The Temple of the Western Main: Recent research work on the Isle of Staffa

Published on: Author: Jamie Kelly Leave a comment

Author: Aura Bockute, University of Glasgow (Archaeology)

On the 13th of November the Centre welcomed Professor Siân Jones (Chair in Environmental History and Heritage at the Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy at the University of Stirling) and Dr Stuart Jeffrey (Reader in Heritage Visualisation at the School of Simulation and Visualisation at Glasgow School of Art) who are currently involved in extensive research on the Island of Staffa. The presentation was the first contribution from Archaeology this semester, yet a perfect fit for this year’s Islands theme and highly relevant to the multidisciplinary makeup of the Centre. Their joint presentation focused on the recent work of HARPS (Historical Archaeology Research Project on Staffa) which is a collaboration between the Glasgow School of Art, the National Trust for Scotland, University of Stirling and University of Glasgow.

Isle of Staffa with the entrance to Fingal’s Cave (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Dr Jeffrey began by introducing the natural environment and history of the island: Staffa is a famous for its wildlife, spectacular columnar basalt geology, similar to the UNESCO listed Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and its prominent natural sea cave feature, Fingal’s Cave. Popularised in the 18th century by Sir Joseph Banks, Fingal’s Cave took a prominent place in romantic imagination and was a source of inspiration for artists worldwide, including Jules Verne, Felix Mendelssohn, John Keats and William Wordsworth. Surrounded by superstitious beliefs and notions of its divine origin at the time, Fingal’s Cave manifested romantic ideals and evoked powerful emotional responses expressed in creative activity and folklore. Fingal himself rose to greater prominence in the 18th Century through Macpherson’s epic poems of Ossian. Popular associations with Fingal’s Cave attracted intensive tourism that ultimately disrupted the powerful solitary experiences of nature sought out by romanticists. In 1898, Fingal’s Cave was finally recognised as an entirely natural geological feature which dismissed previous notions of its anthropogenic or supernatural origin. This ultimately led to its transformation into a primarily natural wonder (and later a national nature reserve), focusing on its attractive geological features and wildlife. The island is presently managed by the National Trust for Scotland on this basis.

Regarding the work of the HARPS project, Dr Jeffrey highlighted the project’s aim of ‘re-inhabiting’ the island with people, telling their stories and uncovering the material histories of Staffa beyond its unique natural environment. The project continues to investigate the remains of medieval and early modern settlement and farming, with the addition of prehistoric activity that will inform place-making on Staffa through time. Professor Jones took over to unpack the more theoretical understandings of place-making through the materialities of romantic travel and tourism. The impact of tourism is manifested through permanent remnants on the island, creating material histories of this travel. Such remains include a ruinous building, or ‘bothy’, intended to support tourism and provide shelter, and dense historic inscriptions left by visitors within Fingal’s Cave, the earliest found dating from the beginning of the 19th century. The graffiti consists of initials or names, places, dates, symbols and some references to historic naval vessels, presented in a variety of hand styles and inscription techniques. The hardness of basalt stone and the quality of some inscriptions suggest time-intensive skilled craftsmanship, possibly the work of memorial masons.

Inscriptions on the surfaces inside Fingal’s Cave (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Professor Jones shared her understanding of the graffiti as a performance of travel and world making and a means of self-fashioning and inscribing oneself into a place. She is interested in exploring class, background and taste that can be inferred from the diversity of the graffiti and the attraction and accumulation of inscriptions as archaeological assemblages on the surfaces of these special locations. Professor Jones perceives the markings as gestures of ownership, occupation, connection and transit through the place and wants to look beyond to unpick the relationships and personal biographies reflected in the inscriptions. To date, the project has created a 3D laser scan model of Fingal’s Cave and produced an initial photographic record, selective transcription and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) recording of the graffiti.

Dr Jeffrey and Prof Jones working inside Fingal’s Cave (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Dr Jeffrey presented results from several seasons of archaeological excavation on Staffa. Investigations around ‘the bothy’ structure focused on standing building survey and excavation in the interior and immediate outside areas. Excavations recovered fragments of historic material culture such as glass, pottery and jars. Systematic test-pitting and geophysical survey across the middle of the island discovered prehistoric activity. Test-pit trenches produced worked flint and late prehistoric decorated pottery. One Bronze Age (1700 BC) pot sherd with a distinct herringbone pattern received a creative response: it became an inspiration to a local jeweler Beth Legg who created an accessory range based on its pattern, available at Aosdàna Jewellery on Iona. Most recent excavations this past summer focused on extending a trial trench outside ‘the bothy’ building revealing a curvilinear feature forming a ditch structure with a shallow pit and a dense layer of mixed prehistoric material culture, including chipped flint and pottery sherds with a variety of different decorative patterns. A similar ditch feature associated with shallow pits is known at a Bronze Age Beaker burial site at Kilmartin, while a Bronze Age site on Islay shows pottery designs similar to those found on Staffa. Such significant amount of prehistoric evidence opened questions of connections, engagement and meaning of Staffa to prehistoric people; therefore, further research will continue to incorporate the investigation of prehistoric place-making on the island.

Aerial view of ‘the bothy’ structure and excavation trenches in 2016 (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Herringbone pot sherd and its inspired jewellery by Beth Legg (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Excavations in summer 2018 (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Furthermore, digital visualisation strategies are helping to generate new creative responses to Staffa. Audiovisual technologies are employed to create a representation of the island that does not replicate but compliments to the experience of the island. Fingal’s Cave, also known as the ‘melodious cave’ in Gaelic (An Uaimh Bhinn), is known for its unique and powerful soundscape, particularly dynamic in stormy weather. Part of the HARPS project was capturing the acoustics of the Cave using sound sweeps and impulse responses to produce a digital convolution. Acoustic soundscapes are crucial for generating representations and immersive systems to evoke an emotional response to a place. Recent work with radio documentary producers from the BBC will widen the audience demographic and create digital immersive audiovisual versions of Staffa.

Capturing the soundscape of Fingal’s Cave (Twitter @Staffa2019)

Ongoing work of the HARPS project is revealing the attraction and meanings of Staffa to people through time, investigating multilayered evidence that encompasses modern graffiti, historic tourism and prehistoric settlement. The project will continue to explore the interdisciplinary dimensions of research and expand to further unpack the histories and material identified so far, integrating it into overall story of place-making on Staffa.

You are invited to follow the project as it continues in 2019 on Twitter @Staffa2019.

HARPS Project

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