Archaeologists Mystified By 5,000-Year-Old Artificial Islands

Recovering one of the submerged vessels from Loch Arnish in 2012. C. Murray/Antiquity

Hundreds of ancient human-made miniature islands speckle the waterways of Scotland and Ireland. Once believed to have been built and repurposed as dwellings over the course of 2,500 years, new radiocarbon dating reported in the journal Antiquity shifts that timeline by thousands of years, suggesting that these “crannogs” date back to the time of Stone Henge and potentially served as ritualistic offerings.

It started in 2012 when a local resident decided to dive around the lake beds of one of these islets located in the Outer Hebrides. During his time underwater, he found well-preserved and nearly intact ceramic pots scattered around the island. Further exploration by researchers found similar pottery at five other crannog sites in the area. According to a statement sent to IFLScience, scientists focused on three of the five sites – Loch Arnish, Loch Bhorgastail, and Loch Langabhat – by combining ground and underwater surveying with photogrammetry, paleoenvironmental coring, and excavation. Further radiocarbon dating of the pottery suggests that the site was in use between 3600 and 3300 BCE.

Researchers believe this location was “special” and challenges the current understanding of Neolithic settlements. Monumental efforts in constructing these sites by transporting and piling massive boulders suggest these islets might have served ceremonial purposes, a point further exemplified by the careful underwater placement of unbroken ceramic vessels by the people at the time. Many of the ceramic vessels were either still intact or broken into large fragments, suggesting that there was a systematic and ritualized manner in which they were put into the water.

Aerial view of the islet in Loch Bhorgastail. F. Sturt/Antiquity

A crannog is an ancient lake dwelling found throughout Scotland and Ireland previously believed to have been built to provide homes to families. Dwellings were often built atop rock pilings on stilts over the water, while other times rocks were piled onto the lake bed to build an island with a stone house on top. Today, they look like tree-covered tiny islands or stony mounds hidden under the surface of the water, according to the Scottish Crannog Centre.

More than 570 known sites have been recorded in Scotland and Ireland so far, but this location in the Outer Hebrides is renowned for tombs and settlements whose relationship and purpose of irregular distribution remain unclear. The findings suggest that there may very well be many more types of these settlements and monuments across much of the region. Only about 10 percent of Scotland and Ireland’s crannogs have been radiocarbon dated and only about 20 percent have been dated at all. 

Aerial view of an islet in Loch Langabhat. F. Sturt/Antiquity

 

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