About Joseph Anderson

The Anderson 150 project is a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the commencement of archaeological investigations in the Yarrows landscape, Caithness, by the eminent antiquarian, Joseph Anderson. In 1865, Anderson carried out a marathon season of excavation, investigating several of the Neolithic chambered tombs around the loch as well as the Battle Moss stone row. He went on to investigate the Iron Age Broch and a number of the Bronze Age cairns, as well as numerous other monuments across the county.

Anderson’s excavations were the first and only time that most of the monuments at Yarrows have been investigated (the exceptions being the recent excavations at Warehouse South chambered cairn and Battle Moss stone row), and his findings continue to influence our understanding of this unique and exceptionally preserved monumental landscape. The significance of Anderson’s work to the archaeology of Caithness cannot be understated.

Who was Joseph Anderson?

It would be fair to say that Joseph Anderson (1832-1916) was one of the most important figures in the development of archaeology as a discipline in Scotland, straddling the worlds of antiquarianism and scientific rigour with authority and imagination. And it would also be fair to say that he cut his teeth as a field archaeologist in Caithness, with his excavations in the Yarrows Basin in the 1860s a particular watershed in his career to the extent that this work featured heavily in his seminal Rhind Lecture series of the 1880s. His ability to combine scientific analysis with imagination, and his awareness of developments in European archaeology, made him an ideal person to sketch out the shape of Scottish prehistory in a fashion not previously attempted. And so in 1935, Gordon Childe was to write that with the publication of Scotland in Pagan Times (available at: https://archive.org/details/scotlandinpagan04andegoog) in 1886 Anderson ‘had sketched the essential outlines of Scottish prehistory in a comprehensive and scientific survey such as then existed in no other country’.

Joseph Anderson among the displays in the Royal Institution, Edinbugh, 1890. Source Clarke 2002.

Joseph Anderson among the displays in the Royal Institution, Edinbugh, 1890. Source Clarke 2002.

Joseph Anderson was born in Angus in 1832, son of an agricultural labourer, and during his childhood lived in St Vigeans where he apparently developed a deep interest in the collection of Pictish stones around this town. After a period as a Latin and English teacher in Scotland he worked, between 1856 and 1859, in an English school in Constantinople, Turkey, a remarkable experience for this young Scot. For reasons that remain unknown, he soon moved back to Scotland, and to a very different kind of career.

He moved to Caithness and became editor of the John O’ Groat journal in 1860, a role he served until 1869. Anderson’s digging career in Caithness began in earnest in this period, working for the most part with Robert Shearer who was factor at Thrumster Estate, who himself was to become a noted naturalist. Over the course of two busy seasons of work in 1865 and 1866, Anderson excavated at the multiple stone rows at Battle Moss (on the bank of the Loch of Yarrows) as well as the small cairn at the focal point of the Garrywhin stone rows in the valley to the south of Yarrows. The ‘laying bare’ of the latter was to reveal a Bronze Age pot, some human teeth and two lithics, and this was to inform very strongly Anderson’s view of the enigmatic stone rows as decorative additions to existing Bronze Age burials in small cairns or cists. He worked on other monuments too – Neolithic long cairns such as South Yarrows South and Kenny’s Cairn, and even the Yarrows Broch, a partially waterlogged and ruinous Iron Age structure. This work was funded by the Anthropological Society of London, and it was to them that Anderson sent a series of illuminating reports and letters reporting on his work, as well as regularly publishing in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Anderson’s career in archaeology took off in earnest when he left the County and settled in the heart of the archaeological establishment in Edinburgh. There, he was Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland for 43 years, and long-term editor of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. But all of this only became possible because of his dedicated and high quality (for the day) work in Caithness, and in particular the Yarrows Basin.

These comprehensive accounts of the life and career of Anderson are freely available to read online via the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland webpages and were very helpful in the preparation of this short biography. Other publications are available on our Resources page.

Graham, A 1976 ‘The archaeology of Joseph Anderson’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 107, 279-98. Available at: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_107/107_279_298.pdf

Clarke, DV 2002 ‘“The foremost figure in all matters relating to Scottish archaeology”: aspects of the work of Joseph Anderson’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 1-18. Available at: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_132/132_001_018.pdf


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