THE remains of an ancient dwelling believed to be Scotland’s oldest house have been discovered on the banks of the River Forth.
Experts say the Stone Age timber structure – which may have resembled the wigwams constructed by North American Indians – was built more than 10,000 years ago, possibly as a winter retreat, in the period after the last ice age.
It was discovered in a field outside the village of Echline, near South Queensferry, during routine archaeological excavations in advance of work on the new Forth Replacement Crossing over the Forth estuary and contained flint arrowheads used by the original occupants.
Dated from the mesolithic era, the remains consist of a large oval pit, seven metres long and half a metre deep, with a series of holes which would have held upright wooden posts. They would have supported walls possibly made from animals skins, although some experts believe there may have been a flatter turf roof.
The remains of several internal fireplace hearths were also identified inside the house, which would have kept its occupants warm on cold winter nights. The site has been dated to around 8240BC, the earliest in Scotland.
Ed Bailey, project manager for Headland Archaeology, the company that carried out the excavation of the site, said: “The discovery of this previously unknown and rare type of site has provided us with a unique opportunity to further develop our understanding of how early prehistoric people lived along the Forth.
“Specialist analysis of archaeological evidence recovered in the field is ongoing. This will allow us to put the pieces together and build a detailed picture of a Mesolithic lifestyle.”
Inside the dwelling, more than 1,000 flint artefacts were found, including materials which would have been used by the previous owners as tools and arrowheads. Other discoveries included large quantities of charred hazelnut shells, indicating that nuts would have been an important source of food for the hunter-gatherer residents. All of the artefacts will be removed from the site and preserved.
However, it is believed that the house would have been a “holiday home” for its residents, occupied only during the winter months rather than all year round, because of the warmth provided by its turf roof and fireplaces.
The site bears similarities to other Mesolithic sites previously discovered along the Forth. In 2001, a settlement was found in Cramond near Edinburgh, where the River Forth and River Almond meet, that was dated to around 8500BC and included stone tools and hazelnut shells. Proximity to the rivers would have allowed its occupants to exploit the abundant aquatic life.
Historic Scotland’s senior archaeologist Rod McCullagh, an advisor to the project at Echline, said: “This discovery and, especially, the information from the laboratory analyses adds valuable information to our understanding of a small but growing list of buildings erected by Scotland’s first settlers after the last glaciation, 10,000 years ago.
“The radiocarbon dates that have been taken from this site show it to be the oldest of its type found in Scotland which adds to its significance.”
The £1.5 billion Forth Replacement Crossing Project – billed as the biggest transport infrastructure project in Scotland for a generation – is currently at its most critical stage of building as its ten main sections are lowered into position. Construction started in 2011 and is expected to be finished in 2016.
Transport minister Keith Brown said: “This ancient dwelling, which was unearthed as part of the routine investigations undertaken prior to construction works, is an important and exciting discovery.
“We now have vital records of the findings which will inform our understanding of a period in Scotland’s ancient history.”
The mesolithic age is the cultural period of the Stone Age between the paleolithic and neolithic periods between circa 8000BC and 4000BC. It is when man is thought to have first inhabited Scotland.