Two Field Trips in One Day

Martin Carruthers addresses the group of UHI students near the summit of King’s Seat Hillfort

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology undergraduate and postgraduate students undertake their studies and research from locations across the whole of north Scotland through the use of video conferencing and a virtual learning environment. 

The blended learning approach adopted by UHI also gives students studying archaeology an opportunity to experience work in the field.

Last week, the staff of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute set off to conduct field trips across Scotland in order to give the widest possible number of students experience of outdoor learning.

Students making the descent to Midhowe broch and chambered cairn, Rousay

On Friday 30th November 2018, Dr Scott Timpany together with Martin Carruthers led a group to King’s Seat Fort, Dunkeld in the Highlands of Scotland where, during the summer, a group of UHI Archaeology students were involved in the ongoing excavations at the site. On the same day, and nearly 300 miles north, Professor Jane Downes led an excursion to the ‘Egypt of the North’ island of Rousay, Orkney. The weather was so windy that it was feared that the ferries may be cancelled, but the window of opportunity remained open for a few hours and the teams made it across to collect students from various locations across Scotland.

Students descending the steep hill side from King’s Seat Hillfort

With field booklet in hand, the students from Inverness, Perth, Moray and Argyll Colleges visiting King’s Seat Fort battled their way through the woods surrounding the hilltop site. The weather miraculously cleared to a cold, blue sky day, to allow Martin, Scott and the UHI students who were involved in the excavations at the hillfort to explain the site, the archaeology and the landscape.

Examining the well at the King’s Seat site

King’s Seat Hillfort has been the subject of archaeological investigations by Perth & Kinross Heritage Trust, Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society, archaeologists from AOC Archaeology and UHI and, according to the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust website, little was known about the site until King’s Seat Archaeology Project started their excavation. Their website continues….”Fragments of crucible, stone and clay moulds used for smelting and casting metal objects were identified suggesting that the site was important in the production of pretige metalwork and may even have been a centre of production in the early historic/Pictish period (c.600-900AD)” The full report can be accessed via the project website.

Approaching Rousay on the ferry.

As the team from the south were scaling the heights of King’s Seat Hillfort, the Orkney contingent approached the Island of Rousay as the clouds gathered ominously above the ferry.

Inside the Midhowe Chambered Cairn building – Professor Jane Downes explains the form and function of the tomb to the students

Driving along the deserted single track road that serves the island, the team soon arrived at the impressive Midhowe Chambered tomb which has been protected from the elements by a huge hangar like building. Once inside, the whole amazing prehistoric structure can be viewed from above from a series of walkways. Back outside in the gathering storm the intrepid group examined the Midhowe Broch which is located literally on the edge of Eynhallollow Sound. Here, Jane explained how such sites can be used as an indicator of how climate change affects coastally eroding archaeology sites and the research being carried out jointly with ICOMOS Climate Change & Heritage Working Group.

Midhowe Broch

The day was concluded with a visit to Taversöe Tuick , Blackhammer and Knowe of Yarso Chambered Cairns while 300 miles south,the students and staff concluded their day in Dunkeld at the local pub for well earned refreshments.

If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

Thanks to Kevin Kerr for photographs of Rousay.

New Archaeology Research Framework Launched

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the launch of Scotland’s Island Research Framework for Archaeology (SIRFA).

The four year project is supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers Scotland and is funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy.

The project commences with the First SIRFA Symposium which will be held in the Outer Hebrides from Monday 7th January to Friday 11th January 2019. The conference is open to everyone who works in the archaeological research field including museum professional, commercial archaeologists, academic researchers, archaeology students, community heritage groups, independent researchers and local and national government agencies. 

The focus at the symposium will be:

  • to identify and agree key research gaps
  • to identify and agree areas of research potential
  • to propose a statement of research objectives and development by period and theme

The symposium will form the first in a series of conferences to be held in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland over the next few years.

The project is co-ordinated by UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer Dr Rebecca Rennell based at Lews castle College UHI, Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

For more information on SIRFA and the First Western Isles Symposium see  their website or email Dr Rebecca Rennell sirfa@uhi.ac.uk

UHI Ross Drummond and the Dunyvaig Castle Dig

The picturesque location of Dunyvaig Castle and excavation site 

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Dunyvaig Castle excavation.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again, reporting about Part Five of my ‘Summer of Digging’; excavations at Dunyvaig Castle as part of the Islay Heritage Project. This edition is an extra bonus blog, as my Placement with the university only involved 8 weeks of work & excavations; so the extra two weeks experience in Islay rounded off my participation in and interaction with over 5,000 years of Scottish archaeology over the summer.

The three week excavation work at Dunyvaig Castle is part of a much larger and wider project (the Islay Heritage Project), which will involve further excavation work in addition to desk-based and other research methods over the next 10 years; to further investigate Islay’s past and enhance our understanding of it. The director of the Dunyvaig Project is Steven Mithen, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading and also the Chair of Islay Heritage; with Darko Maricevic being the director of the Dunyvaig excavation & the Director of Archaeology for Islay Heritage as a whole.

Dunyvaig Castle, located at Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of the Isle of Islay, was once the naval fortress of the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of Clan MacDonald and the greatest Gaelic Lordship of late Medieval Scotland.

Dunyvaig Castle: a wilder day on site serving as a reminder of the stormy past that the castle has lived through

The Dunyvaig Project will provide a comprehensive study of the castle, its hinterland and role in the economic, social and political history of the Western Atlantic Seaboard. It will transform Dunyvaig into a vibrant heritage centre for the residents and visitors to Islay while maintaining its rugged and romantic appeal.

The main aims of the project were to use the geophysical surveys from 2017 to assist in putting trenches over areas of the highest archaeological potential. Although the castle would be the focal point of the project’s investigation, it didn’t operate on its own; as it was important to get an idea and see evidence of what happened outside the castle walls as well. Resistance surveys were carried out to detect walls and structures, with areas and anomalies darker in colour indicating higher resistance; and more likely to have archaeological remains.

While I was still up in Orkney at the Ness of Brodgar finding those mysterious miniature pots, the team in Islay were working hard opening up this year’s trenches; so by the time I arrived at the start of the second week of the excavation, proceedings were well under way and the three main trenches for this year had been fully exposed.

Upon arrival I was informed I would be working in Trench 1 for the duration of the project under the enthusiastic and experienced guidance of Amanda Clarke. Amanda is an associate professor with the University of Reading and has a wealth of excavation experience and knowledge behind her. She plays a big hand in the running and teaching of a fieldschool involving the University of Reading, having spent many years as director of the Silchester field school in England.

Trench One is located in the castle courtyard and was only previously surveyed by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland (RCAHMS) in the 1970s. Trench One looked to investigate buildings at the either side of the entrance into the courtyard, the entrance area itself, the relationships with the outer walls, possible battlements stairs, evidence for a possible gatehouse and the approach to the main gate. Together with its extension, Trench 1 looked to generate the evidence for the bombardments and the repairs to the outer wall, and investigate one of the outer buttresses postulated by the RCAHMS’ survey.

It was theorised that the castle wall had a ‘double skin’ or two layers of walling, and it was thought that there may be the presence of a staircase in between these two walls. This part of the castle had been bombarded and badly damaged following three major attacks between the 16th and 17th centuries. On the very right of the trench inside the courtyard wall what was known as ‘the well’ but could have been a water system or water latrine. This was poor enough condition upon arrival at the site as farming equipment and metal materials from more recent times had built up inside. Great effort was made to clear ‘the well’ but unfortunately time wasn’t on the team’s side to give a full investigation; so this feature will have to wait until next year to be looked at in-depth. However, ‘the well’ again highlighted the castle as a ‘living monument’; being used for different purposes at different times through its history.

Building B – the latest structure to emerge from Trench One

On the left side of the internal wall of Trench 1 was Building B. This was a late insertion and was propped right up against the courtyard wall, which dates to the 16th century with a later add-on from the 17th century following demolition in the bombardments. The earlier layers were made up of clay and the later layers made up of mortar, with the clay bonded walls being a rare find in construction dating to this time period. The external area of Trench One at the back of the courtyard wall (on outside) showed the make-up of the wall and indicated several layers. The presence of turf in this area was built on top of earlier wall material and is thought to have plugged the gap and been a quick-fix following attacks on the castle.

