The Discovery of the Ballachulish Goddess, “This strange relic of paganism…”

By this time, everyone must have heard of the ‘graven image’, recently discovered in old Ballachulish Moss; a find the most intriguing and curious and puzzling that has ever yet engaged the attention of Scottish archaeologists.”

The two contemporary accounts of the discovery of the Ballachulish goddess are tantalisingly vague as regards certain key details that might help us better contextualise and hence interpret the artefact: a piece in the Inverness Courier (9th December, 1880) and a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The former is a remarkable piece of writing, written in a languid prose with florid touches, replete with the inevitable late 19th century classical allusions. Much of the information in this piece seems to have come from a ‘luncheon’ hosted by the Rev Chinnery Haldane (owner of the land where the goddess was discovered and subsequently Dean of Argyll). The authors should also be thanked for apparently providing our best visual record of the Goddess, the black and white photograph (Plates 1-4) of the artefact before it started to deteriorate. The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:

“We have suggested to the Rev Haldane that it should be photographed, for the edification of the intelligently curious in such matters, who may not have had an opportunity of making acquaintance of Our Lady of the Ferry in propria persona. The balance proceeds of such photograph sales would be an acceptable boon to the deserving poor of the district in this inclement season.”

Whether the ‘deserving poor’ ever benefitted in such a manner isn’t recorded; but the resulting photograph is our only image of the goddess shortly after her discovery.

Plate 1

The subsequent scholarly paper by Sir Robert Christison (1881), is a lengthier, somewhat more focussed account carried out at the behest of the Antiquarian Society, but is lacking in terms of specific information including archaeological details that are reported in the Courier: Christison states that he drew on discussion with the Rev Haldane and the Rev Alexander Steuart, local cleric and also noted archaeologist, who apparently declined from reporting to the Society due to “…distance from the necessary opportunities of literary research…” (i.e. presumably he couldn’t make it to the library in Glasgow…or at least that was his excuse?). Slightly oddly, Christison reports that he felt himself unqualified to carry out the necessary “…literary antiquarian research…” and proposed other members of the Society, who declined but provided the necessary documents. There is almost a sense that no one much wanted to go near the subject, nor indeed the goddess herself. This might be echoed in an account from one of the villagers in Ballachulish who told the story that the railway workers charged with moving the goddess to Edinburgh in 1880 were apparently reluctant to handle the ‘pagan idol’.

Christison expands at some length on questions concerning the rates of peat accumulation as a means to date the artefact, and devotes rather less space in his paper to the actual find or the other archaeological material at the find spot. Whilst some of his discussion concerning the accumulation of peat is perceptive for its time, it provides little substantive detail on the find spot as such. It appears to draw directly or indirectly on the Courier account for much of the archaeological detail, apparently missing out or abbreviating certain facts. This much is clear: the figurine was discovered in November 1880, during “ditch making and…trenching the strip of mossland” close to the Rev Chinery Haldane’s property, Ardsheallach House, North Ballaculish. The find spot was ‘130 yards’ north from the shore of Loch Leven around 50 feet above sea level, and close to the ferry crossing (now bridge) across the opening of the former into Loch Linne..

Plate 2

The peatland is described as previously of much greater extent, covering much of the current area of North Ballachulish but reduced by peat cutting and drainage by the late 19th century. The description of the peat itself implies the presence of a ‘raised bog’ probably dominated by Sphagnum (bog moss) with the presence of many ‘sub fossil’ tree trunks beneath the peat suggesting a previous, pre-peat phase of woodland cover which was drowned as peat inception progressed. This mire survives as Ballachulish Moss, now boxed in by housing development and roads. The goddess was found just over four feet down (although previously the surface of the peat is described as at least 6 feet above this) and close to the interface between the peat and the basal gravels. The figurine was facedown and overlain by “…many twigs and branches, woven and interlaced in such a way…” that the workers present, named as Donald Mcinnes, Munro “…and others, the most intelligent and interested amongst the workers…” reached the conclusion that these remains were a “wicker work crate or basket” with other longer pieces of wood suggested to be part of ‘a wattled hut’. This is a frustratingly vague if tantalising conclusion.

