Meeting Report: Dunragit: the prehistoric heart of Galloway

12 April 2014
Castle Douglas Meeting
Warren Bailie (GUARD Archaeology Limited)

The last meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society for the season 2013–2014 was held in Castle Douglas Church Hall in Queen Street. Warren Baillie from Guard Archaeology Limited addressed a large audience on the subject of Dunragit, the Prehistoric Heart of Galloway.

He had been involved in the excavations at Dunragit for 20 months and, having just scrubbed up for the presentation, arrived almost hotfoot from the archaeological site. The Society was treated to one of the earliest reports of what has been considered to be a most successful and exciting period of study, brought about thanks to a vital re-routing of transport: hence the avowed claim that Dunragit was the prehistoric 'heart' of Galloway, though it is still not clear why this particular stretch of land holds such rich archaeological material.

Warren presented a series of excellent slides to accompany a very informative talk, thus making it difficult, in the absence of the pictorial material, to give as colourful a report.

The opportunity to conduct this important project was offered by the decision to create the Dunragit bypass on the A75 to avoid the Challoch railway bridge, the scene of innumerable collisions and cause of frequent disruption of traffic. Transport Scotland, Historic Scotland, Mouchel, Amey and R.J. McLeod were all involved in the scheme.

Previous archaeological site studies had been conducted by Manchester University using Royal Commission and Ancient Monuments of Scotland aerial photographs in the period 1999–2002 at Dunragit and Drumflower. A third site, Droughduil Mound, was excavated by Julian Thomas in 2002.

Guard Archaeology during the recent exploration found evidence from multiple periods dating back 9,000 years in an area of about 7.4 kilometres, straddling both sides of the A75: remarkably these included a Mesolithic occupied site; a Neolithic Bronze Age presence; a Bronze Age Cemetery complex extending over multiple phases; and an Iron Age settlement. Ten listed buildings were found and 62 archaeological sites were recorded.

The mode of the search comprised digging 252 separate trenches, 40 metres long, and creating a central trench from which 20-metre offsets branched. Archaeology was present almost throughout the whole site.

Immediately the topsoil was removed it was surprising to find quite large post holes, 6 metres deep: clear-cut features are not expected on a Mesolithic site. Multi-element sampling was conducted at two-metre intervals. Worked pitstone lined the pit from its stone base. Approximately 20,000 flint pieces and various tools came to light. (R.J. McLeod employed Hawkeye Aerial Photography to monitor what we were doing, said Warren.)

At the scene of Neolithic/Early Bronze Age activity beads, beakers, an arrow head, two jet necklaces, both associated with pots, were found but no bodies or bones came to light. Jet from Whitby was involved in creating the precious necklaces, such as had never been found in the area before and which required most careful handling.

The Bronze Age Cemetery Complex threw up quite a few burnt mounds. It will be interesting to see how they tie in when dated. Ring ditches and post hole lines show up on the overview. The posts must have been major features at the time. A serrated flint artefact, a small pot with lots of decoration and a human bone were found. There was evidence of aceramic and ceramic cremations on site. Burned wooden planks were in situ, causing specialist archaeobotanist, Susan Ramsay, to be called in but, although various theories were considered, the experts remain baffled. An inverted urn with a perforation gave testimony to an adult cremation but nothing had been placed beneath to prevent the contents from escaping.

The Iron Age settlement, revealed by a crop-mark, presented a different environment. Several structures, each one unique and each one within a ten-metre diameter showed up. Hearths and a possible furnace were revealed for about 10 days, but no waste site was found. A hammer, rubbing stones, a perforated stone disc, and a quern stone fragment were unearthed. Thereafter very wet weather and heavy snow disrupted the scene in the spring of 2013.

There is more to be found on the edge of the new A75. Only four out of eleven sites have been worked. A much bigger settlement awaits detection. Clarification is confidently exp