New evidence has emerged which shows that the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda was inhabited, or at least visited, around 2,000 years ago.
During World War I the British Royal Navy took over Village Bay on Hirta, on the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda, and they established a signal station that later became a rocket detection center. In 2016 the Ministry of Defense announced that their tracking station site would be refurbished, and ahead of the planned works, a team of researchers from Guard Archaeology conducted excavations at Hirta from 2017–2019. The archaeologists discovered pottery fragments that when analyzed indicated an “intensive inhabitation” existed at Village Bay between the 4 th to the 1st Century BC. Furthermore, a singular pottery fragment was analyzed that dated back to the Bronze Age (c. 2500 until c. 800 BC) which suggests an even earlier occupation of the island.
Location of the Hirta excavation site in the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda. ( Guard Archaeology )
Pushing Back the First Occupation of St. Kilda
This week the Daily Mail announced “St. Kilda was inhabited 2,000 YEARS ago!” The remote Scottish island of St. Kilda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site , managed by the National Trust for Scotland . According to a report in the Daily Express , evidence of an Iron Age (800 BC to 43 AD) settlement on this Scottish island has been unearthed after a team of researchers discovered “sherds of pottery dating from the Iron Age that had been washed into a stone channel.” The pottery samples were sent for examination and residues of carbonized foods were discovered revealing a settlement had thrived here some point between the early part of the fourth century BC, and the end of the first century BC.
The excavation occurred on the south-west of the main island of Hirta overlooking Village Bay which is part of Scotland. While a wealth of Iron Age pottery has been discovered, what is really interesting the researchers is a single sherd from an early “Bronze Age drinking beaker.” This fragment suggests suggest people were living on St. Kilda from at least the Bronze Age. In the Daily Express Alan Hunter Blair, of Guard Archaeology, said the recent archaeological works have revealed that the eastern end of Village Bay on St. Kilda “was occupied fairly intensively during the Iron Age period.” And although no houses were found at the site, the presence of large quantities of Iron Age pottery suggests a settlement must have existed nearby.
Overview of one of the channels after the Hirta excavation in the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda. ( Guard Archaeology )
Charting Ancient Cultures on Scotland’s West Coast
Susan Bain is the National Trust for Scotland’s manager for the Western Isles and she told the Evening Express that the new results were “very encouraging.” Bain pointed out that this discovery is contemporary with the remains of a souterrain, or underground grain store, that was discovered on the island in the 19th century. These few clues tell us that people were well established on St. Kilda as part of the wider settlement of the Western Isles, says Bain.
Hunter Blair also told the Daily Mail that “one of the most significant problems facing archaeologists working on St. Kilda is that earlier buildings were dismantled and cleared away in order to build new ones using the old stone as a building resource.” Stone was also cleared, “including that in burial mounds” to have more extensive cultivation areas, making excavations and the discovery of evidence of the past very complicated.
The Submerged Neolithic of the Western Isles project is led by Fraser Sturt from the University of Southampton and Duncan Garrow from the University of Reading. The project has determined the location of many Neolithic (c. 4000 – 2000 BC) sites, in the form of “manmade and modified islands,” across the west coast of Scotland. Through combining underwater, aerial and ground-based survey work, this project confirmed that three further islets on the Isle of Lewis were made during the Neolithic. You might be asking yourselves “why then” was St. Kilda inhabited as late as the Bronze Age?
Archaeologists discovered several pottery sherds at the Hirta excavation in the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda. This image shows decorated rim sherds. ( Guard Archaeology )
Questing St. Kilda in Pre History
Although 40 miles (64 km) from the nearest land, St. Kilda is visible from as far as the summit ridges of the Skye Cuillin, some 80 miles (130 km) distant. The far-flung island must have entranced Neolithic people on the west of Scotland. Being located on the very fringes of Europe, it must have been quested many times.
However, getting to both Hirta in particular, and St. Kilda as a whole, requires well built seaborne vessels, and the leather and grass coracles of the Neolithic Period simply didn’t stand a chance of making this crossing. It was not until the Bronze Age that maritime technologies allowed for a safe crossing to St. Kilda.
Top image: Could the Scottish archipelago of St. Kilda, in the image, really have been inhabited 2,000 years ago? Pottery discovered on Hirta proves it was. Source: corlaffra / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie