History Index : Prehistory

The Ice Age

The striking mountain range of Bennachie lies 7 miles to the North of Monymusk and dominates the local landscape with its distinctive volcanic shaped peak - the Mither Tap. Despite this shape, it was never a volcano, but the peak has been the inspiration behind many local legends.

The Bennachie range was formed 400 million years ago by a mass of sedimentary rock pushing upwards in the earth's crust. It cooled slowly under a mass of sediment which has gradually worn away to expose the granite underneath. There are 6 main peaks on the range, which are made of harder granite and have been able to resist the weathering and ice better. Some of the peaks have exposed rock, which are known to geologists as tors. Mither Tap is a tor and the most prominent of the peaks on the Bennachie range, yet the highest point is the Oxen Craig at 528 m. The range may have originally been 2 or 3 times higher with great jagged peaks, but during the Ice-Age, enormous ice sheets ten thousand feet thick covered the landscape, tearing the rock as they moved along and flattening the surface to leave a range 8 km long and 5km wide. Immediately to the West of this range is the smaller Menaway Range and Monymusk nestles at the end of this line of hills. The huge clumps of granite rock were dragged along underneath the ice sheets and once the ice melted, about 10 500 years ago, an environment littered with rocks and boulders and bare soil was revealed.

Gradually plant life returned and in flat water logged areas between the peaks, peat bogs were formed by vegetation accumulating, rather than decaying. As the climate got warmer birch began to take hold in the lower regions, followed by other tree species such as pine, hazel, rowan, holly, aspen and oak. This provided shelter for many animals returning from the South, including reindeer, Arctic fox, bear, northern lynx, boar, wolf, roe deer and red deer. Many of these woodland animals are unknown in the area today, due to the ancient Caledonian forests being cleared and destroyed. After the Ice-Age as men settled they slowly increased the cultivated areas they farmed, the Monks continued this process until the only forests left were the ones on very poor infertile land and in the hills. Once the whole length of Britain was covered with large and small rocks and boulders, but over the Centuries they have been broken up and used as building materials or cleared to make way for agriculture.

At Monymusk there are still some very large stones left in the middle of fields, which were too large to break up and have been left as a reminder of the past. Local legends tried to explain the existence of these huge rocks. For example, it was once believed that there had been warring giants living on the tops of the mountains nearby who hurled rocks at one another.

Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) from 8000 BC to 4000 BC

The first evidence of humans in Scotland is from around 8000 BC, 2000 years after the last Iceage. These people were hunter-gatherers hunting for wild food, such as deer or fish. They lived in small groups along the rivers, in structures made from wood and animal hides and made tools from stone, flint, bone and antler and were skilled in archery, leatherwork and basket weaving. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of their encampments along the River Dee in Aberdeenshire.

Neolithic (New Stone Age) - from 4000 BC to 2000 BC

The nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life continued without change until around 4000 BC when the ideas of farming were introduced from the Mediterranean. This sparked a social revolution as people began to settle on the fertile uplands and plains. They initially lived in log cabins in small settlements and wore animal hides. They grew crops and kept animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs, whilst also continuing to hunt for wild food. Many people remained semi-nomadic and they moved with their animals to find winter pasture, or when an area of land could no longer support crops. They would return to the same areas after a few generations when the land had time to regenerate itself.

flint arrowheads
Flint tools (arrow heads)

They continued to make hand tools such as axes, hammers and arrow heads from flint, which produces a razor sharp edge. Pottery has also been discovered from this period, which also helps to confirm they were a more settled population, as clay pots are heavy items to carry around. The style of the pottery usually dates the archaeological find. Many flint weapons have been found in Monymusk and in just one single site near Todlachie Burn (map ref: NJ 68 15), the following objects were found:- 2 flint implements, possibly borers; 3 carved stone balls with numerous spherical knobs - between 65-70mm in diameter; the cast of a carved stone ball 74mm in diameter; and a perforated stone axe hammer.

