A body of a dead sheep has been found in Assynt? That’s not exactly interesting, is it? Well, yes, actually. It’s astounding!
Historic Assynt planned this fortnight of summer activities to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Assynt Crofters Trust’s buyout of the North Assynt Estate, which is being celebrated through a marvelous Feis in the Fank in a big marquee at Stoer Green, overlooking the broch. We thought there might be some interesting links between Iron Age life and present day crofting, but never could have predicted what happened today. Each day of the Feis has a different focus and the theme today was ‘Ewe to You’. All day there have been things going on related to sheep and their role in crofting lives – shearing workshops, sheep dog demonstrations, lamb tasting, plus opportunities to join in every step of the woolly way from the flock to a sock – carding, dying, felting, spinning and knitting.
The archaeologists have found lots of paraphernalia relating to the use of wool, with loom weights and spindle whorls aplenty. Finding another one of these would have raised a smile at the coincidence, but today they pulled off something really special – they found a whole sheep!
Alongside all the fun activities, there is some hardcore archaeological excavation going on this fortnight. The ‘guard cell’ between the walls, to the left of the doorway, was left full of rubble last summer, and this week that rubble has been coming out and the results so far are amazing. First of all, instead of a floor like the right hand cell, there are several steps leading downwards into the depths. In these depths, within the material of the floor, is where today’s spectacular find was unearthed – a skeleton, which seems pretty complete, of a sheep. Next to it is a substantial piece of timber.
What was it doing there? Was it a milking ewe kept indoors, tethered to a post and unable to run away, left behind when the broch burned down? Was it a young ewe about to lamb, which needed shelter? Or was it supposed to be that night’s dinner?
Or is this something much more mysterious – a ceremonial burial of a sacrificial beast close to the broch entrance to appease the spirits, or a symbol of prosperity placed in the foundations to bless the building? Only time will tell, and for now the team carefully pick out what they can preserve of the relic of the animal.
As our imaginations run riot about what the story of the animal was back in the Iron Age, the real story is simply the amazing coincidence of the find on the very day that the crofters are celebrating the importance of sheep to modern crofting culture. It is as if the broch wants us to understand that this importance goes back a very, very long way!