Barley from Cyderhall Iron Age settlement

04 March 2019

News Type:
Find of the Month

This charred barley is from an excavation of a round house and souterrain at Cyderhall in Sutherland, and currently is on display at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. After an initial phase of occupation, the house burnt down, and a second house was then built in the same location. The charred remains allowed several radiocarbon dates, which showed occupation in the early Iron Age (c. 400-126 BC).

Souterrains are underground passages, sometimes as in this case, related to a round house. Their function is still much debated, with storage and ritual the two most common theories. Although grain has sometimes been found in souterrains, this charred barley was mainly found in a separate pit near the roundhouse, and may have been stored there. A sample yielded a C-14 date of c. 400-126 BC.

Modern excavations gather evidence not only of more traditional artefacts, but also botanical information, both large and microscopic, to show details of what foods were grown and gathered, as well as woodland and plants in the area. In the Neolithic period, naked barley is more common, but later 6 row hulled barley becomes more prevalent. Six row hulled barley was the prominent grain found at Cyderhall, for the most part not winnowed, with evidence also of emmer wheat and oats. Some wild species were also found, probably growing in the cultivated grains. Other crops grown in prehistory in the Highlands include spelt and rye, though there was no evidence for these at Cyderhall.

In the souterrain there were traces of hemp and cultivated flax, perhaps stored there or perhaps remains of bags holding something else.

Six samples of charred wood used as supports in the roundhouse were also radiocarbon dated. All were oak, five of them fast growing roundwood. This indicates oak woods growing nearby.

Information of the botanical information from sites of the Highlands needs to be gathered together, to show changes and trends in different areas and different periods.

Further information:

HER MHG11834

Historylinks Archive has a number of photos and details. Connect to and type Cyderhall in the search box.

Pollock, Robert W. et al 1992. ‘The excavation of a souterrain and roundhouse at Cyderhall, Sutherland,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, 149-60. Available on line or at Dingwall and Inverness libraries.

Dickson, Camilla and Dickson, James 2000. Plants & People in Ancient Scotland.

ScARF Science Panel report 2012, edited Karen Milek and Richard Jones, 4.3 Archaeobotany. Scottish Archaeological Research Framework: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Available online at

Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH), The Goods Shed, The Old Station, Strathpeffer, Ross-Shire, Scotland IV14 9DH
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