Building on Success at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute

UHI Archaeology Institute Visiting Reader, Dr Gerry Bigelow. Photo: Val Turner

Renowned Visiting Researchers join the UHI Archaeology Institute, and the Archaeology Institute is established as a significant economic benefit to Orkney.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based at Orkney College UHI, is pleased to announce that three new Visiting Professors – Professor Astrid Ogilvie (Senior Scientist, Stefansson Arctic Institute, University of Akuyeri/University of Colarado), Professor Leslie King (Professor in Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University, Vancouver Island), and Professor Mark Edmonds (Emeritus Professor in Archaeology, University of York) in addition to two new Visiting Readers – Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark (Curator of Prehistory, National Museums Scotland) and Dr Gerry Bigelow (Associate Professor in History, Bates College, Maine) have been appointed by UHI and join our existing Visiting Reader Olwyn Owen, an established Viking scholar whom many will remember from her excavations at Tuquoy on Westray.

With research specialisms including the archaeology of the North Atlantic, sustainability and the impact of climate change, past and present in Northern communities, Viking and Norse archaeology and Neolithic Europe, these appointments offer an unprecedented pool of expertise for our students and researchers as well as strengthening our connections and collaborations with universities and other institutions in Canada, the US, Iceland and Scotland.

UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer Martin Carruthers with students at the Stones of Stenness in 2019. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

Researchers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have a fast-growing reputation for their studies of the impacts of climate change and sustainability: the excavation of the Viking hall and landscape at Skaill on Rousay, directed by Dr Ingrid Mainland, is part of the Orkney climate and environmental change research which has recently gained official recognition from UNESCO’s sustainable science initiative ‘BRIDGES’ :- world-wide recognition of the achievements of the team at the site and collaborators from Bradford University and in the wider North Atlantic. Additionally, Professor Jane Downes continues her research on climate change and heritage in the international Heritage on the Edge project which has now been launched by Google Arts and Culture https://artsandculture.google.com/project/heritage-on-the-edge .

In the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) at Orkney College UHI the strong and developing client base established by Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager, has yielded excellent commercial archaeology work associated with infrastructure and energy developments over the past year and the unit has come in on budget. The unit faces challenges as the usual business environment adapts to the social distancing guidelines, and the team are looking forward to the time when they can once again return to the field.

Interesting results from a new independent study have shown that Orkney College UHI Archaeology Institute’s activities generate substantial expenditure in the Orkney economy: for the year 2019-20 the combined expenditure impacts associated with the 54 students studying Archaeology at Orkney College UHI, the Institute’s visiting academics, volunteers and students, and tourist visitors to the Ness of Brodgar to whom the site was critical in their decision to visit Orkney is over £2million, with 79 full time equivalent jobs being supported in this year (including the 25 full time equivalent staff of the Archaeology Institute). The study has found that ‘The Institute has played a substantial role in increasing the profile of both archaeology in Orkney and Orkney as a place for tourists to visit’.

UHI Archaeology Institute Dr Ingrid Mainland and PhD student Steve Worth at the Skaill Farmstead dig, Rousay in 2019. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Director Professor Jane Downes said, “The Institute has also attracted substantial investment into Orkney through the winning of major academic research grants – the latest award of over £700,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This together with the successful entrepreneurial activity of Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology has resulted in over 100 commercial projects worth hundreds of thousands of pounds of contracts being placed within Orkney. Furthermore the UHI’s leading archaeology and research excavation at the Ness of Brodgar is now firmly established as one of Orkney’s prime visitor attractions with over 18,000 people visiting during the short 7 week period the site is open to visitors each year.”

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is looking forward to building on this success in the future and attract ever more direct and indirect investment to Orkney – harnessing the innovative, entrepreneurial and creative flair of the staff and students both in Orkney and across the world.

Black Lives Mattered: Ancient Rome, Africa, Scotland, and Orkney.

‘The Black Emperor’, Septimus Severus and family

The Cairns Excavation Site Director & University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Lecturer Martin Carruthers talks about the multi cultural experience of Iron Age society in Orkney as the exploitative Roman Empire appeared in Britain.

In the Mid-First Century AD, historical circumstances conspired to bring together, for the first time, peoples and creatures from continental Africa, Asia, and Europe with Islanders from the Atlantic Islands of Northern Scotland at a single event.

Assembled by the cosmopolitan, but highly exploitative, Roman empire, the meeting of this diverse bunch signals the beginning of the British experience of Africa, and, intriguingly, caught up at the centre of it were Iron Age people from Orkney.

It is late Summer AD43 and the world superpower Rome has invaded Iron Age Britain. After several weeks of hard campaigning by four legions, and thousands of ‘auxiliary’ troops drawn from far corners of the empire, the resistance of the Southern tribes has been worn down, its leadership subdued.

Now the Emperor himself, Claudius, steps ashore on British soil. As he triumphally enters Camulodunum (Colchester) the biggest and most important population centre in southern Britain, he does so with a theatrical flourish designed to intimidate and entirely overawe local Iron Age peoples. He enters the major settlement with creatures from the African continent – he has elephants in tow.

Along with the fabulous beasts, there are African and Asian men present amongst the Roman troops. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the Roman state that it heeds no ethnic and racial boundaries when it comes to those who may be considered useful to the Imperial project. This highly manipulative form of multi-culturalism led to Iron Age Scots appearing in amphitheatres in Morocco and African Emperors leading armies of conquest in Scotland! In this blog we can look at a few details of these ancient African, Caledonian, and Roman lives and why they matter.

Today, one can only imagine what sort of impression the strange and exotic sights of Claudius’ army and his elephants made upon the locals of Iron Age Colchester! But amongst the local Britons watching, there were also some far-travelled visitors. A surprise deputation was present and shortly thereafter met with the emperor himself. These were Orcadians, inhabitants of the far Northern Isles. Orkney at this time was only very dimly known to Rome and seems to have been a by-word in poetry, and prose for the ends of the earth! The Orcadians, described by Eutropius, were led by no less than a Regulus, a King of Orkney, and they were on a diplomatic mission.

That mission and the journey that facilitated it must have been undertaken with a remarkable acuity and forward planning, to synchronise with the mere 16 days spent in Britain by the Emperor! We know little of the detail of the discussions between the Emperor and the Orcadians, but for generations afterwards, Roman authors and monumental inscriptions referred to the submission of eleven British kings to Rome, including that of Orkney. Certainly, it seems treaties were initiated, which, apparently, set up Orkney, for a time, as an unlikely client kingdom to the Empire. In the Roman era, such a status often conferred massive privilege and advantage for some within the client state, but it was also an delicately balanced relationship on a knife edge. Eventually, such client treaties could be summarily revoked by Rome on a whim and clients could be suddenly subsumed as direct possessions of the Emperor, as happened to other British Iron Age client kingdoms.

From the outset of the Roman period in Britain, Africans and Asians were present amongst the soldiery, the merchants, and the administrators of the new power in the land. It may have been in the later 1st century AD that the first ‘persons of colour’ appeared in Orkney itself, and this would have been with the Roman navy and elements of the army who circumnavigated Orkney in AD 83 after the battle of Mons Graupius, which had just taken place on the Scottish Mainland. Their aim, we are told by the Roman historian Tacitus, was to renew the now-lapsed treaties between the leadership in Orkney and the Empire, which had been made with Claudius two generations before. The real purpose of the naval crossing to Orkney was probably to cow the powerful Northern Isles Iron Age powerbase, who had probably contributed to the resistance to Rome on the Scottish Mainland, and to achieve a renowned propaganda coup back home in Rome.

Roman beads and recycled glass from The Cairns broch, Orkney. Photo: Gary Lloyd

Orkney, in those days, was exotic and remarkable for its remoteness amongst Roman writers! The fleet’s Orcadian journey has left no known archaeological traces. We know, however, that The Cairns broch (the subject of ongoing excavations by UHI Archaeology Institute) was the centre of a thriving Iron Age community at that very time. Whichever route the fleet took across the Pentland Firth, whether through Scapa Flow or along the North Sea east coast of Orkney, the elevated position of The Cairns overlooking the Pentland Firth, means the community must have seen the fleet coming. What must the ordinary folk of the community have thought of this strange and sinister swarm of sails.

