Cata Sand Excavation Funding Appeal

Neolithic houses emerging on the beach at Cata Sand

The team excavating the intriguing archaeology site at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney are appealing for donations to contribute to the costs of mobilising a team to complete rescue excavations at this rapidly eroding site.

The team also require funding to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains, to submit samples for radiocarbon dating for both these important finds, the Neolithic houses and the whales.

The archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney, was discovered by four archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December day of 2015 in a gale, walking out to nearby Neolithic tomb of Tres Ness which was known to be eroding at the cliff face.


The team had been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune – Grithies Dune – an eagle-eyed Chris spotted some orthostats (upright stones), and patches of reddened soil and walling were visible at the foot of this small dune. Settlement!! they thought, excited at the prospect of perhaps having discovered remnant of the elusive late Neolithic/early Bronze Age transition period……and which ultimately proved to be an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped into pits cut through the Neolithic house.

When we first discovered the archaeological remains, we saw they were in a vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that the site had been exposed only fairly recently. Exposure occurred probably during the major storm in 2012, when wind and waves removed not only part of the large dune but removed over half of Grithies Dunes, revealing the remains of the Neolithic houses. We knew therefore that we had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community getting a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.

The exposed location of the excavation

An Early Neolithic Settlement Revealed

Geophysical survey using magnetometer showed the archaeological deposits were focussed at the Grithies Dune; the coarse stone tools we had found strewn along the sands denoted perhaps where tools were being manufactured from the cobbles that make up the gravel banks under the sands. Our excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that we had found the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths showing the long rectangular form and layout typical of early Neolithic houses such as Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, and several other houses discovered more recently on Mainland Orkney, and Wyre.

This was a first for Sanday, as early Neolithic evidence at the multi-period site of Pool had been more ephemeral. Although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment. Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.

Neolithic houses emerging from the sand

At the same time, over 2017 and 2018 excavation seasons, our explorations at the Tres Ness tomb have revealed that this tomb, rather than being a late Neolithic passage grave like Swandro – and Maes Howe – is a stalled tomb of early Neolithic form. This finding is significant for, before the large sand dune had accumulated which is relatively recently, Tresness and the contemporary settlement at Cata Sand would have been inter-visible and therefore part of the same landscape, and very probably built by the same community. Excavations of the interior of the stalled tomb will be undertaken in 2019 (pending relevant permissions from Historic Environment Scotland), affording a rare opportunity to examine the contents of an early Neolithic tomb under modern excavation conditions before this too is claimed by the sea.

The team encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping us to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried. We undertook the painstaking task of excavating fully one of the pits, and recording in 3D detail the location of all the bones; we felt that the whales deserved to be treated with respect and care. We recovered the bodies, but no heads, of more than 12 whales from this pit, and genetic analysis has since proven them to be the remains of pilot whales. This analysis was undertaken by the team led by Vicki Szabo ‘Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic’ (funded by National Science Foundation, USA).

Whale skeletons being excavated on the beach at Cata Sand, Orkney

The whale remains are probably the result of the historical practice of ‘ca’ing’ the whales, that is driving them onto shallow sandy beaches for the purpose of obtaining blubber. At times too numbers of whales would beach themselves. However it is possible that these whales are the ones referred to in an account by John Sinclair in the 19th century (John Sinclair, Sketches of Old Times and Distant Places, 1875) who reports that more than eighty ‘bottle nose’ (pilot) whales were driven onto the sands, and comments on the offensive smell deriving from the carcasses, which may well then have been removed into pits. Further analysis of these remains could tell us about the diet of whales, and c14 dating would help identify whether they are from an historic ‘ca’ing’ rather than being of any earlier period.

The team excavating the whale skeletons at Cata Sand, Orkney

Cata Sand Funding Appeal
During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses; progress is slow due to the never ending blowing sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.

We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but have not been able to secure funding to enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. The completion of sampling of the floor deposits is necessary to give a full picture of how people lived inside the houses, and what resources they were utilising – plants, animals – and what artefacts they were making and employing.

We are appealing for donations to contribute to the costs of mobilising the team of archaeologists to go to Sanday this August and complete rescue excavations at Cata Sand. We also require funding to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains, to submit samples for radiocarbon dating for both these important finds, the Neolithic houses and the whales.

