Kirsty Millican (RCAHMS) – Perth and Kinross

Perth and Kinross.  ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Perth and Kinross. ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

My name is Kirsty Millican and I work for the Historic Landuse Assessment (HLA) Project at RCAHMS. The site I would like to focus on may not seem the most spectacular; if you visited it today all you would see is an apparently unremarkable arable field. Instead, like many thousands of sites in Scotland, it is revealed to us just as cropmarks – the differential growth of crops above buried features –  photographed from the air. At Westerton in Perth and Kinross, these cropmarks reveal the former presence of a Neolithic timber enclosure (probably built sometime between around 3300 and 2600 BC, and classified on RCAHMS Canmore pages as a pit enclosure because of the way it is revealed on the aerial photograph), an enigmatic type of monument that I find as fascinating as much for the way in which it is revealed to us today as for the glimpse it gives us of the activities and structures built by our prehistoric ancestors.

The image here shows the Westerton enclosure quite clearly – it’s the rectangular enclosure in the centre of the photograph defined by two parallel lines of five neat circular dark marks with one centrally placed mark at each end. These circular marks in the crop record the presence of buried post pits – the holes dug to take standing timber posts. The posts themselves have long since decayed and disappeared and only the infilled pits remain beneath the soil. And here’s my interpretation of these marks with the enclosure in red. North is at top of this image, so the enclosure is at a slightly different angle to that in the aerial photograph.

Interpretation of the cropmarks at Westerton. The timber enclosure is in red, cropmarks of other features are in black. Copyright Kirsty Millican

Interpretation of the cropmarks at Westerton. The timber enclosure is in red, cropmarks of other features are in black. Copyright Kirsty Millican

Today there is nothing above ground to indicate that Westerton was once the location of an important prehistoric structure (see image below) and indeed it was built of a relatively ephemeral material, wood, which would decay and disappear over time. However, through the medium of differential crop growth and ripening caused by the buried features and the fact that those features were captured on a photograph taken from a small aeroplane, we have this picture of a monument constructed over 4000 years ago. Therefore, from these simple marks in the crop, it is possible to begin piecing together something of what people were doing, or at least building, here thousands of years ago. This in turn gives us a window onto the past peoples and societies, their lives, activities, beliefs and values. I continually find it amazing the something as apparently simple as the way in which crops grow can reveal so much.

The location of the timber hall today within an apparently unremarkable arable field Copyright Kirsty Millican

The location of the timber hall today within an apparently unremarkable arable field Copyright Kirsty Millican

So let’s return to Westerton and see what it can tell us. The site at Westerton has never been excavated, but we know from similar sites dug elsewhere that it likely dates to the later Neolithic period (probably somewhere between around 3300 BC and 2600 BC) and that those post pits would have held substantial timber posts, probably of oak. This, then, was a substantial timber structure. For a variety of structural reasons it generally thought that Westerton, and other similar structures, are unlikely to have had a roof. Clues to the purpose and use of these timber enclosures are fragmentary, but they are usually interpreted as having some kind of ceremonial and/or funerary function. Below is one possible reconstruction of what Westerton may have looked like. As only the holes dug to take the upright timbers survive, inevitably there is a lot of speculation involved in reconstructions such as this. For example the timber posts may have been modified, carved or painted in some way, and there may well have been fencing between the posts. Despite what we do know, there remains an element of mystery about these Neolithic timber structures.  Nevertheless, images such as this at least help us to begin to imagine what they may have looked like.

Speculative reconstruction of the timber enclosure at Westerton depicting the enclosure as formed by large, relatively unmodified timbers. Copyright Kirsty Millican

Speculative reconstruction of the timber enclosure at Westerton depicting the enclosure as formed by large, relatively unmodified timbers. Copyright Kirsty Millican

Some of the excavated sites that help us to interpret the cropmarks at Westerton are also found in Perth and Kinross, and the RCAHMS Canmore pages have some wonderful images of these sites. These include the timber structure excavated at Littleour and one at Carsie Mains. Another similar, though unexcavated, cropmark site has been recorded at Balrae. Several other timber enclosures are also known elsewhere in Scotland. Therefore, we know of several of these mysterious sites both in Perth and Kinross and beyond. Whether they were all exactly contemporary is impossible to say but, who knows, perhaps the same people who built Westerton knew of the structures at Littleour and Carsie Mains and the communities that built them. Certainly they knew the reasons for their construction, reasons that can only be vaguely grasped today, and will have participated in particular ceremonies and events both within and around these structures. Whatever they were used for, these were undoubtedly important structures. Think of the effort involved in cutting down oak trees without metal tools (these enclosures were built before the introduction of metal to Scotland, so stone axes must have been used) and of erecting the large timbers to form the enclosure without the use of modern machinery.

