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Is Howe of Howe an inconvenient aberration for broch excavations?

Dave Lynn



It is almost 25 years since I first arrived in Orkney on a foggy day in May 1979 to gain my first experience of archaeology as a foot soldier in the trenches of Howe. I'm not sure now of the first of the many occasions during that quarter century when I first met Daphne, but they have been invariably enjoyable because of her contagious enthusiasm.

If only there was a way of capturing this enthusiasm in bottles which could then be uncorked in dreary meetings to inspire all those present with her fervour for archaeology …….

Here, for Daphne, are some thoughts about the significance of Howe two and a bit decades later for brochaholics and others interested in the prehistory of Northern Scotland.


Thanks are due to Anne Brundle and Beverley Ballin Smith for encouragement and comments, to Martin Carruthers for some suggestions which made me go back to some reports I'd assumed I'd read completely, and to Charles Tait for providing the illustrations.

Part 1: Howe


Howe was excavated from 1978-82 as a rescue dig ahead of agricultural improvement. The mound in the field at Howe Farm near Stromness had been recognised as a probable broch site from its visible size, but other than records of a Norse glass linen smoother found in the 1860s and some other Iron Age finds from antiquity (Ballin Smith 1994, p259), there was no indication before excavation of what else the site might contain. This is a point worth highlighting; the Howe mound was typical of the many such lumps in the Orkney landscape and elsewhere, with no real indication of the complex sequences it contained.

The excavation revealed use of the site, originally a post-glacial boulder clay knoll, over perhaps 5,000 years until around the Norse arrival. Crucially, although the broch period phases provided the most massive structural features of the chronology, Howe was not a broch site as such, but a site which contained broch constructions within a much greater chronological sequence. Howe was excavated down to its Neolithic layers; it is still the only occasion when a broch has been completely removed in a controlled excavation with modern standards of information recovery. The potential insight is therefore unparalleled; the results of that insight into the broch period are also unique when compared to other broch investigations. These thoughts are designed to highlight whether Howe was a unique aberration, or whether it can, because of the comprehensive nature of its investigations, provide new lines of enquiry for broch studies.

Potted summary of discoveries

The excavation report (Ballin Smith, 1994) has been selectively filleted for the salient points here, including the identified phasing descriptors. Howe had two main Neolithic phases (Phases 1 & 2), culminating in a massive remodelling of the site to create a chambered cairn with surrounding ditch and bank. The earliest post Neolithic use of the site is unclear (Phases 3 & 4) due to its extremely fragmented survival; the remnant evidence consisted of gullies truncated by later features, two wells and floor surfaces from perhaps three huts, as well as significant stone-robbing of the chambered cairn. However their importance is in proving that the site was in use during that period, and that whatever the use and vanished structures involved, the central feature of the pre-broch site was sufficiently important to warrant significant modification and maintenance. Phase 5 saw the construction in the Early Iron Age of a roundhouse on the remnant clay core, along with some surrounding buildings; this entailed the obliteration of much of the earlier features, particularly of the Phases 3 & 4 structures. Whether the roundhouse was simple or complex in form is unclear, but it was probably sufficiently massive to require extensive site clearance and preparation before and during its construction.

Despite this site preparation, the structure showed signs of collapse and instability, and was substantially remodelled in Phase 6 to create the first definite broch. This was built to a (so far) unique combination of architectural features and was in many ways an exquisite and elegant piece of design engineering which has been overlooked in broch commentaries since. The broch was accompanied by a complex of external settlement structures within the area enclosed by the remnant Neolithic ditch.

The instability issue resurfaced with further collapse evident, and Phase 7 saw another substantial reconstruction to create a second more massive and architecturally more conventional broch, again with external buildings forming a typical Orkney broch village. This remained in use for a long period into the Late Iron Age and beyond, despite further collapses of the broch and its abandonment as a functional building.

Picture Charles Tait
Figure 1. The unexcavated broch mound at Simbister, c. 3 miles SE of Thurso, about which nothing is known (photo by David Lynn).

Three main themes emerge from this summary. The first is that while an unexcavated broch mound can be diagnosed as having a broch or similar feature at its core with a high degree of accuracy, the other components of the site's sequence will be largely hidden until excavation (Figure 1).

As a side comment, this is also true of many broch sites which are exposed by other means such as marine erosion; while non-broch components may be visible - particularly for post-broch sequences on the site - their accurate diagnosis is impossible without precise exploration. I want to focus here on the potential for pre-broch sequences, so will add that excavated and preserved sites give very little clue to their pre-broch state if they are displayed at the broch levels; this point will recur later, but is a strong perceptual distortion due to the prominence of guardianship sites which have (justifiably) been explored only down to the level of the most massive structure in the sequence, eg Gurness (see Figure 2).

Picture Charles Tait
Figure 2. Aerial view of Gurness, showing how a monument conserved for display can appear to be a single phase complex and conceal any evidence for its preceding sequences (photo by Charles Tait).

The second is to recognise the significance of pre-construction site preparation.

Howe showed the obliteration of much of the immediately preceding structural remains, with only isolated and subtle clues to the presence of an earlier sequence which was only identified because of the complete removal of the broch structures. In a general sense, this is a logical scenario; a broch is a massive construction which would require prior preparation of the site to allow a satisfactory build. It is also a logistical issue, as importing the huge quantities of construction material (particularly the building stone) to the site and arranging its deployment on site would be impractical unless space was cleared for access, manoeuvring and preparatory shaping. The irony at Howe is that while pre-constructional clearance was massive, the decision to retain the remnant clay core of the Neolithic cairn - rather than remove it - caused a perpetual instability blight which was never resolved despite its damaging consequences.

Picture Charles Tait
Figure 3. Howe of Howe during excavation in 1981. The Phase 7 broch is being removed, showing how the Phase 6 broch emerged from within the ringwall. The picture also represents the chaos accompanying a major remodelling of the site; while a controlled demolition is underway through the excavation process, it is perhaps the closest illustration of what a constructional remodelling might have looked like with its accompanying disruption of extant features (photo by Charles Tait).

The third theme is that to all intents and purposes the second broch (Phase 7) appeared to be a "normal" example as it was gradually revealed by excavation, with no significant clue to the sequences it had undergone, particularly in Phases 5 & 6 (Figure 3).

If excavation had stopped at that point to create a monument for display, none of these would ever have been realised. Many preserved and displayed brochs now exist, looking as if they were apparently a coherent single construction. It has to be a real possibility that in many of these cases this is an illusion, not a reliable indicator of their true form. Again this possibility has a general logic to it if the duration of the broch period is considered. Many broch sites apparently show a relatively intact central broch until abandonment at the end of the Middle Iron Age; this relationship is mainly derived from the presence of Roman artefacts in later layers due to the absence of C14 and other absolute dating evidence for the vast number of sites explored between 1850 and 1950. If the first broch-like structures (ie massive-walled round buildings, albeit without the complex architectures of the now surviving towers) first emerged c 700BC (eg Bu of Navershaw, Quanterness, Pierowall), it is unrealistic to expect that these structures could survive up to 8 centuries of use and wear without major reconstructions during their individual chronologies.

Part 2: a wider context

Orkney's missing Bronze Age?

The next ingredient of this account is to look further back into Orcadian prehistory, and at a paradox in our understanding of the Late Bronze Age. All the evidence suggests that Orkney was well settled in the Neolithic, with a wealth of surviving remains corresponding to a period of climatic optimum, and continuing into the Early Bronze Age. At some later point, perhaps around 1200BC the climate deteriorated dramatically for 500 years or so, possibly related to the violent eruption of Hekla in 1159BC. This saw the collapse of the Neolithic land patterns, and apparently left us only with the burnt mounds phenomenon as evidence for what was happening in that missing five centuries before the Early Iron Age. Although over 230 burnt mounds are known in Orkney, situated in or near "agricultural land" (Hedges 1974, pp 61-65), they are not easily explained, particularly in a search for the main form of house type for the period. Instead there is an impression that we are missing a key structural form for these few centuries, a type of building which would have been more clearly residential in design and which would have occurred in sufficient numbers to be recognised today in normal archaeological circumstances.

The paradox is that for a period of climate collapse, which was colder and wetter than any post-Ice Age era, the folk in Orkney apparently chose to live in the boggiest and marshiest parts of the landscape (exaggerating to some extent from Hedges 1974, p79) which is where we find much of the Orcadian burnt mound distribution today. Something feels wrong with this explanation, but we have no archaeological evidence to correct it as things stand. There are no other recognised remains from the Orcadian Bronze Age in the quantity needed to provide an alternative.

The insight here is to suggest that they were there, but no longer exist in a recognisable form. One clear possibility is that they were in fact on sites on which brochs were later built. If so, their chances of survival would be very low in the site reorganisation prior to broch construction, and the chances of discovery today would be even lower as it would entail controlled removal of the broch to reveal what was left immediately underneath.

Although a hypothesis which by its nature is largely untestable, this suggestion does give a scenario to fit the Howe Phase 3 & 4 sequences - scattered incoherent strands of evidence across the site's extent without a definitely identifiable form. Again it is worth emphasising that Howe is the only excavation so far with a format and scale to enable such evidence to be uncovered and recognised.

Other relevant broch sites

Having said that the Howe strategy was a unique demonstration opportunity, it is also worth examining other sites to see if any comparable evidence can be identified.

Perhaps the closest comparison is the multi-period site at St Boniface on Papa Westray, where a vertical eroding cliff section was investigated and recorded. An Iron Age roundhouse again sat within a sequence of preceding and subsequent structural deposits, with some remains which were dated to the Late Bronze Age (Phase 4 of the site's chronology) before the broch-like roundhouse (Phase 5). The excavator's difficulty in establishing the exact stratigraphic relationships between features in these two phases (Lowe 1998, pp 117-8) may well be compatible with a Howe-like obliteration of immediately pre-roundhouse features.

Tofts Ness on Sanday has yet to be published, but preliminary findings were of a massive Early Iron Age roundhouse on the site of a removed earlier roundhouse, which was almost certainly a shaggy roof design (ie the eaves of the conical roof extended beyond the outer wall as was common in much of Britain); the evidence was provided by drip channels for water draining from the eaves in the ground surface at the foot of the outer face of the ringwall, and a C14 date of c 1000BC came from associated deposits (Steve Dockrill, pers comm.).

Bu of Navershaw, a frantic salvage excavation of a massively walled broch-like structure, showed some relevant features. The first phase of the site, Phase 1a, was an "occupation of unknown extent and nature" (Hedges 1987, v1, pp5-10), lying outside the extent of the later roundhouse. It was sealed by a ploughsoil horizon in Phase 1b, which underlay the roundhouse, implying a significant time gap or a major remodelling phase. However the floor of an earth house subsequently inserted into the roundhouse some time after its abandonment produced animal bone with a C14 date some 100 years before the broch construction (ibid, p93) suggesting that the earth house insertion penetrated stratigraphy from the immediate pre-roundhouse period. However the rushed nature of the excavation meant no other exploration was made of what might have been under the roundhouse.

Crosskirk in Caithness showed elements of pre-broch site use during excavation, both outside the broch as a possible promontory fort and - crucially for this paper - underneath the broch (Fairhurst 1984, pp56-7), though these were not fully explored by controlled removal of the broch before the site was destroyed. There are indications from other Caithness broch sites (albeit unexcavated) that many brochs may be sitting on a depth of preceding rubble, though with no clue to the period(s) of earlier origin (Swanson 1988, p185).

Other broch sites have shown pre-broch standing structures, usually in the form of some sort of gatehouse. Clickhimin is the most widely recognised example (albeit from outside Orkney), but two potential Orkney candidates are Borwick (Lamb 1980, p77) and Midhowe (ibid, p80). Both these are unexcavated, and it is unclear in their current unexcavated states whether they are solid or hollow (ie ramparts or blockhouses), let alone their chronological relationships with the broch on each site. The potential for each of these sites to have had pre-broch settlement evidence under the broch is clear, with the continuing proviso that the broch insertion could have destroyed much of the evidence.

Gurness has some unexplained stratigraphical issues, suggesting the presence of features which predate the currently displayed broch complex, particularly for structures encroaching into the inner ditches and ramparts. These relationships suggest the inner ditches may predate the displayed broch complex and belong to an earlier phase of site use (Beverley Ballin Smith, pers comm.), which could still be Early Iron Age or thereabouts, as ditches and ramparts are not known from earlier Orcadian settlement types.

Shetland has two other broch sites to mention in this context; Jarlshof, with its extensive sequence of pre- and post-broch structures (though not excavated or currently displayed in a fashion which would add specific results to the arguments here), and Old Scatness where a broch under current excavation is centrally positioned within a remnant field system (Steve Dockrill pers comm.); it is unlikely however that the excavation strategy at this site for eventual display will produce specific evidence of the type sought here.

Non-broch Orkney sites potentially from this period

The intention here is simply to establish that a number of sites are known in Orkney which do not have brochs, but which can, on the present knowledge base be regarded as potential contemporaries of the broch period. In most cases these have not been securely dated, so their listing here is provisional. These include the Calf of Eday roundhouse (which may be a quartet of structures - below), a wheelhouse revealed but not excavated at Lamba Ness on Sanday in the 1980s by Bradford University as part of the Pool project, Pool itself (which is securely dated to this period, but has no massive roundhouse or similar feature), Skaill (in Deerness, with a similar picture), the Minehowe complex of structures which is still being investigated, the two thin-walled circular huts at Spurdagrove in Harray (Hedges 1987, v3, p36), the Little Howe of Hoxa (South Ronaldsay), and Howmae (an amorphous series of structures including wheelhouses on North Ronaldsay; RCAHMS 1980, p20).

At a generic level, Lamb identifies 12 possible Iron Age promontory forts in Orkney (1980, pp 76-80). Those at Midhowe and Borwick are discussed above, while another of his candidates - Riggan of Kami - is actually a ground-galleried broch. While other examples may not ultimately remain on this list and it may represent a morphological grouping rather than a chronologically defined phenomenon, it is still a group of sites to bear in mind.

Similarly, Orkney's many souterrains have a potential significance as a group of monuments, again with the proviso that they may represent multi-period phenomena rather than a tight chronological match.

What should be apparent from this section is the cogent possibility that there were non-broch/roundhouse elements to Orkney's Early and Middle Iron Age. Some known candidates can be suggested, although our current knowledge of them is sketchy, let alone any ability to draw generic analyses.

Areas in and around Orkney without broch sites

If this paper's hypothesis that we do not find convincing Late Bronze Age house structures because they were obliterated or concealed by later broch or roundhouse insertions is pursued, areas in and around Orkney without brochs could well be expected to produce some features of interest.

Unfortunately, the picture is inconclusive with no obvious leads to follow from published reports. Within Orkney, Eday stands out as the clearest broch-free area, despite being surrounded by islands with significant broch or roundhouse distributions, particularly Westray, Sanday, Stronsay, Rousay and Shapinsay. There is no obvious explanation why Eday seems to have missed out - while coastal erosion and localised peat build-up may be relevant factors, the odds of these destroying any recognisable traces across a potential range of broch sites are unconvincing. Yet Eday does not seem to have an undue proportion of other sites which suggest themselves as candidates for Early or Middle Iron Age settlement (eg RCAHMS 1984), despite 16 burnt mounds. Even Calf of Eday has one definite and up to 3 possible roundhouse and associated structures (ibid p18; Hedges 1987, v3, p36).

While East Mainland and the South Isles do have brochs (particularly Hoy and Burray in some quantity in relation to the agricultural land) the distribution is very sparse compared to West Mainland. The sites of Minehowe and Skaill (Deerness) have shown Iron Age house structures, but so far without producing generic information. The high number of "enclosed settlements" identified in RCAHMS 1987 (pp24-6) which can not be further diagnosed may be significant.

Finally, the absence of brochs or similar structures on Fair Isle is worth noting, along with a proportionately high number of burnt mound sites - eleven - including possibly the UK's largest example at Vaasetter (Hedges 1974, p61). Again, the significance of this observation is unclear.

So on current information, the idea that areas of Orkney with a low or nil distribution of broch sites could produce clear signs of an alternative form of Iron Age settlement presence can not be productively pursued.

Part 3: taking these ideas forward

Brochs: greenfield or brownfield sites?

My original thoughts were that this article would culminate in this question for consideration, and by and large this remains the case, though some other threads can be drawn (below). The starting point was two-pronged, firstly that Howe showed some very specific results which deserved amplification in a wider context, and secondly a jolt of self-realisation about complacent assumptions of homogeneous construction gained from several visits to displayed broch sites - or to put it another way, a visit from the What-If? Pixie.

So, what if brochs were a phase of use of a site rather than a determinant? The indications in an Orkney context are convincing that many sites were previously occupied as settlements, probably in some cases until the point at which a broch was constructed. This does not in itself mean that a given site was continuously occupied from the Bronze Age or earlier into the broch period.

Strict continuity of settlement is a very elusive strand of evidence to pursue within this sort of context, when massive site remodelling phases destroy conventional stratigraphic relationships and obliterate much of the absolute dating materials. This is particularly significant for arguments such as those recently made by Cowley that no evidence was produced at Howe to show continuity (in Downes & Ritchie 2003, pp 79-80); while a strict reading of the evidence from Howe allows Cowley's re-interpretation, it is unclear how a realistic and watertight dating strategy could be constructed to cope with site reorganisations of this scale to show that there was never a period of, say, 20-25 years (ie one generation) when the site was not occupied within the 1000 year lifespan of the Late Bronze Age to Late Iron Age. Instead common sense has to prevail with the acceptance that while absolute continuity can never be proven, we should not lurch to the other end of the scale and assume occupation was chronologically sporadic, an avenue which unleashes all sorts of implausible arguments about roving population groups.

Cowley also underplays a crucial factor compared with sites elsewhere in Scotland, which is the comparable durability of building materials within the structures; all structural parts of a crannog for instance are wooden, so will deteriorate at a consistent rate with each other. Therefore the whole building has a finite life and has to be replaced every few decades. In contrast, a stone building with wooden roofing and internal fixtures has a basic shell which can remain viable for several centuries, through successive episodes of replacement of the wooden components, each of which would involve probable disruption to the preceding internal deposits without indicating abandonment or intermittent use. However excavators of monumental stone-built structures with extensive sequences will need to recognise the generic questions Cowley raises and develop their strategies for information recovery accordingly.

So the question of Orkney broch constructions as greenfield or brownfield projects has to be considered without the distraction of strictly continuous site usage, but in a more general sense of ongoing or recently preceding site use compared to virgin development. Earlier parts of this paper summarised as much evidence as could be found for broch construction on sites with evidence for previous use, and my belief is that this was a common scenario in Orkney. Certainly the evidence for previous use would have been readily apparent for broch-building groups, and does not seem to have been a deterrent.

One subtlety which is worth exploring is that those surviving initial broch sites in Orkney - which may well be better expressed in simple roundhouses classification (Armit, 1991) - appear to have been subsequently abandoned fairly early in their lives (eg Bu of Navershaw, Pierowall, and possibly Calf of Eday). On one level it has some logic - the effort involved in removing simple but massive roundhouses to build a more refined tall broch may well be a significant consideration. However it is a potentially misleading approach to take this as the normal scenario: Howe itself seems a clear exception, and to some extent Tofts Ness, where big demolitions were accepted practice ahead of construction. More significant though is the insight that Howe gives for the range of existing and exposed broch sites, which despite their appearance of being single-build structures, may conceal evidence of multi-construction phases over a protracted duration.

This leads to a bigger question of why, if many brochs were brownfield sites, it was desirable to maintain the site's use rather than start from scratch. The on-site availability of reusable building material has to be one practical advantage, though it is difficult to see this as an absolute factor, particularly when building a bigger or taller structure than its predecessor.

Instead the answers have to be rather more conceptual at this stage, developing from the idea that the original site location factors remained valid. These would include having a viable catchment area, including perhaps fertile soils or sea/loch access in the immediate vicinity, perhaps also elements of natural vantage, and the specific requirement of a fresh water supply close at hand, whether on the surface or underground. While these can be analysed for any given broch site (eg Fojut 1982), the permutations will be idiosyncratic and there will be a finite number of locations in the landscape which combine them. These factors, though are largely timeless in their desirability, and apply at a conceptual level to earlier prehistoric eras. The What-If? Pixie can then plant the idea that the landscape would have been developed through preceding millennia, with many of the "good" locations already captured, and the hinterland of these sites developed with fertile soils being successively improved by human cultivation. Thus it makes sense at a general level to reuse settlement locations within a landscape rather than develop greenfield sites.

So land use patterns could conceptually remain fairly constant through prehistory. This is too big a question to explore in this paper, so will be left hanging beyond pointing out that the Bronze Age paradox identified earlier in this paper does imply a continued land use pattern bridging the Middle Bronze Age into the Iron Age over a climatic hiatus.

All this is a long way from saying that all brochs were brownfield sites. It is an inescapable impression from visiting a range of broch sites in Orkney and elsewhere that many of them are in extreme micro-locations, with highly exposed positions and/or very restricted situations. The choice of these sites is usually regarded as being dominated by defensive capabilities for a desired impregnability, and within the terms of this discussion seem more likely to be greenfield developments away from the established land use pattern into more marginal situations. Ironically, a number of the brochs already cited as having pre-broch site use also have these extreme micro-locations (eg Borwick, Midhowe, Clickhimin), which illustrates the dangers of applying glib generalisations to a set of complex individual circumstances. The permutations are further widened for broch groups in extremely close proximity (eg the trio centred on Midhowe, the Keiss trio in Caithness), with a variety of extant suggestions, usually based on socio-political grounds.

The greenfield or brownfield question is not capable of providing a direct answer from our current knowledge level, but it should be apparent from this discussion that there are dangers in assuming greenfield construction for any given site without detailed investigation. The brownfield scenario deserves further consideration, and opens up many lines of enquiry which could give us a more viable context to explain the broch phenomenon. In the interim, both possibilities are legitimate considerations at the individual site level.

The duration of the broch period.

This is another aspect where further consideration may well be overdue. The earliest dated broch-like structures so far found date from c. 700 BC, all as it happens in Orkney (Bu of Navershaw, Pierowall, Tofts Ness, possibly Howe Phase 3). The latest reliably dated broch constructions occur some eight centuries later among the southern outliers such as Leckie or Buchlyvie, with absolute dating and secure Roman artefact typologies. Some brochs further North, excavated before absolute dating became possible also show Roman artefactual discoveries, all of which has led to a general impression that brochs were being built over an 800 year span to about 100 AD.

The difficulty is that we tend to assume that the picture we now have of broch distributions, with anything up to 700 examples known or suggested, represents a contemporary snapshot for some undefined point during this span ie they were all in use together. This assumption is worth unpicking, particularly here for the early part of this 800-year span. If we assume that brochs were being built throughout the period, it means that some sites which eventually featured brochs were not broch sites at, for the sake of argument, 300 BC which was the approximate mid-point of the broch era. Therefore they were either sites without settlement structures or they had some contemporary non-broch settlement forms. The former permutation has a specific implication about Iron Age population levels undergoing a massive increase during the broch period from a very low starting point. This is difficult to relate to the number of burnt mound sites in areas such as Orkney and Shetland (even if - as argued earlier - the burnt mounds are not the most convincing known settlement indicators for the preceding period). The second permutation, that a significant proportion of broch sites only developed brochs later on and had preceding Iron Age site use avoids the extreme fluctuations in population, but raises further issues about the rate of broch proliferation and what enabled a given broch site to develop a broch at the particular moment it did.

As broch construction is a substantial resource investment of labour and materials (both in volume - stone - and scarcity - wood), it is likely that some form of threshold capability had to be crossed to enable construction. The threshold may well have had economic, technological, social and political components in a variety of permutations - differing over geographies and with time - so again the approach is conceptual rather than absolute.

The insight does create a credible context in which a large proportion of brochs would have been brownfield sites and where those sites were most likely continually settled until the broch insertion - the people become the constant with their needs and motivations, not the building forms.

Implications for excavation strategies.

Throughout this paper, a running theme has been that we know too little, despite the large number of broch sites that have been exposed, explored and/or displayed. The evidence we have, when assembled and interpreted is a long way from a convincing explanation of the permutations of events represented by the brochs. Howe produced a number of insights into what could be a more widespread and more complex picture than previously evident, and one which in my view has a better logic by opening up the explanations and their frameworks. The Howe insights were derived however from subtle pieces of evidence, scattered and very localised clues which lacked an intrinsic coherence until the full picture was assembled by the excavators.

At the 1998 Shetland broch conference, one plenary debate erupted very forcibly with the plea that broch excavators have to target the primary interior floor surface in their excavation if a useful account of the site is to be constructed. This paper would extend that further and suggest that excavators should also look at whatever is immediately beneath the primary floor surface, and that they should take every opportunity to explore underneath the broch wall and to scrutinise the immediate vicinity of the broch structure.

The evidence will be very fragmentary, featuring isolated strands without an immediate coherence, and will probably only come together if a large expanse is taken down below the obvious structures. This is a tall order, particularly if it involves removing key structural features in an excavation for eventual display, but is the only probable way of reaching these clues.

Whether it is realistic to hope for future broch excavations on the scale of Howe is another question, particularly if the Old Scatness strategy of stopping excavation at a higher level for display is repeated to justify the excavation investment. An alternative route might be to build these objectives into projects on the number of sites which have already undergone exploration and been left untended since (such as current work at Everley and other sites in Caithness) or those which have been damaged by marine erosion (which we are probably going to lose anyway in the foreseeable future so the issues of destroying "good" structures to investigate something that may or may not be present become secondary). The Shorewatch scheme of coastal investigation could be a very useful starting point here.

Part 4: conclusion

This article set out to explore some of the unusual findings of the Howe excavation, particularly the apparent deviations from the normal script, and to develop a perspective showing how these findings could represent the tip of a previously unidentified iceberg rather than a site which was simply an inconvenient aberration. Hopefully, the clues highlighted from other sites give a new slant on the issue of broch sites as potentially showing continued and perhaps even continuous occupation of their chosen locations from earlier periods, while also emphasising that the clues themselves will be subtle and not always readily apparent.

In 1981, Noel Fojut posed the rhetorical question "Is Mousa a broch?" as a device to highlight a number of architectural differences at that site from the established model. His conclusion was that Mousa definitely was a broch, but no other broch was a Mousa. In glib parody of his approach, I suggest that while Howe was definitely a broch (or series of brochs), a significant number of other brochs could also turn out to be like Howe, if only we start to look hard enough.

There is another issue which I am beginning to appreciate after 25 years of fascination with these structures. I started off, as many others have, dazzled by their complexity and, in the few surviving towers, by their magnificence. I wanted somehow to unravel how such unparalleled architectures represented a unique phase of Scottish prehistory, with a spectacular story to match the evidence. Yet now, I feel the roots of the broch story are much more mundane and easier to relate within the prehistoric context. Brochs evolved from the context in which they originated - they were not parachuted in as a fully formed package by an alien influence. Some brochs are indeed massive, monumental and isolated, but many others seem to fit unobtrusively into the landscape in a wide variety of situations, whether comparing across or within parts of the broch areas. The quality of stonework varies immensely, as indeed does the stone itself and the architectural detail within the concept of a massive and high round form, and the likely hinterlands and therefore economic frameworks of the broch communities seem to vary on a similar scope. Many of these comments echo recent observations by Andrew Baines (2002, pp 13-16), and suggest that we should no longer think of a broch phenomenon as a distinct mystery, but that we should be trying to see the brochs as components within a bigger context where all these differences can be fully explored. We are moving away from a mindset - that brochs are culturally diagnostic - which has underpinned much previous broch study into a much more open perspective. This does not mean that the broch story is diminished - the fascination is still there, but its magic is in explaining how mundane roots maintained a prolonged progression into such a magnificent final crescendo and identifying the many permutations of context, and inspiration which are represented. In fact, it is probably misleading to suggest that there could be a single broch story - the reality is that there are many intertwined paths to unravel within a framework of social, geographical, technological and chronological variables.

David Lynn
June 2004


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