“Glow in the ArchaeoDark” – History, Heritage and Archaeology events for 2017


The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are pleased to be teaming up with DigIt2017 for a World Heritage Day event in Orkney as part of the ‘Scotland in Six’ on 18th April 2017.

Visit Scotland has announced a unique event line-up for 2017 themed year: Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology set to inspire us to #facethepast

A Great Roman Bake-Off,  large scale projections of Viking imagery, a live archaeological dig of St Kilda in Minecraft and a colourful international weaving festival are just a few of the events lined up to make history in 2017.

With over one third of visitors drawn to Scotland for its history and culture, VisitScotland has hailed the 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology as an exciting opportunity to relive Scotland’s fascinating past through a range of events and activities.

A total of nine events – supported by a £300,000 Signature Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology Events Fund have been announced with more to be revealed in the coming weeks.

Highlights of the programme (which includes both brand new events and new programmes within existing events) include

  • a spectacular sound and light projection event at New Lanark World Heritage Site to bring to life the mill as it was in the heart of the Industrial Revolution (Shining Lives Project).
  • The Heart of Neolithic Orkney will “Glow in the ArchaeoDark” on World Heritage Day (18th April) with interactive storytelling, music, food and glow-in-the-dark paint (Scotland in Six Project).
  • A unique event in the Outer Hebrides will celebrate the islands’ rich South Asian history with music and art collaboration, exhibitions and performances (Purvai Project).

The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology Signature Event Programme:

Edinburgh Georgian Shadows 23 Feb – 26 March 2017 Edinburgh

Scotland in Six

18 April 2017

(World Heritage Day)


Including Orkney!

Tradfest Edinburgh 26 Apr –7 May 2017


Paisley’s International Festival of Weaving 1 & 2 July 2017


Purvai August 2017 Stornoway


Follow the Vikings Roadshow & Festival 2 & 3 September 2017

8 & 9 September 2017

Horsepower 9 September 2017 Falkirk
Mary Queen of Scots Festival September 2017 Kinross and Loch Leven
Shining Lives Autumn 2017 New Lanark World Heritage Site

The year also provides the opportunity to promote and celebrate a much wider programme of events celebrating Scotland’s history, heritage and archaeology. Partner events within the year include

Scot:Lands, which kicks off the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology celebrations on 1 January with an adventurous journey across Edinburgh’s Old Town

Celtic Connections (19 Jan – 5 Feb) –  the UK’s premier celebration of Celtic music.  And at the end of January, the national bard will come into focus with Robert Burns events celebrating the poet’s rich history.

In April (1-16) Edinburgh International Science Festival will celebrate Scotland’s Themed Year with Moments in Time – a family friendly outdoor installation, situated on the Mound featuring a series of iconic Scottish police boxes that will ‘transport’ visitors back in time to pivotal moments in Scotland’s scientific history.

Over the summer season, visitors and residents alike can soak up Scottish historical culture with the Festival of Museums (May), a major Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (June – Nov) and in August, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo will unite with the Scottish Diaspora to create a ‘Splash of Tartan’.

Scotland will be celebrating a number of significant anniversaries through the historical year including the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh as a world leading festival city (with early celebrations beginning at Edinburgh Hogmanay’s Midnight Moment), the 20th anniversary of Scottish Crannog Centre, 250th anniversary of Edinburgh New Town Plan, 30th anniversary of Beltane Fire Society and the 400th anniversary of the General Register of Sasines –the oldest public land register in the world.

The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017 will begin on 1 January 2017 and end on 31 December 2017.  For more information, please visit: www.visitscotland.com/hha2017 


Death & Life at The Cairns-New Radiocarbon Dates.


Death and life at a broch: New radiocarbon dates at The Cairns site shed more light on rituals of living and dying during the Iron Age.

