A hut on the hill: a multi-proxy microbotanical and micro-algae approach to a Pictish roundhouse floor at Cairnmore, Aberdeenshire

Shalen Prado* (Corresponding Author), Gordon Noble

*Corresponding author for this work

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Early medieval architecture is notably difficult to trace in northern Britain. The fortuitous survival of an intact floor of a building located just outside a ringfort at Cairnmore, a high-status early medieval ringfort enclosure in Aberdeenshire, Northeast Scotland, allowed the targeted deployment of a paleoethnobotanical approach that utilized microbotanical (i.e., phytoliths) and micro-algae residues
(e.g., diatom frustules) to illuminate the character of the unusual survival of an early medieval building in Scotland. This research revealed novel data on the architecture of the early medieval roundhouse floor in this poorly documented region and era for settlement remains, securely identifying the use of turf for
walling in an early medieval lowland building. Evidence for roofing material was also preserved in the phytolith signature. Moreover, the microbotanical assemblage from Cairnmore was found to represent a use of a variety of ecological niches providing important evidence for landscape use. The presence (and absence) of particular microbotanical indicators also allowed interpretation of the possible uses of the structure. The results from this research demonstrate that microbotanical approaches can be critical in understanding architecture in regions where settlement survival is poor, highlighting the merits of
microbotanical and micro-algae analyses in northern environments. The article concludes by advocating for the in-tandem assessment of these proxies in archaeological investigations where macrobotanical and other organic residues are poorly preserved.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103652
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date3 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022

Bibliographical note

Special thanks to Shanti Morell-Hart for her continued support and useful comments on earlier drafts of this article. Thank you to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments that greatly improved this article. This work is part of Shalen Prado’s doctoral research at McMaster University, carried out on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee and Mississauga First Nations, and funded by McMaster University’s Anthropology Department. Fieldwork at Cairnmore has been funded by the University of Aberdeen Development Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, and the Leverhulme Trust.
The writing of this article was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Research Leadership Award (RL-2016-466 069). Special thanks as well to Nadia Cavallin at the Royal Botanical Garden (Burlington) for providing modern plant samples which contributed to the McMaster Microbotanical Research Database and this


  • paleoethnobotany
  • phytolith
  • floor layer
  • Pictland
  • diatom


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