Celebrating Young People in Archaeology – Work Placement at UHI Archaeology Institute

Travis working in the lab

Celebrating the contribution young people make to Archaeology during the Year of Young People

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.

Mapping Magnus 1
Travis holding the piece of Medieval pottery he unearthed at the Mapping Magnus dig at Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney

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.”

Mapping Magnus 2
A close-up of the medieval pottery discovered by Travis at the Mapping Magnus dig

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.

You can study our courses from any one of the colleges in the UHI network and that you can also study MLitt Archaeological Studies from anywhere in the world.

If you would like to chat with us and explore your options at the UHI Archaeology Institute then contact Mary on 01856 569225, e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk.  or see our website.


Making Metal, Casting Society at The Cairns, Orkney

ring headed pin moulds with cast pin
Ring headed pin moulds with cast pin

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 remains of 'Structure K' where the jewellery-making episode ocurred
The remains of structure K where the jewellery-making occurred

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?

Two moulds for casting penannular brooches
Two moulds for casting penannular brooches

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.

The big formal hearth in Structure B under excavation- a high status bui...
The large formal hearth in Structure B under excavation

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 studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.


Archaeology in a Day – Open Day @UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney

Students studying the site at Barnhouse

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.

Students on a fieldtrip to the Outer Hebrides

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
Students at Skara Brae

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.

Check out our website for all our archaeology courses.

If you wish to attend then please contact Mary on 01856 569225, send us a message on our Facebook page , send us a message through Twitter @UHIArachaeology or e-mail Mary at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Community Archaeology, Papa Westray, Orkney

Cott ShorehouseV2A team from Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be on Papa Westray during March 2018, recording the current state of some of the archaeological sites being eroded by the sea.

Volunteers from the community are invited to take part in surveying and recording training at three eroding coastal sites across the island, starting with a workshop on 3rd March at Cott/Shorehouse.

  • 3rd, 4th and 5th March 2018, starting at Cott/Shorehouse at 10am.
  • 6th, 7th and 8th March at Munkerhoose
  • Work at Whitehowe is being arranged for later in March.

All are welcome and you do not need archaeology experience to take part. There is no charge for the sessions and you will have the opportunity to learn some basic archaeological techniques.

Wear stout boots and wet weather gear, just in case the weather closes in and bring a packed lunch if you wish to stay for the whole session.
Contact Paul Sharman on paul.sharman@uhi.ac.uk for more information.

The project is funded by Historic Environment Scotland.

Historic Environment Scotland CMYK


What did the Romans eat at the Chester Amphitheatre?

Typical seived samples
Typical sieved samples showing changing nature of Roman deposits in the 3rd Century. Scale 1cm.

Dr Jen Harland, lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has contributed a chapter on her zooarchaeology research to a major new book on the Roman Amphitheatre located in Chester, England.

The chapter is entitled Fish Bone from Roman Phases and appears in the recently published book: The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I, edited by Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner.

Jen’s research investigates the largest single fish bone assemblage in Roman Britain, uncovered during excavations at the amphitheatre in 2004-2006. The Roman structure originally dates from 70AD, but between 85AD and 100AD was re-modelled and timber seating was installed. The lower parts of the timber framework was held in place by dumped material from the arena and elsewhere. This material contained over 20,000 fish remains dating from the Roman to post-medieval period and there were over 4,500 fish remains dating to the Roman period – providing a very useful addition to the zooarchaeology of Roman Britain.

Spanish Mackerel
Spanish mackerel vertebrae. Scale 1cm.

Fish was a prominent part of Roman diet and marked out those elements of the population who wanted to be ‘Roman’. Most of the British Iron Age population did not consume fish as a regular part of their diet. On examining the fish remains, Jen’s research found that flatfish were the most common with over 70% from this order, eel was the second most commonly consumed fish at the site with salmon and trout the third most popular.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Spanish mackerel was also found in the deposits. These fish are not found in the waters around the British Isles and thus they were somewhat of a surprise during analysis.The Spanish mackerel was, perhaps as the name implies, an import from the coastal regions of Portugal, Spain and the north coast of Africa and they provided a taste of the Mediterranean to Chester’s small Roman population.

