Giant’s Grave excavation, Kirkapol

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In 2017, An Iodhlann organised an archaeological dig in Kirkapol at a site known as the ‘Giant’s Grave’. We found the skeleton of a Bronze Age man.

On the track up to Lodge Farm, Kirkapol, was a small, oval mound topped by a huge stone slab. It has been known for years that there were human bones in the ground here. But the shape of the mound led to some experts to hope that this would be a rare Viking boat grave. So An Iodhlann collected funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Tiree Trust Windfall Fund. Dr Heather James from Calluna Archaeology with colleagues from Northlight Heritage and Glasgow University was asked to supervise the dig, helped by an enthusiastic team of local volunteers. This took place in the autumn of 2017.

Geophysical Surveys
A geophysical survey by Dr Darko Maričević in 2007 and one by Peta Glew in 2017 showed that there were a few faint features (called anomalies) near the cist, but no other large features, meaning that this site was not part of an extensive cemetery.

The Excavation
Three trenches were excavated: trench 1 was located over the cist, while and trenches 2 and 3 were in the field and were sited to explore the nearby geophysical anomalies.

The Cist
The massive size of the flat slab could be appreciated once the turf was removed. It was 1.3 m long and weighed about one ton. Local builder Graeme MacColl used his telehandler to delicately lift the slab away, giving the team access to the cist beneath. This was shown to be a large stone box sealed with clay and now full of sand. The cist and slab were not perfectly aligned, suggesting that the cist had been opened in the past by grave robbers. Originally, the whole grave would have been covered with a high, turfed mound, but this had mostly been eroded.

Human Remains
The cist was carefully excavated, revealing about 60% of a skeleton. The sandy conditions allowed quite good preservation of the bones. The sand from inside the cist was later wet-sieved by an enthusiastic group of volunteers, who discovered most of the teeth and small bones – and also how wet and messy wet sieving can be! The skeleton was that of a well-muscled male aged about 50-59 years old. He was about 5ft 8 inches tall and so could not be described as a giant, but still quite tall for his time. He was free from arthritis or other signs of ill health or injury, but his teeth were well worn, indicating a coarse diet. The body would originally have been laid on its side in the cist in a crouched position. If the cist had been opened in the past, people would have seen the crouched position of the body and assumed that this was because he was a giant, hence the local name for the site. The bones have been radiocarbon dated to the Early Bronze Age, about 3,600 years old. Analysis of the isotopes in the bone show that the man was born and raised in the Hebrides, and that he had eaten very little seafood (less than 15% of his diet). The skull has gone to the National Museums of Scotland and thence to Harvard University in America for DNA analysis, and it is hoped that the results will be available in 2019.

Trenches 2 and 3
The other two trenches revealed modern as well as prehistoric features, pottery and flints. The features were difficult to interpret as the trenches were small. However, at least two phases of prehistoric ploughing were seen in Trench 3.

76 broken pottery sherds were found during the dig, coming from at least 43 different handmade vessels. The sherds were all small and undecorated and so were difficult to date. As no cremated bone was found with the pottery we can assume that the vessels were used for cooking and storage rather than for burial of cremated bones. The pottery found inside the cist is likely to be the same date as the burial, while the pottery found in the nearby trenches was more characteristic of a later Iron Age farm, dating from about 500 BC to AD 300.

15 flints were also discovered during the dig. One was a post-medieval gunflint found in trench 3. Another was a Mesolithic blade from the bottom of the cist. (The Mesolithic period lasted from about 9600 to 4000 BC, which was before farming, when people lived by hunting and gathering). Inside the cist was a beautiful flint scraper, which could have been buried with the body. The remaining flints were not characteristic of any particular period, but do support the idea of prehistoric people living and farming in the area.

The dig was visited at some point by all the pupils from the Tiree School and, despite the weather, they were able have a go with the geophysics equipment and get their hands dirty on site.

Thanks are due to Fiona MacKinnon of Lodge Farm who initially highlighted the site and followed the dig’s progress with huge interest. Many thanks are also due to the Argyll Estates for permission to dig there, the volunteers who did a lot of the work and all the visitors, young and old, who kept us on our toes!
Dr Heather James, Caluna Archaeology

‘Less than 150 yards from Lodge Farm house in Cnoc an Fhoimheir (Giant’s Hillock). The MacKinnon family down the generations were aware of this site of antiquity and treated it with respect, not ploughing over it or disturbing it in any way. However, a Department of Agriculture Tractor whose driver was unaware of the significance of the area dislodged a large stone slab [in 1944] underneath which was the skeleton of a very large man in a sitting position in a stone-lined kist.’ (Hector MacPhail (1998) ‘The Township History of Kirkapol’)

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