YAARP takes to the field

DSC_0030To many people across the country, YAARP is associated with a certain police film set in a model village in the West Country (filmed in Wells actually), but to archaeologists and artists in Orkney, the initials can only mean one thing….Yesnaby Art and Archaeology Research Project.

The ten day YAARP fieldwork starts on 31st July and brings together staff and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, volunteers and artists with the aim of creating a unique view of the important archaeological landscape of Yesnaby, West Mainland, Orkney.

The team led by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute archaeologist Dr James Moore and visual artist Rik Hammond uses geophysics, drone photography and 3D modelling techniques, alongside a variety of arts based practices to record the ever changing landscape of Yesnaby.

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This is the third year of YAARP and this year the team will be focusing on creating unique digital and traditional artwork in the field based on the natural and cultural landscape. One exciting idea involves the creation of 3D models of elements of the landscape and reproducing them in physical form using 3D printing.

Dr James Moore says, “ We have developed an almost bewildering number of ways of studying, experiencing and presenting this important landscape. I think the whole team are looking forward to what new ideas, data and possibilities come from this phase of work, as well as the somewhat controversial ‘biscuit league’ being expanded to include a whole range of cakes and other treats. The project builds on many years of research, both as individuals and as a team, and we are looking forward to presenting a taste of the results by staging an exhibition in Orkney during spring 2018.”

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Follow YAARP social mediaFacebook @YesnabyArtArchaeologyResearchProject and Twitter @YAARP_Orkney and Rik Hammond @rikhammond.artist


Thanks to Orkney Islands Council Culture Fund for supporting the project.

Maritime Project Underway in Orkney

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MV Scotia. Permission of Marine Scotland

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is pleased to announce a collaborative maritime archaeology project surveying shipwrecks of the German High Seas Fleet and the war graves HMS Hampshire, HMS Vanguard and HMS Royal Oak.

This exciting project, which began on Sunday, is led by Sandra Henry, ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology), University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Kevin Heath of SULA Diving has brought together universities, commercial companies and government bodies including Historic Environment Scotland, Marine Scotland, Ulster University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Dundee, and Seatronics – an Acteon company.

The survey is using a suite of geophysical equipment, ROV and diver survey to collect data that will accurately record the wrecks as they sit on the seafloor today. The data collected will be used to continue to monitor, protect, conserve and promote these impressive ship wrecks. Visualisations of the wrecks by Chris Rowland, University of Dundee 3D Visualisation Research Lab (3DVisLab), will bring the wrecks to the surface and to life as he employs the latest technologies available to create these models. The project commenced on the 23rd July 2017.

Looking down into the Scapa Flow anchorage from the island of Hoy
Looking across Scapa Flow from Lyness.

The High Seas Fleet was the battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy in World War One. On 21st June 1919, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the order to scuttle the 74 ships of the High Seas Fleet located in Scapa Flow.  52 vessels were successfully scuttled, although during the interwar period salvage operations lifted 45 of these vessels from the seafloor. Today the wrecks of three battleships and four light cruisers remain on the seabed of Scapa Flow (http://www.scapaflowwrecks.com/wrecks/).  A project funded earlier this year by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and led by Sandra Henry from ORCA, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Kevin Heath of SULA Diving tells the story of these salvage operations,

HMS Hampshire was an armoured cruiser that was assigned to transport Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, to Archangel in northern Russia for a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II. During this assignment, the ship struck a mine, off Marwick Head, on the west coast of Orkney. She sank in twenty minutes with a loss of 737 men including Lord Kitchener (https://kitchenerhampshire.wordpress.com/ ).

HMS Royal Oak was a revenge class Battleship. The Royal Oak under command of Captain Commander W.H. Benn sat at anchor when struck by torpedoes fired from U47 under the command of Kapitanleutnant Günther Prien resulting in the loss of 833 lives.

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HMS Vanguard. Kind permission Orkney Library & Archive

HMS Vanguard was a St. Vincent class dreadnought battleship destroyed at her mooring by a series of explosions before midnight on Monday, 9 July 1917.  843 men were lost out of the 845 people on board.

Paul Sharman, ORCA Senior Projects Manager, added that, “We are proud and feel privileged to be involved with this important project. We are pleased to be working collaboratively with such a wide range of specialists to provide high quality data which will contribute to the understanding of these important marine archaeology sites and commemorate the sacrifice made by the personnel who were on board HMS Vanguard, HMS Hampshire and HMS Royal Oak.”

