Latest news from Berwick Archaeological Society

The Border Archaeological Society hosted Joanne Hambly as speaker at its February meeting.

Friday, 4th March 2016, 08:00 am
Updated Saturday, 5th March 2016, 09:07 am

Based at St Andrew’s University, she has been working with Scottish Coastal Heritage at Risk (SCAPE), whose remit is to document coastal sites that are under threat.

She has been closely involved with the project to record as much of Weymss Caves as possible. The caves are situated on the east coast of Fife, a few miles from Kirkcaldy.

Early Christian missionaries from the west of Scotland were based at Weymss. They were followed by Covenanters who used the caves for their secret meetings. In the 18th and 19th century travellers used them as a base, and in the 19th century they were used for ship building and repair.

So what is special about Weymss Caves? They contain thousands of Bronze Age carvings with the largest number of Pictish carvings at one site. Of approximately 190 Pictish carvings that were recorded in the 19th century, only about 40 survive today due to a combination of coastal erosion, cave collapse and vandalism.

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Professor James Young Simpson, famous for the introduction of chloroform as pain relief during labour, was the first to explore the caves in 1865. Fortunately, he made detailed recordings of the carvings.

His observations were published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SOCANTS), with accompanying illustrations by James Drummond, curator of the National Gallery of Scotland. They made a complete record of Doo Cave, which has since collapsed. It was noted that the carvings bore a remarkable resemblance to the figures on Pictish standing stones and monuments.

Throughout the 19th century, the caves attracted a succession of antiquarians. John Stuart (1813-77), secretary of the Spalding (Aberdeen) Society, described the carvings in Vol. II of Sculptured Stones of Scotland. They were illustrated by Andrew Gibb, an engraver.

Christian Maclagan (1811-1901), described as the first female archaeologist in Great Britain, visited the stones in 1878. She developed a technique of rubbings, especially of standing stones. She was barred from being made a Fellow of SOCANTS so her work was read by John Stuart and illustrated by Drummond.

John Romilly Allen (1847-1907), who was said to have visited every standing stone in Scotland and wrote Early Christian Monuments in Scotland, was a pioneer of photography. He made very good field notes and added considerably to the record.

Weymss Caves were by now being regarded as part of the corpus of early medieval symbolism in Scotland. However, Romilly Allen’s photographs were surpassed by a local man, John Patrick (1813-1923), who systematically photographed the carvings using magnesium as a source of illumination.

Since 2013 all the accessible caves, as well as a portion of coastal land and Macduff Castle, which stands above Jonathan’s Cave, have been subject to laser scanning. Drones have been used to make models of details of the coast.

Reflection Transformation Imaging is the latest technique to be used. The process enhances the surface of the subject with varying highlights and shadows, enabling fine details of the 3D surface to be developed, allowing comparisons with the carvings and drawings and to show any changes.

The next meeting will be held on Monday, at 7.30pm, when Dr Chris Fowler, senior lecturer in Later Prehistoric Archaeology, will give a talk entitled Early Bronze Age Burial Practices in NE England and SE Scotland. It will take place at Berwick Parish Hall, The Parade, Berwick, (entrance via churchyard). Entrance is free for members, £2 for visitors.