The Courier accounts goes on to describe the previous discovery beneath the peat “several years previously” of “…several barrow loads of flint chips…hundreds of them in every stage of completion, arrow heads, spear points, knives and scrapers” contained within a “circular wattled building, of which stumps of the tough heart of old oak remained in situ”. The apparently extensive organic archaeological record of the Moss during the 19th century also included: “wooden basins, platters and bowls of an antique shape”, bog butter in solid wooden containers and ox and deer horns. Other sites around the moss include cairns and cists, including one Christison describes as “110 yards off and at the same level” which contained a ‘white powder’ (cremated bone?). It is unclear from this description whether the cist was found sealed beneath the peat or not.

Where does this leave us in terms of reconstructing the findspot itself? The location of the goddess and probably the ‘circular building’ associated with the abundant lithics, imply that these were constructed during the very earliest phases of peat growth in this landscape. If the description of the lithic assemblage is anything to go by, the structure probably predated the Iron Age and hence the goddess. Nor is it clear, if the goddess was located within a structure, although there seems a fair chance from the description of the woven twigs and branches, that the artefact was contained within (or placed under?) some sort of hurdle or wickerwork. This is reminiscent of later prehistoric human remains (‘bogbodies’) deposited in wetlands (for example, male and female bodies from Windeby, Schelswig Holstein; Aldhouse Green 2004); a detail we will return to later.

Plate 3

In terms of the relationship of the goddess to the peat that preserved her, it is tempting to suggest that peat growth had begun earlier to the west (the current location of the surviving Ballachulish Moss). In other words, the goddess, might have been deposited at the edge of a peatbog that by later prehistory, was expanding across the landscape. Certainly the position of the archaeological remains at the base of the peat, indicate waterlogged conditions but not such that access on foot was entirely impeded. It would likewise be tempting to suggest that the location thus associated with a still accessible, if rather wet, location or route between the east edge of the peatland and the western edge of the Loch: potentially dangerous, watery places on two sides of the traveller. The deposition of bogbutter (albeit undated) and other items implies the votive deposition of material into the moss, is in keeping with prehistoric traditions elsewhere.   If this was the case, then the context of the goddess might be somewhat similar to other later prehistoric anthropogenic figurines (e.g. The Wittemoor Figurines, Lower Saxony, Germany, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittemoor_timber_trackway), at the edge of a routeway across a wetland. This is a tempting hypothesis but one for which we currently lack supporting data, not least radiocarbon dates from the base of peat and other associated palaeoenvironmental data to allow us to map the spread and extent of peat across this period. The surviving core of Ballachulish moss offers potential opportunity to collect such information and might be a target for future study although recent geophysical survey (https://canmore.org.uk/event/786479) indicates that little peat survives intact. However, the presence of even relatively thin in situ deposits raises the intriguing prospect that further archaeological sites and finds survive below the peat in this (scheduled) area.

Plate 4

Another aspect of the artefact, not least the good condition of the goddess when she was initially found, indicates that she could not have been exposed above ground for too long. Unseasoned alder wood will dry out and crack quite quickly (within weeks) although this process might be slowed in a wet place. So, the figurine fell, if she was ever upright at all, or was deliberately sunk, into the peat within perhaps a short time of her creation. This is almost as much as we can state or infer concerning the context of the burial of the Ballachulish goddess. She may have been within a hut or some form of enclosure, and might have been contained within or under a hurdle. We will return to reflect and analyse some of these details and associated archaeological information in subsequent blog posts.

Aldhouse-Green, M. 2004. An Archaeology of Images: Iconology and Cosmology in Iron Age and Roman Europe. London: Routledge.

Christison, R. 1881. An ancient wooden image, found in November last at Ballachulish peat-moss Proceedings of the Society March 14th

 

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