The archival research and archaeological remote evaluation surveys that comprise this project will lead to a full understanding of the condition of the wreck sites, contribute to enhanced heritage displays, provide data for academic research and support activities and material for public engagement.

Alistair Coutts, Business Development Manager, Seatronics, said “We are delighted to be collaborating again with ORCA & UHI and we look forward to working with the collected specialists on this exciting project. Our aim is to use our Predator inspection class ROV and integrated cameras with 3D modelling technology to provide accurate models and detailed video footage of the current condition of the wreck sites.”

Andrew Fulton, Historic Environment Scotland, said, ‘We are pleased to see this next stage of survey work on the underwater wartime remains of Scapa Flow. The results will help update existing records of the wrecks, guide their management and contribute to the commemoration of momentous events in wartime history .’

It is planned that this project will contribute to the centenary commemorations of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in 2019.


  • The project lead is Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
  • Marine Scotland vessel MV Scotia will be the work platform for data collection. Data collection will involve Marine Scotland undertaking MBES survey, providing calibrated unprocessed raw data and camera equipment for the acquisition of data.
  • Seatronics – an Acteon Company will provide ROV, positioning and 3D modelling and spatially cross referenced video inspection equipment
  • Historic Environment Scotland will provide guidance on marine historic assets, survey targets and specialist knowledge on the wreck sites.
  • Ulster University will provide input into the specifications for data acquisition for the geophysical and ROV surveys and provide input into maritime archaeological assessment and analysis.
  • Heriot-Watt University will provide input into the specifications for data acquisition for the ROV survey and undertake marine biological studies on the submerged cultural heritage assets.
  • Ministry of Defence will provide input into the specifications for data acquisition for the geophysical and ROV surveys, and specialist knowledge on the wreck sites being investigated and environmental studies of the wreck sites.
  • The University of Dundee will process MBES and ROV survey data and work to produce visualisations based on the collected data. This will involve the production of 3D models of the wreck sites from the multibeam echosounder and photogrammetric data.
  • The project will be conducted under licence from the Ministry of Defence.
  • The data and project archive will be deposited with the project partners, including Historic Environment Scotland, the MoD, and Orkney Islands Council in accordance with the standards established by the Marine Environmental Data Information Network (MEDIN).

The Archaeology of Swandro: A Battle Between Time & Tide

DSC_0083The excavation at Swandro on Rousay has attracted a great deal of a media attention over the last few days and we thought it may be a good time to add some background to the site and the ongoing archaeological work.

As part of an archaeological investigation (by the University of a Bradford and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute) of an eroding mound on the island of Rousay, Orkney archaeological work has revealed an extensive settlement.

This intriguing settlement under the beach was discovered  by Dr Julie Bond in 2010, who spotted a few odd stones only just visible among the pebbles below the eroding mound. Since then, excavation  is completely changing our understanding of this enigmatic site.

The tops of stones partly buried by the boulder beach turned out to be set uprights forming part of a prehistoric building around the high tide mark. Although the tops of the stones are worn and battered by the sea, the beach has partly protected the deposits and animal bone and pottery were recovered, the finds suggesting an Iron Age context.

DSC_0103Initial clearance of the overlying beach material revealed a building; an Iron Age Roundhouse  (Structure 1). Only the landward circumference survived  and contained a stone built oven and a cell with a large single flag cut to size forming the floor. Two stone cut holes indicated post settings suggesting the support for an upper level possibly a loft around the circumference for storage in the roof space.

DSC_0094Dr Julie Bond ( University of Bradford) remarked that “The seaward side has been savaged by the sea which has removed half or more of the structure.This has resulted in an Iron Age sequence having been terraced by the sea into a series of levels or steps. You can walk up these terraced steps through time, rising from truncated material  dating to the Middle Iron Age up to Late Iron Age and Norse features forming the upper erosion terrace adjacent to the wave-cut cliff.”

Work this year has concentrated on the excavation of the infill of several buildings. The apsidal northwestern end of the first building found (Structure1), defined by upright stones settings and the internal dividing up right stones,  revealed the presence of a flag floor and a stone oven  set into the wall. Under the flag floor and the remains of  burnt clay, forming an earlier hearth, had been eaten away by the sea.

