Inner Hebrides Archaeological Project

The IHAP teamThe Inner Hebrides Archaeological Project is directed by Steven Mithen and was established in 2004. It is a multi-period project, which currently has funding support from the British Academy, AHRC, after initial support from Historic Scotland and School of Human & Environmental Sciences. The project concerns long-term change in patterns of settlement and ideologies of landscape and power on the islands of Tiree, Coll, Gunna and north-west Mull. It has begun with four sub-projects, as listed below, and will develop further sub-projects relating to further aspects of prehistoric settlement and the historic periods on the islands.


  • Survey for Mesolithic/Neolithic settlement on Tiree, Coll and NW Mull - Professor Steven Mithen
  • Reconstructing vegetation history and human impact on the landscape -
    Dr Karen Wicks
  • Geophysical and spatial study of later prehistoric monuments on Tiree and Coll -
    Dr Darko Marecevic
  • Geophysical survey of the Holocene coastline of Tiree - Dr Tim Astin

Survey for Mesolithic/Neolithic settlement

Map of study area

The survey for Mesolithic/Neolithic settlement on Tiree, Coll and NW Mull is directed by Steven Mithen and funded by a large research grant from the British Academy. This work builds on Steven's previous work on Colonsay and Islay where between 1987 and 1997 he discovered and excavated a suite of Mesolithic sites to address questions about initial colonisation, settlement patterns and the transition to Neolithic and farming way of life. Even though that was the largest spatial study of Mesolithic settlement ever undertaken in the UK within a single project, Steve feels that it was still too restrictive to cover the likely range of Mesolithic and Neolithic mobility patterns. Consequently he has now embarked on locating Mesolithic and Neolithic sites on Tiree, Coll and NW Mull with a view to undertaking a further suite of excavations, the results of which will be integrated with those from Islay and Colonsay, and those of other researchers within the region.

Survey on Tiree

Steve is working with Anne Pirie and Sam Smith as the lithic analysts on the project, which is closely related to the Ph.D work of Karen Wicks. In 2004 and 2005 a survey was undertaken on Tiree. This involved cataloguing all of the chipped stone artefacts within the local museum and searching exposures in the extensive coastal dune deposits and elsewhere on the island for new artefact scatters. Of particular interest in the museum is the collection made by George Holleyman during the 1940s when he was stationed on the island as an RAF officer. During his spare time he collected an assortment of artefacts from the sand dunes at Balephuil and Ballevullin, which at that time lacked any cover of grass. The dunes were stabilised in the 1950s by the planting of grass, leaving very few exposures of sand. Consequently Holleyman's collections provide a unique insight into potential sites that now lie entirely buried by marram grass. There are also substantial collections of chipped stone in the Hunterian Museum made, such as those from Erskine Beveridge who made the first archaeological study of Tiree in 1907. The project intends to catalogue these, and ideally help return some of the materials to the island.

Flints from TireeThe Tiree survey has located several potential Mesolithic sites which further studies will seek to confirm. The most important of these is known as T1, a scatter of artefacts on top of a raised beach exposed by a large blow-out at Balephuil Bay. This collection has a strong bipolar component which suggests it may have affinities with the late Mesolithic technology from the Oronsay middens. Anne is currently examining the assemblage from Cnoc Coig to examine the likelihood of this. Holleyman's collection had several possible Mesolithic artefacts, most notably a small number of well worked platform blade cores. It also contains several finely made thumbnail scrapers, likely to be either Mesolithic or Neolithic in date.

The survey on Tiree has now covered all of the exposures in the Balephuil and Ballevullin areas, and a large proportion of those elsewhere on the islands. It is unfortunate that such exposures cover such a tiny proportion of the island surface and hence the possibility of locating Mesolithic sites remains limited.

Coll & Mull

View over Fiskary BayIn November 2005 Steve made a brief visit was made to Coll and Mull to meet with local collectors on those islands and to plan out the project fieldwork for 2006 and 2007. On Coll he met with Jim Hill who has a keen interest in the local archaeology and had collected artefacts from Fiskary Bay and Caolas an-eilean. Both collections are potentially Mesolithic with platform cores and a blade element. Jim also showed Steve the sites on Coll where John Crawford had collected artefacts during the 1980s and 1990s, which he published in Proceedings of the Antiquaries of Scotland in 1997. Probably the most important of these sites is that at Sorisdale, a bay at the far eastern tip of Coll, where the chipped stone assemblage also had Mesolithic affinities.

On Mull, Steve visited Billy Smith at his croft at Craet Dhub in the NW of the island. When on Tiree in 2005, Steve had heard that Billy Smith had found some chipped stone artefacts when digging his garden in 2000. There was indeed a large collection of artefacts with platform cores and blades. As important as this was the location of the site – in a sheltered location, adjacent to a freshwater burn and close to an estuary, which amounts to a classic position for a Mesolithic site. Billy has also detected some 'black soil with shells' when digging his garden, and suggested that some areas of this remained undisturbed. Steve also visited caves on the remote and wild-west coast of Mull. One of these, Reudle Cave, was in an excellent topographic position and appeared to have relatively undisturbed floor deposits to warrant a test excavation as it is only in such caves that stratified sequences of deposits with organics remains are likely to be found.


Disembarking at GunnaDuring its 2005 field-season on Tiree, the team visited the tiny island of Gunna, located between Tiree and Coll. In 1996 GUARD had undertaken excavations at Port na Cille on Gunna in advance of a proposed building development. Their work had found a stratified sequence of midden deposits amidst a complex array of structures of prehistoric and historic periods (photo). In 2004 Anne Pirie catalogued the chipped stone assemblage from their excavations and found a potential Mesolithic component to the assemblage (photo). Consequently in 2004 Steve and his colleagues opened up a section through the deposits at Gunna to secure material for radiocarbon dates in the midden deposits (photo). These proved to be Iron Age and Bronze Age in date, with well preserved molluscs, animal bone, fish bone, plant remains and fish scales. An earlier presence is unlikely, providing the possibility for a long-term site specific sequence covering the whole extent of prehistoric settlement.


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See a video of the 2012 Islay excavation

Excavations 2012


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