There is much more that could be said about this site; there just isn’t enough room in a single blog post. However, I hope this has given some flavour of why I find sites such as Westerton so fascinating, and the way in which such ghostly marks in crops can reveal a wealth of information. This information would be unreachable (and indeed Westeron and many thousands of other cropmark sites would be entirely unknown) without a combination of the effects of buried archaeology on growing crops, the aerial survey of individuals and organisations such as RCAHMS and the luck that meant someone flew over this site at just the right moment to see and record it. The fact that all these factors came together at just the right time allows us to reach back to the things people and communities were doing and building in a location more than 4000 years ago. It truly is fascinating!

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.

For further information you can also contact the local authority archaeologist. In this case contact details are:

David Strachan
Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust
4 York Place
01738 477081


A Day in the Life of Gaye Nayton, Heritage Archaeologist

Hello from Perth, Western Australia where I want to introduce you to a day in my life. As an archaeologist I am a bit of a hybrid beast. I work as a consultant archaeologist/heritage consultant and run my own consultancy. I also carry out academic research, having a PhD from the University of Western Australia and authoring the first book on WA historical archaeology. I also work as a public archaeologist running public outreach programs and I am authoring a book on WA historical archaeology aimed at the general public. You can check out my varied archaeological personalities at my web page at

When people think of archaeology and archaeologists they think of digging but the truth is most archaeologists spend 90% of their time in the office or lab. I thought for the Day of Archaeology I would take hourly photographs throughout my day to show how my day panned out. I could have been on a site but statistics are against it and this day like many others is going to be spent mainly in the office working on reports. My sister Jackie is helping out my Day of Archaeology project by hanging around and snapping photos every hour. (more…)

Rescuing Local Heritage, Western Australia.

The Bibra Lake area of Western Australia, formally known as Walliabup Lake, was first provided as land for pioneer settlers in 1843. The first settler to the area, in that same year, was Benedict von Bibra, a Fremantle carpenter, after whom the lake is now named. In the following years other settlers chose to make the lush area their home. Land around Bibra Lake was utilized for market gardening and later dairy cows in order to supply Fremantle and Perth with fresh produce and milk. It also attracted many pioneers for picnics and recreation, as well as having an established tea rooms.

One of the founding families were the Tappers, prominent in Fremantle and associated with the maritime industry. After one of her sons died at sea, Mary-Ann Tapper was determined that her youngest son, Daniel, would not face the same fate and saved to purchase land at Bibra Lake. Her plan succeeded and the family established themselves with land at its south. Starting out as market gardeners, Daniel eventually included dairy cows in order to supplement the families living. Eventually the site of their homestead became the center of the local community with a petrol pump, telephone exchange and post office.


Jetlag and a very full day – GIS manuals, Egyptology and conference preparation


Yesterday was a very busy day, thus I am only now able to submit a post here!


I got back from a two-week holiday to Western Australia on Thursday. My Dad and I went to visit his brother who moved to Perth from the Isle of Man 40 years ago, and his family. We had an awesome time, saw lots of places and wildlife: Roos, Quokkas, Koalas, the lot 🙂

A herd of Kangaroos at Rockingham Golf Course

A herd of Kangaroos at Rockingham Golf Course

Myself and a hungry Quokka on Rottnest Island

Myself and a hungry Quokka on Rottnest Island

My family out there is lovely! I am still rather tired and recovering from a long journey back, which commenced on Wednesday afternoon: 5h flight from Perth to Singapore, then 13h Singapore to London-Heathrow. Then another 3h back to Liverpool by train. My poor Dad had to fly back to Hanover, which is close to Peine, Germany, where I am originally from!

The thing that struck me, whilst visiting Australia, however, is the general attitude towards archaeology. Whenever I mentioned my interest in visiting a particular museum, or seeing anything related to archaeology, I was told that “Australia doesn’t have very much history at all”, and that “surely, there is not very much archaeology around”… I was rather shocked and saddened by this, given the huge amount of aboriginal culture in Australia. I did point this out, and obtained some understanding, but the attitude of Australians towards Aborigines is a very problematic topic in general. When visiting the Western Australian Museum in Perth, however, I saw a very well-displayed and super-informative exhibition on aboriginal culture in Western Australia. Shame it didn’t seem to be too-well visited! 🙁

Back to work!

