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There was an excellent turnout for a talk by Tillvas member Lady Caroline Douglas Home on the Dial Knowe excavations at the Hirsel during the 1970s and 80s.
It all began when a ploughman at the Hirsel spotted unusual stones when ploughing the north end of a field. The possibility of a religious site arose and the University of Durham Archaeology Department became involved.
It was known that a stone coffin had previously been found on the site, but details were not known. The Statistical Account of the area for 1841 also referred to great quantities of human bones having been found in earlier times. The scene was set for further investigations.
During the next few years, from 1978, Professor Rosemary Cramp led various excavations and our speaker was fortunate to be able to join the team as an amateur. A team of 20 students undertook the excavations. The last excavation took place in 1984, since when an Archaeology Room has been set up at the Hirsel.
There was certainly plenty to investigate, with the final report amounting to over 350 pages. Balloons and light aircraft were used to photograph the site. Finds from several different periods were discovered. A palisade-type trench from Neolithic times was located, as well as pottery, flints, animal bones, hearths, a fragmented pot, door frame, roof tiles, medieval glass, over 1,000 nails and several human skeletons. Quite a list.
Well over 260 graves existed. Earlier skeletons were found in short kists and covered by stone slabs, and later ones in dug graves. Orientation of the graves varied, as did the position of the skeletons. One skeleton had scallop shells indicating a possible pilgrim to Santiago di Compostella. Interesting grave goods included a buckle and a fastening pin.
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Analysis of bones revealed evidence of disease and injury, including arthritis, TB and spina bifida in some cases. Many of the skeletons were of children and young people. There was even a mass grave, but the reason for this has not been established. There were also some empty graves. Head-and foot-stones were evident.
Other finds included tweezers, a glass bead, bangle, and a board for playing Nine Men’s Morris, numerous spurs, horseshoes, arrowheads, a bell and a bell-casting pit.
A perimeter wall of the burial ground was located, and a church/chapel next to the burial ground had started as a small structure, about 4.5 metres square. It was extended many times and the walls strengthened. The original structure has been dated to the middle of the 12th century. From the 15th century it was used for secular purposes and a small domestic structure was built over it. Further study of archives indicates that the chapel had belonged to Coldingham Priory.
Fortunately, the site has now been scheduled to prevent further ploughing. However, our speaker assured us that there was plenty more to discover there. One could almost see members of the audience fantasising about wielding a trowel there in years to come.
We very much enjoyed this talk, particularly fascinating because of its proximity to us.