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History of Cardiff research in the Uists

Cardiff’s interest in the Outer Hebrides is long term.

Niall Sharples and Alan Lane examine the water filled broch at Berie on the isle of Lewis

Niall Sharples and Alan Lane examine the water filled broch at Berie on the isle of Lewis

In 1957 the wheelhouse at Machair Leathann, Sollas, North Uist was excavated by Richard Atkinson, then Professor of archaeology at Cardiff University, and these excavations were written up by a post graduate student of the department, Ewan Campbell (2). Alan Lane was involved in the excavations at the Udal in North Uist from 1970-72 and undertook the analysis of the Late Iron Age and Norse ceramic assemblage from this site for his doctorate at University College, London (14). Niall Sharples first became involved with the islands in 1977 when, together with Alan Lane, he took part in a coastal erosion survey of Lewis and Harris. Niall went on to take part in several minor excavations on the islands in the early 1980s that culminated in the excavation of an Early Bronze Age settlement at Dalmore on Lewis (63). Jacqui Mulville’s first Hebridean experience was in 1988, when she took part in excavations on Islay with Steve Mithen.  

The current programme of work evolved from an initiative by Sheffield University in the late 1980s. The SEARCH project was instigated by Richard Hodges and Dave Gilbertson and the first field season, in 1988, involved survey and small scale excavation on Barra and South Uist. Jacqui Mulville became part of the SEARCH project in 1989 (with Helen Smith), as a PhD student at Sheffield. Niall Sharples (along with Mike Parker Pearson) joined the project in 1991 and when he moved to the University of Cardiff in 1995 the project became an important training excavation for the department of archaeology. After leaving Sheffield Jacqui Mulville, continued to excavate on South Uist and report on the faunal remains, eventually moving to Cardiff in 2002 and developing a centre for bioarchaeology and related scientific analysis. The project has operated an open door policy which has encouraged the participation of many individuals and universities; including Bournemouth, Glasgow, London, Oxford, Southampton and Winchester.

Jacqui Mulville examines a bone deposit at Dun Vulan

Jacqui Mulville examines a bone deposit at Dun Vulan

The principal focus for the South Uist team became the excavation of sites on the machair. This landscape seemed to be an ideal environment for the preservation of exceptional archaeology. It had the potential to provide refined chronological sequences, substantial assemblages of material culture, well preserved architecture and a full suite of economic information. The research programme would provide a case study of broad relevance to the discipline of archaeology.  

Over the last two decades the South Uist team has excavated a large number of sites and surveyed extensive areas of the island. The initial focus for excavation was the broch and settlement at Dun Vulan, a project jointly directed by Niall Sharples and Mike Parker Pearson (55). After 1995 the project worked on a number of sites and surveys in parallel. The principal focus for the Cardiff University team has been the excavation of the Late Iron Age and Norse settlement at Bornais (81; 76). The principal Sheffield University excavations were undertaken on the Norse settlement at Cille Pheadair, the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age settlements at Cladh Hallan (36) (co-directed by Jacqui Mulville) and the post-Medieval township of Airigh Mhuillin, Milton (58).
A variety of field surveys and small-scale excavations were also undertaken as part of the overall landscape project.

Andrew Reynolds describes the architecture of the church at Howmore, South Uist

Andrew Reynolds describes the architecture of the church at Howmore, South Uist

The surveys include:

  • The landscape around Locheynort in the centre of the island.
  • The blacklands of the township of Cill Donnain.
  • The machair plain.
  • The landscape setting of the chambered tombs (8).

Small scale excavations include:

  • The potential Neolithic settlement at Loch a’Choire (10).
  • The chambered tomb and enclosure at Leaval (7).
  • The Beaker and Iron Age settlements at Sligeanach (66).
  • The dun in Upper Loch Bornais.
  • The Pictish burial at Cille Pheadair.
  • Mike Parker Pearson supervises the excavation of post Medieval deposits at Dun Vulan

    Mike Parker Pearson supervises the excavation of post Medieval deposits at Dun Vulan

    The Late Norse and Medieval church at Cill Donnain.
  • The Late Medieval settlement at Beinn Na Mhic Aongheis, Bornais (31).
  • Ormiclate Castle.
  • The Post Medieval settlements of Frobost and Kirkidale, South Locheynort.
  • Bothies on Rubha Ardvule.

These excavations have provided an exceptionally broad coverage of the island’s archaeology that spans the period from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century.