When is a cist, not a cist?

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Some of the most significant finds in archaeology are not found by trained archaeologists, but by members of the public.

We know that there is so much archaeology to find on Orkney and one of the most exciting elements of being involved with the University of the Highlands and Archaeology Institute is taking a call from a member of the public who has spotted something interesting in a field, on the beach or eroding out of a shoreline.

And so, when Julie Gibson (County Archaeologist for Orkney) took a call saying that someone had identified a possible cist eroding out of the shoreline, we set off with ranging poles, trowel, camera, photograph, map and a set of sturdy boots to investigate.

DSC_0017The weather was perfect with the sun breaking through spring clouds and even Scapa Flow was mirror flat as we searched for the site. The area was not too distant from an identified early settlement site and a ship beaching point and so we were optimistic that perhaps the find was significant.

We soon identified the place from the description, map references and photograph and to all intents and purposes, it certainly did look like a burial cist – upright stones, set within peat in a rectangular shape. The feature was situated on the foreshore of Scapa Flow and was regularly inundated with water and so it could be a feature eroding out of the shoreline – as so much archaeology is so doing in Orkney.

Following a more detailed investigation of the area, it soon became evident that the feature was, in fact, a peculiar geological feature and not a cist as first suspected. But it could have been and it could have been an indicator of another important archaeological discovery in Orkney.

Many thanks to those people who take the time and effort to contact us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute when they come across finds and features in the landscape. Who knows, the next time the phone rings it could well be another Ness of Brodgar!

Archaeology MLitt by Research Studentship Available

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Brough of Birsay

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to offer a one year MLitt by Research in Archaeology EU/UK fees only full-time studentship, starting 1st Oct 2017.

Topic: Marine Mammal exploitation in Late Iron Age and Medieval Orkney.

During the late first millennium AD, the Northern Isles of Scotland saw the introduction of a new material culture and permanent settlement by incoming settlers from Scandinavia -the ‘Vikings’- which was part of a broader colonisation by these Norse peoples into the North Atlantic islands. These were largely farming societies, using developed Iron Age technology, but whose agricultural economies were heavily subsidised by wild species, including marine mammals.

IMG_13264The relative contributions, management, and sustainability of sea mammal populations, prior to the 16th century, are, however, currently less well documented and understood than are systems used for terrestrial species. Such data would contribute both to socio-economic reconstruction of early Norse populations, and to millennial scale population dynamics in the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean ecosystems, helping to inform on current and future sustainability of whales, seals and other North Atlantic species.

This MLitt by Research project will take as its focus human interactions with seals and whales in one specific area of the Norse North Atlantic, Orkney. It will seek to establish diachronic variability in the exploitation of and attitudes to these species both within the Norse period (ie c. 8th-15th centuries AD) and between the Norse and preceding Late Iron Age periods.

This will involve research into the distribution and relative frequency of sea mammals, including both artefactual and zooarchaeological evidence, for relevant sites alongside a detailed taphonomic analysis focusing on depositional context, carcase utilisation, butchery, bone fragmentation and artefact use/production.  Historical and ethnographic sources will also be drawn into the study where appropriate.

Research results will form the basis for selection of samples for aDNA analysis as part of a larger project into sea mammal exploitation and population dynamics in the North Atlantic. This MLitt project will also provide data for a pilot study for DataARC, an NSF-funded cyberinfrastructure project that aims to link and organise complex transdisciplinary data sets related to Arctic research.

Specific topics for analysis may include:

  • what whales and seals represented in practical economic terms, as well as social and cultural significance
  • whether Orcadian communities actively hunted great whales, or other cetaceans, prior to the spread of commercial whaling in the 16th and 17th centuries, or if they were mainly exploited in natural or induced strandings.
  • interactions of island economies, climate change, and animal biogeography

This project is being undertaken as part of an ongoing NSF-supported transdisciplinary international collaborative investigation of the roles of marine mammals (seals, cetaceans, walruses) in North Atlantic subsistence and market economies from the early through late Middle Ages (NSF Award #1503714) (PI Dr. Vicki Szabo, Western Carolina University).