The Iron Age sequence has been terraced into levels, rising from truncated material appearing to date to the Middle Iron Age up to Late Iron Age and Norse period deposits at the upper erosion terrace adjacent to the wave-cut cliff. To the north-west the sea is eating into the side of what appears to be a Neolithic Chambered Cairn. It is this cairn which forms the mound of Swandro. This suggests that the burial chamber may still be intact. Work on the passage has indicated a much later infill dating to the Late Pictish and Viking period over the collapse, with the presence of several sheep with cut marks on the bone which had been made by a heavy iron blade and a coin of the Northumbrian King EANRED dating to the mid 9th Century AD.

Dr Stephen Dockrill (University of Bradford) explained “The work is investigating the archaeological remains in order to sample the floors of the eroding Early and Late Iron Age structures to unlock the buried evidence.”

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Steve said “Some of these buildings such as a small round building, Structure 2 (where the 4th Century coin came from) have walling surviving to nearly a metre in height. However on the seaward side the waves have taken much of the wall completely away.” He continued  “The sea will destroy these buildings in the next year or so and this is our only chance to understand the generations who lived on this site”.

One building, a Pictish structure, has evidence for metalworking both iron smithing and the casting of copper alloy objects. This was indicated by crucible fragments and a small part of a mould. The Picts were the indigenous Late Iron Age people of Eastern Scotland and the Northern Isles, whose unique language and culture seem to have been obliterated by social and political changes of the ninth century, in which the Vikings played a major  part.

For more information on the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Trust see their website


The Project is directed by Dr Steve Dockrill and Dr Julie Bond, University of Bradford, and is funded by Orkney Islands Council, Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre Development Trust, Orkney Archaeological Society, the University of Bradford, Orkney College, Hunter College, (City University of New York), William Paterson University.

Thanks are due to the landowners Russell & Kathryn Marwick. The project is a joint initiative between the University of Bradford and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute supported by the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust (www.swandro.co.uk)

Mapping Magnus Geophysics to Commence

Mapping Magnus Gen poster V1 070717

The first phase of the exciting community archaeology and training project, Mapping Magnus, begins on the 25th and 26th July.

Volunteer archaeologists together with a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be involved in the initial geophysics survey in and around the gardens of Palace Village, Birsay.

Geophysical survey will be used as a prospective tool to investigate key areas within Palace village, providing targets for subsequent excavations, and opportunities for community training and engagement. 3-4 areas will be investigated using magnetometry and earth resistance survey:

  • Magnetometry / Gradiometry measures localized variations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by features in the top metre or so of the ground. The technique is especially suited to locating ditches, pits, pottery and tile kilns, hearths and ovens, ferrous debris, and burnt material.
  • Resistance survey effectively measures the moisture content in the top 0.75m or so of the earth’s surface. It is particularly suited to locating walls and rubble spreads, made surfaces such as yards, and stone coffins or cists. The technique can also be used to locate ditches and pits in areas where gradiometry is not suitable, for example due to the nature of the soils or the presence of large amounts of ferrous material on or beneath the surface.

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Further opportunities for community involvement and training in archaeological archive research and desk based assessment is also planned for the first phase of this project. School pupils will also be involved in discovering the exciting history of Birsay when the schools return after their summer holidays.

If you want to get involved contact  Dan Lee at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

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Swandro and the Roman Coin

The Roundhouse Swandro
The small roundhouse from Swandro where the coin was found.

The race against the tide at the Swandro excavation on the island of Rousay, Orkney is gathering pace this week and the teams efforts have been rewarded by some quite amazing finds.

The sea has battered the Swandro site, on Rousay, over the winter and the lower (seaward) parts of the site have sustained more damage. This can be seen in the stones forming the lower course of the chambered cairn.

Here these stones appear to have been smoothed and the material retained by them sucked out by the force of the sea. Despite this, the archaeology further up the sea cut terraces have survived more intact although there has still been some signs of physical damage.The buildings here have provided some exciting results. A circular structure forming what appears to be a small roundhouse has provided an exciting find: a copper alloy Roman coin.

Dr Steve Dockrill (the co-director of the project with Dr Julie Bond) commented, ” The bust on the coin is clearly visible although much of the lettering isn’t at present clear. The reverse contains a standing figure, possibly representing the emperor with waht might be an image of Victory at the side. This type of coin is similar to issues dating to the mid 4th Century AD.”

