Archaeologists uncover ancient ‘chamber of secrets’ on mythologized Scottish mountain peak

Near an ancient Pict fort at a legendary Scottish mountain peak known as Bennachie, archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have uncovered an opening in the ground featuring steps that lead to a well chamber that could yield a treasure trove of data and artifacts.

According to the university:

The hill of Bennachie has a folklore of giants, magical springs and the devil who built a causeway in one night, while its archaeology includes prehistoric hut circles and the hill fort at Mither Tap.

Bennachie hill via Facebook


Indeed, the Mither Tap hill fort on Bennachie is an ancient defensive work used by the Picts to fend off the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago.

And about 1,000 years ago, a well chamber was dug near the Bennachie fort and massive stone steps placed leading down to it from above ground.

The well had been uncovered once in the 1800s by farmers who placed a large boulder to block the entrance in an effort to prevent their livestock from falling into it. It was then buried, only to be found again by Dr. Gordon Noble and his archaeological team earlier this month.


Mither Tap well via Facebook


“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,” Noble told the Press and Journal. “It’s particularly sophisticated for the period and created a huge amount of excitement both in the team and online. It really gives you an idea of the efforts that would have gone into building this fort – the ramparts would have been huge.”

“There is a massive stone within that was put there in the Victorian period to prevent animals falling in,” Noble wrote on Facebook to keep people up to date on the team’s progress. “We’re hoping we can get it out to investigate the upper well deposits- we have already removed another massive stone to reveal the steps. Awesome structure – one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in archaeology!”

Noble observed that the well does not tap into one of the “magical” springs of myths surrounding the mountain, but rather collected water that streamed down from the slopes. The team also found a lot of glass from the 19th century.

“The well is not one that taps into a spring – instead it collects water from the slopes in a cavity in the granite bedrock with the steps and walls constructed around this natural feature,” Noble wrote. “It is actually very shallow but holds around 60 liters. Unfortunately, it was pretty heavily disturbed by 19th century monkeying around with glass all the way to the base. We have managed to sample a little bit of clay lining around one side.”

When they did manage to remove the stone, they found that the steps led into a lower chamber shaft.

“We managed to remove the massive stone that was blocking the well shaft,” he wrote. “It really is a remarkable structure – we’ll update you with the details of its structure and character next week, but from today’s excavations we can clearly see it is a contemporary part of the fort with the lower stonework keyed into the main face of the rampart. It has been a great privilege for our team to reveal this.”

The steps appear to be 1,000 years old, but Noble told reporters that samples will need to be analyzed to make a determination.

“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,” he said.

Archaeology website Ancient Origins speculated on what kind of treasures the well could yield. Unfortunately, gold or any artifacts in plain sight from the Picts or Romans would have been looted a long time ago, possibly by the 19th-century farmers who blocked it up. But the site also wonders if the well existed when the Picts and Romans fought it out at the Battle of Mons Graupius.

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.

It’s certainly an extraordinary find that will likely help researchers learn more about this ancient site and the people who lived there. The Bennachie well had to be covered up again but it will likely be uncovered again next year when another expedition takes place. And who knows, perhaps there are some hidden artifacts just waiting to be discovered by the team. For now, it must continue to lie in wait inside this chamber of secrets, adding more mystery and lore to a place already steeped in mythology.


See the stunning backdrop for this discovery below:

More from Dr. Gordon Noble below:

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