Newly acquired C-14 dates and a dietary assessment for a remarkable deposit of human remains discovered at The Cairns, an Iron Age broch site under excavation in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have given new insights into the nature of what was probably an act of closure at the end of the life of the broch.  Additionally, analysis has revealed some details of the life and death of the individual who is considered likely to be one of the occupants of the broch.


To recap: in July of this year excavations at the Iron Age period settlement site yielded a surprise discovery: a disarticulated human jaw.  It had been placed in the upper fill of a very large, carved whalebone vessel made from a substantial vertebra.  The vessel was resting against the outer wall-face of the broch near to its main entrance.

Also present within the whalebone container were the loosely articulated remains of three new-born lambs, and other animal bones.  Propped against the side of the whalebone vessel/container were two substantial red deer antlers placed upright, on-end.  These were shed antlers, and were both right-sided and therefore from two different animals.  On the opposite side of the container from the antlers, a very substantial saddle-quern had been placed snug against the base of the whalebone vessel.

Prior to the new dates, it had been considered possible that the human remains, which are thought to be male, might date to an earlier point than the actual deposit they were placed in.  This is because it has sometimes been suggested that Iron Age communities might be holding on to fragments of their ancestors, curating them as it were, in order to use them to add even more drama and significance to certain rituals performed at important times in the life of the community.   The new dates, however, make it more likely that the man died quite soon before the time that his jaw was deposited in the ground.

Time of death

The new radiocarbon dates show that the man died sometime between AD120 and AD240 in the latter part of what is conventionally termed the Scottish Atlantic Middle Iron Age.  As well as dating the human bone, one of the new-born lambs from the contents of the the-location-of-the-whalebone-vessel-and-human-jawbone-deposit-against-the-outer-wallface-of-the-brochwhalebone vessel was also dated.  This returned a date of AD89 to AD214.  The semi-articulated nature of the lamb bones means that this almost certainly conveys the time when the whalebone deposit was placed in the ground and is, therefore, an independent verification of the date for the human bone.  Thus, the dates largely overlap and this means that the human jaw probably did not represent a curated item, held over for a protracted period of time after death, before being finally deposited.  Instead, the date of the death of the man is of the same period as the last occupation of the broch itself before it was partly demolished and infilled with rubble, as indicated by previously obtained dates.  These were AD 84-210 and almost identical to the date range for the lamb bones!  This is also supported by the relative dating information obtained from our reading of the stratigraphy from the deposits.

It seems all the more likely that these human remains and the whalebone container etc., are indeed part of the measures taken to provide closure on the broch at the end of its use.  Essentially, these are an act of decommissioning, a ritual marking the end of the broch.

The life (and unusual diet) of the individual

It’s not possible to reveal a fulsome biography of the individual from his remains given that only the mandible bone was present.  A preliminary assessment of the human remains, however, is providing very useful insights into his lifestyle.  The study suggests that the jaw belongs to a person of some considerable age for the period, perhaps 50, but he may well be several decades older than that.  The individual is thought to be male, but it can be difficult to be certain of this given the basis of just a single bone.  The individual seems to have led an active working life judging by the condition of the teeth – only two were left! The jawbone had grown over most of the sockets of the missing teeth showing that these teeth had been lost during life.  This tooth loss may have been brought about partly through the individual using his mouth in the manner of a third hand, to tightly clamp materials, such as grasses and straw, whilst working on them with his hands, perhaps in making plant-fibre items such as bags and containers.  The teeth that did remain were quite substantially worn down, possibly from the activities just mentioned, but possibly also by the abrasive grit accidentally included in bread and bran products made with flour produced on sandstone grinding stones (querns) that have been frequently found on the site.

The analysis of the jaw also revealed more unusual aspects of the dead man’s diet.  The isotopic values of his bone chemistry showed that he had consumed a surprisingly high quantity of marine-derived protein (probably largely fish).  Most isotopic studies of human remains from the Middle Iron Age (the time of the brochs) tend to show very low or imperceptible levels of fish proteins in the human diet.  This might seem surprisingly counter-intuitive considering the fundamentally coastal, island nature of Iron Age Orkney, however, this lack of fish is also amplified by examination of on-site, Iron Age period middens, the rubbish heaps of food waste, which very rarely contain much in the way of fish at all.  For once, we have evidence of substantial fish consumption in a human from this period, and perhaps this feature of his diet is something that marks him as special, a particular category of person, perhaps even an important person.  We are, after all, very often reminded that we are what we eat!