The research student will be based at the University of the Highlands of Islands Archaeology Institute at Orkney College in Orkney. The supervisory team will be led by

The supervisory team will be led by Dr. Ingrid Mainland at the UHI Archaeology Institute together with Dr.  V. Szabo (WCU), Dr. Colleen Strawhacker (University of Colorado, Boulder) and Dr. Jen Harland  (UHI Archaeology Institute).

For further information on this opportunity, please contact Dr. Ingrid Mainland (Ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk)


The studentship covers fees only at the University of the Highlands and Islands Home/EU rate for a total of 12 months (including writing-up) (https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/studying-at-uhi/first-steps/how-much-will-it-cost/tuition-fees-research-postgraduate-students/). The project is expected to start on the 1st October 2017.

International are welcome to apply however please be aware that you will be required to make up the difference between Home/EU and International fees.

Applicants must possess a minimum of an Honours degree at 2:1 and/or a Masters Degree (or International equivalent) in a relevant subject.

To apply please send a CV indicating qualifications, any prior research experience (including publications) together with a statement of interest in the project and contact details for two academic referees to Ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk

Closing dates 19th June 2017. Interviews 3rd July, by Skype.

New Project on Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre Awarded Funding

20160705_120034(0)Stories, Stones and Bones: Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea – Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present.

Rousay Heritage Trust celebrates £7800.00 Heritage Lottery Fund grant as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017

Rousay Heritage Trust has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant. This exciting project, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea – Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present, in Rousay, Orkney,  led by the Rousay Heritage Trust in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute and the University of Bradford, has been given £7800.00 to run a programme of archaeology themed events during 2017.

20160707_152631These are to be centred around the archaeological excavations at Swandro and Skaill, on the western coast of Rousay, and on the Viking and Norse periods. This project is part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

The project will provide a programme of hands-on and memorable experiences for a range of ages within the island community will complement the wider St Magnus 900 year commemorations and will focus more fully on the archaeology and history of Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre in the Viking / Norse period.

Project events include a Viking themed boat flotilla with guided trips around Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre looking at the Viking and Norse sites and their history. Members of the community can learn skills in archaeology during test pit excavations at Skaill, surveying a Viking house at Swandro, experimental archaeology workshops and more. These activities link in with the ongoing archaeological investigations by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Bradford researching long-term change along the Westness coast. The project culminates in the production of a new free booklet for all Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre residents containing useful information about the islands, their heritage and archaeology and the results from the summer’s activities.

Commenting on the award, Bryan Milner (Chair of Rousay Heritage Trust) said: “ We are662_B1_022 delighted that our Summer of Arts and Sport in recent years are now to be followed by a Summer of History.  This is especially appropriate because not only are Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre rich in archaeological sites but also because Egilsay is where Magnus was martyred 900 years ago”.

Dan Lee (Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, UHI Archaeology Institute) added: “we are thrilled to be part of such wide-ranging and exciting events centred upon the remarkable archaeology of Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre in the St Magnus 900th commemorative year”.

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The abandoned kirk at Skaill, Rousay

Rousay Heritage Trust is a charity with the main objectives of the advancement of the education of the public in the history, culture, natural history and any other features of life in the island of Rousay, Orkney and the preservation for the public benefit of the historical, cultural and natural heritage of Rousay and of its sister  islands, Egilsay and Wyre. Contact: Helen Castle helen@rewdt.org 01856 821229

Stories, Stones and Bones is for any not-for-profit group wanting to engage more people with the heritage and take part in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Stories, Stones and Bones grants between £3,000 and £10,000 are available to groups who want to discover their local heritage. Projects can cover a wide spectrum of subject matter from exploring local archaeology and a community’s cultures and traditions to identifying and recording local wildlife and protecting the surrounding environment to managing and training volunteers, and holding festivals and events to commemorate the past.

Heritage Lottery Fund. Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) aims to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities across the UK and help build a resilient heritage economy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage.  www.hlf.org.uk  Follow us on Facebook Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland and twitter @HLFScotland. Use the hashtags #HLFScotland and #HHA2017 to be part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

Iron Age Leisure Time at The Cairns

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The Cairns archaeology site in South Ronaldsay, Orkney has its fair share of spectacular pieces, such as the carved whalebone vessel, but it is the small finds that provide a glimpse into the ordinary everyday existence of people during the Iron Age.

There are quite a large number of small carved discs from the site, and these are usually interpreted as gaming pieces, or gaming counters in the academic literature of the Iron Age period. If this is indeed what they were then they’re a really interesting insight into the ‘leisure’ time or social lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of the site. Most of these counters have come from the later post-broch Iron Age or Pictish levels of the site.

They are usually small, well-made sandstone discs or counters (although we have a whale-tooth example as well), and are similar to modern draughts counters.
18518395_10154700266656325_6349977046841925377_oOccasionally, there are taller, upright pieces like one in the photo here made from a black shale material such as lignite, cannel coal or even jet.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, continues, “Perhaps these were used in another game, or maybe these are the King/Queen pieces in the game. There are only a very few more like this one from Scottish Iron Age sites such as Scalloway in Shetland. One of the things we’d love to find would be one of the stone plaques or slabs with incised gridlines that appear to have been the boards that the game was played on. These have been found on a few Iron Age sites- we can only hope for one turning up in a future season!”

The final picture shows a nicely carved sandstone ‘counter’ and a smooth, conglomerate pebble. The pebble is perhaps more 18451700_10154700266891325_3279832134332830650_odoubtful as a gaming piece, but it was found next to the carved one and it was certainly selected and brought to the site by human hand. Both pieces were found next to the central hearth in Structure E-one of our Late Iron Age buildings.

Perhaps in your minds eye you can imagine a winter’s evening with a family group gathered around the fire, using these pieces to play a game, while outside the wind howls over the Orkney landscape.


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If you want to know more about The Cairns and are in Orkney on 21st-23rd June 2017 then enrol on our new short course.
For details see our blog post.
Or e-mail Mary Connolly: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Death Days – Past & Present

sunrise-phu-quoc-island-oceanBernie Bell is a regular contributor to Orkney online news and blogs and has sent us an interesting article giving an insight into another societies approach to death.

Bernie takes up the story….

“We were staying at The Belgrave Arms Hotel in Helmsdale, on our way back from our holiday in Kilmartin Glen.  We were talking with the proprietor, who told us that they had recently returned from their holiday in Vietnam.  This was interesting enough in itself, as to me the word ‘Vietnam’ still conjures up war, helicopters, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and that terrible image of the little girl – running from something that she couldn’t possibly run away from.

The country is very much recovering and that, although there isn’t much conspicuous wealth about, the people are working with what they have and building on what they have and there is a general air of optimism.

They had a young man as their guide who told them something of the traditions still followed by his family.  He was working hard to earn enough to make his father’s ‘second house’.  His father is now elderly and the Vietnamese people accept and embrace death as very much a part of life.  When parents are nearing death their sons are expected to build them a ‘second house’.  This is not what we would think of as a house more of a shrine, but they refer to them as ‘second houses’.

When a person dies, they are placed in a box and left for some time in order to decompose.  When they are well and truly decomposed the family gather together and wash the bones thoroughly – they must be absolutely pristine.  The family then have a ‘Day of Death’ when they place the bones in the ‘second house’.  The spirit is then left in peace to move on to their next life.

On Death Day the ceremonies include burning their most valued possessions so that they too can accompany the person to the new life. This used to include burning their money, but it has now changed –  the family buy pretend money to burn instead!

However, this way of life is changing and evolving and will possibly have gone in 20/30 years time.  The ‘second houses’ are placed among the fields belonging to the family – marking their land.

In 5,000 years time, what would archaeologists make of the assemblages of carefully cleaned bones in the remains of their ‘second homes’ – if the stories associated with these traditions had been lost, too?”

Exciting New Project for Stromness-Listening to the Piers

Stromness Piers_Credit Diana Leslie

Stories, Stones and Bones: Listening to the Piers – Exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers.

The Stromness Museum celebrates £9700.00 Heritage Lottery Fund grant as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017

IMG_1907The Orkney Natural History Society Museum, Stromness, has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant. This exciting project, Listening to the Piers – Exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers is led by Stromness Museum in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. The programme involves organising arts and science workshops for the public and local schools and is aimed at exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers. This project is part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

The Stromness Museum is teaming up with the UHI Archaeology Institute, local artists, and marine scientists from the International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT) Orkney Campus to give the local community a chance to learn about life on and around the town’s stone-built piers, past and present. The events form part of the ‘Per Mare’ during 2017 when Stromness celebrates the 200 year anniversary of becoming a Burgh of Barony. The project will provide the opportunity for all ages of the community to explore different ways of seeing and interpreting the piers using innovative science and arts workshops held on a ‘Piers Day’ (Tuesday 25th July) during the Per Mare week (24-30th July).

The project team will work with local school children and residents to record stories,IMG_1894 memories and the history of the piers during May and June. Workshops on Piers Day will include archaeological test pit excavation on the town beaches to explore what the town threw away, sea life in the piers and intertidal zone, drawing (5-minute sketches), photography (artefacts and sea life) and time-lapse filming. Participants will learn new science and arts-based skills and help create new insights into the piers. These events are free and open to all ages.

The project will culminate in a temporary exhibition this autumn at the Stromness Museum, including artefacts, drawings, photographs and a new listening post with stories collected during the sound recording workshops.

Commenting on the award, Janette Park (Honorary Curator) said: “The museum is delighted to be able to run such a ground breaking project during such an important year as the 200th anniversary of Stromness becoming a Burgh of Barony. The piers of Stromness are a hugely important part of the shared community history of the town. The opportunity to explore and document the piers for the future will be a lasting legacy.”

Dan Lee (Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, UHI Archaeology Institute) added: “We are really looking forward to exploring these iconic piers and the history of Stromness with such exciting arts/science workshops; combined they will help us all learn about the piers and understand them in new ways”.

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Credits: Stromness Piers artwork: Diana Leslie, Photographs: UHI Archaeology.


Stories, Stones and Bones is designed for any not-for-profit group wanting to engage more people with the heritage and take part in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Stories, Stones and Bones grants between £3,000 and £10,000 are available to groups who want to discover their local heritage. Projects can cover a wide spectrum of subject matter from exploring local archaeology and a community’s cultures and traditions to identifying and recording local wildlife and protecting the surrounding environment to managing and training volunteers and holding festivals and events to commemorate the past.

The Stromness Museum is an independent museum maintained and managed by a committee of volunteers elected from the members of the Orkney Natural History Society Museum SCIO. The Stromness Museum exists to promote natural science, to preserve local history and to offer an enjoyable educational and informative experience to as large a range of people as possible. The museum contains natural and cultural history with galleries focussing upon Canada and the Arctic, maritime history and models, natural history, wartime Orkney and ethnographic material.

See their website for more information: http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/stromnessmuseum/index.asp


Archaeological Building Survey Opportunity, Kirkwall

Rear 10 Victoria Street 2

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be completing a further Archaeological Building Survey Workshop on Friday 19th and Saturday 20th May 2017 (10am – 3pm).

This continues on from the work completed at Parliament Square in April and the town centre excavations, surveys and gardens digs last year in the Kirkwall THI Archaeology Programme. The workshop will include basic training in building survey techniques, mapping, photography and a trip to the archives.

The work will commence in the court yard to the rear of Finns former shop (10-12 Victoria Street), opposite RBS bank. Access is through the gate to the right of Spence’s Newsagents. The day will include training in scale drawing, photography, written records and how to look at buildings archaeologically. The building itself contains large amounts of re-used medieval stone.

Further workshops will also be recording the Old Castle on Main Street the following weekend (26-27 May, with some laser scanning the day after on the 28th).

For further information on the project see our previous blog post.

If you would like to take part in these free archaeology workshops then please contact Dan Lee on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk