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Clan Donnachaidh Annual
Dull Dig

Dull Church. 2003 Excavation Report.

After reviewing the work carried out during the excavations at Dull in 2002, (see report in the 2003 Clan Annual) it was considered that the results justified carrying out further excavations in 2003. Because the site was becoming of considerable importance I felt that continued professional support was necessary and hoped that sufficient funding could be raised to cover this.

     In the event, our proposed dates coincided with the first ever Perthshire Archaeological Week, intended to encourage the general public to visit places of historical interest. As ours was the only active excavation during that week, the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust and the Perthshire Tourist Board agreed to contribute to the funding on condition that the excavation was open to the public. This we very happily agreed to. The breadalbane Heritage Society and Struan Robertson of Geneva again kindly made contributions, and so it was ‘all systems GO!’

     On the morning of Saturday, June 14th we re-assembled at Dull Kirk, duly admired the magnificent blue portable toilet that had been installed by the gate and carried all the equipment inside, ready to start. Bob Will from Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) was again joining us to give us the benefit of his considerable experience.

     We were also pleased to welcome Paul Duffy, Forensics and Human Remains Officer at GUARD who was spending the week with us and was intending to carry out detailed analysis of the human remains uncovered. He was hoping to obtain information such as age at death, sex, stature, and inherent health problems such as dental disease, degenerative joint disease, traumatic injury, nutritional disorders and infectious diseases. He had brought a German student along with him to give her some practical experience.   

     As owner Suki Urquhart had allowed us to leave all the spoil from the previous year in the room adjoining the nave we were able to get cracking straight away. The first task was to continue removing the rubble scattered across the nave. I was clearing the north-west section and within some thirty minutes of starting, on lifting a largish flat stone and turning it over was amazed to see a beautiful cross and some lettering engraved on the underside. This caused great excitement. Photographs were taken and everyone attempted to decipher the lettering. The consensus seemed to favour ‘becli’ but this was not unanimous.

     The stone was carefully lifted and placed on the carpeted area by the font, where it was greatly admired by the visitors who were starting to arrive in numbers as a result of the Perthshire Archaeological Week publicity. Each group of visitors was given a guided tour and encouraged to ask questions. The feedback was extremely positive and several of them returned at intervals during the week to watch progress. Two of them asked if they could help by wheeling the barrow loads of spoil for us, an offer that was gratefully accepted! One of them was a New Zealander on holiday with his wife. He returned to work again the next day while his wife went shopping - wise man!  

     At the end of the ten days we had seen well over two hundred visitors from as far away as the U.S.A., South Africa, Sweden, New Zealand and the Netherlands, as well as from all over the U.K. In preparation for the expected visitors I had produced a leaflet that briefly explained the excavation and its background, based on my report in the Clan Annual. This had been printed onto a single sheet of paper, and I was able to persuade many of the visitors to contribute £1.00 for a copy. When the excavation was finished we were able to add £150.00 to the Clan Appeal.

     Clearance of the rubble in the nave was completed and selected areas were carefully trowelled to remove the underlying silty loam. As before, few artefacts were found but this was to be expected in view of the location. A few possible coffin nails and shroud pins appeared, and surprisingly, an iron arrow head. My theory was that it had come into the kirk between the ribs of one of the bodies buried there. Everyone laughed, but they couldn't say I was wrong!

     As before, disarticulated human remains appeared and these passed to Paul for his examination. He was happy to break off to explain his work to the visitors, and there was often an enthralled crowd surrounding his table. His initial thoughts were that the population had good general health, although there were some indications of arthritis. There was little evidence of tooth decay, presumably due to the lack of sugar in the diet but tooth wear was noted, possibly because of the use of stone ground bread. A few remains of children appeared. Paul said that child remains of this period were often under about the age of seven. After this age they have usually survived the normal childhood illnesses and grow up to adulthood.  

     On the Sunday we had visitors from the University and they took the photographs of the incised cross back with them to Glasgow. On the next morning we had a phone call to say that everyone was very excited and the first thoughts were ;

1) it showed Irish influence (not surprising, as Christianity came to the Highlands from Ireland via Iona),

2) it was probably 8th Century - which ties in with the founding of the Dull Abbey by St. Ninian, who died in 704 AD,

3) it probably covered the grave of an Abbot, as only Abbots had elaborate gravestones, and

4) it is the only one of its type that has been found on the Scottish mainland.



Big Stone

Good Stone


Cheers all round!

     The final resting-place for the cross will be the decided by the Scottish Treasure Trove Panel, who have not yet been asked to examine it. In the meantime a professional artist has drawn it and the lettering does appear to be ‘becli’. Some guesses are that it might be a Pictish name, or even a female name. 

     Work continued throughout the week and human remains continued to appear. The clay bonded wall remains of an earlier building that were found under the west end of the nave last November were further excavated, but as they ran across the nave and disappeared under the walls of the existing building we were not able to learn anything new from them. As the level of the excavations went down, we started to discover complete burials. We did not disturb these. They are probably the reason for the disarticulated remains when earlier burials were disturbed as these later remains were interred.

     The final discovery was made as we were clearing up on the last Saturday. A large oblong stone in the nave that had been left in place because of its size was being brushed down when a large incised cross was revealed on the top. Most embarrassing, as we had been using it as a stepping stone all week! It probably covered the grave of a monk, as monks led a simple life and in death had a simple gravestone. We cannot say if it is in its original position and we did not attempt to lift it.

     So, the Dull Kirk excavations have come to an end for the foreseeable future. A new floor has been laid, although the planks have been screwed down so that they could be lifted again. If another opportunity occurs, and sufficient funding for professional assistance raised, it would be interesting to look under the east (altar) end to see if we can trace further remains of the earlier building and perhaps identify it.

     Donnachadh Reamhair is believed to be buried at Dull. It may be possible to find evidence for this but it must be emphasised that it is most unlikely. If he was buried there, we don't know whether it was inside or outside the kirk, or what area the kirk of that time covered, or even where it was. I think it would be better to let sleeping chiefs lie.

     The report by Paul Duffy on the skeletal remains makes interesting reading. A minimum of 18 individuals were identified and at least six were male and seven female, indicating a roughly equal balance in the sexes. The remains of at least four juveniles were present.

     Where it was possible to estimate approximate age at death the result was

 Age        1   -   10     -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -     3

           10       20   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   1

           20       30   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   1

           30       40   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   7

           40       50   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   2

           50   +            -   -   -   -   -   -   -   -   6

         Paul expressed surprise at the peak of deaths in the 30-40 age range. He expected a pre-modern population to peak in under 10 and over 50, with both groups vulnerable to disease etc. in the absence of modern medicine.

Donald Reid.

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