Roman Coin Swandro
The probable 4th Century coin ‘as found’. Specialist conservation may provide greater detail

Further excitement occurred in a later Pictish building where the excavation of a cellular building containing evidence for both iron working and copper alloy casting. The excavation team has been aided by the UK’s leading archaeo-metallurgist, Dr Gerry McDonnell who has expertise in examing debris from archaeological metal working residues.

Steve added, ” Gerry has examined much of the material from Orkney and Shetland over the years and that he has been extremely excited by the findings from last year and the work that he has carried out on the floor layers this last week.” The most recent piece of evidence being that of a fired clay tuyere, this is the clay used to hold the bellows in the furnace.

Dr Gerry McDonnell and Rose
Dr Gerry McDonnell explains the working of the fired clay tuyere to Swandro’s finds assistant Rose.

The Swandro – Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust is a SCIO (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation, registered number: SC047702) set up by the excavation team and supporters of the Swandro excavation and environs,  and is managed by a board of unpaid charity trustees.

The Trust aims to respond to the finite resource of Orkney’s coastal heritage that is being destroyed by the sea. Due to global warming, the effects of climate change and melting polar ice is promoting higher sea levels and changing weather systems, which is exacerbating an existing problem. The coastline of Westness on the Island of Rousay has a particular series of vulnerable sites.  The Knowe of Swandro, Rousay forms the immediate focus for the Trust due to the  a devastating effect of coastal erosion on the archaeology at the Knowe of Swandro.

Our charitable aims are to advance education, heritage and culture for people of all ages, backgrounds and levels of capability from anywhere in the world through the pursuit of archaeological activities, in the widest possible ways, at Swandro and its environs by:

  • encouraging and providing opportunities to learn about the heritage and archaeology of Swandro and its environs;
  • encouraging and providing opportunities to become involved in archaeological activities at Swandro and its environs;
  • offering a range of activities, including without limitation: public lectures; exhibitions; tours; visits; summer schools and work experience opportunities and public participation, in a volunteer capacity, in the widest possible range of archaeological techniques and tasks, all in pursuit of the widest possible understanding of, interest in and development of the archaeological work at Swandro and its environs;
  • facilitating the publication of the results of and the maintenance of the records of archaeological activities carried out in relation to Swandro and its environs;
  • facilitating the promotion of the preservation of and public display of the collections of archaeological artefacts and ecofacts, obtained from Swandro and its environs;
  • working with other organisations and individuals, including schools and universities, to further the aims of the organisation;
  • serving Swandro and its environs by an active involvement in its future excavation and presentation.

See their website for more details.

 

The Cairns Day Twenty. The Last Post. 2017

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Thanks to Rik Hammond

Well we have reached the end of the excavation season at The Cairns. Let’s review what we set out to do and what was achieved.

Birth of a broch: the southwest extension

We extended the main trench on the south-western side of the broch this season. This was quite a large new area, and I must confess that the intention here was that we would not necessarily do a great deal of work in this area this year. I wanted to get a better more expansive view of the southern arc of the broch wall and possibly see hints of the extramural complex of buildings. However, from the outset the deposits and features in this zone were very intriguing and potentially conveyed important information about the early stages of the establishment of the broch.

Hanneke excavating in the terrace cut around the broch exteriorThe more time we spent in this trench the more that was borne out. We have long inferred that the preparation for building the broch involved cutting a large terrace into the hillside that it sits on. The logic for this hypothesis was that: in several places that we have reached the outer foot of the broch wall it is level to within a few centimetres, and this is despite the fact that it sits on a hill-slope or gradient of 1 in 20 (in other words the hill descends around 2 metres in height over the span of the 22 metre diameter broch). Obviously this would have made for an extremely sloping broch and interior without some modification.

At a distance varying between 3 and 6 metres out from the southern wall-face of the broch we could clearly see the natural glacially-derived clay only a few centimetres beneath the turf. Between there and the broch wall-face, however, it disappears and we have archaeological soils and features instead. This shows that the natural clay had indeed been cut into on its up-slope side. This year the southwest extension has allowed us to prove this terrace does exist and that the builders of the broch must have seriously landscaped the hillside by moving hundreds of tonnes of earth, clay and boulders to create a level platform for the broch. A huge effort was put into the formative stages of building the broch and shows us just what a substantial monumental project the building of the broch actually was.

Of Boundaries, Beads and other Bling!

Another surprise discovery from the SW trench extension this year was the presence of the ditch. Although we have known for some time (from geophysics and excavation on the northern side of the broch) that The Cairns, like many broch sites, was contained within a large ditched enclosure we hadn’t anticipated that the ditch trench would actually appear in the trench even if only present as an edge of the ditch.

We have been able to sample excavate the ditch and it turned out to be very rich in artefacts and animal bones, indeed, with lots of large chunks of pottery vessels and several metal objects; pins and the like. Ditches were clearly often receptacles for midden and refuse, however, they were also quite important symbolic boundaries between the community and the outside world, and this may be reflected in the types of materials, objects and deposition that occurs in them. So in future seasons we will do more work in the ditch. In many ways its a dramatic space, with lots to tell us in terms of the way the community lived and worked, but maybe also about their ideologies.

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One of the artefactual highlights of the season also came from high up in the in-filling of the ditch. This was the so-called ‘proto hand-pin’, a type of decorative Iron Age bronze pin which are thought to have been in currency in the 3rd to 5th Centuries AD. As well as being a beautiful object in its own right, this little pin is instructive in giving us an early indication of when the ditch became fully in-filled.

blue glass bead

And staying with flashy bling for a moment the other rival for artefact of the season has to be the little blue glass bead that came from one of the cells in the broch. This beautiful little object looks likely to be a 1st or 2nd Century AD Roman type, known as a bi-conical blue bead, and only a couple of others have been found at Scottish Iron Age sites, including Traprain Law in East Lothian, and Hownam Rings in the Scottish Borders. It may show how the site’s occupants were plugged into fairly extended exchange links with the Roman province.

Excavation of the Broch Floors

Inside the broch, the part of the team supervised by Rick Barton did a great job of dealing with the sensitive floor deposits. Work concentrated on the Western part of the broch interior. This area has previously been left at a higher level than in the east, simply as a result of our excavation schedule, and this season was our opportunity to explore this side of the broch more, and bring things into the same phase across the whole broch. It wasn’t long before interesting features were emerging. Under the uppermost rubble, a late hearth was uncovered occupying a central position within the western zone. It was large, and well-used judging by the heat cracking across the large base slab, but perhaps lacked the formality one would expect to see in primary, or original, hearths inside brochs. The vast quantity of charred organic material from deposits surrounding the hearth will yield lots of information about how this hearth was used. The way in which the hearth appeared to be sitting on top of a pronounced bump in the floor of the broch indicates it may be mounded up over an earlier hearth, and by the time we were finishing work this season there were hints of this situation in the form of edge-set stones and other heat-affected deposits emerging from beneath the edges of the hearth.

Jo sampling the broch floor deposits

In the eastern side of the broch interior we undertook only a little work this year, as we want to wait until we have the west side down to the same level before proceeding too far, however, when we were joined by Dr. Jo Mackenzie, a specialist in soils and floors we undertook some excavation and sampling of the floors in this side of the broch. The floors were seen to be very rich and they possess very nice stratification (clearly laid down layers) that will help tell a very good story of life inside the broch two thousand and more years ago. The dark organic deposits seen in section show many thin layers of occupation, dark brown ones with charred plant materials, red peat ash ones, paler silty layers, etc, but when they are examined under the microscope it will be possible to see many more, otherwise invisible, layers that will be full of information on the different activities and activity areas within the broch; and the conditions prevailing at any point in the history of the broch.

The Broch Village

This year we were able to explore the extramural settlement, or village, that lies around the outside of the broch. We had a substantial window onto this settlement in the form of Trench Q, supervised by Dave Reay, and also the southwest extension also brought us into contact with the settlement. In Trench Q, a serious amount of rubble and ashy soils effectively sealed and masked the features of village buildings here, and it took sometime to reach the upper walls of buildings. However, Dave and his team were able to reveal the wall-tops of at least two, possibly three, Iron Age buildings across Trench Q. One of these has a nicely built curving wall and may turn out to be a roundhouse. The other was constructed by revetting into existing soils and rubble and may well be a building dating to later than the broch itself.

Trench Q before the rain toayMeanwhile, in the southwest extension the same terrace cut discussed above, also contained the walling of a building that may well turn out to be part of the broch village. Indeed, this may reveal very telling information about the nature of the relationship between the broch and village. There is a debate in Scottish Iron Age studies about how contemporary the villages that surround brochs are with the construction of the brochs themselves. Some scholars favour the idea that villages developed around broch towers gradually, and were subsequent to the building of brochs, but others consider the villages to have been part of the plan from the outset, especially in Orkney and Caithness, perhaps, where the village buildings tend to have a very integrated, and planned appearance. The presence of a village building in the construction terrace of the broch may well tell us that the plans for the broch included village buildings from the outset. This will be a very significant piece of evidence in the debate, and it arises from the fairly unique way in which the broch builders chose to build and to deal with the topography, sculpting the hill slope in the first place.

The Souterrain

One of our aims this season was to deal with the deposits inside the souterrain on the eastern side of the broch. We excavated the deposits that in-fill the souterrain and took lots of soil samples to try to understand the composition of this in-fill. What’s more the way is clear for us to try to chemically analyse the floor of the souterrain to try to glean more information about how it was used.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA very odd feature of the souterrain seen in a previous season was the quern installation set up on the roof of the souterrain at its southern end. Essentially, two rotary querns had been set up inverted over an intentional aperture in the souterrain lintels. The central holes of the querns were aligned with the aperture, and the entire feature conveys the impression of being used to pour something into the underground passageway from above. There are several instances of Iron Age querns reused in this way to form a porous lid on pits in wheelhouses in the Western Isles, and in one instance it was suggested that there may have been libations being poured into them! Now that we have been able to excavate and acquire soil samples these will be subjected to phosphate analysis, amongst other analyses, to try to discern what trace there might be of any substance that was being poured into the hole in the roof.

Different ways of seeing the site: aerial images and 3D modelling

This year at site we have been able to take advantage of the burgeoning new technologies like never before. The use of UAV’s (commonly known as drones) has been rapidly revolutionising the elevated perspective that archaeologists are able to get on archaeological sites. We were massively assisted in gaining this broader context this year by the UAV work of artist Rik Hammond and my colleague Dr. James Moore. Their use of the UAV several times during the course of the site has given us a fantastic aerial perspective on the site and its landscape.

The second new technology requiring acknowledgement here is that of 3d computer modelling. Throughout the period of the excavation one of our MSc students Jim Bright has been developing his skills in this domain. The results of some of his models have been posted here already, and there will be many more models. These are not just aesthetically pleasing models of the features and artefacts but actually useful in research terms as they allow us to gain privileged perspectives otherwise difficult or even impossible to acquire.

Meanwhile, another colleague Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark has produced a complete, whole site 3D model of The Cairns. This is a massively useful and impressive piece of work, that again allows us to interrogate lots of different aspects of the features and structures of the site. Again it provides an incredible tool for visualising the site in all its detail. The link to Hugo’s fabulous model is given here: https://sketchfab.com/models/db98e708e7e14e70aac55d8ee027c85b Here’s Hugo’s model and a little blog within the blog that he has prepared for it: Enjoy!

sketchfab.com
The Cairns Broch Excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney The Cairns is an Iron Age broch – a massive circular structure with thick defensive walls that would have risen …

‘Over the last few years I’ve produced 3d models of various archaeological sites and artefacts in Orkney further afield and on Monday I finally got the chance to scan The Cairns. It’s a large and complex excavation site, with lots of thin projecting stones that present a real challenge for 3d modelling – the sort of challenge I like! The 3d modelling technique I use is ‘structure from motion’ photogrammetry which produces 3d models from overlapping photographs taken on any digital camera. In total I took 1648 photographs for the site over a few hours, when the sun and showers permitted. Most of these images were taken vertically from a pole, but within the broch I took images from a range of angles to capture the complex arrangements of stone orthostats. After 10 hours processing with Agisoft Photoscan on my PC, the model I’ve uploaded to Sketchfab appeared on my screen. This model offers a great way to explore the site, as the archaeology is more easily understood from above, but it also forms an important part of the site archive as the model is tied into the site grid and captures the vast progress made in the 2017 excavation season’.

