St Kilda is that earlier buildings were dismantled and cleared away in order to build new ones, using the old stone as a building resource. Stone was also cleared, including that in burial mounds, to increase the available cultivation area, leaving little trace of what may have been there before. That any archaeological remains survived at all on the recent investigated area is remarkable, given the location of the site on extensively used and landscaped ground. The remote island group of St Kilda has not been immune to change, but understanding what is left allows us to understand the lives of its past inhabitants in a little more detail.’

The full report of the results can be read for free at https://archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO42_St_Kilda.pdf.