The island of Rousay in Orkney is renowned for the wealth of its archaeology; so much so that it is known as the Egypt of the North.
Over the next few weeks a team of archaeologists from around the world are assembling on Rousay to help unlock some of the questions still remaining about the distant past of this mysterious place.
Starting on the 16th April, an internationally renowned team from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI) based in Berlin, together with archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will begin the largest geophysics survey of the island to date. The first phase of the project will continue for two weeks, with the results connecting many of the sites researched by the UHI Archaeology Institute, the University of Bradford, and Historic Environment Scotland.
Professor Jane Downes, director of the UHI Archaeology Institute said, “We are very pleased and excited to be involved in this major international project on Rousay and we are looking forward to seeing the results from the cutting-edge geophysics technology that the team from DAI have brought with them. This will make a substantial contribution to the “Boyne to Brodgar” programme- an Irish/Scottish Neolithic research project. This fieldwork forms one of a whole series of projects happening on the island over the next two weeks including the ‘Gateway to the Atlantic Workshop’ that this week will bring together archaeological scientists working particularly on coastal erosion, climate change and heritage in the North Atlantic and Arctic, and the following week continues an archaeological survey involving experts from Historic Environment Scotland and UHI Archaeology Institute students. We are signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the DAI, for partnership working longer term. It is indeed an exciting time for archaeology in Orkney.”
Dr Alison Sheridan (National Museums Scotland) and Professor Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin) of the Boyne to Brodgar Initiative added that, ““We are absolutely delighted and honoured that the DAI team have come to Orkney to undertake their survey on Rousay. With this work, and the survey that they already carried out in the Boyne Valley in Ireland, the team are contributing enormously to the Boyne to Brodgar research initiative to understand Neolithic people, their monuments and their interactions in Britain and Ireland”.
Background to the Events on Rousay
Orkney – Gateway to the Atlantic: Rousay Workshop
19th and 20th April 2018
Venue: Rousay Community School
The UHI Archaeology Institute are hosting an international workshop on the island of Rousay, 19-20th April 2018. This workshop is organised on a multi-disciplinary basis bringing together colleagues who are working on a similar range of issues in the North Atlantic region, and in comparative islands environments. We aim to examine sustainability, resilience through time and work towards understanding impacts of climatic and environmental change. This meeting will provide an opportunity to catch up on existing projects, and an impetus and basis for planning further in-depth collaborations and projects.
Boyne to Brodgar Project
This major archaeological project aims to develop the understanding of early people in Scotland and Ireland and place within a wider European and global story. Through the study of prehistoric monuments, Boyne to Brodgar aims to increase awareness of and engagement with an early chapter in Scotland’s history. Outreach and community archaeology projects are planned across Ireland and Scotland which will help people to understand their shared heritage.
Memorandum of Understanding
A memorandum of Understanding will be signed between Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney College UHI in which the three organisations confirm their willingness to co-operate and may include:
• The exchange of personnel
• Joint research projects and workshops
• Technical support and training
• Other joint projects which will be specified at a later date.
Archaeology students from the University of the Highlands and Islands colleges across Scotland gathered this Easter for a residential field trip to the island of Bute.
The island itself has a fine collection of archaeological sites ranging from the Mesolithic to post-medieval and has been the subject of study by both Martin Carruthers and Dr Scott Timpany – the two members of staff who led the excursion.
Jasmijn Sybenga, PhD student at the UHI Archaeology Institute takes up the story….
“The trip started from Orkney College UHI on a rather cold, but clear early Friday morning. We rarely get frost in Orkney, but if we did then it would have been one of those mornings. It was early and it was cold, but everyone was excited and looking forward to the trip.
After a long journey we finally arrived in Bute. On Saturday we visited sites in the northern part of the Island starting with a long walk through ancient forest Rhubodach where still past management practices were visible in the composition of trees today. After passing the forest, we emerged into open fields where Michael’s Grave Neolithic Cairn was situated. This cairn is severely reduced by robbing and ploughing but is still well displayed in the landscape.”
Excavations in 1903 revealed the chamber, which was divided into two equal compartments by a septal stone. The floor of each compartment was covered by a layer of black earth with charcoal also present. Items from the chamber are now in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) and included an undecorated pottery sherd and a piece of pitchstone. Other sherds, a flint flake, fragments of burnt human bones, a tooth of a pig and ox bones were also found at the same time and place, but are now lost.
