MHG148 - Shell Midden and occupation site - Risga, Loch Sunart


No summary available.

Type and Period (1)

  • SHELL MIDDEN (Mesolithic to Neolithic - 8000 BC to 2401 BC?) + Sci.Date

Protected Status

Full Description

The largest and most important assemblage of Mesolithic material as yet known from North Argyll was recovered by A H Bishop and L M Mann in 1920-1 during the excavation of a kitchen midden on Risga (NM 610 600), a small rocky island in Loch Sunart. (Lacaille {1954} locates it to a narrow shelf of rock at the E of the island.) The deposit of refuse, which was at least 0.3m thick, lay at about the level of the 'main postglacial strandline' marking the maximum limit of the Early Post-Glacial sea. The midden yielded an extensive collection of implements fashioned from stone, bone and antler, including mattocks, harpoons and limpet-hammers, together with relatively large numbers of flint and quartz tools, and thousands of worked and waste flakes. It also contained a large quantity of molluscan shells, fish-bones, crustacean remains and bones of sea-fowls and mammals. The island, which is only 12 ha (30 acres) in size, is unlikely to have been occupied all the year round, but it must have been an important camp and working-site, producing bone tools generally comparable to artifacts found in the shell-middens on Oronsay, which date to about the middle of the fifth millenium BC. The bone and antler objects from Risga and Oronsay have been likened to finds described as belonging to an 'Obanian culture'. It is clear, however, as a result of recent excavations in Argyll that the Mesolithic Period was of longer duration and of more complex character than had hitherto been considered, and the fact that the flint and stone artifacts from Risga are of different forms from those of other 'Obanian' sites' may be seen as evidence of this. In general terms, however, the material from Risga may be considered as one element coming late in the sequence of Mesolithic activity along the western seaboard of Scotland.
The finds are in the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, and Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum.
A D Lacaille 1954a; 1954b; R D Stevenson 1978; J M Coles 1964; 1971;
G de G Sievekimg, I H Longworth and K E Wilson 1976; J Mercer 1974;
W G Jardine 1971; 1973; C Renfrew 1974.

No trace of this midden could be found. The only artificial feature in the area is a trench of uncertain purpose at NM 6123 6003 on an easterly slope. It is oriented NE-SW and measures about 5.0m long by 0.5m wide by 0.5m deep with the sides lined with contiguous slabs on edge and the upper (SW) end blocked by another. There are indications of disturbed ground on either side.
Visited by OS (R L) 1 June 1970.

A detailed attempt to understand the material recoverd from the site was made in 1978 by R.D. Stevenson as part of a Glasgow University undergraduate dissertation. <1>

An important shell midden was found on the E side of this island and is thought to date to the mesolithic period. The midden seems to have been fully excavated revealing significant information on the diet and prey species of these early settlers in N Argyll. Dating is uncertain but probably between 5000 and 2500 BC. This site lies outside the SSSI area.
J Wordsworth, SSSIs, Scottish Natural Heritage, 1993

The shell midden was located and surveyed as part of an ongoing programme of survey taking place in Ardnamurchan. The site, described in the literature as Obanian in character, had previously been excavated in the earlier part of the 20th century by L Mann and later by D MacKewan, under the auspices of H Bishop. No published excavation report exists, though letters sent by MacKewan to Bishop, describing the work, are lodged in the Hunterian Museum. The site now exists as a grass-covered mound, some 30m by 10m, situated on a raised beach platform at the SE end of the island of Risga. A stone lined trough of unknown origin and function cuts the mound toward its southern terminus and a series of very recent spade-cut pits were found to be distributed, apparently at random, across the mound. The purpose of these pits could not be ascertained, though they do appear to represent a previous attempt to investigate the site by persons unknown - no record of such work exists. Following the mapping of the site a series of test pits was inserted into the mound, centred on the pits already present. Redeposited material…undoubtedly represents the spoil of MacKewans work, however basal deposits do appear to exist beneath this. A series of test pits were excavated outwith the area of the mound, where lithics were recovered. These results suggest that prehistoric activity was not limited to the area of the shell midden and the potential for related evidence surviving in situ therefore appears to be high. <2>

Trial excavation was undertaken at the site 1994. The recovery of lithics from the test pits located to the north and east of the midden suggested that prehistoric activity was not confined to the area defined by it. One of the main aims of excavation in 1994 was to further examine the nature and extent of this activity. The main excavation trench, some 5m by 5m, was located over the area of densest lithic concentration, immediately to the north of the shell midden mound. Large quantities of lithics, mostly quartz, were encountered immediately on the removal of the turf. A number of archaeological features were identified which included a hearth, pits and stone-packed sub-circular foundation trenches. The latter appear to relate to small structures, which require further excavation. Some 5,000 lithics were recovered, with the assemblage dominated by waste pieces. Although quartz was dominant, flint and bloodstone were also present; flakes and blades, some of them snapped, and several retouched microliths were noted. A finely worked leaf-shaped arrowhead of bloodstone was recovered from the northern portion of the trench. This assemblage is currently undergoing analysis and its character compared to that previously recovered from the excavation of the shell midden in the early 192Os. The implication is clearly that the shell midden represents only one aspect of depositional activity on the island, with areas of settlement and lithic manufacture located away from the midden. Limited excavation of the midden deposits established that much of the mound had been disturbed by earlier excavation but did suggest that the deposit may overlie earlier structures; again further work will be required. More excavation was planned in 1995. <3>

An account of the research into the early 1920s investigations by MacKewan and a summary of the 1993 and 1994 seasons of work was published in 1996 as a chapter in a publication by Edinburgh University Press on the early prehistory of Scotland (edited by T Pollard and A Morrison). <4>

A third season of fieldwork by T Pollard and I Banks took place on the island in April 1997. Once again the focus for excavation was the area outside the shell midden mound, which represents little more than the spoil from antiquarian investigations in the 1920s. The previous trench, located over an activity area adjacent to the shell midden, was extended and further features identified. A series of hearths were located, as were curvilinear foundation slots. These latter had previously been thought to represent the foundation slots of small tents or huts, but it now appears more likely that they relate to wind-breaks or revetments. Once again a large number of lithics were recovered, including microliths of various types, with scalene triangles, rods and backed bladelets being the dominant forms. It was clear that the site extended beyond the limits of the excavation trench. <5>

An update on the excavations at the site was published as a chapter in a Leicester University Monograph which included papers detailing the most upt-date research on the Mesolithic in the UK. A preliminary statement on the nature of the large lithic assemblage was provided, although much work had yet to be done. The paper then went on to discuss the motives which may have drawn Mesolithic people to this small island. The author utilised his experience of visiting the Western Isles and travelling by boat to broaden this discussion, and he considered the place of these Scottish islands within the world view of those who lived upon them or journeyed between them in the Mesolithic period. <6>

Scheduled as 'Risga, shell midden and related structures on SE side of island… a shell midden of early prehistoric date visible as a grass-covered mound, with associated hearths and possible structural remains…'
Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 30 November 2000.

Approximately 70 finds from Risga were donated to the Hunterian Museum by Arthur Henderson Bishop in 1951. See link below to the Hunterian Museum online catalogue. <7>

Radiocarbon dates from the site have been published in Partrick Ashmore's 'A date list (to October 2002) for early foragers in Scotland’. <8>

NOTE: There are four records which are likely to be referring to the same site and require work. See also MHG39297, MHG14393 and MHG14394. GW 05/03/20

Sources/Archives (15)



Grid reference Centred NM 610 598 (14m by 14m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NM65NW
Geographical Area LOCHABER

Finds (19)

  • LEAF ARROWHEAD (Neolithic - 4000 BC to 2401 BC)
  • MICROLITH (Mesolithic - 8000 BC to 4001 BC)
  • MICROLITH (Mesolithic - 8000 BC to 4001 BC)
  • DEBITAGE (Undated)
  • DEBITAGE (Undated)
  • FLAKE (Undated)
  • FLAKE (Undated)
  • BLADE (Undated)
  • BLADE (Undated)
  • FISH REMAINS (Undated)
  • BIRD REMAINS (Undated)
  • MAMMAL REMAINS (Undated)

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Investigations/Events (3)

External Links (3)

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