Bulletin 2, 1996
The TARBAT DISCOVERY PROGRAMME has been devised to explore, explain, display and reconstruct the Early Medieval site discovered at Tarbat Old Church, Portmahomack, Easter Ross in Scotland, and investigate its regional context [Fig. 1].
Figure 1: The Moray Firthland study area, as defined by the project and divided into zones for field research.
Tarbat Old Church (dedicated to St Colman) has been found to stand within a prehistoric enclosure, first seen as a cropmark from the air in 1984; its boundary ditch contained twigs dated by radiocarbon to the 2-6th century AD. Over the years, gravediggers working in the churchyard have found a number of fragments of sculpture dateable to the 7-9th century, showing that the site was once a Christian Pictish centre. In addition, the well-known Tarbat inscription (TR13; Higgitt 1982), recovered from the wall of the old Manse, offered strong circumstantial evidence for the existence of an early monastery. In 1889, a hoard of Scandinavian ring-money and coins from France and England, deposited in the late 10th century, was rediscovered in the churchyard (Graham-Campbell 1995).
Having thus demonstrated its potential to throw light on a formative period of Scottish history, the 2nd to 10th century AD, the Tarbat site was subjected to detailed archaeological evaluation in 8 stages between 1991 and 1996:
In Stage 1 (1991) the cropmark was investigated and dated by Jill Harden (Harden 1995).
In Stage 2 (1994) the enclosure was examined by topographical and geophysical surveys, with limited trial excavations.
In Stage 3 (1995) the surface of the archaeological deposits on the south side of the enclosure was examined extensively by the "strip and map" technique (Sector 1).
In Stage 4 (1995) the church was given a desk-top assessment (Sector 4).
Stages 1-4 were reported in Bulletin 1, which also gave notice of a new piece of sculpture located in the crypt by Niall Robertson. Bulletin 1 also carried a PROJECT DESIGN composed on the basis of the first four stages of evaluation. The research project was combined with an initiative to restore St Colman's Church and develop it as a Visitor Centre in which to display the results of the research project. Bulletin 1 gave a summary of the proposals for the development of the church as a Visitor Centre.
The present Bulletin reports four further stages of evaluation and the consequent refinement of the Project Design.
In Stage 5, deposits on the south-western side of the enclosure were mapped (Sector 1).
In Stage 6, deposits were exposed in the Glebe Field to the west of the church (Sector 2). Here it was seen that a sequence some 400mm deep had survived beneath the ploughsoil, representing activity from about the 9th to the 17th century.
In Stage 7, deposits were fully excavated in a vacant property awaiting development to the north of the church (Sector 3). This area was found to have been sand dunes, unexploited until the 17th century.
In Stage 8, deposits were examined in the church (Sector 4). It was established that an earlier church underlay the present building.
Following these results, the Project Design was revised to include an extensive investigation within the church in advance of its redevelopment as a display centre, and the research brief has been widened to include the later middle ages.
Projects 1 and 2 of the revised Project Design (excavations at Portmahomack) are supported by and through Tarbat Historic Trust; while Projects 3 and 4 (surveys in Tarbat Ness and the wider region) are currently the subject of other sponsorship.
The excavation programme at Portmahomack is a collaborative venture between the University of York and the Tarbat Historic Trust, in which the results of a current research project produce the material for a display which is to attract visitors to Portmahomack, and so provide the financial underpinning for the restoration and conservation of St Colman's Church. The themes and structure of this display will be designed to reflect the excitement and results of the archaeological discovery, and are currently being worked out by Trust members, with their appointed architect, Fred Geddes and designers, Higgins Gardner.
The funding package for the integrated project depends on our ability to predict the future contents of the museum and its success in attracting the public. For the archaeological component, this requires an unusually precise prediction of the outcome of the excavation, which in turn demands much from the techniques of deposit-modelling and evaluation. The stakes are high and the risks palpable, but the rewards are great: firstly, the acceptance of archaeological research as a 'deliverable' in the same sense as a new building; and, secondly, new knowledge about the Picts and their place in Europe, as reflected in the emerging story of one of the most attractive and visitable villages in northern Scotland.
Martin Carver 1 April 1997
Last updated 10 October, 2003.