Check out our ‘Total Giving’ site if you would like to donate towards this important dig.

Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).

April Ruination & Decay Seminar

Abandoned farmstead Sanday, Orkney

The next seminar in the University of the Highlands and Islands HARC ‘Ruination and Decay’ series is to be held on Thursday 25th April.

The seminar is entitled Time, Memory, Place: An Exploration Through Performance.

Art and Design and Drama colleagues based at Inverness College UHI are collaborating to explore ruination and decay in the context of place and its impact on memory and identity.

The project has been integrated with core curriculum and students are collaborating as co-researchers. During the seminar the team will describe their rationale and working processes. The speakers are Lesley Mickel, Alessandra Campoli, Stephanie Smart and Alison Woodside – Drama, Art and Design, Inverness College UHI.

Everyone is welcome.

ORCA Archaeology Secure Funding for an Important New Project

Newark Bay

ORCA Archaeology is pleased to announce that they have been awarded a grant of £202,000 by Historic Environment Scotland to complete an important archaeology research project centred on Newark Bay, Deerness, Orkney.

Newark is the site of an early medieval chapel and extensive cemetery and was the focus of rescue excavations by the late Professor Brothwell between 1968 and 1972. Due to various circumstances, the work never came to publication and part of this new ORCA Archaeology project will be to address this. 

Like so many sites in Orkney, coastal erosion is a significant problem and has caused structural and human remains to have been lost over the years since Professor Brothwell’s original excavation.

Some 250 burials were recovered, making it one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Scotland. It was also the location of a post-medieval mansion house, partly revealed during excavation. Subsequent work at Newark includes recovery of a Class II Pictish Carved Stone, the second almost complete example of its type from Orkney. 

Pictish Carved Stone discovered at Newark Bay

ORCA staff examining the newly excavated Pictish Carved Stone. Note how close the beach is to the find site.Professor Brothwell’s archive is not publicly available, and with his excavation findings remaining unpublished, the potential for further analysis of the skeletal assemblage has yet to be fully exploited. This project therefore aims  to address these issues and aims to:

  • Bring the site to publication;
  • Disseminate the archive
  • Complete comprehensive skeletal analysis of the human remains
  • Create an ancient DNA project
  • Include the wider community through the use of outreach workshops, social media and other digital platforms
  • Train volunteers in basic archaeological recording techniques

The project will be rolled out over three years starting in April 2019……..

Year One
Publication: bringing together all work at the site from Professor Brothwell onwards, providing a current statement of knowledge and understanding, and setting out recommendations for future research.

Archive: bringing the Newark archive within the public domain via a digital repository. Includes cataloguing all skeletal material and digitising the archive.

Year Two 
Analysis of the skeletal remains, including full recording, C14 dating and isotopic analysis of a percentage of the assemblage. A full report will be published of findings.

Year Three
Creation of a collaborative ancient DNA project. Creation of mobile exhibition about the site to be held at Orkney Museum and local community hall(s).

Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager, ORCA Archaeology said, “We are very excited to have secured this funding for work at such an important site that is continually under attack from coastal erosion. We are looking forward to involving the community in the process through outreach training and workshops and, over the next three years, this project will provide vital information for the record which in turn will help us understand more fully the society that these people created in Orkney during the medieval period. The site includes finds from the Pictish through to the Viking period.”

The community are integral to the project. They have a long-term investment in the site at Newark and want to see previous work brought to publication and the archive disseminated. This project provides opportunities for their involvement throughout.


Fieldwalking in Orkney Update 2019

The community archaeologists are briefed by Chris Gee

The fields of Orkney are now ploughed and so that means the new fieldwalking season is upon us.

The call for volunteers went out and a band of intrepid community archaeologists are led out into the spring Orkney sunshine to search for artefacts thrown up by the plough.

Chris Gee, of the ORCA Archaeology team organising the programme, takes up the story……”Even though we are still early in the fieldwalking of the World Heritage Area this season the results are already very interesting, providing new information on recorded sites, revealing unknown ones, and as usual raising more questions.

A field which was marked with three “Tumuli” on the OS map was walked. Although “tumuli” would indicate burial mounds of some sort often the labels were applied with little evidence of what the site actually was. In this case the tumuli were visible in the field as very low mounds with a slightly darker reddish-brown soil than the surrounding. On the surface at the centre of one of the mounds we found a chunk of cramp. Cramp is one of the products of cremation, often placed carefully within the stone cist along with the cremated remains or sometimes within the makeup of the burial mound.

