Broadcast 20 February 2005

Wessex Archaeology were commissioned by Videotext Communications Ltd to undertake a programme of archaeological recording and post-excavation work on an archaeological evaluation undertaken by Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ at Wemyss Caves, East Wemyss, Fife. This report presents an assessment of the results of these works, along with recommendations for further analysis and dissemination.

The Wemyss Caves are well known for their Pictish carvings – the largest single collection of Pictish carvings known – which occur in five of the nine recorded caves.Five trenches were excavated within the interior of three of these caves (Jonathan’s Cave, the Well Cave and Sliding Cave), with a further two trenches sited outside the entrance of Well Cave. Furthermore, a section of the eroding coastline was cut back and cleaned up and recorded.

The main aim of this project was to gain a better understanding of the precise nature and range of the archaeological deposits both within the caves and outside them. It also aimed to establish when the caves were in use, how long they remained in use for and the nature of activities undertaken within them. There were also a number of specific aims and objectives relating to the trenches excavated within specific caves. 

This archaeological evaluation undertaken by Time Team has revealed significant new evidence for prehistoric, Middle Iron Age and Pictish activity on the Site.

The prehistoric evidence takes the form of a possible cup mark from Trench 1, ardmarks from Trench 7 and a large stone revealed within the eroding coastal section (trench 9) and which may once have been a free-standing upright and therefore interpretable as perhaps forming part of a ritual monument of some sort. All of these may date to the Late Neolithic or Bronze Age. Of particular importance are the ardmarks, which while being not particularly rare in Scottish prehistory, nonetheless offer intriguing evidence of possible early landuse in Fife. It is recommended that the opportunity be taken to radiocarbon date material from the fills of these ard-marks.

The excavations also recovered evidence for Middle Iron Age and Pictish activity within the caves. The former took the form of a layer sealing a stone pavement in Trench 8. Material recovered from this deposit included charred grains of barley, which were radiocarbon dated to between AD240 and AD400. This trench also revealed the presence of a new Pictish carving, in the form of a pair of sinuous lines (possibly serpents). There was no evidence from this trench for a corresponding Pictish occupation layer.

Some limited evidence for medieval activity in the caves was confined to the trenches in the Well Cave. In both trenches, small quantities of medieval pottery were recovered, although none was directly associated with the ‘well’ itself. A limited investigation within this cave could find no positive evidence for the putative passageway linking this cave and the medieval remains of McDuff castle.

The post-medieval features and deposits excavated included the fills of the ‘well’ in the Well cave and layers of post-medieval metalworking from within Jonathan’s Cave.

The project was also able to determine that in many cases these caves have been subject to systematic clean-outs (hence resulting in disturbed and truncated stratigraphy) certainly after Pictish times. In some instances, the sea itself may have scoured the inside of the caves, during particularly high tides and/or floods.

This work also suggests that is only in the less easily accessible caves (e.g. as in Sliding Cave) that it maybe possible to identify evidence of well preserved and undisturbed sequences of cave deposits, perhaps even dating back to prehistoric periods.  

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