Jasmijn continues, “At this point we had a discussion about the past landscape and the palaeonvironmental study that has been carried out at Red Loch area close to this site. We continued our walk up a hill where large stones containing cup marks were scattered around the Glenvoidean Chambered Cairn. This cairn is well situated in the landscape and must have been visible from afar.
We followed the path back through the forest where we went up a hill once more to visit the Cairnbaan chambered long cairn. In the afternoon we met Paul Duffy who is the director of Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage in Bute. Together we walked part of the old tramline that was opened in 1882 to transfer tourists from Rothesay to Port Bannatyne.
This tramline passed the site of Cnoc an Rath. It remains unknown what this ring and ditch earthwork was used for but recent suggestions include that it was part of a Viking site.
On our return to Rothesay (where we were staying in a hostel) we visited Rothesay Castle. ”
The castle itself was first mentioned in 1230 when it withstood a siege by Norsemen. The building is one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. Archaeological excavations were undertaken during 2002. A watching brief was carried out during the excavation of a new trench in connection with construction work on the new shop site down to the moat.
Day Two of the fieldtrip to follow…….
Each monument name is linked to Canmore, where you should be able to learn more.
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 email@example.com or see our website.
Every now and then, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology team invite a guest to write a blog post.
Writer, Mandy Haggith from the UHI Creative Writing Degree Programme team kindly volunteered to write a piece that talks about her experience writing for archaeology.
“From September 2018, the University of the Highlands and Islands will be offering a BA degree in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands. The students on the programme will be the only Creative Writing undergraduates in Scotland, and those of us involved in the degree are hugely excited to meet them and get underway with helping them to develop the skills they’ll need for a writing career.
What might such a career look like? The stereotype of a writer is someone alone in a garret, chewing on a pencil, gazing out at the moon, before scribbling down a few lines, or scratching furiously away on their great work of literature. The reality is far from this, and, I’ve found, far more fun.
Since I qualified in Creative Writing, in 2005, I have penned five novels, three collections of poetry and an anthology. However, it’s hard to make a living from poetry and fiction, so I’ve also written non-fiction for a huge range of organisations on a wide variety of topics including forests, mountains, the sea, land management, paths, industry, politics, art, music, crafts and history. This creative non-fiction writing has brought me into contact with fascinating people from all walks of life and the research for it has taken me all over the world.
Yet one of my favourite writing jobs has been right on my doorstep, in my home parish of Assynt, on the north west coast of Sutherland. For several years, I have been working with Historic Assynt and a team of archaeologists on a series of community history surveys, excavations and conservation projects. My role is to write press releases, notices and poster texts, and particularly the ‘dig diary’ on the project website featuring a weekly, or more frequent, blog of the latest news.
This means that I get to hang out on digs, chat with archaeologists, even push a barrow or join in with some trowelling, but everyone knows that I’m really there to pick people’s brains in order to write up what’s happening. I ask dumb and nosy questions, encourage the archaeologists and volunteers to speculate about who may have lived in the place, and of course, because I’m a fiction writer, I get to make stuff up! I try to stick to informed guess work, of course, but my job is to let my imagination run riot, to conjure people up out of the past and create stories that can bring the ruins and remnants of the past to life.
Recently, Historic Assynt has been concentrating on Iron Age monuments, particularly the broch at Clachtoll, and this has given me the chance, while earning a few pounds writing the dig diary, to research a trilogy of historical novels inspired by Pytheas of Massalia, the first Mediterranean to circumnavigate Great Britain. The first novel, The Walrus Mutterer, has just been published by Saraband books. Its opening chapters are set in the broch, then the characters roam with Pytheas up into the northern ocean, via Orkney and Shetland. Writing this novel trilogy has fuelled my interest and fluency in the archaeological project, thus my fiction and non-fiction writing have been completely symbiotic.
I frequently say that studying Creative Writing back in 2003-5 was the best thing I ever did. It kitted me up with the tools of a trade that has enabled me, like an itinerant bronze smith, to roam about, making my living by crafting pieces to meet the needs of each client, while gathering material for the artworks that allow me to express my own view of this baffling but often wonderful world. I am so looking forward to helping another generation of Highlands and Islands writers to embark on their own unique writing lives.”
At the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute we are developing ways to provide young people with an opportunity to experience archaeology in a workplace environment.
Travis, a 16 year old S5 pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney, is currently undertaking a work placement with us. Each week Travis works with our team at the Institute learning new skills and gaining vocational training. The emphasis is on understanding some of the processes of archaeological work, from the field to the archive.
He has the opportunity to develop skills in a wide variety of areas including finds washing, wet sieving, archiving, photography, excavation, field walking and digital archaeology. In fact as part of the archaeology team, Travis is contributing to the archaeological research taking place in the Institute and is gaining a whole range of experience that will help him develop his career path.
Travis continues, ” I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and when the UHI came into the school and we helped in the archaeology at the RBS Bank (part of the Kirkwall THI project), I thought that this was something that I was interested in. So I e-mailed Dan Lee and he offered a work placement at the University. I was involved in the Mapping Magnus dig in 2017 where I joined the excavation team and found a piece of pottery. That was exciting and despite the weather I really enjoyed it. I have been asked if I would like to help at the Ness of Brodgar in the summer and I am really looking forward to that.”
Travis went on to say that he would like to continue to study archaeology and ideally continue to work in Orkney on some of the incredible sites located on the islands.
Travis is using a BAJR Archaeology Skills Passport to document his progress and log his training. The passport has been designed by British Archaeological Jobs and Resources to help students and volunteers document the main skills that they need to gain employment as a professional archaeologist. All of our students are issued with a BAJR passport to record their practical training. They can be obtained from the skills passport website.
New radiocarbon dates from The Cairns archaeological excavation shed light on the possible structure of society in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD in Orkney.
Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research excavation at The Cairns, Orkney, talks about the latest research findings from the site.
“We have been very lucky at The Cairns over the years of the excavations to find a substantial set of remains and residues that relate to Iron Age metalworking. This includes at least two iron-working furnaces, and many other features and artefacts, but there is one particularly big and concentrated event that took place beyond the broch in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M. The remains of this episode include furnaces, bronze waste; bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze objects. Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches.
The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community. Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, as well as their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.
The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overly the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement. We therefore knew from the assessment of the layers (the stratigraphy) on site that the metalworking episode did not occur very early on in the sequence of events and buildings on site but it remained to be seen if it was going on towards the end of the monumental broch period on site, or if it was actually occurring after the broch was put out of use, which we know occurred around the mid-Second Century AD based on previously obtained radiocarbon dates. The calendar date of the metalworking was therefore of great interest. Did the jewellery-making episode date to the period late in the life of the broch, or was it happening after the broch itself was decommissioned and put out of use?
Craft and Chronology
Newly obtained radiocarbon dates make it clear which of these scenarios is correct. The new dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. Now, with this enhanced understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking we can begin to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.
It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.
Jewellery as social currency: Feasting, and gift-giving?
At the end of the bronze-casting event a fairly thick, very rich animal bone midden was laid down in the vicinity and slightly overlying the metalworking area. The close relationship between the metalworking and the animal bone is shown by the presence of a few of the crucibles and mould fragments amongst the midden also. What’s in this midden?
Well lots of domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep and pig, especially large cattle long bones. In addition, there were other mammal bones such as red deer, otter, and even a small quantity of horse. The midden also contained carbonised soils, ash and broken fragments of pottery. Many fire-cracked beach cobbles were also excavated, and these represent the exploded remains of ‘pot-boilers’, heated cobbles that were immersed in vessels to heat up water and cook some of the food. It seems that the people gathered at our feast were consuming beef on the bone, boiled pork, and roasted mutton and venison, some of which may have been washed down by beverages drunk from many pottery vessels.
The close stratigraphic association between the fine metalworking and the feasting raises the question of what exactly was going on here. One possibility that I like very much is that the feasting could be the spectacular social event at which the products of the jewellery-making were handed out, or gifted, to their intended recipients by those who had sponsored the metalworking in the first place. We may therefore be peering into the social circumstances of the jewellery-making and the distribution of its products amongst the community at The Cairns. If this is so, then it is a fascinating insight into the moment at which objects like the pins, brooches and rings started off on their biographies, their journey through people’s lives.
