Image of Tarbat Sculpture.Bulletin 1, 1995

Research Programme


Archaeological Programme 1:

Investigation of the site and fabric of Tarbat Old Church [Fig. 18 below]

Proposed excavation areas in the church

Figure 18: Proposed excavation areas in the church


The site of Tarbat Old Church features an important medieval building, and is also likely to contain evidence for a Pictish ecclesiastical centre. Since the project includes the development of the church site as a Museum, the opportunity for archaeological investigation should be taken.

The work is designed -

  1. to elucidate the structural story of the building, and
  2. to inspect the character of any surviving traces of the Dark Age settlement which preceded it.

Small-scale interventions are planned at the west end, at the east end and in the crypt [Fig. 18]. These excavations are intended to co-exist with the programme of development.

Assessment of the probable impact of refurbishment and development

Refurbishment: The roof is to be repaired and the exterior harling is to be replaced. The internal timber supports, pews and panels are to remain exactly as they are (according to the drawings). Since this work is to occasion no disturbance, it has no archaeological implications.

Development: The following works are likely to have the impact shown:

In the authors' view, the development proposals do not represent an abuse of the monument, but are likely to afford added value and added protection. Furthermore such works as do impact on the archaeological assets provide opportunities which are rewarding to research.

Proposed Programme of Archaeological Investigation

Rationale: The work made necessary by development and the work desirable for research purposes are here combined. An understanding of the history of Tarbat Old Church is desirable for two reasons:

Constraints: Whereas the most comprehensive approach to the inquiry would be the total recording of the wall fabric and the total excavation of the interior, there are several constraints on such an approach.

Research and Management Targets: The realisable research targets, in order of priority, are:

Presently excluded from the research targets, given the constraints detailed above, is a major excavation in the nave. If no earlier strata are contacted, such an excavation would not be justified. If early strata are contacted, a major excavation would be desirable but should be postponed until a context has been provided for it through the settlement excavation programme.

The management constraints associated with the investigation of the church are taken to be:

Proposed Archaeological Interventions: The targets itemised above can be addressed through the following archaeological works ('interventions'). They are given in order of priority:

Intervention A: Recording of the interior wall fabric, including inside the crypt.

Intervention B: Excavation of a small area at the E end.

Intervention C: An excavation 6m x 2m within the W end. The excavation would be on the N side of the accessible area. It will expose the foundations of the W wall(s) and the N wall.

Intervention D: The excavation of the service trench .

Intervention E: Watching Brief. Archaeological surveillance would normally be required during refurbishment.

Intervention F: Excavation of the crypt floor. [The recording of the crypt wall fabric would be included in Int.A].

Summary of archaeological works:


Mar 96: Acceptance of estimate by Tarbat Historic Trust

Jun 96: Recording of walls (Int. A)

July 96: [in parallel with excavation in fields] Excavations in nave and W end (Int. B-D)

Oct 96: Excavation of service trench (Int. D).

Archaeological Programme 2: Excavation of the Settlement (Sectors 1,2,3)

A T-shaped transect as shown on Fig. 19 meets most of the specifications of the research design. It includes a sizeable part of the easily mappable area next to the fortifications, likely to contain evidence for production and consumption; and it runs north between the churchyard and the spring system, thus connecting the likely ecological and ritual nodes. It extends up to the crest overlooking the beach (Sector 3). If this contains no evidence for maritime exchange, then a further extension on the down-slope towards the present beach may be desirable.

The greater part of this area (i.e. Sector 1) will be susceptible to the 'strip and map' technique which is essentially non-destructive. Normally only surface finds will be recovered. For features chosen for excavation, recovery level of D or E will normally apply (see Appendix 1).

In Sectors 2 and 3, deeper stratification is anticipated, up to 1.2m, of which 80cm is scrambled ploughsoil. At least two phases of excavation will be required in this sector, the first defining the medieval occupation beneath the ploughsoil and the second examining the Early Historic phases. In general the first of these operations will act as a high-level evaluation for the second.

In Sectors 1 and 2, damp or even waterlogged strata are anticipated in the valley bottom. Special equipment may be required, but not on a scale appropriate to deep urban anaerobic deposits.

Proposed excavation areas in the enclosure

Figure 19: Proposed excavation areas in the enclosure

Programme for the Settlement Excavation [Fig. 19]







Archaeological Programme 3: Survey of Portmahomack

The zones to be explored are those marked on Fig. 3, and the principal methods to be used are:

  1. Geophysical survey in Zones D, E, H, J and K.
  2. Trial excavations (as opportunities permit) in the residential area of Zone J.
  3. Reviews of documents and local knowledge, particularly of the early 20th century and earlier.

It is hoped that the collection of this information will allow an appreciation of the archaeological potential of the whole of the Portmahomack area, and lead us to any sites where significant intervention is possible.

Resources: It is intended that, apart from incidental expenses to be borne by the rest of the archaeological programme, the bulk of the work will be carried out by students and friends of the project. No specific costings are therefore included.

Archaeological Programme 4: Regional Survey (Dornoch Firth)

In parallel with the Tarbat project, a programme is being initiated which will explore the Dornoch Firth territory in the Early Historic period, and provide the Tarbat site with its context. This will include:

Stage 1: Reconnaissance

  1. The collection and mapping of all aerial photographs generated by the Moray Aerial Survey (Keillar, Jones and Maude 1993)
  2. Additional targeted flying
  3. Mapping Early Historic sites from finds-spots, sculpture and place-names
  4. Geological mapping to determine the changing configuration of the coastline and inland water.

Stage 2: Evaluation

A list of target areas for evaluation is in preparation. It will probably include:

  1. Hilton of Cadboll
  2. Edderton
  3. Mid Fearn and Wester Fearn
  4. Golspie
  5. Dornoch
  6. Tarradale
  7. Cyderhall

Stage 3: Strategy

This can be compiled on completion of all or some of the evaluation exercises. The strategy would be expected to include:

A Research Programme, including major and minor excavation projects, study of sculpture and other materials. Many of these projects (like the small-scale evaluations) could be achieved by student contributions at BA/BSc, MA/MSc and DPhil level.

A Management Programme, including recommended protection for sites, recommended surveys for management purposes and presentation/education proposals.

The initial proposal is to carry out stages 1 to 3 of the survey in parallel with the investigation at the Tarbat site.

Timetable and Costings





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Last updated 10 October, 2003.
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