On one of Scotland’s most mythologized mountain peaks near Aberdeen, ancient freshwater well with intricate spiralling stone steps has been re-discovered and archaeologists were keen to peek into its ‘blocked’ chamber of secrets.
The deepwater well was built with granite blocks and the expansive Mither Tap Hillfort, located on one of Bennachie’s four summits, is thought to have acted as a fresh water supply. The hilltop was ‘probably inhabited as early as 1000 BC,’ according to an entry in Castles Forts Battles.
Between the inner and outer ramparts there are a number of roundhouses and a wide square hall was constructed in the centre, with the well sunk into the lowest point of the hillfort that was occupied between AD 340-540 and AD 640-780 respectively.
Archaeologists from Aberdeen University’s Northern Picts projects knew that the well had been covered over in the Victorian period and an article in the Press and Journal says “It was re-covered and has lain beneath thousands of hillwalker’s feet ever since.”
Dr. Gordon Noble, the head of archaeology at Aberdeen University, said earlier this month, “a shepherd put a large rock into the well at one point to prevent his livestock from falling in, and it currently blocks access to its lower levels.”
While it has not yet been established which historic period the well belongs to Dr. Noble said the well is “particularly sophisticated“ and that it gives archaeologists an idea of the efforts undertaken in building this type of fort . He told the Press and Journal:
“We were really expecting to find a pretty bog-standard well, but we uncovered these fantastic steps leading all the way down to the well chamber.”
It was thought the Victorian era farmer who blocked the hole had actually performed an archaeological service because what lies beneath the blocking stone should be relatively well preserved. Dr Noble told reporters “I hope we’ll be able to find intact deposits we can sample for dating, or do some pollen sampling to find out about the environment at the time the well was used.”
Bennachie Hill is very prominent owing to its isolation and the flat surrounding terrain and it dominates the skyline from several, if not most, surround viewpoints. Mither Tap is 518 meters (1699 feet) high and shaped like a female breast, reflected in the name Mither Tap (Mother Top) and ‘Bennachie’ ( Beinn na Ciche : ‘hill of the breast’).
This name tells us that the hill was traditionally associated with a mother or fertility goddess and would have held deep religious significance to Bronze Age people, which is also expressed in the large number of standing stones on the shoulders of the hill.
Mither Tap’s sacred nature is further enhanced in that for over 400 years researchers have identified an astronomical alignment with the nearby Pictish Fortalice of Caskieben (currently located within Keith Hall). Referring to this alignment in the late 16th century, Dr. Arthur Johnston said, “The hill of Benochie, a conical elevation about eight miles distant, casts its shadow over Caskieben at the periods of the equinox.”
Might then, a water well, at the peak of the breast-shaped hill, seen to fertilize the fields below like a mother feeding her child, have received sacred offerings? Possibly artifacts crafted from materials known ‘not’ to pollute water supplies? Gold perhaps? After this much time and it being open during and perhaps up to the late 1800s, all these seemed unlikely.
In an article I wrote last year, I discussed various interpretations of the name “Bennachie” or “Beinn a’ Chath” and an alternative Gaelic etymology is proposed by some historians: “Hill of the Battle”. On 26th July 1975, Professor J.K. St. Joseph presented a set of provocative aerial photographs taken 6 miles (9.7 km) north west of Inverurie, Aberdeenshire and about 3 miles (5 km) from ‘Mither Tap’ of Bennachie Hill. The images revealed a massive Roman marching camp measuring 57.2 hectares (141 acres) by 58.4 hectares (144 acres). Known as Logie Durno, situated to the north east of the River Urie it is the largest known Roman camp north of the Antonine Wall .
Dr. St. Joseph argued that the Durno encampment was large enough to have housed two Roman legions and noted the camps topographical setting in relation to Bennachie Hill, which strongly suggests that it may be the camp was established by the Roman army who marched into the Scottish hills on a bid to capture and occupy the last free corner of Europe and met the rebel Pictish forces at the battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD.
Supporting this claim, Dr. Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre in Pamplona believes the words ‘Mons Graupius’ relate to the Welsh word ‘crib’ (ridge), and he claimed the actual shape of Bennachie Hill ‘provides confirmation of this etymology’.
It is uncertain whether the fort, or the prehistoric well, existed at the time of the Battle of Mons Graupius, but the answer to this question came closer as soon as the blocking stone was lifted. Although any artifacts that the well might have held from the Pictish armies who defended Mither Tap – and maybe even Roman artifacts from the soldiers who took it – were long gone, modern archaeological technology and methods can still retrieve secrets from the chamber.
Data that the pollen tests provide can tell previously untold stories of living conditions the ancients encountered on this historic hill. And now the surprising construction of the prehistoric well has been photographed and recorded for all to see.
Although the well will once again be covered after the archaeological investigation, already University of Aberdeen has a wonderful online resource by Shetchfab which brings the well to the masses like never before. You can now zoom in and out, and spin around interactive 3D models of the ancient well and fort, available here.