Cardiff Studies in Archaeology - Specialist Report Number 18


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This was the sixth season of excavation on the settlement mounds at Bornais, South Uist (NF792302). Detailed interim reports have been circulated for each season of excavation (Parker Pearson and Webster 1994, Sharples, Parker Pearson and Webster 1995, and Sharples 1996, 1997, 1999) and the 1996 and 1997 reports can be viewed on the internet (see also bibliography).

The Bornais mound complex is one of the most extensive and complex Norse settlements known on the Western Isles and is one of the largest rural settlements of this type known in the British Isles. Geophysical survey has revealed a complex of over 20 houses covering an area of over 0.8 ha (Hamilton and Sharples 1996).

Excavation on mound 1 recovered evidence for a Late Iron Age settlement dating from the third to fifth century AD and there are clear indications that the sequence begins much earlier. Settlement appears to move to mound 2 in the seventh and eight centuries AD, though this has still to be confirmed by excavation. Mound 2 then becomes the site for an important Norse farmstead that can be dated as early as the eleventh century AD. It is likely that the formation of the mound represents a continuous sequence of activity extending through the period of Viking colonisation of the islands. During the eleventh or twelfth centuries the settlement grew in importance and spread to the adjacent mound 2A and 3. Excavation of mound 3 in 1997 and 1999, revealed a late Norse house with an associated corn drying kiln and barn.

The longevity of the occupation, and density of the later thirteenth century settlement, make this a particularly important site for understanding the development of Medieval settlement in the Highlands and Islands. The preservation is excellent; houses with substantial stone walls survive over 1 m high; there are intact floor layers and midden deposits contain large quantities of animal and fish bones, carbonised plant remains, ceramics and a range of artefacts.

The excavations are part of a continuing landscape project designed to document the development of settlement in the Southern Hebrides from the Mesolithic to the present day. The project has resulted in a wide range of field survey and excavations, involving a large number of specialists, and the publications are now too numerous to detail. The Bornais excavations were specifically designed to follow on from the excavation of the Middle to Late Iron Age settlement at Dun Vulan (Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999) and occurred in conjunction with the excavation of a contemporary settlement at Cille Pheadair (Brennand, Parker Pearson and Smith 1998). It is believed that the full publication of the excavations at Bornais and Cille Pheadair will make a considerable contribution to the understanding of Medieval settlement in Scotland, and to the Norse settlement of the North Atlantic. Already the provisional results have provided the basis for a critique of recent views on the nature of the Norse settlement of the region and contribute to our understanding of architectural developments in the region (Sharples and Parker Pearson 1999).

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