In an echo of the discovery of Skara Brae a century and a half earlier, a storm in 1993 cut away the dunes on the east side of Bostadh Beach at the north end of the island of Great Bernera. Following the storm a series of stone structures were found to be projecting through the new dune surface.
Archaeologists spent a total of 13 weeks at Bostadh during 1996. Evidence was found of Norse settlement here, but underneath the Norse levels a series of five Pictish jelly baby or figure of eight houses were found, in a remarkable state of preservation. The names come from the shape of the house, which is like a vaguely circular blob, with a separate and smaller vaguely circular blob attached to one end of it, linked by an internal doorway.
The houses had been built by excavating a floor level well below the surrounding sand, and building up a double layer of dry stone walling, with the gaps between the walls filled with turf, clay, sand and midden. The walls all stood to their full height and undisturbed floor deposits remained in the houses, beneath the preserving infill of sand. The houses were believed to date back to the second half of the first Millennium, ie the centuries after 500AD.
Today the site of the village is marked by an interpretive board at the point where visitors emerge onto the dunes overlooking Bostadh Beach from the east. The excavated houses were back-filled with sand to preserve them and although three can just about be made out today, it is easy to overlook their existence altogether as you wander through the area.
The main attraction for visitors to the site is a reconstructed jelly baby house. This was placed at the south end of the bay, in a location free of achaeological remains. It is accessed by a path leading across the dunes and over a wooden bridge.
The reconstructed house was erected in 1998/9. Like the originals, its floor is well below ground level. You enter by a curving series of steps at the southern end, designed to keep out as much wind as possible, and a wooden door.
The basic style of construction is not greatly different from that used in blackhouses still being built on Lewis at the end of the 1800s, like those on view at the Blackhouse Museum at Arnol and at Gearrannan. The gap between the inner and outer stone walls may have been larger than it later became: but the fundamentals remained much the same.
The excavations in 1996 revealed nothing about the style of roofing used on the houses. A double conical approach was considered to the reconstruction (reflecting the figure of eight shape), but it was felt that this would cause water to flow in where the two partial cones met. So a single, double skinned structure was used instead. The original aim was to give the outer surface a turf covering: but the summer of 1998 was exceptionally wet and many of the turves cut for the purpose rotted before they cured. So the roof was thatched instead.