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One might imagine a sparsely populated area would offer little of interest to the archaeologist. Yet few regions in Britain can boast such a wealth of archaeological treasures as the Highlands and Islands. Indeed, the sparseness of the population has worked to the archaeologist’s advantage, the lack of human activity helping to preserve prehistoric and ancient remains.

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age
Evidence of the earliest human settlements was discovered on the Isle of Rum and dates back 9,000 years. From the Macarthur and Mackay Caves near Oban, finds of bone and flint artefacts, stone hammers and a few human burials provide evidence of the ‘Obanian culture’ of 4500 BC. From collections of seashells and simple tools, a picture has emerged of a nomadic people gathering materials for clothing and shelter and hunting for food.

The Neolithic or Late Stone Age
The Neolithic peoples that came to Britain around 3700 BC brought the principles of farming with them, and the resulting forest clearance to make way for crops and pasture radically altered the landscape. Distinctive to the Highlands are the chambered cairns found at Corrimony by Drumnadrochit and Clava Cairns by Inverness, amongst others. Yet their finest monuments must surely be Maes Howe and the village of Skara Brae in Orkney, and the Callanish Standing Stones in Lewis.

The Bronze Age
With the coming of the Bronze Age and the production of deadlier weapons, there arose a need for stronger protection. Fortified brochs were built, like those at Dun Telve and Dun Trodda at Glenelg. Archaeological evidence suggests a well-ordered society capable of building lasting monuments and trading materials such as metals. By 800 BC fine gold jewellery and bronze articles from Ireland were beginning to appear in and around the Moray Firth area.

The Iron Age
Iron-working came with the Celts between 500 BC and 400 AD. They constructed vitrified forts, such as those at Craig Phadraig above Inverness and Knockfarrel by Dingwall. They also brought with them their languages, Gaelic and Welsh. During this period a large number of Pictish symbol stones were erected, such as the Hilton of Cadboll and Shandwick Stones in Easter Ross.

Roman times and beyond
Written records may have begun with the Romans, but archaeology still plays a major role in piecing together the past. For example, archaeologists have recently discovered a Roman fort near Forres, the most northerly yet found in Britain. And what of the remains of medieval and later human activity? Much waits to be explored and explained.

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