This now makes events at the end of the broch, revealed during earlier seasons of excavation at The Cairns, all the more interesting.  A curious aspect of the late occupation looking-across-the-interior-of-the-brochdeposits excavated from inside the broch is that, unlike the majority of Middle Iron Age buildings, they did contain fairly substantial amounts of fish bone-strewn across one of the uppermost floor horizons, in a manner suggestive that lots of small fish being smoked inside the broch in a final episode of activity.  Is there some connection, then, between the dead man with his unusually high marine protein diet and these fish bones from inside the broch late in its occupation?  Further work on the human bone will be required to try to figure out if the marine contribution to his diet occurred throughout his life, or only at a certain point, or episodically, but the coincidence is intriguing, and also, perhaps, supports the suggestion that he is very much someone who was strongly associated with the broch.

It seems likely, then, that the man from The Cairns actually lived in the last half century, or so, of the main monumental phase of the broch before it went out of use.  When he was a young man, the monumental broch, and its surrounding settlement would still have been the paramount place in the landscape and was most likely a potent symbol of authority and order.  Indeed, it is very tempting to think that the man was himself a member of the broch household, and that by the time of his death, at least, was considered to be an important member of the community, perhaps an elder.  It may not be pushing this line of consideration too far to suggest the possibility that it was his death that occasioned the final abandonment and decommissioning of the broch.  There are plenty of examples in the ethnographic literature, from different cultures around the world, where the death of an important person, who had a significant association with a particular house, resulted in the end of that entire house as well.  Perhaps the death of the man from The Cairns was the final impetus required to end the broch in a period when perhaps its use and integrity had already been in decline for a time.  More analyses in the near future should add even more detail and fascinating new elements to this developing story of life and death during the Iron Age.

The site of The Cairns; the remarkable deposit of human remains and the whalebone vessel/deer antler deposit, will shortly feature in the Archaeology TV series: Digging for Britain.  The programme will be screened on Tuesday the 13th of December, at 9 pm, on BBC Four.


Martin Carruthers would like to thank Orkney Archaeology Society for funding the new radiocarbon dates.

Gairsay Ballast Mounds – Flora and Fauna

Volunteer divers joined a team of archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology last month to start the second phase of an archaeological project to explore Orkney’s early maritime heritage.

The fieldwork concentrated on Milburn Bay on the small Orcadian island of  Gairsay. The volunteer divers not only discovered ballast mounds but in the clear water also filmed an astonishing array of flora and fauna.

The ballast mounds are colonised by a distinct assemblage of species that sets them apart from the surrounding seabed.  The most obvious constituent is the green alga Codium fragile, which grows abundantly on the mounds and less so in the surrounding area.  Its bright green, branched structure forms a dense canopy that adds to the sheltered habitat already provided among the ballast stones.  Sea squirts are also abundant on the mounds, particularly the large pink species

Its bright green, branched structure forms a dense canopy that adds to the sheltered habitat already provided among the ballast stones.  Sea squirts are also abundant on the mounds, particularly the large pink species Ascidia mentula, distinguished by the white spots around the lip of its inlet siphon. Numerous other species were present around and among the ballast stones, including the sea urchin (Echinus esculentus), green crabs (Carcinus maenus) and a variety of small juvenile fishes.

Thanks to Sula Diving. ORCA staff, Paul Sharman, Senior Projects Manager and Sandra Henry, Marine Archaeologist, are leading the project.


