North Uist (G-B): Ancient basket ravaged by tides as specialists head to Uist to excavate it

Susy Macaulay

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A pre-historic woven reed basket found last week in North Uist is to be excavated by specialist archaeologists within the next few days.

The discovery, made by a local resident, has excited islanders and archaeologists for its rarity and excellent state of preservation.

It was found last week, exposed in sediment on a stretch of beach at Baile Siar after recent gales. Storms frequently expose the remains of ancient settlements in this area.

The basket, about half a metre in length, contains a handful of worked quartz stones, and a handful of diverse animal bones.

Local archaeologist Kate MacDonald of Uist Archaeology spoke of her excitement at the find.

She said: “It’s rare to find well-preserved organic material. It indicates that this basket must have been kept under water from the day that it was placed, or lost, there. Perhaps it was in a freshwater loch until it was covered over by encroaching beach sediment.

Only one Iron Age basket has been found on the islands before, on the west coast of Lewis. Specialist analysis of the weaving and the contents will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the people living there.”

Specialist archaeologists will excavate the basket within a block of sediment, and it will be kept in a lab to preserve it under the right conditions.

Ms MacDonald said: “We hope to be able to look at the weaving patterns and see how it was made.

The quartz and the bones are intriguing, and they will also need to go to specialists for analysis.”

Procedure dictates that Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar is responsible for the excavation of the find.

A Comhairle spokesman said: “Following its exposure, the deposit is suffering from on-going erosion with sections being lifted off the underlying sand, therefore the priority is to safely excavate the find so that a complete assessment can be made.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are currently working with the local community and Historic Scotland in order to carry this out.”

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Smallbaleshare basket nov 11 2014 island news advertiser

The basket today. © Island News & Advertiser

The ancient reed basket discovered on the foreshore of a North Uist beach last Friday is fast disappearing under the encroaching tides.

Specialist archaeologists from AOC Archaeology Group are on their way to the island to excavate what remains of the artefact over the next few days.

The woven basket or bag was discovered by a local birdwatcher and archaeology enthusiast as he strolled on Baleshare beach, close to an area known to contain a complex of prehistoric buildings.

It was lying in a bed of dark sediment, possibly from a coastal or freshwater lagoon on land mass which has subsequently been eroded away by the pounding of the North Atlantic.

The basket contained several pieces of worked quartz and some small animal bones. The contents have been lifted and stored for analysis by specialists, and the area has been mapped by local archaeologist Kate MacDonald of Uist Archaeology.

The find is now the responsibility of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.  Councillor Uisdean Robertson described the find as ‘very exciting.’

He said: “The recent gales have possibly exposed this stretch of the beach for the first time in many years. The council is looking at ways of promoting the fantastic archaeology we have here. Nothing is straightforward as there are considerable procedures involved, but we are looking at how we can engage people in doing something that is community-driven.

With the merger of Historic Scotland and The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland we are not sure yet how this will work out, whether things will be done through Cosla or community planning partnerships but we all need to work together to use local interest to get amongst the policy makers.”

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The basket shortly after it was found.