Flaked flagstone bars

On the mound alongside we found two flaked stone bars. These flattish flaked flagstone bars which were used in cultivating the land are often found within, and sometimes placed around the edge of Bronze Age barrows. Our flaked stone bars had smoothed areas which showed that they had been fairly extensively used before deposition. These stone tools were used to renew the land and bring it to life once more in an eternal cycle, maybe this is what was also expected of them in the context of human life and death.

We walked a new field in an area that we have covered in previous years which is just over the loch from the Standing Standing Stone circles and Barnhouse. In this field we found extensive spreads of cramp which indicates that there was much funerary activity here in the Bronze Age. The funerary cremation fires here would have been clearly visible for miles around and particularly from the large monuments over the Harray Loch.

Fieldwalking under an Orkney sky

Further to the two hitherto unknown Neolithic settlement sites that we found last year another one has turned up this year. In fact on the first traverse of the first field to be walked one of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute students picked up the butt end of a ground stone axe or chisel. It was obvious that there was something in the field as soon as we looked at it as there was a slight rise that looked a bit darker in colour (due to occupation ash and midden enhancing the soil). Fragments of burnt stone, flint chips and small scrapers, along with larger stone tools were recorded from the surface. Just as we were about to leave the field I picked up a fine flint chisel arrowhead and several pieces of grooved ware which had also been ploughed up.

Flint arrowhead

Taken together these finds and their distribution suggest a Neolithic settlement site with at least a Late Neolithic element to it. Judging by the extent of the spread it probably consisted of a few houses, perhaps something like Crossiecrown, just outside Kirkwall.

The site is just across the loch from the Barnhouse-Brodgar monuments and not far away from Maeshowe. They would have been clearly visible from each other. The questions we are now asking are how the people in this smaller settlement interacted with the cluster of large monuments and settlement in the area and over the loch (it may have been very wet marsh at that time) and vice versa. How much interaction was there and what form did it take?

I suspect the clear inter-visibility and proximity in this case was not accidental and that it had meaning to people in both locations. Although given the density of prehistoric settlement within and well away from the World Heritage area it may be reckless to read too much into the location of one settlement. What we can now say though is that as well as the large prehistoric settlements like Barnhouse-Ness and Bookan there are apparently several smaller Neolithic settlements consisting of maybe a couple of houses in each case in very close proximity to the large monuments.

Examining and recording the site of one of the finds.

The great thing about field walking is that it is very easy to do (particularly on a bonny day!) and the results are almost instant, allowing us to discuss the landscape and what our latest finds are telling us immediately with the community archaeologists.

I am particularly grateful to all the interest shown to this project, and actually archaeology in general in Orkney, by all the landowners that I have met. I have had many interesting chats and learned so much as a result of meeting the people that know and have a first hand interest in their land.

Thanks also to Orkney Archaeology Society, Historic Environment Scotland and others who have sponsored this project.

If you want to get involved in fieldwalking in Orkney then contact Dan Lee on

Ness to Ness Workshop 2019, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have once again teamed up with Orkney College UHI Art Department to offer the popular summer Art & Archaeology workshop for 2019.

  • Dates: 2nd – 5th July 2019
  • Time: 9.00-5.00 each day
  • Cost £250 per person (limited number of concessions at £225)
  • Accommodation and food is not included
  • Material and transport to and from Kirkwall during the workshop is included

Join us for a four-day workshop exploring the synergies between Art & Archaeology through an exciting combination of field visits and studio time. Accompanied by artists and archaeologists, you will explore the themes of mark-making, materiality and the landscape in the beautiful setting of Orkney’s West Mainland and the island of Hoy.

There will be exclusive tours of the Ness of Brodgar, Pier Arts Centre and the Ness Battery as well as expert printmaking tuition in Orkney College’s Art Studio from Charles Shearer

Tuesday 2nd July 2019 Field Day Ness of Brodgar and Ness Battery

The Ness of Brodgar excavation

After an introduction to the workshop, we will visit the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. You will have the opportunity to enjoy a bespoke tour with Site Director Nick Card and see its unique art with Neolithic art researcher Dr Antonia Thomas. In the afternoon we will have a tour of the remarkable buildings at the Ness Battery and its unique WW2 painted murals with archaeologist Andrew Hollinrake.

The Ness Battery looking across to the Island of Hoy

Wednesday 3rd July 2019 Pier Arts Centre and Hoy

For today’s session, we will study the internationally significant collection of modern and contemporary art through an exclusive tour of the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. We will then travel by the MV Graemsay ferry to the island of Hoy and then onwards to the beautiful beach at Rackwick via the Dwarfie Stane….a Neolithic rock cut tomb made famous by Sir Walter Scott in The Pirate. Following a day on the island we then travel back to Stromness on the ferry.

The Dwarfie Stane

Thursday 4th July Studio Day One

You will develop your sketches and ideas from the previous two days into collagraph prints, guided by the internationally renowned printmaker and artist Charles Shearer. A lunchtime lecture will discuss art and artefacts from Neolithic sites in Orkney. You will also have an opportunity to handle finds from recent excavations.

Friday 5th July Studio Day Two

You will be able to develop your ideas from the previous three days further, and continue to work on collagraph printmaking with Charles Shearer. A lunchtime lecture will explore overlaps between archaeology and art as disciplines and processes.

Formal qualifications are not required for this course.

Cost: £250 for 4 days. Limited number of concessions available at 10% discount (£225) Cost includes teaching, transport and materials, but not accommodation or food.To book, contact or telephone 01856 569000

Nick Card Presents Research in China

Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card was invited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to give a lecture in Xi’an this month – the birthplace of Chinese Civilisation and home to the Terracotta Army.

The trip not only gave Nick the opportunity to take part in an international workshop on heritage management and present the Ness of Brodgar as a case study of how archaeology can contribute to local economies, but also explore the amazing archaeology in and around Xi’an including the famous Terracotta Army associated with the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang – China’s first emperor.

One of the chariots discovered in a pit adjacent to the main mausoleum

Nick, when showing me the photographs from his trip, talked about the sheer scale of the archaeology present in the landscape in and around the city; pointing to huge population mobilisation (reputedly 700,000 for the construction of the mausoleum alone) and highly sophisticated social organisation over 2,000 years ago.

Model of Daming Palace

He continued,” The archaeology is breath-taking, not only in its scale…for example the Daming Palace in Xi’an itself covers an area equivalent to 300 football pitches….but in the artefacts and monuments that are being uncovered. The local archaeologists have only uncovered a tiny percentage of the mausoleum site that overall covers several square kilometres and yet the insight into this incredible civilisation provided by the discoveries so far are nothing short of astonishing.”

The largest pit (partially) excavated at the Terracotta Army. The walls between the rows of warriors supported a roof structure of logs. This one structure could cover the whole of the Ness of Brodgar

Following Nicks presentation on the Ness of Brodgar, the workshop progressed onto discussions on heritage management and the innovative methods being used in China to preserve and present the past. One line of discussion centred on the Chinese creation of huge archaeology parks such as the one in Xi’an.

Layout of the Daming Palace Archaeology Park in Xi’an

The few days Nick spent in the city also gave him the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which gave him chance to think on LP Hartley’s opening line in the 1953 novel ‘The Go- Between’ “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

The trip was fully funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – a huge thanks to them for this opportunity.

The Ness of Brodgar is a University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute research excavation and is part financed by the Scottish Government and the Leader 2014-2020 Programme.

For more on the Ness of Brodgar dig click here.

Runes in Orkney – A Millennium of writing

Andrea setting up the exhibition

We invited Andrea Freund PhD student currently studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands to write a guest blog on her research and exhibition into Viking runes.

Andrea continues the story……….”I am currently in my final year of a PhD at the Institute for Northern Studies. My research is funded through an “Applied Research Collaboration” by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities in a partnership between UHI and Orkney Museum.

This relatively new kind of studentship gives the PhD student a non-academic partner and a practical, public engagement project. In my case, that is a temporary exhibition at Orkney Museum from 9 – 30 March 2019.

When it came to find a topic for my exhibition, it was clear to me that it would be about runes in Orkney, which is the central focus of my entire thesis. However, as often with such cases, the devil is in the detail. Namely, the location of many runic inscriptions from Orkney. Many early finds are now part of the permanent exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and I knew from the start it was unlikely that I would be able to show them. Then there are the 33 inscriptions inside the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe – rather difficult to get to the museum, so they could not be the main focus.

Another consideration, which has fascinated me from my first visit in Orkney was the way runes are still an inspiration for artists and designers here, which I never saw anywhere else to such a big extent. I felt it was important to reflect the ongoing importance of runes in and for Orkney in the exhibition because that throws up many aspects of how runes, and with them the Norse, are received in modern Orkney.

Therefore, the exhibition is called “A Millennium of Writing”, making the connection from the approximate time (sorry, I cannot guarantee that it is exactly a millennium, but “About 1025 years of writing” or so wouldn’t look good on a poster) that runes were first used in Orkney to the present day.
In putting together the exhibition, I was very lucky in various regards. Orkney had a new find of a runic spindle whorl in 2017, and this is the first time it can go on display. Inscribed bones from Earl’s Bu have also recently been moved to Orkney Museum and are going on their first ever display, too. In addition, it has been possible to secure loans of objects that have never been at Orkney Museum and that have never formed part of the same exhibition, alongside with loans from artists and designers, to tell a more comprehensive story about runes in Orkney.

Fragment of cattle rib excavated at Earl’s Bu, Orkney

One thing I personally like in museums is a hands-on experience, and I wanted to try and recreate that. This means that visitors can try themselves at carving their names in runes – made slightly easier than the Norse original technique by replacing stone with flower foam and sharp knives with wooden cuticle pushers. The runic spindle whorl is also available as a digital 3D model, created by Jim Bright, so visitors can enlarge and turn it as they wish even though the original is in a glass case. Finally, visitors are asked for their own suggestions what the rather mysterious lead amulet from Deerness might say on its inside – which we may never discover because it can neither be unfolded nor X-rayed.

I hope that visitors will enjoy the exhibition just as much as I have enjoyed the process of planning and putting it together, that it appeals to Orcadians and tourists alike and makes people reflect on Orkney’s runic heritage and how it is portrayed and used today.”

What Makes Ruination and Decay Attractive?

Ruined WW2 building, Lyness, Hoy, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Humanities & Arts Research Cluster (HARC) themed research event ‘Ruination & Decay’ is now truly up and running.

The year long event itself features monthly seminars, blog articles, photographs, podcasts and culminates in a themed conference in December 2019.

In this blog Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, Orkney College UHI , talks about the attraction of the theme…..Ruination & Decay. This article originally appeared on the HARC Ruination & Decay blog. Click through to catch the latest!

Ragnhild continues…..

“Ruined buildings and decaying remnants of human activity have a strange attractiveness and bewitching aesthetics to them. When ruination and decay was taken up by the Humanities and Arts Research Cluster (HARC), University of the Highlands and Islands, as the first of its annual research themes, I was immediately excited by the topic. Why should this be so? Why was I not repulsed?

Firstly, there is the detective aspect, of course. As I child, I always wanted to be an archaeologist, because it combined the professions of detective and adventurer. True enough, I had a somewhat skewed image of what an archaeologist does, influenced by Indiana Jones and Thor Heyerdahl. However, even now with a more mature understanding of the profession, I am still attracted to its puzzle solving aspect. It is like finding fourteen pieces of a thousand-piece jigsaw and from there trying to gain some sort of understanding of the picture. This attracts me to ruined buildings, too. From what is left now, can we form a picture of what it was like before and about its story over time?

A mirror briefly reflects the photographer in this ruined WW2 hut in Orkney

Another thing I like about ruins and decay is the effect of getting a little glimpse, as if looking briefly into a single shard of a broken mirror. A wartime hut at the old naval base of Lyness in Orkney: Reduced to a pile of rotting wood like a match-stick house after a storm. But on the one wall that is still standing: Miraculously, a little mirror is still hanging up! Allowing us for a short second to have a look into the past and at the person who last used it to shave before going out into another day of war.

There was an underwater archaeological survey done recently here in Orkney, looking at the naval wrecks of Scapa Flow. The most amazing images came out. What touched me to the core was not the ships in themselves, or their gun turrets, but the little everyday things that were spread on the seabed around the wrecks. A tuba. A fork and a saucer with the ship’s name on the porcelain. Shoes. Lots of shoes, which once contained feet.

I am mesmerised by looking at photographs of decaying structures from the relatively recent past. A well-known example is the Mark Twain Public Library in Detroit, which closed down due to budget cuts and lies abandoned with books and furniture still in it. There are Pinterest collections out there dedicated to urban decay, showing abandoned and decaying schools, factories, swimming pools and sports centres, mansions and churches, lecture halls and theatres. I have spent hours on Google Earth, looking at the town of Chernobyl, where trees and grass have taken over the apartment blocks and the Ferris wheel in the amusement park has become no more than a trellis for the returning plant life. My fascination with urban decay stems, I think, from the clashes between the familiar and the strange and between the temporal moment and vastness of time. It shows so clearly and unrelentingly that human structures are no more than temporary surface alterations and that however familiar we are with the music hall it is but a brief and temporary assemblage of materials which one day will be claimed back by Planet Earth. A mirage of civilisation and illusion of governance over nature.

Abandoned island in Orkney

We have such places here in Orkney where I live, too. Little stone cottages, abandoned as farms grew bigger. In the island of Sanday, there is an entire abandoned village. Little remnants of past community life are still there: Rhubarb is still growing, a tea pot is left on a windowsill, a sewing machine stands abandoned behind a little stone window. We even have abandoned islands. The last inhabitants of the island of Swona – a brother and sister by the name of Rosie – thought they were only leaving for a few days, but never returned. Rose Cottage stands lonely with food in the cupboards, a tea towel hanging on the range in the kitchen, but with cattle and birds as the only inhabitants of the island. The human time-line which started in Swona five millennia ago with a Neolithic chambered cairn stopped in its tracks in 1974. But the time of the cattle and the wildlife still goes on.

Regarding sunsets, I have noticed a strange effect. Sunsets are sometimes better enjoyed when not looking at them directly. I was thinking of this latterly as I was walking home from work one late February afternoon. My path took me along an old stone wall, rather tall, which I could not see over. Behind it, a glorious, golden sunset was in progress. The sky above looked like Soria Moria, the fabled golden castle in the clouds from Norwegian fairy tales. But when I got to the end of the wall, and I could finally look directly at the sun, it was no more than an ordinary sunset.

Abandoned Village, Sanday, Orkney

Perhaps part of the attraction to ruins, too, is that it allows you to look at human life without staring at it directly. Just like the attraction of a traditional Geisha is how she hides behind fans and draperies and layers of silk, allowing only glimpses into a secret world (paraphrasing Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha). Or the way that a horror film is much scarier when you don’t see the monster, only its shadow. There is something about that step of removal, that distance, which makes ruins and abandoned places attractive. Not too far, but not too close. Layering and glimpses of a hidden world.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, when ruins were at the height of fashion, intellectuals had this idea that their own modern times were characterised by the loss and corruption of an older, truer culture, belonging to our forefathers. They carried around copies of the Poems of Ossian, they dug out prehistoric tombs and monuments, looking for the Celtic Twilight and the Old North. They thought of archaeology and folklore as these scattered jigsaw pieces, or shards and glimpses of a hidden world which was purer and truer than their own.

Ortie Village, Sanday, Orkney

I remember visiting Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire some years ago. Although the abbey itself has an interesting history, I was also fascinated by what the tour guide said about its use as a ruin. A beautiful Georgian garden had been designed around it, with the ruined abbey as its centrepiece. The land had been landscaped, the stream had been deliberately directed to create an artificial Arcadia. In this Georgian version of augmented reality, the ruined abbey was the jewel in the crown.

At this point, I suddenly felt that the abbey lost its magic and became no more than a garden folly. A special effect in a theatre. It had lost its mystery. It had been tamed. Georgian landscape gardeners would even build fake ruins. But these have no mystery. Built ruins are not alive.

In his seminar on “Decaying flesh and the instability of substances” 28/2/19, Colin Richards spoke about the blurring of the categories ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’. That the type of Neolithic building which we call a ‘tomb’ may in fact not be a static disposal unit for dead bodies, but rather the opposite: A living transformation. “The monument itself becomes a living thing,” he said. “It is all a process of becoming.” It has been deliberately built with layers of stone ‘skin’. The stones of the inner walls have been carefully split to create an ‘open’ face inwards, ready to absorb the persons who are put inside. Through this process, the entire building and bodies together become something new. We don’t know what they called it, but we can think of it as something along the lines of an ancestor.

Near Yesnaby, Orkney

This made complete sense to me, both in terms of my own personal response to ruins, and as a researcher who is interested in Viking Age, medieval and early modern folklore and beliefs. In the Orkney archive, there are accounts from as late as the 1920s telling us how people saw ancient burial mounds as alive. Opening or destroying it meant bad luck. The inhabitant of the mound was called a “hogboy” or “hogboon” (from ‘mound dweller’ in Old Norse) and he could be dangerous if his mound were to be disturbed. You could tell that the mound was alive by observing the strange fire that would burn above it on certain nights. The fire is like the beating heart of the burial mound, just as the peat fire in the hearth was the heart of a croft-house.

Both for ancient ruins and more modern ruins, the following holds true: When human life in it, or human use of it has come to an end, the building nonetheless still has its own life. It continues to live and interact with nature and the world around it. Abandonment, ruination and decay is not about stopping time, but about transforming into something else. As Colin Richards put it: Decay is a generative process. Perhaps the root of my fascination lies here, in the notion of a ruin being alive. And perhaps this is why once the ruin is consolidated, made secure by Historic Environment Scotland and opened up to ticket-buying visitors, it loses some of its appeal to me?”

Recording the Built Heritage of Kirkwall, Orkney

Building recording in Parliament Square, Kirkwall, Orkney

Training and supporting volunteers to record the built heritage of Kirkwall and adding the results to the national record online.

ORCA Archaeology have secured funding from Kirkwall THI for a short programme of archaeological building recording training, recording buildings, and historical urban archive research in Kirkwall town centre during 2019. This complements the results of the ‘Discovering Hidden Kirkwall’ Archaeology Programme undertaken by the UHI Archaeology Institute during 2016-2017, and focuses more explicitly upon built heritage.

The project will train volunteers in new skills, undertake recording in the town, leading to a better characterisation and understanding the Kirkwall conservation area. The results will be added to the national record online, for everyone to access. 

Initial training workshops: will be held 25 – 26 March 2019 (10:00-16:00) at Orkney College, Kirkwall, Orkney. 

Free training will be provided by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) from the Scotland’s Urban Past team. This will include sessions on ‘History Reconstructed’ which gives participants practical experience of researching buildings using a variety of sources (maps, aerial photos, architectural drawings, digital resources and documents). The team will examine three case studies with volunteers working on group tasks, ‘GIS training’ in open source mapping software, and  a ‘Kirkwall Snapshot Survey’ which will give practical experience of building and monument recording, photographic survey techniques and adding images and data to Canmore online. 

Activities to follow will include building recording in the town centre supported by the ORCA team in April and May, and urban archive research during April with Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon. 

Training is free of charge, lunch is provided, places are limited, booking essential.

Book now and get more info:

New Landscape Archaeology Project to Commence in Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Fieldwalking find near Maeshowe

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) have secured grant funding from Historic Environment Scotland and the Orkney Archaeology Society for a new landscape project in Orkney.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site Landscape Project will provide hands-on training and memorable experiences in field archaeology to the local community.  The study area will be around Maeshowe and Brodgar, taking in parts of the parishes neighbouring the Loch of Harray and Loch of Stenness, West Mainland, Orkney.

Parts of the landscape will be studied with archive research, field walking, walkover survey and lochside surveys – picking up surface finds and recording features visible on the ground surface. These will explore landscape change from the Mesolithic to the present day.

Fieldwalking volunteers near Maeshowe

Previous field walking in the area has recovered prehistoric flints, axe heads and quern stones which often correspond to ancient settlements. Some of these have also been identified during large scale geophysical survey, and this project aims to bring together evidence from these wide ranging sources. Finds from the more recent past are also being collected, such as those from camps used during WW2, bringing the story right up to the present day.

The project aims to take people through the whole archaeological process from finding objects in the field, to mapping, processing finds, and interpreting the results. Participants will produce internationally significant research in the World Heritage area, contribute to the wider understanding of these sites and landscapes through time, and learn new skills.

Field walking will start in March 2019 and continue into April. Other activities will be spaced throughout the year.

If you are interested in taking part please contact

The project is supported by Historic Environment Scotland and Orkney Archaeology Society