In at the deep end

28th July 1995 at 01:00
Jane Norrie visits the wilds of Perthshire where a piece of Bronze Age history is rising out of Loch Tay. Gleaming under the summer sun, as it was on the day of my visit, Loch Tay is one of the most beautiful spots in Britain. Archaeologically speaking, it is also one of the most interesting.

Some five miles from Kenmore at the foot of the loch a piece of prehistoric social history is being re-created. Rising from the water on timber stilts is a replica Bronze Age crannog or roundhouse the basic unit of living for prehistoric lake dwellers. Close by, a tiny tree-covered, mound-shaped island gives you an idea of what a crannog site looks like before it is excavated. Further up the loch at Fearnan, excavations are still being carried out on the underwater site on which the reconstruction is based.

Barrie Andrian and Nick Dixon from the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology have succeeded in building the replica crannog with many of the very same materials that Bronze Age families would have used. Native trees, such as alder or oak from the shores of the loch, were used for the piles and floor, "hurdles" for the outer walls and reeds from the Tay for the thatched roof. New to me "hurdles" turn out to be fences of interwoven hazel sticks in Nick Dixon's words "the plasterboard of prehistory." The floor, crucially, would have been covered in a bedding of bracken, fern and straw, which was periodically tipped over the side a significant factor in historical terms, since artefacts over 2,500 years old have been well preserved in layers of silt and sediment.

The crannog dwellers are thought to have led a harmonious and environmentally-friendly life-style that puts the 20th century to shame. An extended family of 14 lived at Fearnan, mostly on good terms with their neighbours though a drawbridge could be raised in times of danger from wolves, bears, or enemy clans. Domestic life evidently focused round a central hearth with the rest of the space partitioned off by hides into separate rooms.

The people were meat eaters living well with flocks of sheep grazing on the hillside. Meat from cattle, pigs and wolves was also at their disposal, as were fresh water, milk, butter, fish, nuts, cherries and sloes.

Barrie Andrian also cites an unexpected degree of sophistication among these early civilisations. Previously the Romans were thought to have introduced wheat to Britain. Now it is evident that 500 years before their arrival, the crannog dwellers were growing their own early wheat (spelt) and barley. In addition they were trading abroad through a system of waterways. Witness the parsley they brought by boat from the Continent. They probably used hides for warmth and clothing but a textile fragment shows they were also fairly skilful weavers. They used but did not over-exploit the environment, managing their woodlands for 25 years ahead.

From a 30-foot dug-out boat to sheep droppings with parasitic eggs intact, all this can be deduced from the primary evidence of the artefacts rescued at the loch. "No other archaeological sites," claims Ms Andrian, "can produce such well- preserved domestic and environmental evidence."

In time an interactive interpretation centre is planned but at present a small hut serves as a museum with photographs showing the work of excavation and reconstruction. One such photo, ripe for empathy studies, features a cooking pot and spoon, evidently thrown over the side because a Bronze Age cook had burned the supper.

Until the official launch which is scheduled for April '96 visitors cannot see over the crannog itself but local schools have already attended on-site workshops, constructing hazel baskets, building and floating miniature rafts and making totemic Celtic sculptures.

Barrie Andrian is fired by future projects that are to span the whole curriculum, although many of her ideas for hands-on work focus on the environment. Groups can follow in the footsteps of ancient peoples by collecting plants and extracting their dyes, by boiling bark, finding hazel sticks or reeds and hurdling and weaving with them. Science and technology can be applied in examining joints, pulleys and tensions. "Re-discovering what people knew how to do, gives pupils a feel for the people of the past and stimulates their imagination to make deductions from hands-on experience. "

There were 18 crannogs on Loch Tay alone and 20 on Loch Awe. Bear in mind that there are over 30,000 lochs in Scotland and you can see the underwater research is still in its infancy. One thing is certain though the crannog occupies a small site, some 15 metres across, its potential as a resource is enormous.

Teachers wishing to take groups of up to 20 pupils to the crannog should give a month's notice, applying in writing to Ms B Andrian, co Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology, Croft-na-Caber Hotel, Kenmore, Perthshire PH15. Accommodation as well as workshops can be arranged.

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