Ness of Brodgar Guide Book for Sale online

Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland
Photograph thanks to Jim Richardson

You may already know that the work at the Ness of Brodgar is supported by organisations including Orkney Islands Council, but a huge amount of money is raised through public donations, from people buying from the on-site shop, sponsoring a square or spending a few hours at one of the many other fundraising events.

I guess that this is one of the special things about the Ness of Brodgar-so many people make the excavation possible through their generosity in time and/or money.

One way in which you may want to help fund the excavation is to purchase a Ness of Brodgar Guide Book. This richly illustrated, 34 page book explains the history of the site in detail and looks at the work that is being completed at this important Neolithic Site. Costing just £6, this book makes an ideal stocking filler for those interested in archaeology.

The introductory paragraph to the guidebook introduces the Ness…..”Fifteen generations separate the early settlers on the Orkney archipelago from the architects of the Ness of Brodgar – an island centre that would endure for 60 generations. The last occupants left the Ness 4000 years ago and for 200 generations it has lain, forgotten, beneath the plough.”

Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland
Photograph thanks to Jim Richardson

Contents include:

  • The Ness Through Time
  • What is the Ness of Brodgar
  • Discovery and Excavation
  • The Ness in the Landscape
  • Monumental Buildings
  • Phenomenal Pottery
  • Mace Heads, Axes and Carved Stone Balls
  • Art of Stone
  • Structure 1
  • Structures 8 and 14 – Multiple Piers and Painted Walls
  • Structure 10 – 400 Head of Cattle
  • Structure 12 – Master Builders
  • Great Walls and Great Mounds
  • Who were the People of the Ness
  • The Big Questions
Book front cover.

The money raised goes directly to making the Ness of Brodgar work each year.

You can buy on-line through the Ness of Brodgar Trust website 

Many thanks.

New Evening Class now enrolling- Archaeology of the Highlands and Islands

dscn0303The course will take students on a tour of the wonderful archaeological remains of the Highlands & Islands region, exploring the resource of remains and landscapes of the deep past that we have available across our region.

  • Meetings: 11
  • Cost: £110
  • Mondays 7-9pm
  • Room G4.02, Orkney College, Kirkwall
  • Start Date: 6th February

Additionally, the course introduces the techniques, methods and concepts whereby archaeologists make sense of this rich past.  The approach to the teaching is to involve several members of the Archaeology Institute staff on a weekly basis to afford students the opportunity to hear from specialist expert researchers on the topics covered by each themed session.

Class Details

  • Week 1 (6th Feb) Getting started
  • Week 2 (13th Feb) The Environment of the Highlands and Islands in the past
  • Week 3 (20th Feb) Ceremony and Ritual in the Third and Early Second Millennium BC
  • Week 4 (27th March) Understanding the Archaeological Record
  • Week 5 (6th March) The Bronze Age
  • Week 7 (13th March) Environmental Archaeology
  • Week 8 (20th March) Week 6 The Iron Age
  • Week 9 (27th March) Viking and Norse
  • Week 10 (3rd April) Medieval and Post-Medieval
  • Easter Holiday (2 weeks)
  • Week 11 (17th April) Archaeological Landscapes

Programme may be subject to change.

Contact Tina Brown at Orkney College, Telephone (01856) 569206 or e-mail Tina.Brown@uhi.ac.uk for information or to reserve a place.

Ness of Brodgar Artist in Residence Video

The Ness of Brodgar artist in residence, Karen Wallis, was on site during the excavation of August 2016 and produced a collection of excellent images of people at work – some of which were showcased on the BBC News website in September.

Karen has now created a “work in progress” video. These images capture something of the atmosphere of the dig that perhaps photography alone cannot.

ness720 from Karen Wallis on Vimeo.

To find out more about Karen’s work then click through to her website.

They Graze on Wave and Ocean Plants

Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Philippa Ascough, Lecturer & Head NERC Radiocarbon Facility (East Kilbride) talk about their research into foddering strategies in island environments: pig, sheep, goat and cattle diet in Late Iron Age to Viking/Late Norse Orkney.