I had to get up extra-early yesterday (29th July), as I had to get straight back to work: I work as a Supervisor in Geomatics for Oxford Archaeology North, specialising in open source GIS. I totally love it and really do think it’s the way forward, especially given that proprietary software can “lock in” archaeological data, which can lead to data loss – something that should be avoided, I guess we all agree! Over the past couple of years we have been using open source GIS software, such as gvSIG (both the “original gvSIG” and the OADigital Edition), Quantum GIS, GRASS,  in addition to some 3D GIS visualisation tools, such as Paraview. Furthermore, we have been testing and using database software, such as PGAdmin (PostgreSQL and PostGIS), and illustration software, such as Inkscape successfully. I must say that all of the software we used has come a long, long way in those past two years, and at OA North, we use open source tools more or less as a standard and I can confidentially say that it is replacing the proprietary software previously used, such as AutoCAD and ArcGIS.

My friend and colleague Christina Robinson and I were given some time to document our combined knowledge in order to make it accessible to both colleagues within the company, and also the wider archaeological community – what is better than a free guide to open source GIS, which allows you learn to use free, powerful GIS software, and edit and analyse your own survey data! 🙂 We have produced guides and manuals during the past couple of years – they are available for free download on the OA library website and released under the creative commons license. Here are the manuals we released so far:

Survey and GIS Manual for Leica 1200 series GPS

Survey and GIS Manual for Leica 1200 series GPS

Hodgkinson, Anna (2010) Open Source Survey & GIS Manual. Documentation. Oxford Archaeology North. (Unpublished)

Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Using the Helmert (two-point) transformation in Quantum GIS. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd.. (Unpublished)

Robinson, Christina and Campbell, Dana and Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Archaeological maps from qGIS and Inkscape: A brief guide. Third edition. Documentation. Oxford Archaeology North. (Unpublished) – this is the third edition, re-released today!

And here are two brand new guides, produced on the Day of Archaeology and made available today:

Robinson, Christina (2011) QGIS Handy Hints. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd. (Unpublished)

Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Download of the Leica 700 and 800 series Total Station. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd. (Unpublished)

Please download and  use these and extend your skills; please burn them and let us know, we are grateful for your feedback! Some more guides/manuals are currently in production and will be added to the library, so please watch this space!

Lunch Break – (not really) time for some Egyptology

I briefly escaped work at lunchtime in order to go to the bank – I had to make an international transfer, the only way (annoyingly) to pay for my speaker’s fees for the upcoming 16th International Conference on Cultural Heritage and New Technologies, Vienna, November 2011. My paper on “Modeling Urban Industries in New Kingdom Egypt” was accepted for presentation, my abstract an be found here. I will be presenting my current research on the distribution of (mainly) artefactual evidence from Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, in Middle Egypt. Using open source GIS (naturally), I am studying the distribution and density of artefacts relating to high-status industries, such as glass, faience, metal, sculpture and textiles within the settled areas of Amarna, in order to establish how products and raw materials were controlled and distributed.

Distribution of the evidence of glass- and faience-working within the North Suburb at Amarna

Distribution of the evidence of glass- and faience-working within the North Suburb at Amarna

This paper presents part of my PhD research on high-status industries within the capital and royal cities in New Kingdom Egypt, Memphis, Malkata, Gurob, Amarna and Pi-Ramesse. I have now completed my third year of part-time research and am hoping to finish the whole thing within the next two or three years. We will see, thought I’d better get on with it!! 🙂

I am a member of the fieldwork team at Gurob, and I am very much looking forward to our next fieldwork season in September this year! Check out the project website for reports of past fieldwork seasons and my work in the industrial area, which I also presented at The Third British Egyptology Congress (BEC 3) in London, 2010.

After-work seminar and more open source GIS

We had an in-house, after-work seminar at 5pm, at which Christina and I gave our paper on “Open Source GIS for archaeological data visualisation and analysis” to colleagues, which we presented at OSGIS 2011 in Nottingham. You can watch the webcast of the original talk online (scroll down until you find it), unfortunately it only works for Windows, though. :'( The paper, which was presented on June 22nd 2011, is about our successful case study, moving Geomatics at OA North to open source GIS and away from proprietary software. We even won the prize for the second-best presentation! It went down well with colleagues, and after a discussion we moved on outside for a barbecue, which was very nice, as it stayed warm all day (unusual for Lancaster). I had to eave rather early unfortunately, as the commute back to Liverpool takes about 1.5 hours. At least I was able to relax and read George Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”on my Kindle!

Our Presentation for OSGIS 2011, Nottingham

Our Presentation for OSGIS 2011, Nottingham