This is a very rare opportunity to see more clearly the initial nature of the social and political significance of these objects from their start-point. It would mean that the sharing or gifting of the jewellery was surrounded in the circumstances of a big social occasion, a massive party, if you like. We are seeing their birth and the important role they played in the power-play and social strategies of Iron Age groups and individuals. With the circumstances of the jewellery-making we are able, for once, to investigate the intended status and significance of these items within the context of their birth, rather than depending on the information we usually get, which is based on the discovery of these objects much later in their lives, in fact at the end of their lives, when they went in the ground, perhaps many decades, or more, after they were originally made and worn. Most theories about the brooches and pins and their role in society have been based on what we glean from them in this end-state, but the assemblage of metalworking evidence from The Cairns; the moulds, crucibles, and other items, together with the massive remains of the feasting allows us to grasp what was going on at the point in time when these jewellery items were instigated.
Jewellery, Society and the wider Northern Scottish Iron Age
It is highly intriguing that the birth of these prestigious pieces of jewellery appears to have been accompanied by communal, outdoor feasting and judging by the volume of animal bone it involved a large part, if not all, of the community. In the absence of the big spacious monumental buildings, such as the brochs, which may have previously served to gather large numbers of people under one roof at important times in the life of the community, we can ponder whether feasting events like this were the new arena for expressing the identity and solidarity of the community.
If we now recall Professor Sharples’ aforementioned thesis that the changes at the end of the Middle Iron Age to late Iron Age involved a major transformation of the way people expressed their social identity, from the communal to the individual then this evidence for big community feasting in the early part of the Later Iron Age is very interesting. Perhaps this serves to somewhat modify that concept, because in the post-broch era at The Cairns, for one, the community appears to have retained ways of expressing their greater collective identity. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that everyone was singled-out and gifted one of the pieces of fine jewellery that were produced.
At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period. If so, the excavations are really coming up trumps in terms of allowing us to peer into the social circumstances of Iron Age communities.
New dates for Structure B1: Have we found the elite sponsors of the metalworking?
The period of the jewellery-making is after the end of the broch and we were previously unclear which buildings amongst the many post-broch structures were occupied at the time of the bronze-working. The new dates also allow us to pin-point whereabouts on site, at least some of, the community were living at the time the jewellery-making was taking place. Armed with the new radiocarbon dates, it turns out, that one of the large rectangular post-broch buildings (perhaps a Wag-like building of the type found in Caithness and at The Howe in Orkney) known to us as Structure B1, located about 30 metres to the south-west of the jewellery-making area was first constructed and occupied between the Mid-3rd to 4th Centuries AD, and therefore at the same time as the metalworking.
Structure B1 lies directly over the reduced and in-filled remains of the broch. One of the most remarkable aspects of this building is its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the remains of the abandoned broch almost co-opting its former position and grandeur have always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time, and may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.
It is intriguing therefore to now know unambiguously that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor the lavish jewellery-making on site. Pushing this further, it is tempting to speculate that it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the post-broch Iron Age community at The Cairns.”
Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
Martin would like to thank Professor Dave Barclay, Forensic Consultant, and Professor Emeritus, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen for the very kind and helpful donation, which made it possible to fund the most recent radiocarbon dates discussed in this piece.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or see our website.
Join us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Open Day on the 28th March 2018.
Venue: The Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI, East Road, Kirkwall KW15 1LX
Date: Wednesday 28th March 2018
Time: 10am to 4.30pm
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is located in one of the most exciting archaeology areas in the world – Orkney in Northern Scotland. Surrounded by thousands of archaeology sites ranging from the Neolithic to World War II, the Archaeology Institute is well placed as a world-class teaching and research organisation to advance our understanding of the historic environment.
So, come along and experience hands on archaeology, talk to staff and students and discover what studying Archaeology at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has to offer. You will also have the opportunity to take part in workshops on aspects of practical archaeology, including:
using microscopes to analyse pollen and charcoal unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar
examining finds from The Cairns excavation
exploring 4000 year old ceramics
examining the whale bones unearthed at Cata Sands
creating a 3D image from a laser scanner
You will also see how we use the unique archaeological landscape of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to further your studies. The event is open to anyone who is considering studying Archaeology at undergraduate or post graduate level in addition to anyone who is considering one of our short courses.