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The Neolithic timber hall at Balbridie, Grampian Region, Scotland: the building, the date, the plant macrofossils.


In the dry summer of 1976, aerial reconnaissance by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland resulted in the recording of the cropmark of a remarkable timber building on the farm of Balbridie, Banchory-Ternan parish, Kincardine & Deeside District. The site (NGR NO 733959) was located on a fluvio-glacial terrace immediately south of the River Dee and east of Banchory. One of several such structures located in the Commission's flying programme that year, this building was selected for excavation by the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate in advance of further ploughing; and its field examination occupied five seasons between 1977 and 1981. The excavations were mounted from the Department of Geography, University of Aberdeen, and were co-directed by Ralston and Mr Nicholas Reynolds.

One of the contributory factors which led to the selection of the Balbridie structure for excavation was the quality of detail visible on the Royal Commission's photographs. These showed an apparently isolated rectangular structure some 24 x 12 m in overall dimensions, with a range of internal features and, seemingly significantly, bowed gable-ends. The best excavated parallel within Scotland for a building of this size and proportions was that examined in the mid 1960s by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor of the University of Cambridge at Doon Hill, near Dunbar, East Lothian District. The Doon Hill structure (Hall A; Reynolds 1978: 54, figure 9) also shared with Balbridie the trait of bowed gable-ends. Apparent differences in detail between the two structures could be explained partially in terms of more severe erosion at the southern site: for example, Balbridie was delimited by an outer construction trench, whereas at Doon Hill only vestigial traces attributable to such a feature had survived.

Hope-Taylor's meticulous excavation demonstrated that Hall A was replaced by another hall at the same position within a polygonal palisaded enclosure. This latter structure (Hall B), in a rather different architectural tradition, could readily be paralleled in the sequence of major Anglian timber buildings examined at Yeavering, Northumberland (Hope-Taylor 1977); and thus it was proposed on stratigraphical and other grounds that Doon Hill Hall A, in which Hope-Taylor was able to detect elements of rebuilding, ought to pre-date the Anglian expansion into lowland Scotland in the 630s AD by some decades. No radiocarbon dates have been obtained for the Doon Hill structures.

The excavation

The architectural parallel provided by Doon Hill Hall A thus offered the nearest frame of reference for the hypotheses that were to be field-tested at Balbridie. In particular, Hope-Taylor's excavations of North British timber structures had demonstrated that detailed dissection in the field could provide evidence of elaborate carpentry even in relatively unpromising gravels. We set out with the express aim of attempting to duplicate this approach to recover as much detail of Balbridie's timberwork as was feasible. More generally, given the cultural mosaic of Early Historic Scotland, we hoped to demonstrate that the architectural type under consideration, proposed by Hope-Taylor as a British construction in Lothian, was also employed by the Picts. Fuller discussion of the background of the project is contained in Reynolds' initial account (Reynolds 1978).

The first season of excavation at Balbridie did nothing to shake the prevailing hypotheses. Given the ploughed-down condition of the remains, artefactual finds were unsurprisingly few in number, and generally undiagnostic. In the absence of mainland comparanda, for example, there seemed little reason to discount the possibility that the undecorated body-sherds of pottery recovered might be Pictish. A significant discovery was that the structure had burnt down, providing a suite of carbon-rich contexts and thereby increasing our hopes that architectural minutiae would be recoverable through detailed excavation. Routine wet-sieving was instituted to supplement the dry-sieving that had been a feature of the excavation design since its inception. Carbonized wood, mostly in a fragmentary condition, was collected for radiocarbon dating.

The course of the second season provided the first intimations of what had been anticipated -- the use of prepared timbers. Clear evidence was forthcoming that certain of the major internal roof-supports had been squared; and in the presumed context of a post-Roman building this was unexceptionable. It was then that the first radiocarbon dates (GU-1035 to GU-1038 in TABLE 1) arrived from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. With central dates between c. 3100 b.c. and 2700 b.c., these potentially undermined the initial suite of hypotheses.
conventional radiocarbon dates

a1 for wood charcoal

GU-1035 4840|+ or -~165
GU-1036 4740|+ or -~135
GU-1037 4930|+ or -~80
GU-1038i 5160|+ or -~100
GU-1038ii 5020|+ or -~90
GU-1828 5030|+ or -~60
GU-1829 4785|+ or -~150
GU-1830 4970|+ or -~75
GU-1831 5015|+ or -~125
GU-1832 4970|+ or -~60

a2 for cereal grains (primarily Triticum spp.)