The Romans didn’t stay long in Orkney, just long enough to ‘renew the treaties’, but it was the first direct appearance of the diverse but exploitative world power on the actual shores of Orkney. One of the things that such treaties with Rome often involved was some measure of taxation in goods, produce and quite often levies of men to serve in the Roman army, and indeed slaves, so it is possible that young Orcadian men may have found themselves departing with the fleet to begin 25 years’ service in the auxiliary regiments of Rome, and young men and women in much more unfortunate roles! Another feature of Roman treaties with foreign powers was the ‘fosterage’ of the sons of powerful elites, essentially sons of important local leaders taken off to be ‘educated’, often in Rome itself, and returned at a much later date, having been useful hostages effectively kerbing the likelihood of resistance on the part of ‘barbarian’ elites, and also often securing that the next generation of leadership held a pro-Roman outlook. One can imagine the remarkable multi-cultural experiences and sights witnessed by any such young fostered boys, and probably some horrific ones too! It may, indeed, partly explain the major changes that began to occur in the architecture, and material culture of Iron Age Atlantic Scotland from the later 2nd Century AD onwards.

For several Centuries, from the 1st century AD onwards, a steady but small stream of high-status Roman materials made their way into Iron Age Orcadian communities, including The Cairns, where Roman beads, and recycled Roman glass and metalwork have been found. Other finds from Orcadian sites such as high status Samian pottery, further indicate that the relationship between Orkney and Rome was carried out in the domain of the higher echelons of Iron Age society.

After the end of the First Century AD, the Roman army retired from Scotland for more than a generation to the Tyne-Solway frontier and what became Hadrian’s Wall in AD 122. With the accession of a new Emperor, Antoninus Pius, in AD 139 preparations were immediately made for a renewed burst of intervention in Scotland. The Emperor sent a new governor to Britannia, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who was a North African of Berber descent! Over 3 or 4 years the African governor campaigned in Southern Scotland and then up the northeast Scottish mainland, replicating the Roman line of advance in the preceding 1st Century AD. By AD 142, the army had laid down a monumental marker of the frontier across the central belt of Scotland in the form of the Antonine Wall and for around twenty years it was garrisoned by the densest concentration of troops ever deployed in Roman Britain.

The occupation of the Northern Wall was short in archaeological terms and in the history of Roman Britain but, importantly, it was substantial and intense enough to have left remarkably vivid archaeological traces of the everyday lives of the garrison including aspects of their identities and ethnicities. We know that ordinary Africans and Asians served in the Roman army on the Antonine wall during the 2nd Century AD.

Special ceramics found at several of the Antonine wall forts were made in the style of African pottery; effectively these crocks relate to a form of cuisine very similar to modern North African tagine cooking. It has been suggested that the African pottery may represent the actual presence of African units serving in the garrison of the Northern frontier of Scotland, or that certain regiments had gained a taste for such spiced cuisine from having been earlier stationed in the African provinces. It is a scenario reminiscent of the way that, via the British army, Indian curries have been injected into the post-colonial bloodstream of the UK. Certainly, many different ethnic groups are represented by regiments such as the Syrian Archers from the ancient city of Palmyra, attested at Bar Hill fort on the edge of modern Glasgow.

Later still, at the very beginning of the 3rd Century AD the so-called African Emperor, Septimius Severus renewed Roman attempts to bring to heel the Northern Iron Age peoples, Caledonians and others. Severus had been born in North African at Leptis Magna in present day Libya. Possessing Punic descent on his mother’s side, he was, therefore, descended from the North African state that had once seriously threatened the existence of Rome itself under Hannibal, and he has been called ‘the black emperor’. Severus was not ‘born into the purple’ but had fought a bitter civil war, in part, against the pretender Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia, to ascend the imperial throne in AD 193. In AD 209, taking personal charge of the Scottish campaign, he assembled an army of over 40,000 troops and overran southern Scotland and, again, campaigned up the northeast mainland of Scotland. He established a legionary base at Carpow on the Tay estuary, an intended springboard for further Scottish conquest. That was curtailed by his death of a sudden illness in AD 210. Here was a man who had been born and grew up in Africa, spent the last years of his life on campaign in Scotland, and died at York in Northern England. A remarkable story of pluralism, power, social and actual mobility in the ancient world.

The presence of the Emperor and his family in Scotland gives us interesting opportunities to consider the interaction between this Afro-Roman family and the local Caledonians! The Roman historian Cassius Dio tells us that the Imperial family actually met socially, with Caledonian aristocracy. On one such occasion Severus’ wife, Julia Domna, apparently made inquisitive small talk with the unnamed wife of a Caledonian noble called Argentocoxos (‘Silver Arm’!). Beginning to challenge the apparently loose sexual morals of Caledonian women, Julia Domna was met with a short critical rebuttal from the woman: “We fulfil the demands of nature in a far better way than you Roman women, for we consort openly with the best of men, whereas you let yourselves be degraded in secret by the most vile”. It is, perhaps, a very knowing and sharp critical commentary on the plight of the majority of ‘free’ women in Roman patriarchal society as chattels of their husbands, or fathers, and as bargaining collateral in the great game of Roman politics and alliances.

Detail of the ‘tartan’ trews of the defeated Caledonian depicted on Severus’s triumphal arch in Morocco. Photo: The Scotsman https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/earliest-depiction-scottish-tartan-discovered-roman-statue-1598796

The actual physical mobility brought about by the exploitative networks of the Roman empire also meant that there were Iron Age Scots present at corners of the Empire very distant from their Caledonian homeland. Shortly after Septimius Severus’s campaigns in Scotland, a massive bronze statue was erected in the city of Rabat, Morocco, as part of a triumphal arch in honour of Severus’ son Caracalla, who took part in the Caledonian campaigns, and who himself took the throne after his father. Only fragments survive of the bronze statue but just a few years ago one of the pieces was recognised as depicting a defeated Caledonian warrior, arms bound. He is bare-chested but wears a cloak and plaid or tartan trews! Now, one wonders what impact these strangely clad ‘barbarians’ would have made on the locals.

It is clear, however, that more than mere depictions of Iron Age Caledonians appeared in Roman Africa. For another piece of Roman art, a mosaic from Tunisia shows another Caledonian being killed by wild animals in the local amphitheatre, an exotic entertainment for the Roman African locals.

What all of this strongly suggests is that the lives of Romans, Caledonians, Africans, Asians, and even Orcadians, were strangely entangled in many various ways much earlier than people tend to think possible, via the networks of opportunity and exploitation that connected the far-flung Roman Empire and the Roman Iron Age world. Sometimes, as with the Claudian invasion, Africa was deployed very deliberately in a form of intimidatory exoticism (a trope familiar from our own imperial past), impressing Iron Age Britons, and Orcadians.

At other moments, the exoticism lay in the other direction with exotic noble captive Caledonians executed in the amphitheatres of Roman Africa and depicted in Roman African art. Between these dramatic polarities we know many Africans and Asians were present in Roman Iron Age Britain and Scotland, ordinary soldiers, merchants, husbands, wives and, yes, probably also slaves, were present at times. And more elevated Africans: governors, generals and even a black emperor spent major parts of their military and political careers engaging with Caledonia. Black lives were lived in Britain and Scotland almost two thousand years ago. Remarkably, it is possible to reach out and touch those lives through archaeology and ancient history. In the ancient world those black lives mattered, in the present day those past Black Lives Matter.

Student Research – Reconstructing the Bronze & Iron Age Landscape of Gairloch

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute postgraduate student Hannah Genders Boyd updates us on her continuing MRes research into the Bronze and Iron Age landscapes of Gairloch on the west coast of Scotland.

Hannah takes up her story…….” Hi, I’m the latest Research Masters student to join the Archaeology Institute at UHI, based at Orkney College. I’ll be spending the next year undertaking research in environmental archaeology: primarily using pollen analysis techniques in order to reconstruct a prehistoric landscape.

I’m working with a supervisory team from three institutions: Dr Scott Timpany from UHI, Dr Althea Davies from the University of St Andrews and Dr Tim Mighall from the University of Aberdeen, whose collective expertise will guide me through the project.

My background is in history, archaeology and climate heritage – but putting these things together to tackle Environmental Archaeology is a new challenge for me.

Over the following year I will be undertaking a masters by research (MRes) degree, which is a postgraduate course that involves completing original research and producing a 30,000 word thesis at the end of it. My research is based on a group of hut circles (Bronze and Iron Age roundhouses) in Gairloch, over on the West Coast of Scotland.

