Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Digging for treasure

No longer New Tolsta rather Old Tolsta
Treasure hunting played a significant role during my childhood and from the moment I first started gardening. My father would allocate my brother and me a small area of the garden where we could dig and grow whatever we liked. This more often than not totally abandoned area was a challenge to clear and cultivate but it in no way put us off the idea of gardening, rather it instilled in us the sense of achievement in bringing a small patch back into production. Scratching away at the surface and removing overgrowth followed by digging and with the digging came treasure hunting.
For the most part this treasure took the form of broken china; shards that turned out to be 19th century blue and white transfer ware, the ever present DNA that runs through all British gardens. Sixty years on from my first garden and I’m still digging for treasure. Out on the moor when digging peat I still hope that one day I will find proof of human habitation, some discarded relic, a hollowed out wooden dish, a pottery fragment. Likewise in the garden around the house every turn of the spade is checked. The midden material at No 17 New Tolsta seems to have been scattered in gay abandon and the site also seems to have been inhabited for a considerable length of time. When digging below the old blackhouse to create my vegetable garden I discover an area of stones very evidently laid flat and wondered if this was a place for threshing or the floor of an even earlier settlement. At the back of the 19th century farm barn there was a hollow on slightly higher ground and some very large stones which seemed to have nothing to do with the remains of the nearby stone shed. During the excavation of this area for my new studio it proved to be mainly a rich black soil and after it had rained the ground was littered with slipware pottery fragments. There were other low fired shards which although ancient looking proved also to be 19th century.
This weekend while digging on the bank above the studio I discovered a small clay pipe impressed A COGHILL, Glasgow (Alexander Coghill 1826- 1904) which fitted well into the 19th century time frame. As I dug up several lumps of rock I realised that these seemed to have been placed there in line, remains of an old wall perhaps….. and then I saw it. Brought to the surface by our excavations and my subsequent clearing lay a perfect Neolithic axe head. We are talking 5000 years plus old and the strangest thing was that as I picked it up I was sure I’d not only seen it before but had handled it.
During Neolithic times the islands would have been a very different place unencumbered by today’s thick layer of peat bog. The shoreline was further out to sea and behind the dunes was a deep sandy soil with extensive scrub woodland and reedy pools. Further inland was an area of rolling boggy ground with bare outcrops and heavy damp soil, supporting more scrub interspersed with grassland. Between the lochs and low hills the small deep valleys were wooded and in the rivers salmon and trout swam. It was a rich land which Celtic mythology describes as Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-Young.
The Mesolithic period of seasonal hunter gather gave way to the very earliest form of farming around 3600 BC. But apart from burial cairns and standing stones, few sites dating from before the Iron Age give any clear insight into the domestic life. The sandy western coastal areas were favoured settlement locations but here in Tolsta we also have dunes and a large area of sandy soil sloping down to a smaller area of machair. It seems likely that there is a great deal of buried evidence of former inhabits of these isles and when not under deep peat is surprisingly close to the surface. Today I took the axe head into Stornoway Museum and amid excitement for the find it was to be declared treasure trove. Forms were signed and with luck this fine axe head will remain in our local museum.

It would now seem as though my studio is built on top of a Neolithic site, unfortunately in doing so any archaeological worth of the site has been removed but at least I can safely say that New Tolsta should strictly be renamed as Old Tolsta.             

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