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4 Oct 2019

Inverewe garden and estate: blooming for 2,000 years

Written by Daniel Rhodes
Two people on their hands and knees excavating on a hillside among rocks with the sea in the background, and one person standing recording information on a board.
Volunteers excavating one of the Iron Age roundhouses on Inverewe Estate
A recent Thistle Camp archaeological excavation has uncovered the previously unknown remains of metal production on the site of a 2,000-year-old Iron Age roundhouse at Inverewe.

Inverewe is a must-visit destination on the North Coast 500 route, but did you know that the estate contains the remains of ancient settlements, including roundhouses and a dun? Recently, a team led by Trust archaeologist Dr Daniel Rhodes uncovered the remains of a bloomery mound. This is a site of ancient metalworking where ore is turned into workable metal for the production of tools and jewellery. It’s an exciting discovery in light of this year’s display in nearby Gairloch Heritage Museum of the Poolewe Hoard – a collection of bronze axes, rings and cloak fasteners discovered in 1877 and thought to be 2,800 years old.

Since 2016 the Archaeology Team, along with help from dozens of Thistle Campers and local people, have been excavating two roundhouses as part of a larger landscape study. Our aim is to try and reveal the story of the people who lived along the banks of Loch Ewe and how the natural landscape might have differed from the one we see today. This year’s excavation has pushed our understanding even further back in time – the discovery of a Neolithic flint scraper suggests people were active on the site some 2,000–3,000 years earlier than previously thought.

As well as this, the large amount of iron-smelting debris that we found raises questions about ancient technology and the use of natural resources in the past. Iron smelting is the first stage of the ironworking process where an iron bloom (a lump of coarse iron) is created by heating iron ore in a furnace. This process requires a great deal of timber for fuel and leaves behind large chunks of slag (waste material from the furnace), and in the case of Inverewe chunks of burnt clay tubes called tuyères. These are used to blow air into the clay furnace to raise the temperature.

Five people on their hands and knees excavating in a rock-filled trench on a hillside with the sea in the background
This year’s excavation has shown how Iron Age roundhouses could be reused as metal smelting furnaces

The remains of the furnace were found above an Iron Age roundhouse, suggesting that the structure was reused after it had been abandoned.

This year’s excavation was part of the bigger ALIVE (Archaeology and Landscape at Inverewe) project, which aims to uncover evidence of how people in the past used the land and interacted with their environment. We hope that by uncovering these secrets we can learn from the past and continue to preserve this beautiful and unique landscape into the future.

A group of around 30 people standing next to an archaeological excavation trench on a hillside with the sea and hills in the background.
Volunteers have been helping uncover the secrets of the Inverewe landscape since 2016

If you’d like to get involved in any of our archaeological activities please take a look at our Thistle Camp pages or follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

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