One of the hut circles at Achtercairn, in Gairloch. Image credit: Dr Scott Timpany

These were originally excavated as part of the WeDigs community project in 2014, and my role now is to understand how the people who lived in these structures interacted with their environment. The Wedigs community are a passionate group of Wester Ross locals who first caught my attention when they were nominated for a Heritage Angel Award back in 2018. I’m looking forward to building on their work and feeding into this exciting ongoing project.

I’m using pollen analysis (palynology) to reconstruct the landscape in which these structures were built and looking for evidence of how these communities were utilising this area, such as evidence of pastoral or arable farming. The pollen I’m analysing was preserved in a nearby peat bog. A 4.2m core was extracted from the bog, which was then sub-sampled for pollen and these samples were processed to create slides.

Pollen grains viewed through the microscope (x400) – tree pollen of alder and hazel can be seen in this photo. Photo Dr Scott Timpany

By identifying the variety of species present, represented by their pollen, we can begin to build a picture of the prehistoric landscape and how it changed over time.

My research will specifically be looking at the Bronze and Iron Age periods to which the hut circles have been dated, a period of around 2400 years (from 2000 BC to AD 400). The project will investigate wider themes such as the temporality of these settlements and whether they were used seasonally, together with how people were manipulating this landscape (e.g. woodland clearance and farming).

I hope to be able to understand more about how these communities responded to climatic changes: we know the end of the Bronze Age saw a serious climatic downturn, I want to know how resilient communities in this area of western Scotland were to environmental challenges and how they adapted to such changes. This is particularly interesting to consider now as communities, and heritage sites, on the West Coast are once again dealing with increased rainfall and other climatic deterioration. I’ll be aided in answering these questions by other techniques, including geochemical analysis and radiocarbon dating.

The view out from the hut circles, looking towards the Isle of Skye. Image credit: Scott Timpany

This year is going to be challenging, as I’m jumping in to palaeoenvironmental studies with both feet. But nonetheless I’m excited. This project offers the chance to delve into an amazing archaeological landscape in Wester Ross and get to grips with how it has been shaped by human activity over time.

Improving our understanding of Bronze and Iron Age land use systems through research which takes into account architecture and landscape is deemed a priority by the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework . Here my research will marry environmental evidence with the knowledge gained through survey and excavation by the WeDigs group: it’s a fantastic opportunity to work alongside the community and enhance the project with specialist knowledge, shining new light on the region through an improved understanding the prehistoric landscape.”

Hannah Genders Boyd
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
@HGendersBoyd

If you are inspired to take the plunge and apply for an undergraduate or postgraduate course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk and we can discuss your options.

Study Archaeology from Anywhere on the Planet

We are all getting used to a new way of working in the light of the Covid -19 measures. Many of us are working or studying from home and we know that many people are considering continuing their studies to Masters level.

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has in many respects continued business as usual as all of our archaeology courses are taught using elements of online teaching. The MLitt Archaeological Studies is an online postgraduate course that can be undertaken from anywhere in the world – as long as you have internet access and a computer.

The course offers you the opportunity to study archaeology from your own home and gain a postgraduate qualification from the UHI Archaeology Institute based in Orkney. Regular online coffee mornings, seminars and lectures, held over the video conferencing infrastructure available to all UHI students, helps to create a learning community wherever you are located in the world.

There are a wide range of module options which draw on the research specialisms of the UHI Archaeology Institute staff and these provide you with the flexibility to combine taught modules and dissertation research according to your own research interests. You may have an interest in prehistory or in Celtic through to Viking/Norse through to Medieval archaeology. Or you may choose to combine period-based modules with our professional skills modules to gain a broader knowledge and understanding of the methods and theory practiced within archaeology.

UHI Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee talking through a concept with a student at Skaill Farm, Rousay

The choice is yours and you can fit the course into your own lifestyle and study from your own home. However, don’t take my word for it, check out some of our present MLitt students comments….