Jen’s research also sheds light on the way that the Roman population in and around the amphitheatre consumed their fish. There were no butchery marks on the bones found suggesting that the fish was eaten on the bone and perhaps formed a meal for one or two people. This probably means that the meal would have to be eaten delicately and with care rather than in a fast food/on the move manner.

Location of Chester England
The Roman city of Deva, now Chester

The research also provides clues to the ‘fishing industry’ operating in this part of the Roman Empire during this period. Evidence from the types of fish found in the assemblage suggests that fishing was organised on a local scale with the Roman fishermen not venturing far into Liverpool Bay. However, the ‘industry’ would also have to be organised on a relatively large scale to provide the volume of fish found.

There is also evidence to suggest that tastes, the environment or fishing methods changed over time. There is a trend to find smaller fish in the assemblage as time progresses into the 3rd century and herring also becomes more common – much more like the tastes and preferences of later centuries and much less ‘Roman’.

Harland Oxford poster

BookIf you wish to investigate this fascinating subject further then check out The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I. Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner. ISBN 978-1-78570-744-5 and can be purchased at https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/the-roman-amphitheatre-of-chester-volume-1.html


Ness to Ness: Art & Archaeology Workshop 2018

nesstoness 2018 flyer FRONT v2-page-001The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Orkney College UHI Art Department to offer the popular summer Art & Archaeology workshop for 2018.

– Dates: 5th – 8th July 2018
– 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

Thursday 5th July Field Day Ness of Brodgar and Ness Battery

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 specialist 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 archaeologists Andrew Hollinrake.


Friday 6th July Studio Day Printmaking with Charles Shearer

For today’s session, we will be based in the art studios at Orkney College UHI in Kirkwall. Inspired by the previous field day, you will develop your creative ideas through the medium of print with world-renowned printmaker Charles Shearer. You will learn the process of collagraph print production from the drawing and cutting, using a range of tools, through to the application of the textures and materials that help give this process its unique character.


Saturday 7th July Field Day Pier Arts Centre and Warbeth Beach

For today’s field trip we will have a dedicated tour of the Pier Arts Centre and its world class collection of British Modernist paintings and sculpture, led by Education Officer and artist Carol Dunbar. The afternoon will be spent on Warbeth Beach where we explore the materials used for art making in the Neolithic, and find out how this striking landscape inspires modern and contemporary artists.

Sunday 8th July Studio Day Printmaking with Charles Shearer

You will be able to develop your ideas from the previous three days further, and continue to work on collagraph printmaking with Charles Shearer.

Formal qualifications are not required for this course.

Cost: £250 for 4 days. Limited number of concessions available at 10% discount (£225) To book, contact Jenna Harper at jenna.harper@uhi.ac.uk or telephone 01856 569000


UHI Archaeology Institute Orkney Archaeology Projects – Interactive Map

The archaeology dig season 2018 is rapidly approaching in Orkney.

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, ORCA, UClan, the University of Bradford, Willamette University, the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust, the Ness of Brodgar Trust in addition to a small army of volunteers are all preparing for the forthcoming programme of excavation and events.

Judging by social media conversations it would seem that 2018 will be another record year for visitors to Orkney and to make it easier for people to find the archaeology we have created an interactive map.

Some of the sites are off the beaten track so don’t forget to pack sturdy boots, warm clothing and some waterproofs…just in case you are caught in a rain shower. The sites will close if the weather is too bad, so please check with us if you are planning a trip to one of the outer islands.

Click on the markers and you should see details of the site with web links and directions. To find directions from your present location or another location of your choice:

  1. Click on the place marker on the interactive map above
  2. A box showing a picture of the site, the name of the site, latitude and longitude, description of the site and a link to the site website or blog
  3. Click on the right hand arrow in the red box under the picture of the site
  4. Google Maps will then appear.
  5. Type in your location or let the GPS on your phone find your location for you
  6. Google will show you a route, how long it takes and suggestions for transport operators. It may even show you places of interest, roadworks and alternative routes.

For more information on the sites click here or contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk