MHG63087 - Learnie 1a, 1b (Dead horse cave), 1c caves - Learnie, Rosemarkie


Learnie 1a and 1b caves were excavated in 2017/18 revealing use in early medieval times approximately 689-975 AD.

Type and Period (3)

  • OCCUPATION SITE (Mesolithic to 21st Century - 8000 BC? to 2100 AD)
  • CAVE (Occupied, Mesolithic to 21st Century - 8000 BC? to 2100 AD)
  • ANIMAL BURIAL (Medieval to 19th Century - 1058 AD? to 1900 AD?)

Protected Status

  • None recorded

Full Description

The Rosemarkie Caves Project has been investigating the archaeology of 19 caves on the SE side
of the Black Isle, since 2006. The project is run by a team of voluntary professional and amateur archaeologists, and is linked to the North of Scotland Archaeology Society.

A list of caves, with grid references, is available on the Rosemarkie Caves Project website. <1>

The biggest of the 19 caves (5m OD), with an entrance 7 metres across, the cave extends for 21 metres and has a ceiling height of 5 metres. At its widest, the interior measures 10 metres across. The back of the cave splits into 2 tunnels and the floor is mostly flat. Against the south wall, just inside the entrance, is a tidy pile of stones which appeared to have a low rubble wall retaining the stone. Three test pits were excavated in Learnie 1B, at the cave entrance, over the stone pile and inside the cave on the floor area (Figure 5).

Test Pit 1
Located at the entrance to the cave, this pit was excavated to a depth of 1.4 metres and contained a sequence of 14 well-stratified occupation layers (Figure 6), including a possible stake-hole in the basal layer (Context 114). 19th / 20th century midden material (iron, glass, ceramics and leather) was confined to the upper layers. Below context 104, the sequence of deposits indicated a lengthy continuity of occupation, with animal bone and shellfish remains appearing alongside evidence for burning. In particular, a slabbed layer [110] within an ash/charcoal lens was interpreted as a possible hearth structure. A fragment of cattle bone from Context 111 and a single entity hazel charcoal sample from 112 were selected for radiocarbon dating.

Test Pit 2
TP2 (Figure 7) was excavated against the south wall, inside the cave, through what appeared to be a well-constructed pile of sharp stone sherds of similar size and type [201]. Removal of the spread of stone from the edges revealed a linear rubble-built wall [207] comprising 1-3 courses of large stone clasts and cobbles (Plate 5). The wall may have predated the formation of the stone pile, serving an earlier function in the cave. It may also have been constructed to retain spread of the stone pile. Either way, both the stone pile and stone wall were deliberately constructed. The layer associated with the wall construction [202] contained objects of probable 19th-20th century date to judge by the ceramics. The small finds included a penknife with a bone handle, a metal clasp, a clay pipe bowl, a child’s leather shoe, an iron axe head, newspaper clippings and a copper coin. Thin underlying layers contained shell midden material with finds of a similar period. The lowest archaeological horizon [205] excavated in the pit was free of post-medieval material and contained animal bone.

Test Pit 3
Test Pit 3 was excavated inside the cave, to the north of a ridge of guano. The shallow sequence of
archaeological deposits contained a possible hearth or burning deposit and 19th / 20th century material similar to the finds recovered from the other two test pits – including leather waste, ceramics, glass and clay pipe fragments. The pit was bottomed out on to bedrock.

Charcoal from 100cmdeep at base of a charcoally ash layer over natural returned radiocanbon dates of 777‐889 AD Calibrated 1‐sigma (68.2%) 769‐965 AD Calibrated 2‐sigma (95.4%).
Animal bone sample from deposit rich in animal bone returned dates of 720‐870 AD Calibrated 1‐sigma (68.2%) 689‐886 AD Calibrated 2‐sigma (95.4%). <2>

Excavations in Learnie 1A and 1B in 2017 indicated their use during the post-medieval, medieval and early medieval periods. Of particular interest were the rich occupation deposits revealed in Learnie 1B, dating to the early medieval period.

In the 2018 excavation, an impressive suite of walls was uncovered in Learnie 1A, also relating to the latest phase of activity during the post-medieval period. Within this cave, which is roughly aligned E/W another pile of small stone shatter was found extending from the N wall. Removal of this revealed a well-constructed double-skin wall with rubble core, up to three courses high, which extended S into the cave for c1.6m, turned at an angle to the SE for 1.8m, then turned back to the NE for another 1.1m where it terminated. The wall guided access into the inner cave and chamber, blocked off the light entering the chamber, and deflected the wind. A second, smaller linear wall c1.5m long blocked off a small recess in the W wall of the inner cave chamber. The wall, up to three courses high, was also hidden by a pile of small stone shatter and it appears likely that both of the walls in Learnie 1A revetted and supported the stone piles, creating a dark chamber within. At least two hearths, comprising roughly circular mounds of wood ash, were identified within the inner chamber.Below the post-medieval deposits in these two caves, the sequence was found to be quite different. In Learnie 1A, it would seem that intermittent occupation was fairly continuous, extending back through the medieval and early medieval periods. Much of the evidence for the medieval activity comprises dumps of midden, which general takes place around the periphery of the cave walls and is demarcated by ephemeral rubble walls, and a series of well-laminated lenses through the centre of the cave indicating trampling and access by the passage of feet. This had resulted in quite compacted deposits running roughly through the centre of the cave into the inner chamber, with midden deposited to each side; that lying against the N wall in particular comprising loose marine shells and containing animal and fish bone. The lower part of the shell midden also produced several sherds of medieval ceramic including green-glazed redware (13–15th centuries AD) and more importantly, Scottish white gritty ware (potentially 11–12th centuries AD). Several hearths were associated with these periods of use, creating a complex sequence of ash lenses.

At the base of the sequence in Learnie 1A, a substantial circular pile of wood ash and charcoal appears to represent a hearth relating to the early medieval use of the cave, along with associated shell midden deposits. These deposits overlay the natural sand in the base of the cave, outcrops of bedrock and some larger stone clasts, while large slabs of rock above derive from a major failure of the cave roof just inside the entrance. Our final major discovery was associated with the earliest use of the cave, most likely during the early medieval period. Within a hollow formed by bedrock and large stone clasts, a black, charcoal-rich, oval-shaped deposit was revealed and a closer inspection revealed small fragments of hammer-scale. We decided to run a section through the deposit and these soon revealed vitrified fragments of a smithing hearth and further hammer-scale. Careful excavation revealed a heavily burnt stone slab, to which was attached a well-preserved section of a smithing hearth, complete with vitrified ceramic wall and underlying hearth base. Damage noticed on one of the larger stones, or bedrock outcrops flanking the hearth, suggests is may have been used as an anvil. Such well-preserved smithing hearths from the early medieval period are incredibly rare and will add to a growing corpus of information relating to metalworking in caves.

The sequence of deposits in Learnie 1B was quite different. Here, the layers representing the post-medieval activity lay directly on top of a deep spread of stone comprising shattered fragments from the cave walls and roof, and beach cobbles of differing size. During the 2017 excavations, this deposit of stone (which contains many air-filled voids and little sediment matrix) produced the largest assemblage of faunal remains from the cave sequence. This included some larger bone elements and an articulated fragment from the lower spine/tail of a fairly large ungulate. The excavations this year produced yet more well-preserved animal bone including articulated vertebrae, scapula, mandibles and mandible fragments. However, the most impressive remains included the complete skull of a horse, complete with articulated vertebral column. No ribs or limbs were attached to these elements, although we did recover individual ribs and limb bones that may have derived from it. Upon lifting the skull of the horse, the cause of death soon became apparent; a circular hole around 20–25mm diameter was noted in the top of the skull, just back from the eye sockets. The horse had
been poleaxed. Removal of the stones forming the base of this deposit revealed the early medieval occupation horizon, although it is possible that the upper part of this complex, a shallow sequence of layers, may relate to medieval activity. The floor deposits consisted of lenses of wood ash, charcoal rich deposits, midden, deposits with high organic content (potential bedding), and slabs of stone burnt a vivid red. The deposits forming this kaleidoscope of differing colours and textures derived from a sequence of hearths and fire spots within the cave, some of which were domestic cooking hearths (as evidenced by the recovery of burnt and heavily calcined animal bone and some fire-cracked stone) and hearths with a potentially more industrious function. And, while no in situ smithing hearth was revealed, we did recover all of the components that would support this activity, including slag, fragments of vitrified hearth wall, hearth base fragments and hammer-scale.