Many carved stone balls have been discovered in the area; a ball 70mm in diameter when digging the foundations for the present Monymusk Primary School (built 1907) and another at Braehead with a diameter of 76mm. A stone axe was also found at Ardneidlie in 1904. Thousands of these decorated stone balls have been discovered all over Aberdeenshire. Although no-one really knows for sure what they were for, suggestions include weapons, currency or that they were simply decorative items. There is also a theory that they are a kind of Stone Age vernier scale for the fine tuning of stone circles for the planting of crops etc.

Crop Marks

The Monymusk area has much evidence of 'crop marks', which are archaeological features from prehistoric times revealed from the air when the crops have become established in Spring and early Summer. Crop marks can reveal old enclosures, banks and ditches, burial pits or the sites of houses or other buildings. Crop marks form due to a difference in the soil structure in the areas which have been disturbed when digging pits for burial or holes for erecting structural poles for houses. In these areas of disturbance there is a greater depth of soil, which nourishes the crops growing on these sites and reveals the structures that were once there. There is a rectangular crop mark at Haddoch, Monymusk, which archaeologists believe is the possible site of a house from the Neolithic period.

Neolithic Settlement - Greenbogs, Monymusk

Map Reference: NJ 680 161

In 1995 a Neolithic Settlement dating back some 6000 years was discovered at Greenbogs beside the River Don, half a mile to the North of Monymusk village at Pitfichie. The field undulates in 3 large waves from North to South and is situated on the bank about 8 feet above the River Don. There is a clear view down-river to the South-East, Bennachie to the North and it is one field away from the Monymusk Stone Circle to the South. Sir Archie was following the tractor as it levelled the area when he noticed darker round marks at regular intervals appearing. He realised they had to be man-made and contacted Aberdeenshire Council's Archaeology Department. Moira Greig led the expedition to excavate the whole area and discovered that the site appeared to have been used from at least the Neolithic period right through to the Bronze Age.

Discoveries were made in 3 areas. In the most northerly area was a small cremation cemetery with evidence of 5 small burials. In those days bodies were burned and buried in a small pot. One of these 5 holes still contained the remains of most of a pot with a cremated bone inside, so the site could be dated by the pot. In the central area they found remains of a palisade with 23 postholes still visible and evidence of 2 deep burning pits, containing ash 20 feet deep. In the third area they found the remains of 3 large round huts shown by the circular post holes, that Sir Archie had noticed.

Source: Aberdeenshire Archaeological Monuments Records Service

At Archaeolink, an archaeological visitor's centre near Insch at the back o' Bennachie, there is a reconstruction of a round hut which was based on one of the huts excavated at Monymusk. It is not hard to imagine why settlers chose this spot in Monymusk, as the battlement of hills to the north and west would have provided very good shelter and the low wet ground to the East and South would have been full of fish, duck and wild birds for hunting. The idea of living in a tent in Scotland during the winter does not appeal today, but in fact the temperature was actually 10 degrees warmer in those days, like the South of France now, and all the trees were deciduous.

Long Barrows

The Neolithic people buried their dead in long barrows. There were 2 main types: 'earthen long barrows' made completely of earth and 'megalithic or chambered long barrows' made from a chamber of stones (cists). The long barrows were communal tombs, holding from up to fifty adults and children. They were up to 350 feet in length with a wider end pointing to the East - towards the rising of the sun, which was of special significance. The barrows were centres of religious activity, centering on the dead and fertility. Often ceremonies were performed at the entrances to the barrow using the bones of the dead, and the bodies were only interred after the bones had been cleaned or all the flesh had rotted away. Sometimes the bones were burned in a form of cremation ceremony before they were buried. The bodies were very rarely buried with any goods, apart from arrowheads or broken pottery shards, so there is not usually much evidence to suggest what kind of people were buried there, or to indicate importance. It does perhaps indicate that they did not attach importance to wealth or status but lived communally. The archaeological evidence suggests that the people of the Neolithic Age began to turn towards the spiritual world with the construction of henges, cairns, stone circles and standing stones, which are all thought to have had religious significance.

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