Trench Two looked to target the sea gate to establish what activities were undertaken in this area and how the sea gate itself was used at different times. An electrical resistance survey carried out months prior to the excavation did not identify any further substantial structures in this area, which suggests that the direct access to the sea may have been important throughout the history of the castle. There were three main phases in Trench Two. The first phase involved the ramp, which provided access in & out of the Seagate. Initial thoughts are that this seems to be a probable structural slipway, but further excavation next year will give us a better insight. The trench had evidence for structural collapse or dumping, found in the presence of rubble; which was covered by the turf blocking of the Seagate.

There was a seal horizon of clay which appeared to level the ground; with this turf wall blocking off the sea gate and bringing its use to an end at some point in time. The second phase was indicated by the presence of a few walls. Signs of a possible double wall which was mainly built of rubble and turf but not much mortar; and all walls appeared to exist together at some point in time. The third phase was indicated by an intense period of burning.

Wall in Trench 2 along with some areas of intense burning

Trench Three was made up of a series of smaller trenches, located several hundred yards outside the castle walls; which looked to investigate the wider landscape of the settlement outside of the castles interior. Visitors to the site would have noticed ridge and furrows and other earthworks above ground level which indicted the presence of buildings or other archaeological related material beneath the overgrowth; so the nature of some of these were also examined. Trench Three revealed the remains of a rectangular T-shaped building, with burning in the trench also possibly suggesting evidence for an oven or a kiln. It appears that the building had burned down at some stage, with a red material laying on top of the building surface. However, whether this was deliberate or accidental is currently difficult to tell. There was evidence for a house which went out of use in the 17th century. There were also finds of pottery but none of the pieces discovered dated after the 17th century. The finds of pottery suggest people may have been supportive of the castle and that the pottery indicates the castle as a trading place.

One of the buildings in Trench Three along with the possible oven/kiln in the foreground

However, the site wasn’t without some prehistoric evidence as Trench Three also provided the find of a prehistoric blade. This find highlights the attractiveness of the location in the wider environment and shows the site was an area of settlement long before the castle was built. Geophysics carried out in the area also suggested a possible road and a number of structures and possible enclosures.

A major aspect of the Dunyvaig Project as a whole was the involvement of an archaeological field school. Similar to archaeological excavation projects run by UHI Archaeology during the summer up in Orkney, the Islay Heritage Project was run by the University of Reading (UOR) who also have a field school running in Silchester, in England. The field school provided participants the opportunity to acquire archaeological field skills and also involved the use of the Archaeology Skills Passport, which students can use to record and keep track of their progress in archaeological fieldwork; and build up their skills over time. Also similar to the UHI excavations up in Orkney, the Dunyvaig Project (for the majority of participants); gave students their first real taste and experience of an archaeological excavation. This seemed fitting given it was the first year of the Dunyvaig Project, so it gave an entirely new and fresh feel to all involved in the excavation.

As well as general excavation and fieldwork techniques, students were also trained in other various aspects of the archaeological process. This included geophysical surveying, palaeoenvironmental surveying, finds processing and environmental sampling; all of which gave students a fuller experience and appreciation for the wide world which archaeology entails.

Another large part of the Islay Heritage Project was the involvement of the local community. Local inhabitants of Islay were encouraged to get involved in the excavations as volunteers and were a welcome addition to the on-site workforce. As well as the excavations at Dunyvaig Castle being open to the public for guided tours on a daily basis, locals were also included in the excavation with special dedicated days and associated activities such as the ‘Dunyvaig Bake-Off’ and an ‘Artist’s Day’ with Dietmar Finger.

The involvement of local school visits were also an especially beneficial aspect to the excavation. It was great to see the joy and fascination which took over the children when digging and finding their very own artefacts; while also learning all about the history of the site and their local area in general. There were 130 school children who visited the site and took part in activities, with the involvement of six primary schools and one secondary school. In total over the 3 week excavation period there were over 400 visitors who came to the site; all of whom were given guided tours of each trench by the students themselves.

The Seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, dating to 1593 (Image: Islay Heritage Facebook Page)

During the third and final week of this year’s excavations, a remarkable find was discovered. Zoe a first year University of Reading student, used her ‘archaeological eye’ to notice what turned out to be the find of the season. The object found was none other than the Seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor; who took ownership of Islay in 1615. The seal dates to 1593 and originally would have been attached to a wooden, antler or lead handle. The castle was eventually abandoned by the Campbell’s of Cawdor in 1677 following continuous sieges and bombardments; so the fact this seal was found suggest it may have been either hidden or forgotten and lost in the chaos of attack.