GU-1421 4745|+ or -~160

b accelerator dates for particular species

OxA-1767 4820|+ or -~80 Avena sp.
OxA-1768 4940|+ or -~70 Linum
OxA-1769 5010|+ or -~90 Malus

TABLE 1. Radiocarbon determinations for samples associated with
the destruction of the Balbridie Timber Hall, Grampian Region:
all dates are expressed, without correction, in years b.p.

Accounting for the radiocarbon dates

Whilst the change in cultural context that would be necessitated by the acceptance of these dates is considerable, no revision of the field strategy was required. The continuing excavation of the Balbridie building bore out the configuration of the structure visible on the air photographs. This form remained distinct from the structural arrangement of European Neolithic timber buildings known to the co-directors at the time; and thus the possibility that the radiocarbon dates were not indicative of the period of construction, as suggested by an early comment on them (Hope-Taylor 1980; cf. Selkirk 1980), was very seriously considered.

Two hypotheses to account for the discrepancy between the date suggested by the architectural parallel and the radiocarbon determinations merited checking. One was that a Pictish building had been erected on the site of Neolithic activity; and that charcoal related to the postulated initial use of the site had been accidentally incorporated in the foundations of the later building and unwittingly selected for chronological determination. This view can be rejected categorically on stratigraphical grounds since the charcoal residues occupy the topmost surviving contexts within each of the features examined, contexts intimately associated with the final destruction of the building. It is suggested that very special pleading would be required to account for the incorporation of substantial quantities of ancient debris in a 1st-millennium AD structure only in its terminal stage. The second hypothesis accepted the radiocarbon measurements as correct and allowed, too, for the wood that provided them having been constructional; the suggestion was simply that Balbridie had been erected using bog oak. Thus the radiocarbon dates would be very substantially older than the building.

Amongst the carbonized detritus that was being wet-sieved and flotated, quantities of cereal grains had been noted. An isotopic date for this latter, short-lived material, not subject to the same potential problem as the wood samples, would serve to clarify the position. Identification of selected samples by Coinneach Maclean and Peter Rowley-Conwy demonstrated emmer wheat to be the dominant cereal represented, and the resultant radiocarbon determination (GU-1421; TABLE 1) for a bulk sample of grains -- from a context which included the bread wheat type to be discussed below -- is statistically inseparable from at least some of the initial 14C series for the site (cf Williams 1989). This radiocarbon date (supported by other field evidence) effectively eliminated the possibility of the use of ancient wood in a much later building.

In the latter stages of the excavation and in initial post-excavation work, further evidence accrued that the Balbridie timber hall is indeed a major building of Neolithic date. A number of interim accounts have been published (Ralston & Reynolds 1979; 1980; Ralston 1982; Edwards & Ralston 1984) but some of the salient points may be stated briefly. Turf used in the original re-packing of certain of the features, particularly on the outer construction trench has been examined by Mr J.C.C. Romans. This has been described as a brown earth in the initial stages of podsolization -- again appropriate at this latitude to a Neolithic horizon. Small quantities of decorated pottery (Ralston 1982: 241, figure 1), recovered in an unabraded condition from one of the internal post-holes, are incised in patterns strongly reminiscent of those on Unstan bowls, although the form seems much less open than the well-known examples recovered predominantly from funerary contexts in the Northern Isles, but also known from a number of settlements in the Hebrides. Contrastingly, there are no diagnostically post-Roman artefacts associated with the building.

The Balbridie hall

This interim account is not the place to enter into detailed arguments about the unitary nature of the structure represented by the excavated features at Balbridie. The absence of floor-levels or other superjacent strata other than the ploughsoil means that it is formally impossible to demonstrate the coexistence of the suite of features on stratigraphic grounds. In the light of the examination of other Neolithic timber constructions, especially those excavated by Mr Gordon Barclay for Historic Buildings and Monuments Scotland at Balfarg Riding School, Kirkcaldy District (pers. comm.), caution is clearly appropriate, since the pattern of post replacement at the latter site clearly demonstrates that these not-dissimilar structures were not roofed. At Balfarg Riding School, the excavator was able to record the repeated recutting of internal features within one of two post-defined rectilinear structures with rounded corners. This observation, coupled with the location of the internal features relative to the outer wall-line, strongly indicates that the Balfarg structures were not unitary buildings.

At Balbridie, however, the juxtaposition of internal features with the outer constructional trench that defines the structure is altogether different. In particular, the end-posts on the main internal subdivisions within the building were off-set, so as to continue the line and spacing of a number of aisle-posts set about one metre in from the medial line of the outer construction trench. Furthermore, these aisle posts on the better-preserved, southern side of the structure (the northern long side has been much more severely degraded by ploughing) sat directly opposite additional posts set within but against the inner margin of the outer construction trench (plan in Ralston 1982). These apparent liaisons provide the best indication the site furnishes in structural terms for the surviving features representing a single -- and thus very substantial -- hall. Further evidence for a roofed structure may be provided by the unabraded character of the ceramic assemblage; and more particularly by the substantial quantities of plant macrofossils recovered. Whilst no European Neolithic building known to the authors duplicates the scale (particularly the width) of Balbridie, a number of specific elements noted in its architecture can be paralleled across the Channel, for example in a near-contemporary building at Berry-au-Bac in the Aisne Valley of Northern France (Dubouloz et al. 1982: 201, figure 7). Two final observations serve to highlight the achievement of Balbridie's builders: this large hall lacks evidence both for a line of substantial posts placed centrally along its long axis and any indication of external buttressing, a notable difference from Doon Hill Hall A.

Plant macrofossils

Having outlined the case for Balbridie being accepted as a major Neolithic building, the other principal significance of the site lies in the quantities of plant macrofossils recovered. Soil acidity has eliminated bone material. To date, some 20,000 cereal grains have been counted, offering the largest assemblage of carbonized grain of Neolithic date known to the authors from the British Isles. This figure is derived from a programme of sampling within the total residues recovered. The present note offers some preliminary observations of this important collection, including Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator dates for some of the perhaps unexpected species represented.

Carbonized plant remains (other than the ubiquitous presence of wood fragments) were recovered from the vast majority of features represented at Balbridie, although in varying concentrations. In general, the cereal crops may be described as clean, since few spikelet fragments or other equivalent detritus were recovered. Relatively few weed seeds and remains of collected foodstuffs, other than hazel nuts (Corylus avellana L.) which have been identified from numerous contexts, were noted. The non-agricultural species represented do not occasion any major surprises, given the date of the assemblage and its northerly geographical setting, with one possible exception, crab apple (Malus sylvestris Mill.).

The principal cereals identified are emmer wheat, Triticum dicoccum Schuebl., naked barley (Hordeum vulgare L. var. nudum), and forms of a free-threshing wheat, Triticum aestivum L. type. The general pattern over the site as a whole is for these species respectively to represent slightly less than 80%, 18% and about 2% respectively of the total analysed cereal assemblage. This ratio is upset very radically in one feature inside the building, a post-hole from which substantial quantities of grain were recovered. The feature concerned is an integral part of the structure, from which it can not be divorced. Here the T. aestivum s.l. type is represented by local concentrations which reach 76% of the cereals from this context. This reversal in proportions is remarkable, and strongly suggests that the bread-wheat type may have been treated on occasion as a separate (although not entirely pure) crop, supporting Hillman's suggestion (1981: 188) that bread wheat may have been grown as a crop in its own right in Neolithic Britain. Van Zeist (1968) notes the presence of T. aestivum s.l. in Middle Neolithic TRB contexts in the Dummer, northwest Germany and at Bundso, Denmark; it was the dominant cereal at the Rossen site of Wahlitz (central Germany) c. 3350 b.c. and a millennium later at Vlaardingen in the Netherlands. Hazelton, Gloucestershire (c. 2970 b.c.) has the nearest equivalent representation of free-threshing wheat forms but the identification of T. aestivum s.l. there is tentative in the absence of rachis fragments (Vanessa Straker pers. comm.).

It is conceivable that the gluten content of this wheat, sufficient to permit bread-making, may have contributed to its attraction (Marinval 1988: 62). Charles (1984: 26) considers that the extra gluten strength of the naked hexaploid is sufficient to compensate in a flour mixture for a gluten deficiency in other wheat species.

Further morphological classification of the hexaploid bread wheats on the basis of grain characteristics is problematical, but it may be remarked, in so far as the taxa are differentiable, that a substantial proportion (over 700 grains out of 2700) of the naked wheats from the Balbridie concentration tend to the T. aestivum ssp. compactum (Host) MK end of the range. Some 400 grains are attributable to T. aestivum ssp. vulgare (Vill.) MK; the remainder are intermediate. Various specialists (Zohary & Hopf 1988: 47; van Zeist 1984: 9) have remarked that without rachis fragments it is not possible to distinguish hexaploid from tetraploid rivet and hard (T. turgidum (L.) Thell. including T. durum Desf.) naked wheats. A single hexaploid rachis fragment has been recovered amongst the analysed carbonized debris from Balbridie, but not from the feature richest in naked wheat grains.

Despite this caveat, it is most likely that the Balbridie grains belong to the hexaploid complex, on the grounds that the naked tetraploid wheats are not recorded as a feature of early temperate European agriculture north of Switzerland (Jacomet & Schlichtherle 1984: 153; van Zeist 1984: 12-13). Rapidly transposed pioneer cultigens, however, may not be of the taxa considered ethnobotanically appropriate to the location. Furthermore, as Kislev has reminded us (1984: 150), the warmer climate of Neolithic times may have permitted the wider distribution of wheats of this kind. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a Scottish Neolithic occurrence of naked tetraploid wheat may perhaps be discounted.

With the exception of the anomalous concentration of naked wheat, the other cereals principally represented are unremarkable for a British mainland Neolithic collection, although the representation of species is distinct from other discoveries from mainland Scotland and its off-shore islands. In numerical terms, the second crop (after emmer wheat), making up approximately 18% of the cereal assemblage, is naked barley (Hordeum vulgare var. nudum); its hulled form (Hordeum vulgare L.) accounts for less than 1% of the counted grains. Einkorn, Triticum monococcum L., extremely rare in the British Isles (Monk 1986: 31; Moffett et al. 1989: table 1), was not identified.

The nearest published cereal grain collection both chronologically and geographically is that from Boghead Mound, Speymouth Forest, Fochabers, Moray District. At this site adjacent to the Spey Valley, barley is the dominant crop represented in a collection of 343 grains recovered by flotation: the naked form, Hordeum hexastichum (=H. vulgare L. var. nudum), represents 88% of the cereal assemblage, with the remainder consisting of Triticum dicoccum. Both T. aestivum s.l. and hulled 6-row barley are absent in the early deposits (XIII/XIV) at Boghead, which radiocarbon dates suggest are contemporary with Balbridie (Maclean & Rowley-Conwy 1984). Other published records suggest barley as the most frequently recorded crop of Neolithic Scotland (Boyd 1988: 104). In the far north, at Scord of Brouster, Shetland, bread wheat, present in very small quantities, has been suggested simply to have been a 'weed' in the hulled barley (Hordeum vulgare L. ssp. vulgare) crop (Milles 1986: 119). Of particular interest at Balbridie was the recognition of two grains, one very damaged, of Avena sp. The best-preserved example was submitted for accelerator dating to eliminate the possibility that this species, represented in a very minor way, was not a later contaminant. The resultant determination confirms the integrity of this grain in the Neolithic assemblage. The grain itself was too damaged to permit more detailed identification. It is most probable that the grains were of wild oats (A. fatua L.), now a common cereal field weed. Recent reviews of Neolithic cereal records for the British Isles (Boyd 1988; Moffett et al. 1989; Monk 1986) reveal no published occurrences to date for the genus except for a single grain from the Late Neolithic Grooved Ware site at Thirlings, Northumberland (van der Veen 1985: 208). Avena is documented in Neolithic contexts in north and central Europe (Gluza et al. 1977; Klichowska 1959; 1976; Wasilykowa 1984: 258 & 261; Willerding 1970: 345-6; van Zeist 1968: 56-7), and also in France, where there is an early initial record of A. strigosa Schreb. from a Late Neolithic context (Marinval 1988: 75). Robinson & Kempfner (1987: 126) found A. cf. fatua in cereals from northwest Jutland dated c. 2000 b.c. Records are, however, infrequent and the genus is never more than a sparse component of cereal assemblages.

Another crop represented by its carbonized seeds is flax, Linum usitatissimum L. The biggest concentration consisted of 48 seeds, recovered from an aisle post-hole on the north side of the building; further scattered seeds were recovered from neighbouring contexts. The recovery method does not permit us to say whether, as noted at the Norse site of Carrigalla II, Co Limerick, Eire by Jessen & Helbaek (1944: 55), the seeds were originally pressed together, a condition interpreted by Dickson as a possible indication of oil extraction (Dickson 1983: 114). Had the seeds been in a mass prior to carbonization, some fusing might none the less have been expected (Klichowska 1976: 59). The figure of 48 seeds should be put into context: flax plants can produce about 10 seeds a capsule; and each plant may have several capsules. Wilson (1984) has shown, by controlled carbonization experiments, how unlikely it is for flax seeds to survive at all.

Whilst the size-range of the seeds of cultivated flax, Linum usitatissimum L., overlaps that of Linum bienne Mill., we are grateful to a number of specialists for their consistent opinion that the Balbridie specimens are representative of the cultigen on the grounds of the pronounced beak they display. The use to which the Balbridie flax was put is uncertain. It may, however, be considered unlikely that flax was a weed in the cereal plots as it is a poor competitor. Already known from a Neolithic context at Windmill Hill (Godwin 1975: 167), flax was well-established as a cultigen in Neolithic Europe (Willerding 1970: 356; Korber-Grohne 1981: 200-201; Klichowska 1976: 37; Zohary & Hopf 1988: 118). No finds are recorded, so far, from Neolithic Scandinavia (Jensen 1985: 55). It is recorded in Linear Pottery contexts in the Netherlands (Bakels 1979), although seemingly not occurring until later in the Neolithic of France (Marinval 1988). Scottish records, reviewed by Bond & Hunter (1989: 175), are sparse and generally late; but the accelerator date supports the Balbridie occurrence as being a genuinely Neolithic one.

