The Iron Age origins of Dunbar

Excavations at Castle Park, Dunbar undertaken in 1988 an 1989 in advance of the construction of the swimming pool confirmed that the headland had been fortified for about 2000 years. This appears to have formed the focus of an important settlement which was valued to the extent that successive inhabitants felt the need to defend the area against potential attack. Eventually in the medieval period a formal planned town was laid out with burgage plots set at right angles to the High Street, a layout which is fossilized in the morphology of the modern town. This blog summarises the evidence that was recovered for the promontory fort which was located at the edge of the headland about 2000 years ago; the origin of Dunbar.

The publication of the results of the excavations undertaken by SUAT in the late 80’s and early 90’s which is published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and worth a look!

Iron Age Fort

The headland which now hosts Dunbar Leisure Pool was fortified from at least the beginning of the first millennium AD or 2000 years ago. These early fortifications which were identified during the excavations in advance of the construction of the leisure pool consisted of three large parallel ditches which cut off the promontory forming what is now Castle Park. Each ditch was probably flanked internally by an earthen bank formed by the material dug out of the ditches – turves which would have been used to construct the bank were found slumped into one of the ditches. A final line of defence was provided by a palisade consisting of large upright posts – the excavated line of post-holes are visible on the aerial photograph which is included in the front cover of the publication on the results of the excavations (above). Unfortunately very little evidence of the interior of the fort was identified as it was located to the east of the excavation and due to the presence of later monuments such as Dunbar Castle and the later blockhouse, both of which would have significantly disturbed any earlier archaeology. The headland has also been heavily eroded by the sea over the millennia.

This illustration was produced for a paper I published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 2001 when I worked with Headland Archaeology Ltd

Outer ditch

In 1998 I excavated a small area within Castle Park in advance of the construction of a new block of public toilets. Unfortunately the excavations were limited to the depth of the foundations of the new building and we could not fully excavate the site. However at the lowest level of excavation the top of what we believed to be a large ditch was identified which was a minimum of 8 meters wide. A radiocarbon date was retrieved from a charcoal sample within the top fill of this feature which came back with a date of between 50 BC and AD 70. This would suggest that a forth contemporary ditch ran parallel with the defences identified beneath the leisure pool and may represent an outer boundary which encloses an additional 2 ha of ground out-with the interior ditches.

Chronology

The fort was built at a time of momentous change in southern Scotland. The interior ditch beneath the leisure pool and the external ditch identified in 1998 appear to pre-date the Roman Iron Age. The two outer ditches beneath the swimming pool contain Roman pottery and have been carbon dated to the Roman period.  At the beginning of the 1st millennium AD Dunbar would have been located in the territory of the Votadini whose tribal centre was at the nearby Traprain Law. The Romans arrived in southern Scotland around AD79 which would undoubtedly have been a great concern for the local inhabitants – possibly resulting in them strengthening their defences by adding an additional two ditches!

The site of the fort today looking towards the sea with the leisure pool occupying the position of the main defences.

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