Remembering Calanais - Guest blog by Patrick Ashmore
The chamber tomb being excavated, May 1981. Photo: Patrick Ashmore, © Historic Environment Scotland
It's forty years since our excavations at Calanais started. We stayed in a house in Breasclete belonging to Mrs MacArthur for the seasons of 1980 and 1981. Our oldest son was five in 1980 and he went to the local school. Some teaching was in English and other parts were in Gaelic. I suspect that widened his horizons somewhat! Our second son spent days with Mrs Mackenzie of Callanish and went to the peats with her and her family. In 1981 Fionna was pregnant with our daughter and had antenatal care in Stornoway which had some very up-to-date equipment.
The weather was glorious in 1980, and pretty good in 1981. Sunburn was a problem. Every Sunday we took the people working on the excavation to beaches, the long dune-fringed ones and the rocky cove at Shawbost with its delightful pools full of wildlife. Before the excavation everyone's notions about the stones were hazy; they still are in many ways. We did establish the broad sequence of events, for much of the preservation of layers inside the ring and the low embanked enclosuret to its east was fabulous. The main snag we came across is that the 19th century tidying-ups undertaken by the then owners had disturbed evidence.
Basically the ring of stones and its central stone were earliest. The little chambered tomb inside the ring was significantly later. The alignments and the avenue were also later. Alas, it proved very hard to get good radiocarbon dates to establish a true chronology. The main problem was that bits of charcoal hung around for a long time, being moved with earth when new building took place. So the dates the bits of charcoal produced were older than the layers where we found them. But in round terms building started around 3000 BC. It stopped well before 2000 BC. It's still unclear whether the avenue was built in one go or whether the stones were put up from time to time - as it might be memorials set up on both sides of an approach road. The excavation report was published online and can be read and downloaded from the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) website. It's there in all its sometimes bewildering detail. For those without the time to read the report there's the official guidebook available at the Calanis Visitor Centre.
We have fond memories of the opening of Calanais Visitor Centre nearly 25 years ago. Lewis did itself proud. Both in the 80's and the 90's the local people were exceptionally kind and hospitable. we wish them and Urras nan Tursachan the very best for the next 25 years.
Patrick and Fionna Ashmore
You can find the definitive report by Patrick Ashmore here.
The digs took place between 1980 and 1986 in advance of repairs to the ground, much worn by visitors. The excavations revealed many unexpected structures hidden below the surface and also gave us a better idea of when its various bits were built. They added to our understanding of its connections with the great stone rings in Orkney; and the high quality pottery helped build up a picture of long distance connections.
This final report describes the detail, providing much material for archaeologists and others to develop their ideas about the stones.