Southern British occurrences (in the form of both pottery impressions and carbonized fragments) of crab apple, Malus sylvestris Mill., extend back to the Neolithic at both Maiden Castle and Windmill Hill; at the latter site there are impressions on at least six sherds (Godwin 1975: 200). The species is also noted subsequently from Grooved Ware sites (Jones 1980). Moffett and collaborators (1989: 243) remark that English Neolithic records are confined to the southern part of the country. On the continent, the species is represented on early farming sites in the Rhineland and Poland; and occurs also in Neolithic contexts as far north as southern Scandinavia (Jensen 1985: 56).

The carbonized endocarp fragments and pips from six contexts at Balbridie are noteworthy in view of their assured Neolithic attribution. The species is known in Scotland as far north as Ross and is considered native (Clapham et al. 1987); and carbonized fragments are now also recorded from a probable early/mid Neolithic pit and other contexts at Balfarg Riding School, Kirkcaldy District (Barclay pers. comm.), mentioned above. Crab apples in the form of charred endocarp fragments have also been identified associated with the construction trench of the structure at Tankardstown South, Co. Limerick, Eire (Gowen 1988: 42; Monk 1988: 185), a building dated to 5015|+ or -~45 b.p. on a single determination from the Groningen Laboratory. Further gathered fruits will be discussed in the final report.


The recovery of carbonized grains from numerous internal features within the building indicates that the handling of grains took place within the structure. As there is no evidence for storage in pits, above-ground methods are a distinct possibility. The rarity of chaff components from the cereals, however, diminishes our ability to identify the site as the location for other crop-processing activities. Whilst it would be inadvisable to propose that the plant macrofossil material recovered as a byproduct of the building's eventual destruction by fire represented the result of a single harvest, the quantities of grain appear to allow securer generalization about this Neolithic crop regime than is often the case in the British Isles. It has, however, been remarked that the bulk of the Triticum aestivum type was very localized in its on-site distribution; and it is thus theoretically possible for other restricted representations of particular species to have escaped detection. We have concentrated here on the unexpected species, and would be grateful to know of other British instances.

As a final interim speculation, it may be suggested that the plant macrofossils recovered at this middle Deeside location, within sight of the Grampian massif (Edwards & Ralston 1984), perhaps betoken a rather more precocious stage in the agricultural colonization of the British Isles than is frequently detected in the archaeological record. The geographical context, combined with the massiveness of the single structure identified, and its similarities with continental architecture, distinguish Balbridie from the corpus of known British Neolithic settlements. The aforementioned factors would seem to allow the hypothesis that the farmers of Balbridie were -- in terms of their building and, it would seem, of their strategy with cereals -- closer to continental European practices than has normally been identified in the British Isles.

Acknowledgements. The excavation, co-directed by Mr Nicholas Reynolds, was financed by Central Government, through Dept of the Environment sources and latterly via the Scottish Office. Post-excavation work on the site has been conducted, initially at the University of Aberdeen, with Scottish Office support. The Glasgow radiocarbon dates were supplied by Dr Gordon Cook with financial assistance from SDD-HBM. The Accelerator dates were provided by Dr Rupert Housley with SERC Science-Based Archaeology support, via the Programme Advisory Panel. We are grateful to Professor U. Korber-Grohne (U of Hohenheim, Stuttgart), Professor U. Willerding (U of Gottingen), Dr M. Kislev, (Bar-Ilan U, Israel), Dr J.H. Dickson and Mrs C. Dickson (U of Glasgow), and Dr Marijke van der Veen (U of Durham) for assistance with the botanical identifications, which are the work of Alan Fairweather. The first identifications of the cereals were undertaken by Mr C. Maclean and Dr P. Rowley-Conwy, then of the University of Cambridge. Scanning electron microscopy of one oat grain (drawn by Sylvia Stevenson) was kindly undertaken by Dr Alan Jeffree (Dept of Botany, U of Edinburgh). Mr Michael Brooks took the botanical photographs. Full acknowledgements for help received will be provided in the final report.


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Author:Fairweather, Alan D.; Ralston, Ian B.M.
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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