The seal was among several artefacts and finds on show at the Public talk on the excavation which took place on the second last night of the project. There was a massive turnout at Ramsey Hall, in Port Ellen, for the talk in which the supervisors from the project discussed the findings of the Dunyvaig Project and plans for future work. Zoe even got a round of applause from the public when the seal was discussed. The great turnout by the people of Islay for the public talk was a great way to bring the successful excavation project to an end. Having come straight from site to the talk, it’s safe to say the excavation team absolutely devoured the pizzas that Steve had kindly arranged to be delivered to the hall following the end of the talk.

A packed Ramsey Hall in Port Ellen for the public talk on the Dunyvaig Project

For many participants the dig was their first ever time on an archaeological excavation and we can say that it was an extremely successful three weeks. The find of the seal was just the icing on the cake of an already prosperous first year and indicates great things for the future of the project.

Members of the excavation team working together to back fill the site on the final day

I speak on behalf of all UHI students who took part in the excavation when I say that it was an absolutely great project to be a part of, and one that will hopefully see more UHI students return over the coming years and add to our understanding of Islay. Also a shout out to all staff and students from the University of Reading for making myself and all other UHI students feel very welcome and valued members of the team. It was also great that several of the lecturers and teaching staff from UHI Archaeology (including the Director of the UHI Archaeology Institute Professor Jane Downes, Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Jen Harland) came to visit the excavation and catch up with the UHI students about how the project was going along. The collaboration of the two universities ran very smoothly and I think benefited both greatly; so hopefully this joint venture will continue for many years to come.

UHI Archaeology Institute students on the Dunyvaig Project dig. From L to R….Mairead, Ross, Darroch, Angus, William and Duncan

I think I also speak on behalf of the whole student contingent (both UOR and UHI) when I say a massive thanks to Steven, Darko, Amanda and all the other supervisors; for allowing all students to learn and enhance their archaeological skill sets & understanding in such a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

A big acknowledgement of gratitude also goes out to staff at the Port Charlotte Youth Hostel for basically letting us take over the place for the three week duration of the project.

Well, this blog officially marks the final chapter of my Archaeological Adventures and Summer of Digging for 2018 with UHI Archaeology Institute. It’s safe to say it’s been a hectic old few months but it’s been an absolutely fantastic experience, and one not many people will have the fortune to experience.

Thank you to all the readers of my blogs and those who have interacted with and followed my Archaeology Adventures over the summer through UHI Archaeology’s various social media accounts. I hope I’ve managed to convey the story of each excavation in a clear and interesting manner; and maybe one or two of ye learned something new along the way as well.

All the best,

Ross Drummond, MSc, UHI Archaeology Institute 

For any further info on the Dunyvaig excavations and the Islay Heritage Project as a whole, make sure to check out their website.

Art & Archaeology Courses @UHI enrolling now

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Love Art? Love Archaeology? Why not study both and get an accredited undergraduate or masters-level module at the same time!

Art and Archaeology courses ENROLLING NOW for January 2019 start!

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, and the Art & Design Department, at Orkney College UHI are pleased to announce that enrolments are now open for the 2019 Art and Archaeology modules. These are available at both undergraduate or postgraduate level and can be studied either as elective modules as part of a UHI degree or masters course, or as standalone modules for Continuing Professional Development.

Both modules provide students from a range of backgrounds with a deepened understanding of the creative, practical and vocational aspects of art and archaeology and provide the transferable skills which are currently in demand in the cultural industries and heritage sector. Either module can be taken as a distance learning student, from either a UHI learning centre, or from your home anywhere in the world*.

plaster casting during workshop

New for 2019!! Art and Archaeology: Context and Practice (Level 8 / undergraduate)
This new undergraduate level 20-credit course is suitable for students who have at least 3 Scottish Highers at grade C or above / 2 A-Levels at grade C or above, or equivalent, and a strong interest in art and archaeology. This module allows students to explore the creative, practical and vocational aspects of art and archaeology in their own research and practice.

You will learn about the history of the relationship between art and archaeology, and through a series of practical assignments you will gain a deepened understanding of not only your own creative practice, but also of the processes of making and craft production in the past and how these are interpreted in the present.

Over the 14 weeks of study between January and May 2019, you will develop a portfolio of work which will lead to your final assessed project.

*International validation for the Level 8 module is awaiting confirmation

12. Drawing SF7530 (photo copyright Antonia Thomas)

Art and Archaeology: Contemporary Theory and Practice (Level 11 / postgraduate)
This 20-credit masters level course will appeal to students from a wide range of backgrounds including fine art, design and applied arts, archaeology, heritage studies, galleries and museums, and anthropology.

It provides an advanced understanding of the new interdisciplinary area of Contemporary Art and Archaeology, through discussions, seminars, and lectures on current and historical contexts and case studies. The module takes place in Semester 2 over 14 weeks (January – May 2019). Teaching is delivered via a blend of Video Conference seminar sessions, tutorials, Online teaching and resources, and self-directed study. You will document your personal creative enquiry through a reflective journal, which will form part of your final assessment, along with a research project and presentation.

13. Preparing SF7530 for photography (photo copyright Antonia Thomas)

We will research and explore Contemporary Art and Archaeology as a group, and together we will develop new thinking and understanding in this exciting area. There is an optional 4-day residential workshop in Orkney which runs at the start of this module; this is not compulsory but is strongly recommended (no additional teaching cost but students are required to fund their own travel and accommodation).

Student comments…………

“A great course, thank you! It has kick-started my art practice after a long break and introduced me to the world of archaeology. I would recommend this course.”

“A fantastic course overall, taught by tutors really engaged in their field. It has had a positive impact on my own practice and I would recommend it to anyone interested in these subjects. I felt that I was genuinely learning something new and it made me look at both art and archaeology from a fresh perspective.”

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Module fees for 2018-2019**
Accredited Level 11 module: £560
Accredited Level 8 module: £215

**Scottish / EU domiciled students only; please contact us for details of fees for students from the rest of the UK or outwith the EU

To apply or for more details about course content and entry requirements, please email studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Orkney’s Oldest Wooden Bowl Unveiled

A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left
A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left

The Cairns Site Director and University of the Highlands and Islands Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, updates us on the conservation of the two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered at the site in the summer.

A remarkable, perfectly preserved, wooden bowl unearthed from a two-thousand-year-old well has been revealed during conservation work being undertaken on the artefact this week, and an extraordinary story of ancient repair of the bowl suggests it was a valued object during the Iron Age.

The Wooden Vessel Revealed: Old, Bowl-ed and Beautiful!

In July of this year, a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based in Orkney, excavated an enigmatic underground chamber beneath the floor of an Iron Age broch at the site of The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, as part of research at the site.

Now, on-going conservation work on a water-logged deposit, recovered from inside the underground chamber beneath the broch, has afforded an exceptionally rare glimpse of a stunningly well-preserved, two-thousand-year-old, wooden bowl. The nature of the bowl, and the details emerging about its life story, may help archaeologists to better understand the enigma of such subterranean chambers, leading to a fuller appreciation of their complex role within Iron Age communities.

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Looking across The Cairns Broch itself

The first stage of the conservation work was completed this week, as specialist conservators at AOC Archaeology, based in Edinburgh, have now patiently ‘micro-excavated’ the bowl from its protective soil block.

The work offers a clear view of the object for the first time in about two thousand years. The very finely carved vessel, which is nearly complete but fragmentary, is exceptionally smoothly finished, appearing almost burnished. The bowl is around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Although the object has split into two large pieces and about twenty smaller pieces at some point in the past, it is largely complete. The bowl had been skilfully hand carved from a half-log of an alder tree. Tool marks are visible in the interior of the bowl, but the exterior has been finely burnished.

Making a Mend: A History of Repair

On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about sixteen strange looking wiggly strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly-spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large ancient crack. The strips are in fact a very unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and the rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to the vessel to prolong its life.

Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple
Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple

There are other examples of Iron Age bowls with visible repairs, but the distinctive special metal fasteners are unique and appear to be otherwise unknown from the British Iron Age. In form, they might be familiar to modern DIY enthusiasts or wood-workers. Sometimes referred to by building trade suppliers as: ‘saw-tooth fasteners’ or ‘corrugated edge fasteners’ they can be hammered into a cracked wooden surface to stabilise wooden objects and save them from imminent collapse.

The repair work seen on the bowl suggests clues about the importance of the bowl in an Orkney context. Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and director of The Cairns project said: “After first encountering the bowl this summer, we had wondered if wooden bowls, and other objects made from wood, might actually have been much more common than we would have previously expected for the mostly treeless environment of Iron Age Orkney. Perhaps archaeologists have been guilty of overplaying the scarcity of wood in Scotland’s Northern Isles. Maybe there were almost as many wooden vessels in circulation as there were ceramic ones, fragments of which we recover in great numbers from sites like The Cairns.

Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl
Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl

Martin continues, “The bowl discovery made us ask an important question: was the survival of the bowl in the well merely an outcome of the unique quality of preservation down there, or was its presence there also reflective of other special qualities accorded that place by people in the Iron Age? I think the biography of the bowl that is emerging could well help us answer these questions”.

Dr Anne Crone, a specialist in ancient wooden artefacts with AOC Archaeology, who is providing specialist analysis of the bowl, said, “The rarity of wooden vessels in Orkney could be why they went to such lengths to repair what is a quite beautiful object”.

The Enigma of Iron Age Broch ‘Wells’

The bowl was excavated from beneath the floor of the broch inside an enigmatic type of underground chamber, traditionally known as a well. Around 20 such structures have been found during previous excavations, but many of these were 19th Century antiquarian investigations, and fairly few wells have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns.

Archaeologists used to interpret such chambers straightforwardly as ordinary wells, envisaging them as supplying the households that built them, but in recent decades, problems have been identified with this interpretation, and there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, including constricted entrances and steep staircases, has raised doubts about their functionality, and the volume of water found within them is seldom enough to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

The Cairns chamber itself is an amazing feature, comprising a series of seven stone steps descending two metres underground into a chamber that was carefully rock-cut, with a corbelled (bee-hive shaped) roof around two metres in height. The chamber is complete and even more remarkable because, when discovered, it had remained sealed since the Iron Age, thus affording archaeologists the opportunity to excavate it carefully under modern scientific conditions. The bowl must also have been placed in the well at this time, however radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could stem from an even earlier date. Whichever is the case, it is Orkney’s oldest wooden vessel.

‘Bowled Over’!

As the excavation of the well commenced, it quickly became clear that it did indeed contain very intriguing remains. Martin Carruthers again takes up the story: “Underground features, especially sealed and damp ones, can yield astonishing survivals in preservation terms, but I was still amazed when perfectly preserved organic items started to turn up as we began to excavate the silt within the chamber at the foot of the staircase. We began to find a lot of plant material – grasses, moss, plant stems from heather and wetland type species – as well as insect remains. Then we found a carved wooden object, some sort of peg, made from willow, again a type of tree frequently present on the edges of wetlands. Frankly, all of this was sufficiently dramatic, and very significant for our understanding of the Iron Age environment. I was already well-satisfied with these findings, but then when the wooden bowl began to emerge…that was simply a spine-tingling moment!”.

Conservation work progressing on the bowl
Conservation work progressing on the bowl

“It was obvious that this was something really very special, a miraculous survival from the Iron Age – a whole wooden bowl! It was still upright and in a level position within the sediments, as though it had been simply placed down on the base of the well the day before. But we knew it was about two thousand years old! During the fieldwork season, the bowl was nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. Throughout the excavation we retained the bowl in its silty matrix, and we recovered it, still in this soil block, to try to keep it together and promote good preservation conditions until we could get it to a specialist conservator. That meant that we hadn’t really clearly seen the full object until the conservation work occurred this week”.

Understanding the Well and the Bowl

The work on the bowl is providing lots of new and forthcoming information and it is hoped that will shed more light on the broch ‘wells’, and more for the project team to weigh up.

Carruthers reflected: “If the bowl was used within the well, and not just placed there at the end of its life, then perhaps this is telling us something about the nature of the well, and how it was used. The great care that was taken over the repair of the wooden bowl to extend its life tends to suggest that such items were not actually common, and the Cairns bowl seems to have been highly valued. Prior to the conservation work and witnessing the fully revealed bowl and its repair work, we weren’t sure whether to think of the bowl as merely the device for drawing off water from the well, or whether to see it as something more significant, perhaps related to the special nature of the underground chamber. The former possibility already seemed unlikely due to what we observed of the bowl during excavation.”

Essentially, the bowl didn’t have a huge carrying capacity, and its rather fine nature and unstable round base wouldn’t be very convenient for routinely handling water or placing the vessel on the ground when it was full. The bowl might have been used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring the liquid to a larger bucket, but alternatively it could have been poured as a libation, or used to perform ablutions within the well, perhaps even, within a ceremonial context.

A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile
A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile

The extended life of the bowl makes it seem even more special, an object that was highly prized, perhaps with a well-known and important history, even a valued relic, curated, if you will, as an heirloom of the broch household. Presumably, that broch household finally placed the bowl in the underground structure at the deepest, innermost end of the chamber, towards the end of the life of both the bowl and the well sometime in the mid- to late-2nd Century AD.

If the bowl was used within the underground chamber for periods before that final deposition and abandonment, then, as well as reflecting the wonderful preservation, it suggests these subterranean chambers also had special qualities for the Iron Age people who constructed and used them. If that’s borne out, then this is an important step towards establishing what the Iron Age subterranean structures are all about.

Next Steps: Restoring Ancient Repairs

Now that the wooden bowl has been excavated from its protective soil block, the first stage of the conservation work has been successfully completed. The next stages will involve recording the object through illustration and scanning work, and then the crucially important, and time consuming, process of soaking the object in consolidant so that it can be stabilised and, ultimately, go on public display. Then it may be possible to restore the bowl to whole again, but this will very much depend on how it behaves during the soaking and stabilisation process.

In addition to consolidating the bowl, there is much more that may be learned about it. Further scientific analysis may reveal more important hidden details. Research questions include: are there any residues present within the bowl that might give further clues to its use? As the bowl appears to have been a curated item, just how much earlier than its final resting place could it be? Radiocarbon dating the bowl will hopefully shed light on this.

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Dr Anne Crone & Alex Wood examining the bowl in the lab

In addition to the bowl itself, there are many other well-preserved organic materials and items from the well, which will also be studied, and which may give further clues to the status of the well. As well as all the plant material, there are preserved insects, and coprolites (fossilised faeces!), and the astonishing survival of hair, which may well be human.

All the conservation work and the scientific analysis costs a fair amount of money and the UHI project team will shortly be launching a crowd-funding initiative to help meet the costs.

Background Notes

• Preservation conditions: The basal silts within the ‘well’ had been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen), and this means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items. It is a circumstance usually only seen in the rare conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations, by AOC archaeology, at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron Age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

Cairns cog: In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and communally passed around to celebrate the marriage.

 

Environmental Archaeology Workshops – Enrol Now

Palaeo Poster V1.aiJoin Dr Scott Timpany from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to learn about Environmental Archaeology.

Workshops are to be held at Orkney College UHI on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th November 2018. Join us to study the hidden world of Kirkwall through the microscope….following up on the results of the Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative excavations in 2016.

  • Saturday 10th November – Introduction to Pollen
  • Sunday 11th November – Introduction to plants and insects
  • Venue: Orkney College Lab 2
  • Time: 10am – 3pm both days.

No previous experience is required and you are welcome to come to both workshops or single days.

There is no charge to take part, but booking is essential. Contact Kat Fryer enquiries.orca@uhi.ac.uk or telephone 01856 569345


 

Archaeology in Orkney, Summer – Part Two

The Loth Road site2, Sanday
The Loth Road Excavation

This is the second in a series of blog posts looking at the main findings from the excavations undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute during the summer of 2018.

This time we examine the fascinating excavations on Sanday – one of the northern most islands in Orkney.

Professor Colin Richards continues…..Cata Sand, Tresness Chambered Tomb & Loth Road Bronze Age House, Sanday. Fieldwork on Sanday this summer was arguably undertaken at some of the most beautiful places in Orkney! Also, in the most glorious weather.

In all, three archaeological sites were investigated relating to two different research projects.

First, a new project entitled ‘Northern Exposure’ began by excavating an Early Bronze Age settlement at Loth Road. The research project is examining the period c 2400 – 1800 BC, which marks the transition from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age. As an ‘in between’ period, these centuries have tended to be neglected as researchers tend to work on the Neolithic (3700 – 2400 BC) or the Bronze Age (c. 2000 – 800 BC). In fact it is a fascinating period of time beginning with the abandonment of the late Neolithic ‘villages’ such as Skara Brae, Ness of Brodgar, and on Sanday, Pool. Around c. 2400 BC, communities appear to fragment and people live dispersed across the landscape in paired or ‘double’ houses.

The beach location of the Cata Sand site
The beach location of the Cata Sand site

There seems to be a change in climate around this time, and across mainland Scotland we see the possible influx of new groups of people from the continent. These people are metalworkers and the first metal (copper) objects come into circulation and use. It does not look as if these immigrants get as far as Orkney, although they are present in Caithness. Nonetheless, judging from the abandonment of the villages, society appears to be disrupted from about 2400 BC in the Northern Isles.

However, it is precisely at this time that for the first time links become apparent between Orkney and Shetland, with materials being exchanged and similar house architecture occurring in both areas (also present on Fair Isle). So the big questions revolve around why were the villages abandoned, what effect did climate change have on their lives and why did the folk on Orkney begin to engage with communities in Shetland? Equally, what effect did the new populations moving through Britain (with ancestry reaching back across the north European plain to the Steppes) have on late Neolithic Orcadian society?

As one of the northern isles, Sanday is a good location to explore the beginnings of links between Orkney and Shetland, the Loth Road Early Bronze Age settlement comprises a double house (and possibly more structures) overlooking the Bay of Stove where a massive late Neolithic village is present several hundred metres away.

Structures emerging at Cata Sand, Sanday
Structures emerging at Cata Sand

Excavations uncovered some well-preserved houses, which had been decorated with cup-marks. These are small depressions normally found on rock outcrops or burial cists or mounds. This is exciting as it is the first example of such decoration in an Early Bronze Age domestic context, and more importantly shows links to Shetland where they are present on rock outcrops on Unst and Whalsay. Excavations will continue next year where it is hoped more material from Shetland will be discovered.

The second research project involved excavating the chambered cairn at Tresness, together with a contemporary early Neolithic house at Cata Sand. This fieldwork continues a project investigating the early Neolithic of Orkney and Shetland and includes house sites excavated in both places.

The Sanday early Neolithic house site of Cata Sand is situated on a low rock spit projecting into the bay. This is a very dynamic environment which changed dramatically before and after the settlement was inhabited (c. 3300BC). Indeed, the landscape is changing today and one of the reasons this site was discovered was because an eroding sand dune revealed masonry and hearths. Investigations have uncovered at least two, and probably more, substantial houses – obviously these have been eroded by the sea (the site can be covered at high tide), but enough remains to enable us to examine house floors and hearths.

The site became well known last year due to the unexpected discovery of large numbers of whales that had been buried in large pits just a few hundred years ago. The Neolithic houses are interesting because of their low lying coastal position. Investigations on Mainland over recent years at Stonehall, Smerquoy, Knowes of Trotty and Wideford Hill have found similar early Neolithic houses much further inland at the base of rising ground and clearly sited with regard to water sources. It will be interesting seeing if the inhabitants of the Cata Sand houses had a higher engagement with the sea.

The final site examined is the chambered cairn of Tresness, which is roughly contemporary with the Cata Sand houses (c. 3500-3300BC). Again, coastal erosion is destroying this site and an excavation was mounted to explore the mound composition and burial chamber. After removing the flagstones over the chamber, it was found that a later wall had been built across the chamber. The wall is probably of later date and suggests the cairn was dug into in the Iron Age. This is a common occurrence in Orkney where Iron Age communities (c. 800BC – AD800), seem to target Neolithic tombs to enter and either build structures on top or nearby. This is unfortunate for archaeologists interested in Neolithic burial remains and practices! Hopefully, the later disturbance will be restricted to the entrance area and untouched Neolithic burial remains discovered next year.

Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road, Sanday
Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road

It has been interesting and exciting work on Sanday because our initial findings show us how different the islands were through prehistory. Furthermore the archaeology on Sanday for the period 2400 – 1800BC may well provide us with important information about why people stopped living in the big villages, and why they not only altered their domestic arrangements, but also began to turn and look northwards and to forge closer links with communities on Fair Isle and Shetland.

At each site the landowners were very enthusiastic and helpful and we would like to thank Adam and Jimmy Towrie and Colin and Heather Headworth. A great many local people visited the sites and kindly helped the team in various ways, and are very much looking forward to returning next year, and expecting equally fine weather….The excavation is a joint project between the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire.

For more on the continuing excavation on Sanday in Orkney see our previous blog posts.


If you would like to join us to study archaeology at any of the 13 colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk