Dubai has Palm Jumeirah; Bahrain, the Amwaj Islands. But, man-made islands are hardly a new idea.Thousands of years before today’s nations began constructing artificial islands, prehistoric people in the British Isles were doing the same.
Known as ‘crannogs’ and build in lakes or lochs, some of these fortified islands date back as far as 5,000 years ago. Unlike similar constructions found in the European Alps – which were built on land that only flooded in later centuries – crannogs were always built to be artificial islands.
Supported by piles driven into the lake bed, some have several roundhouses on them. And they are unique to Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland, more than 350 have been confirmed, though the actual number could be far greater.
Archaeologists say that finding one can be like discovering a treasure chest. Started in 1980, the Oakbank dig was the first underwater excavation of a crannog in Scotland. From the crannog’s timbers to wooden dishes and even grains that people ate, the site today is a 10ft-high mound of material that measures some 35,000 cubic feet, all of which was excavated by divers.
Oakbank is just one of 18 crannogs that have been surveyed in Loch Tay alone. But Loch Tay is not unusual. Beneath their surface, many of Scotland’s lochs hide the remains of a dozen crannogs or more, most of them dating to the same eras – around 5th or 2nd Centuries BC.
The number of crannogs is remarkable because building a crannog is not an easy task.
Most crannogs were re-used off and on for the next 2,500 years. While it looks small from the outside, inside it seems to open up. Some 20 or so people, likely an extended family, would have lived within a crannog.
The roof is thatched. Bracken and ferns provide a prehistoric version of plush carpet. Furs are draped over low benches, and a hearth in the middle would have provided warmth and light. There is no metal in the entire recreated structure, meaning no iron nails, screws, bolts or cables. Instead, everything is made from wood and organic materials.
The conical roof is aerodynamic, and since the structure is made of timber, the whole settlement moves and flexes, a particularly important feature for an area that can see 100 mph winds and pounding waves from the loch. Building that kind of dwelling requires a high level of skill. It also needs abundant resources.
Their whole mindset is a million miles away from ours, mainly because they’re not watching the clock. They’re watching the seasons.It is impossible to know just how long it would have taken these early settlers to build their crannogs. On the one hand, they were cutting down trees with bronze axes that blunted easily and they would have been honing their skills since they were children.
Given the number and the diversity of crannogs, researchers say that it is hard to find out why crannogs were built in the first place.