Within the archaeological literature, the Northern Isles of Scotland are typically seen as being at the limits of arable and pastoral farming.In these islands, the use of foreshore grazing and of seaweed as fodder from the Neolithic period onwards is often equated with marginality, a farming system under pressure, with animals reduced to foraging on the shore to obtain an adequate diet. Yet, today and in the recent past, livestock farming has been one of the mainstays of the economy of the islands, with the fertile coastal soils of Orkney in particular providing ideal grazing for cattle and sheep. Using Late Iron Age (LIA) to Viking (V) and Late Norse (LN) Orkney as a case study, and integrating zooarchaeological approaches with bone stable isotope analysis (carbon, δ13C, & nitrogen,δ15N) we explored the idea of pastoral farming at the margins through an analysis of the differing herding, foddering and grazing strategies employed for domestic livestock at Norse farmsteads of different size and status across the islands.  This forms part of a larger study into the resilience of LIA to Norse herding strategies in Orkney.

Map of Orkney showing sites used in this study

The method employed  a synthesis of zooarchaeological data (species representation, mortality profiles, palaepathological and metrical data)  from 16 sites spanning the Late Iron Age to Late Norse period in Orkney & Shetland3. Bone stable isotope analysis sampled collagen from sheep/goat (n=62), cattle (n=59) and pig (n=41) mandibles from selected sites (in bold Fig 2.1) using standard analytical approaches.

Zooarchaeological Results

  • Sheep and cattle dominated economy in LIA and Viking
  • Increasing evidence of specialisation in Late Norse (eg sheep at Snusgar, pig at Earls’ Bu and Brough of Birsay, cattle at Quoygrew)
  • Sheep: mixed meat, wool and milk in LIA; specialised strategies in Late Norse – meat at Earl’s Bu and Brough of Birsay; wool at Snusgar
  • Cattle: milk important throughout, but increased emphasis on dairying in Late Norse

Change in Foddering Strategies

Grazing/foddering was more opportunistic in earlier periods, including seaweed grazing by ovicaprines. In the Late Norse period,  there is greater consistency between sites, with terrestrial grazing emphasized and the feeding of some pigs on marine waste.


A shift in strategy is identified from LIA to Late Norse in both husbandry and diet which is interpreted as a move from subsistence farming to a system geared towards the production of specific products.  Coastal grazing and/or seaweed consumption is identified but in relatively few individuals, and does not suggest an acute level of resource scarcity for livestock as described, eg, in historical accounts for the Northern Isles.  Moreover, there is evidence from the stable isotope results both in this study and others. 3,5 of the use of supplementary fodders, such as hay or oats, which suggests well husbanded flocks and may reflect the fattening-up of livestock for consumption.   Likewise preliminary analysis of dental microwear in some of the sites examined here shows little evidence for overgrazing in either summer or winter culled animals.3  Overall, the impression is of a productive and well managed farming system during the Viking/Late Norse period. Although sample sizes are small, there is some suggestion that utilisation of marine resources for sheep may have been greater in the LIA.  Jones  et al. (2012)5 also report enriched δ13C in bone collagen in a wider range of Iron Age sites from Orkney, suggesting a more widespread use of seaweed and foreshore grazing by sheep herds at this time though again some variability is evident in the extent to which this resource was utilised.

Poster presented at the UHI Conference & the AEA conference in Orkney in April 2016. The poster also details the stable isotope results:



  • Amorosi et al. 1996. Env Arch 1, 41-54;
  • Balasse et al. 2009. Env Arch 14.1, 1-14;
  • Mainland et al. 2016. JAS Reports 6, 837-855;
  • Ascough et al., 2012, J. Arch. Sci. 39, 2261-2271;
  • Jones et al. 2012. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 26, 2399–2406.
  • aUHI Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands (Ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk)
  • Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (Philippa.Ascough@glasgow.ac.uk)

british-academyThis research was supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to Ingrid Mainland (2014-5).