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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
Monuments and Water: A
re-interpretation of the Grey cairns of Camster, Caithness
The Neolithic archaeology of Caithness is little known to most people outside northern Scotland, despite the wealth of evidence that litters the landscapes. This is no doubt a consequence of the relative lack of archaeological investigation in the area since the 19th Century when distinguished antiquarians such as Anderson and Rhind carried out ground-breaking excavations of many chambered cairns and Brochs. Here in lies the irony; the centre of antiquarian exploration is now considered by many as peripheral to studies of British Prehistory (Mercer 1992). That said, however, fieldwork carried out by Henshall, Corcoran and Masters, amongst others, has provided an invaluable corpus of data from which we can move forward and try to bring Caithness in line with the rest of British archaeology.
The majority of fieldwork undertaken in the past in Caithness has tended to be monument-centred, examining individual chambered cairns or so called groups of cairns, and overlooking the wider context into which these structures were placed. The concept of the "landscape", which has been fashionable in archaeological research since the 1970's (Darvill 1994), and which has enabled a greater insight into Prehistoric cosmologies, has not really been applied to the Neolithic remains here. Iwant to take a landscape approach in this paper, and examine the most renowned of the Caithness chambered cairns, the Grey cairns of Camster, in relation to the surrounding topography, landscape and natural elements.
Caithness is a very distinct county, with its flat and gently rolling topography in stark contrast to neighbouring Sutherland, whose mountains form prominent peaks bordering the lowland plain to the south and west. To the north the distinctive hills of Hoy dominate the skyline, and form another prominent boundary, while to the east is the North Sea. Despite its topography and extensive covering of heather moorland, Caithness is far from the bleak county that many perceive it to be. Indeed, when combined with the dramatic extremes of weather that it experiences, the landscape of Caithness can be incredibly beautiful and yet somewhat daunting.
The landscape is not entirely comprised of lowland
plain; there are several prominent areas of higher ground that appear to
have been significant features in the creation of many of the monumental
landscapes. These include the Morven range, Beinn Freiceadain and Ben
Dorrery, Ben Griam Beg and Ben Griam Mor on the periphery of the
landscape, and Spittal Hill, which occupies a central position. In an area
such as Caithness where long distance views are the norm, these
distinctive topographic features would have played an important role in
the lives of mobile populations. They would have enabled people to
orientate themselves around the landscape, following well-worn paths and
exploiting particular resources. As Tilley (1994, 38) notes in his
examination of traditional Australian Aboriginal populations, "Attachment
to and knowledge of a particular stretch of land was a fundamental part of
existence." We can suppose, therefore, that knowledge of paths of movement
through Caithness, and an understanding of landscape 'markers' was an
integral component of life here too. Such markers are likely to have been
imbued with symbolism and myth, with tales told to reinforce their central
role in daily routines of movement (Bradley 1993). Ancestral power and
knowledge would have been appropriated simply by moving along existing
paths through the landscape, and through this movement the complex
relationships between humans and their natural surroundings would have
been renewed (Tilley 1994).
However, the very fact that these monuments were built indicates the effect that agriculture, in whatever form, had on the Neolithic populations. People were no longer living with nature; they were attempting to control it (Bradley 1993).
The Grey cairns of Camster
The excavations of its neighbour, Camster Long by
Anderson in 1866, and Corcoran and Masters in the 1970's (Davidson &
Henshall 1989) revealed a complex monument, with several apparent phases
of construction (Masters 1997). Two chambers were located at the northern
end of the cairn, each seemingly enclosed within an initial round cairn
structure. The northern chamber was of a simple polygonal form, with a
short passage, orientated SE, while the southern chamber was a more
complex tripartite structure with a passage orientated almost due east
(Masters 1997). It has been suggested that these would have stood as
independent structures, before their consolidation within the later long
cairn (Ashmore 1996). The simpler polygonal chamber would probably have
been the primary construction on the site, followed by the more complex
tripartite chamber (Masters 1997), possibly contemporary with the
construction of the tripartite chamber and cairn of Camster Round. The
evidence is not conclusive, however, and it has also been suggested that
the monument is of single-phase construction (Masters 1997), with the
circular revetments included as "constructional devices to support the
chamber construction" (Masters 1997, 178). On investigation, both chambers
were found to contain very little; a few fragments of bone and a sherd of
pottery in the northern, polygonal chamber, and a compacted floor
containing a small amount of ash and bone in the southern chamber
(Davidson & Henshall 1991).
