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Former Dornoch man discovers 5500-year-old cup in loch

By Mike Merritt

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A former Royal Navy diver and Dornoch native has discovered an almost completely intact 5500-year-old cup, hidden in the mud of a loch in the Outer Hebrides.

Archaeologists are said to be "very excited" over the find which could provide clues to the lives of the early islanders.

The cup was found on the Isle of Lewis on Friday by Chris Murray.

The location has been kept secret at this stage, but Mr Murray described it as "a beautiful example" of the Neolithic age and was the first person to drink from it in thousands of years.

Mr Murray has also previously discovered similar bowls around mysterious man-made islands in the Outer Hebrides which have led to a "startling" re-writing of history.

The structures – known as crannogs – date back to more than 1000 years before Egypt's pyramids and Stonehenge.

Of the latest find Mr Murray, now living in Stornoway, said: "It is the cup of our ancestors, a very ancient early Neolithic bowl or drinking vessel around 5500 years old.

"And yes I did take a sip of water from it and to think the last person to hold this and and put it to their lips was thousands of years ago was just incredible.

"I had an idea there might be some items around the crannog on the loch. It was only about four feet down and I saw this tiny fragment sticking about a quarter of an inch out of the mud.

"So I dug away and after 20 minutes out came this beautiful example of the period. Unlike my previous finds it is undecorated. But to think it is older than Stonehenge, Callanish and the pyramids is just fantastic.

"I have been in touch with archaeologists from Southampton and Reading universities who are very excited about it, but they will be unable to come up this year because of the pandemic restrictions.

"I am just a pathway for the experts and glad that I have been able to help shine a light on the past."

Mr Murray also recovered 40 shards of pottery from the loch.

Archaeologists in Scotland have made “astounding discoveries” in the islands' lochs in recent years.

It follows searches and finds by Mr Murray, a former award-winning coastguard helicopter rescue winchman.

He has previously scoured Loch Arnish, Loch Langabhat and Loch Borgastail on Lewis making "startling" finds.

"This is of international importance. We have even had researchers from Lebanon and Mexico involved," said Mr Murray.

"It shows that people were building these islands long before the pyramids and Stonehenge. It really is startling what we are finding out.

"This will be a long project over a number of years but it is incredible what it is showing. These man-made islands were clearly very important to early Hebrideans. Some of the pottery is now even called Hebridean Ware. Some of the bowls were scallop shaped and even the rims were decorated.

"The archaeologists don't know why they were throwing these pots into the loch nearly 6000 years ago – was it a sacrifice to water gods? I just decided to dive on them out of curiosity and I couldn't believe my eyes. Some lochs were full of pottery. It was incredible, a real archaeological treasure trove."

The search was first sparked in 2011, when Mr Murray recovered a set of remarkably preserved Neolithic treasures submerged around a crannog.

These artificial stone built islands were previously assumed to have been inhabited between the Iron Age and the post-medieval period.

But according to findings published in the journal Antiquity it is now evidential that at least four crannogs in the Outer Hebrides were lived in c.3640–3360 BC, demanding a re-dating on the crannog historical timeline by some 2000 years.

The ancient inhabitants of Scotland were building artificial islands thousands of years earlier than we thought, ancient pottery discovered in the lochs suggests.

Hundreds of these small, human-made islands, or crannogs, have been found across Scotland. They are particularly common in the outer islands. Archaeologists had believed the oldest dated back to around 800 BC, in the Iron Age. They then remained in use for around 2500 years afterwards.

But the discovery of one major crannog on North Uist dating back to the Neolithic period, about 3700 BC, prompted speculation that several of the islands might date to this era. The idea was confirmed when in 2012, Mr Murray discovered a series of well-preserved pots of a Neolithic style around another crannog on Lewis.

Working in collaboration with Murray, Duncan Garrow at the University of Reading and his colleague analysed several more crannogs in the Outer Hebrides.

Radiocarbon dating of structural timbers and pot residues put the age of four sites at between 3640 to 3360 BC – quite close together.

While it is unclear what these sites were used for, scholars have suggested they might have been special places for social gatherings, ritualised feasting or funeral sites.

The builders used stone and wood to construct the islets, sometimes expanding on existing formations in the water. One of the sites in Garrow’s study measured 26 x 22 metres and was made using stones weighing up to 250 kilograms each.

A few pots remained on the islets themselves, but the majority were found in the water surrounding them. The position of these ceramics and the quantity suggested that they were intentionally placed in the water, and some, if not all, were whole at the time, Mr Garrow says.

Because the loch sediment is so stable and placid, it’s likely the ceramics that fell or were placed in the water remained in much the same spot until they were discovered over 5000 years later, Mr Garrow wrote.

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