The main area of the cave consisted of quite level, trampled deposits, although low overhangs and areas with alcoves and rock projections formed the main focus of midden deposition – especially shellfish – which is also paralleled in Learnie 1A. Some fish bone and animal bone was also recovered from these deposits, although on a small scale when compared to the extensive stone deposits mentioned above. Artefacts, as with most of the Rosemarkie Caves holding early medieval deposits, are indeed rare finds! With the exception of a knife sharpening stone, two possible coarse cobble tools (hammers/pounders) and a couple of iron objects, the only other small find was a small, conical-shaped piece of antler which may be a small stopper or gaming piece. Removal of the early medieval occupation deposits in Learnie 1B revealed some wonderfully-preserved evidence for the division and use of space. A roughly circular hearth towards the back of the cave produced burnt animal bone and most likely formed a domestic cooking area. A sequence of post and stakeholes, and post-settings, formed a roughly rectangular area – the long sides roughly mirroring the undulating cave walls; while the connecting back screen also appears to block off the rear, darker area of the cave. It is possible that a similar arrangement of posts also formed a screen closing off the front of the structure and the outside world, although this could not be confirmed due to the deep overburden forming a talus at the cave entrance. It is possible that the interior of this structure formed a major activity area in the cave, while the alcoves formed between the cave walls and the structure could have been utilised for other activities including sleeping and metalworking. A trampled walkway overlying the natural sand leads from the back of the screen structure at an angle into the back of the cave, where further evidence of burning was recovered. It is indeed remarkable to find such division of space within natural caves, although we did recover similar evidence in
Learnie 2B in 2016.

Results from the excavations in Learnie 2B, 1B and 1A have indicated that the caves contain a wealth of material from the post-medieval periods of activity. The activity represented by these periods of use has, in particular, provided an interesting glimpse into the 19th- and early 20th-century lives of the occupants of the Learnie caves. The artefacts and ecofacts represent everyday activities and debris left behind by potentially itinerant inhabitants – who may have been using the caves on an almost permanent basis. This period seems to be associated with small scale industry represented by the shoe and leather finds, worked horn, iron scraps, other small finds such as the knives and cobble and bone tools; and of course, the large dumps of fish scales representing the processing of fish. Further specialist analysis will assist in building this story. Further documentary research may also enhance our story for this period of use, as revealed by some initial results on archival material which has found references from a man living at a cave at Learnie regarding the burial of his wife (R Jones pers comm 2017). The evidence we have recovered for the earlier periods of activity, inparticular the medieval period, are more difficult to define. A lack of artefacts suggests that people either carried the tools and other equipment away with them from the caves for use elsewhere, or that cave function was based around very basic subsistence activities, storage, or as fugitive hideaways! While the lack of artefactual material continues into the early medieval period, we have at least found good evidence for metalworking on a small scale in three of the four caves investigated at Learnie; and although we still await radiocarbon dates to confirm the date of metalworking activity in Learnie 1B and Learnie 1A, the metalworking was the first major activity to take place in the caves, after which intermittent occupation continued – although it is difficult to tie-down function to anything other than general subsistence. <3>

1st Edition OS 6" <4>

(Note - see MHG50574 for Learnie 2b and 2c caves)

Sources/Archives (10)



Grid reference Centred NH 7565 6075 (26m by 26m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NH76SE
Geographical Area ROSS AND CROMARTY

Finds (0)

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

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