And finally…

All in all, it has been a very fruitful and enjoyable season, with a lot learned about the nature of the site, from its beginnings to the end, major features of the site such as the excavation of later broch floors, the broch construction platform and the ditch will immeasurably help us to understand the character of the settlement, and the finds this year have been very rich and highly useful in a number of ways to elucidate issues relating to dating, the status of the community and their depositional practices.

Now some thank you’s! I’ll take this opportunity to thank the entire project team for their unstinting humour, patience and enthusiasm. Without them the site would of course remain unexcavated, and its only through their sterling efforts that we begin to understand what was going on at the site more than 2000 years ago!

This year the donations made by the visiting public have been more substantial than ever before. We benefitted from the largest number of visitors to the site of any season so far, and they were very generous in their expression of support for the project. The funds will now be spent on important aspects of furthering the research, such as radiocarbon dating the beginning of the broch, and understanding the major metalworking episode on the site. I would like to thank all of the visitors and donors, and for allowing us to communicate our findings at the site.

Finally, I would like to thank Charlie and Yvonne Nicholson and all of their family and friends in South Ronaldsay for their many acts of assistance and generosity. Our time at The Cairns is made possible, enjoyable and very amiable due to their great kindness.

Thank you!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

 

Geophysics at The Cairns 2017

Gordon (2)Whilst the excavation at The Cairns has been up and running, myself and Gordon Higgs (a student from Sheffield University) have both been undertaking professional Placements with the project to undertake geophysical survey in the fields surrounding The Cairns.

The aims of this survey were to investigate the landscape of the Broch and to identify the precise location of the enclosure ditch around the front, (Eastern side) of the broch and to identify any evidence for additional human activity nearby.

Two different types of geophysical survey were used, resistivity and magnetometry. Resistivity survey uses an electric current to measure the resistance of the soil, from which it is possible to identify disturbance (including past human disturbance) in the soil. Resistivity is ideal for detecting ditches and stone built features, because these features will have a different resistance from the surrounding undisturbed soil. Magnetometry survey measures changes in the magnetic field which can detect heat affected and burnt features such as hearths or fuel ash middens, metal artefacts and other past disturbances.Maginterprated-page-001The results of the survey show that the landscape has been heavily ploughed in the recent past and has disturbed archaeology in places. Nevertheless, the ditch surrounding The Cairns has shown up in both types of survey. Indeed, the anomaly on the survey results showed that it appears to be a double ditch feature. These substantial ditches are passed through by a linear feature, which is a couple of metres wide and runs from the broch sown slope towards the coast. This feature appears to be an ancient ‘hollow way’, or sunken track, and could also be partly related to a lintelled passageway referred to by the antiquary the Rev. Alexander Goodfelow over a hundred years ago.

At the bottom of the field just south of The Cairns an earlier geophysical survey showed an arc in the corner of the survey. A test pit was excavated there earlier this year and identified a curving stone feature that looks like a well-built wall within an ashy soil matrix, and a fragment of a saddle quern of prehistoric type. When we extended the geophysical survey to cover more of this anomaly it showed a series of semi circular features with possible central hearths. These anomalies could be related to houses in a fairly large settlement and/or associated structures like workshops.

There may be as many as 6 or 7 of these buildings. These look very similar to Bronze Age houses seen in the World Heritage Area of Stenness/Brodgar and in other locations in Orkney and Shetland.  This exciting prospect could be tested by excavation to confirm the nature of these features.

We were hoping to find the continuation of these structures in the next field to the south, however, the remains have either been ploughed away or are smaller than expected and obscured by the field boundary itself. This lower field did show another possible circular feature and a very strange linear anomaly on the resistivity results. An igneous dyke (or possibly two) run through the lower field which was easily identifiable by our magnetometer results.  This natural geological feature is interesting in its own right as we know prehistoric communities treated volcanic dyke rock as a resource, sometimes quarrying such sources of igneous material for stone artefacts and crushed up the rock for the ‘temper’ that they mixed into the clay of ceramic pots.

There are many more discoveries in the geophysics survey undertaken and the survey work has confirmed that The Cairns broch was not an isolated feature in an empty landscape, it was part of an active, evolving landscape and it would be interesting to test some of these features to confirm if some of them are contemporary with the broch. Even though the weather seemed to be against us some days, the results from the geophysical survey have been very informative, hinting at the wider landscape and future stories for archaeologists to uncover.

Leonie Teufel, MSc. Archaeological Practice Student, UHI