It is this confluence that I now want to explore, as a possible way of understanding the significance and evolution of this monumental landscape. Water is a symbolic natural element that features heavily in many 'traditional' cosmologies (Bradley 2000, Richards 1996, Govinda 1992), and is often associated with concepts of birth, regeneration and purification (Richards 1996). Water features, particularly rivers, serve to physically divide and define the landscape, forming boundaries and thresholds (Edmonds 1999a) from and through which the encountered world is perceived. As Richards (1996) points out, the flow of rivers from the source to the sea also provides a potent metaphor for movement, journeys and progression. In the Neolithic, therefore, rivers may have embodied a physical representation of the seasonal routines of movement through the landscape, from which sites such as Camster may have been accorded their significance.
The location of the Camster cairns, and the evidence for earlier activity, gives weight to this argument. As I stated earlier, the cairns are located in relative isolation, with virtually no visual access to other areas of Caithness. This was clearly a deliberate act on the part of the cairn builders, designed perhaps to control and order perceptions of the encountered world. Had the builders chosen to construct their monuments on the terrace directly above and to the west of the actual site the engagements with the landscape and natural elements would have been dramatically different. Here, Loch Camster is located in an area of flat heather moorland, from which there are extensive views over the northern half of Caithness, with views of Warth Hill and Hoy to the north, Spittal Hill, Beinn Freiceadain and Ben Dorrery to the west, and eastwards towards the Hill of Yarrows. By disregarding physical features in the landscape that are prominent in the vistas from many other chambered cairns in Caithness, the builders of the Camster cairns appear to have been relating to a very specific cosmological scheme that revolves around the significance of the Camster Burn.
The discovery of pre-cairn activity dating to the earliest Neolithic on the ridge below Camster Long points to why the site was chosen for monumental construction, but, why did that particular location attract activity in the first place? In practical terms the ridge provides an area of elevated ground from where there are good views across the surrounding flat terrace, although there are several other glacial undulations in the vicinity that would have served this purpose equally well. The ridge on which the cairn is sited is however, the best place in the landscape to view the southern end of the bum, and the confluence areas.
I suggest that this confluence and the subsequent journey of the river through the landscape may have been regarded as a symbolic medium through which cosmologies and life cycles were expressed. The water that flows from this source travels from the upland region, through one of the most fertile tracts of land in Caithness and to the sea. It is possible that these different ecological zones featured in the seasonal movements of the nomadic communities, and were exploited for their natural resources. The location of Camster, in an upland area, therefore, together with the interpretation of the pre-cairn burning and flint working as evidence of temporary settlement, (Masters 1997, Wickham-Jones 1997) indicates that it may indeed have been a location for gatherings or occasional visits during these seasonal rounds (Edmonds 1999b). The function of these gatherings remains a mystery, but as Mark Edmonds (1999a) points out "The importance of water as a source of fertility and as an agent of transformation would not have been lost on people at the time". By choosing the ridge as a focus of activity and cairn building, therefore, the Neolithic populations may have been drawing on notions of purity and fertility often attributed to a river source, to ensure prosperity in the coming season.
With the construction of the chambered cairns, the relationship between the Neolithic populations and the river is likely to have shifted from an emphasis on fertility to focus on regeneration and rebirth. As I discussed earlier, the construction of chambered cairns is thought to have been associated with the creation of an ancestral 'whole'. Positioning the cairns above the source of the Camster Burn, therefore, the Neolithic populations appear to have been drawing on the ability of water to purify and transform the human body (Richards 1996), to enable the transition from individual to ancestor. I suggest this only tentatively, as the evidence for burial is limited from the Camster cairns, however, I do feel that such acts may have been more symbolic than physical.
The construction of the chambered cairns at Camster also enabled the concept of place to be permanently fixed in the landscape. Their construction in an area already imbued with cultural significance served to physically reference the ancestral presence in the landscape (Tilley 1996), which, in turn, may have sustained a sense of genealogy and tenure (Edmonds 1999b). Despite the relatively static nature of the modern Camster landscape, this is an area that would have been constantly re-worked and reinterpreted with each successive generation. Shifts in ideology and cosmological outlook would have lead to the constant adaptation of the symbolism embedded in the landscape. Recognition of this is significant if we are to be able to gain an understanding of how and why Camster developed.
Natural elements are an established and fundamental part of the cosmologies of many traditional cultures (Bradley 2000), and recognition of this will, I believe, enable us to gain a greater understanding of how and why Neolithic monumental landscapes were established. In Caithness, in particular, I feel that water, in its many forms, dominated the daily routines of both Mesolithic and Neolithic populations, providing both natural resources and most importantly, a symbolic metaphor for life itself.