The quality of the teaching is top-notch and it’s delivered by researchers actively working at the cutting-edge of some of the most exciting archaeological projects in Europe. I’ve really enjoyed the rigor and intensity of the programme and UHI’s experience with distance-learning systems has enabled me to fully participate in everything the course offers even though I’m based in the USA. The knowledge, skills and professional connections I’ve gained at UHI are already benefiting me hugely in my work on climate change and cultural heritage at the Union of Concerned Scientists. It’s a truly unique programme and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Adam Markham, Deputy Director of Climate and Energy, Union of Concerned Scientists, UHI MLitt Archaeological Studies student from Connecticut, USA.

I had no thought of returning to University when visiting Orkney a second time in 2017. I had been more than 10 years before and had learned then of the University of the Highlands and Islands. On reluctantly departing the rich and beautiful Orkney Islands that year, I decided to take the plunge and apply for the MLitt in Archaeology. The lecturers are some of the best in the field and provide a fascinating and broad landscape and timescape in which to explore in Orkney and beyond. The unstructured self-paced Video Conference aspect makes it flexible for my distant life and getting to visit and dig on a world-class excavation the first summer was fantastic! Access and guidance to the literature alone has been worthwhile. This is among the most rewarding experiences of my adult life and I wish it could continue indefinitely.

Don Helfrich, UHI MLitt Archaeological Studies student from New Mexico, USA

If you wish to study here in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland the UHI is also pleased to offer a limited number of places with full tuition fees for Scottish/EU students studying full time on the course in September 2020.

Total station in use at the Ness of Brodgar in 2018

To be eligible for this funding, students must meet the criteria for Scottish or EU fee status and be resident in the Highlands and Islands (including Moray) or Perth and Kinross for the duration of their studies. For details see our website.

I have thoroughly enjoyed studying for the MLitt in Archaeology Practice and would highly recommend the programme to anyone with an interest in furthering their knowledge of past society and its cultures. The distance learning approach adopted by UHI is really interactive and easy access to online lectures and presentations is perfect for anyone already working full time or busy raising a family. The diversity of modules on offer alongside the unfailing support from lecturers and support staff make this high calibre course a very worthwhile venture.”

William Burke, UHI MLitt Archaeological Studies student

To discuss your options contact Dr Ingrid Mainland email ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk phone 01856 569225 or check out the UHI website

How did Iron Age Society Cope with Crisis?

The Cairns Broch looking across to the North Sea

There can be no doubt that we are experiencing a major international crisis that affects all our lives, all of the time at the moment.

It would appear that this crisis may indeed change the way we do things for some considerable time and may even change our society permanently.

As a society we are aided in our understanding of the Covid-19 emergency and the way we can address the social, economic and political effects through our use of technology…..but what of society in the Iron Age? How did they cope with emergencies that affected their way of life? Did they change their way of doing things permanently?

From the comfort of my home office workstation I posed this question to Martin Carruthers, Site Director of The Cairns Broch Excavation in Orkney and Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

In conversation over the video conferencing link, Martin reflected on the evidence provided by the archaeological record at The Cairns and other sites across Orkney. “One suggestion that has been made regarding Iron Age societies in the Northern Isles is that the mixed farming economy that they practiced (both arable and pastoral; barley and meat) meant that when there was a crop blight or a wet summer and crops were ruined they had meat and stored dairy products as well as wild resources such as hunted deer to fall back on. Similarly, when for whatever reason, there might be disease in the livestock, they had stored cereal produce as added insurance against starvation. That way there was always something to get them through the lean times.

This is the argument made especially by the likes of Steve Dockrill and Julie Bond, particularly for sites like Old Scatness in Shetland. Having said that there are signs of hardship and ill health and malnutrition evident in some of the few sets of human remains that have been recovered from the region.

Growth interruption markers are evident on teeth (indicative of childhood, developmental arrest due to lack of adequate nutrition), there’s a high infant mortality rate in general if the incidence of the little ones (at Howe, Bu and especially ay Berstness/Knowe of Skea, Westray is anything to go by. Indeed, at Berstness there’s evidence of extremely early weening off mother’s milk (in one case at around 2 months(!!) if memory serves, which is probably another indicator of extreme hardship. The mother probably was so poorly off in terms of nutrition that she couldn’t go on nursing any longer!

So there’s plenty of evidence that the Iron Age was a period that challenged individuals and communities to the extremes at least at certain times and places. One aspect of this is that it puts our current misery in a little perspective!

We can, however, also reflect on The Cairns and its relative wealth as seen in the prodigious animal bone, feasting, and waste of viable food items that might indicate they were relatively careless with their food resource because they did not crack open every long bone to extract marrow and the like. Even at the Cairns, though, the small amount of human remains shows that the population sometimes faced difficulties.

The human jawbone that was recovered from a whalebone vessel, deposited at the end of the broch, showed signs of extreme stress on the few teeth that were left in the person’s mouth. Two of them showed extremely nasty dental caries that had spread from one to the other across the gum-line wreaking havoc and decay. This person also had highly worn teeth possibly related to using them to grip substances in the jaw while working on them with hands, such as working on leather or flattening grass stems for basketry.

We might think these are hardly the occupations of a significant and wealthy person, whose remains were ceremonially deposited to mark the end of the broch, however, in Iron Age Orkney, but maybe this is telling us that at times everyone had to muck-in and work hard for the greater community.

There were good times and lean times. Feast and famine may have been the way of much Iron Age life for all. The solidarity of the community and the way they maintained and shared resources may have been their most important coping strategy seeing them through the hard times!

Maybe that is becoming ever more resonant for us today under the present circumstances.”

Check out full story and our dig diaries at The Cairns here.


If you are interested in taking a course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop Martin and the team a line on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see https://archaeologyorkney.com/courses/

Online UHI Archaeology Institute Research Seminar

Mortuary-house. Courtesy-Arkikon

In this period of Lockdown, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute invite you to attend a digital research seminar on Friday 24th April 2020 at 4pm BST. Everyone is welcome to dial in…not just UHI students.

Raymond Sauvage, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, will be joining us by video-conference, with a presentation on their latest research excavation, entitled: Settlement and burial practices at Vinjefjorden, Norway – AD 450 to 1000.

The NTNU University Museum is currently conducting a large-scale excavation project at Vinjeøra, at the innermost part of fjord Vinjefjorden, in connection with road development in the southwest of Trøndelag. In 2019, the project has excavated a farm settlement and a closely situated grave field.

Preliminary results indicate that both sites should be seen as a unit, or a farm, with the earliest dates from the late Migration and the early Merovingian period, that continues to be used during the Viking age. The survey results indicate that we can divide the landscape into two parts: a ritual part that contains ritual and mortuary activity, and the settlement part in another area. The settlement has produced several buildings, waste pits, waste layers, and traces of metalworking. In the grave field, several traces of mounds contained evidence of a variety of mortuary practices: three boat graves, mortuary houses, cremation burials, and inhumation burials.

This year, the team will investigate several sites. The project follows two main lines of investigations:

• To study how landscape and society at Vinjefjorden responded to potential climate changes at the transition between the Migration and Merovingian period, about AD 536.

• To examine the development of ritual, social and economic manifestations and practices at Vinjefjorden in the later Iron Age.

The overall aim of the seminar is to present some preliminary results from the first field season. Afterwards Raymond will briefly discuss some of these results in connection with the project goals.

Join the Conversation

New Art & Archaeology MA Enrolling Now

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the Art Department at Orkney College are now enrolling students for a new Contemporary Art & Archaeology Masters course.

The course can be accessed online across the world or from the University partner colleges across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

This new MA programme is unique in the UK in linking the fields of Contemporary Art and Archaeology. It encourages students to take a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to artmaking and research-led creative practice. Core modules will immerse you in an established, interdisciplinary community of practice operating not only in Orkney, but also in Shetland, the Western Isles, and the mainland of Scotland.

Detail of butterfly carvings at the Ness of Brodgar

From crofting landscapes and ancient monuments, to renewable energy and cutting-edge technology, the Highlands & Islands is where past, present and future meet, at the interface of the global and local. Specialist optional modules in art, or archaeology, allow students to build a bespoke MA programme which explores both the deep past of this fascinating region, and plays a role in its sustainable, creative future.

This exciting programme will allow you to explore, both independently and collaboratively, original and creative responses to current issues and develop your own practice as a uniquely interdisciplinary Art and Archaeology practitioner.

Archaeologists notebook

You will require a 2.2 honours degree in a relevant subject and you will also be required to submit a portfolio with evidence of work and interview.

Students without formal qualifications, but with professional experience, can be accepted upon submission and acceptance of relevant portfolio work and interview.

Check out the UHI website for more information here or drop Dr Antonia Thomas an email at antonia.thomas@uhi.ac.uk to discuss your options.

Update on University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Projects

Skaill Farm dig, Rousay

If you are a volunteer, professional archaeologists or community archaeologist who was planning to work with us on our projects this year then you should have received an email stating our position as far as the present Covid-19 situation is concerned.

The present situation (24th March 2020) is as follows:

  • Ness of Brodgar dig is postponed until 2021. See website for more details.
  • The Cairns is also postponed until 2021
  • Skaill, Rousay July 2020 – excavations are postponed. Updates soon on rescheduling.
  • Tombs of the Isles, Neolithic Landscapes of the Dead NILPS project – launch and community archive research is postponed, updates soon.
  • Orkney Energy Landscapes Project – Burgar Hill and Costa Head survey days are postponed, updates soon.

Also please note that the Scottish Government has stated that you cannot travel to Orkney unless you are a key responder (24th March 2020). These travel restrictions are in place for the next three weeks and will be reviewed weekly. See Pentland Ferries & North Link Ferries websites for more information on travel.

In these unprecedented times we wish you well and hope to see you very soon.

Whale Bone Genetics and the Extraordinary Closure of a Broch

A Fin Whale. Photo: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid. Creative Commons

New DNA results shed light on Iron Age use of whale bone and the remarkable process of ending a broch two thousand years ago.

Results of DNA investigations undertaken on a large collection of whale bone from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Iron Age archaeological site of The Cairns, have afforded a glimpse into the complex relationship of Iron Age communities with whales.

In particular, the identification of multiple whale bones as belonging to a single large fin whale shows how its carcase was strategically and even ceremonially used and deposited during the ending of the monumental broch.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns excavation. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

In the early Summer of 2019, Dr Vicki Szabo (Western Carolina University, North Carolina) and Dr Brenna Frasier (Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Martin Carruthers (University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute), to examine the collection of whale bone artefacts recovered from The Cairns excavations, being undertaken by UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney. The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what species of whale, or cetacean, were present at the sites.

The research is part of a large international project funded by the National Science Foundation which is investigating the past use of whales in North Atlantic society. Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney in February 2018 where they examined the whales found at another archaeological site in Sanday, Orkney and other whale bone artefacts from The Orkney Museum.

The Cairns and the sea. Looking across Windwick Bay. Photo: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

The project has sampled whale bones over a 1400+ year span, from Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroes, Shetland, and Orkney. Orkney and Iceland are the primary centres of analysis, representing the Eastern and Western North Atlantic. Orkney offers exceptional assemblages of whale bone from many periods and sites, from the Neolithic to the Norse eras and thereafter. The types of objects produced in Orkney are remarkably stable over a long period of time, as well. The Cairns, though, has given Vicki and Brenna their first opportunity to sample at an ongoing excavation; with most of the other analysis undertaken on assemblages that were collected in the past.

The results from the study show that some of the whale bones that were uncovered at The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale, North Atlantic right whale, minke, grey whale, and humpback. This is fascinating as it raises questions about whether a site like The Cairns may have been able to stake a claim over the larger whale carcasses, and therefore if this is an indication of relative status and control of resources by the inhabitants of that site. One surprise, though, was the volume of bone belonging to fin whale species in the assemblage.

One of the larger pieces of Fin whale bone found at The Cairns Broch. Photo: Andrew Hollingrake

Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the blue whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. Interestingly, fin whales are also amongst the fastest whales in the sea, capable of bursts of 45KMH when hunting, or threatened, and they can dive fast and very deeply. Indeed, in the modern era, the fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers once the explosive harpoon was invented, and so it is unlikely to have been hunted in the Iron Age, but rather a stranded individual. That does not mean that other types of whale were not hunted, and the question of whether some whales were pro-actively sourced during the Iron Age remains unanswered.

In time, further study of patterns of whale bone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.

The end of two giants: the broch and a Fin whale
The latest stage of the genetic project permits us to connect an entire array of whale bone items. The genetic and molecular study of 33 whale bone items shows that 20 pieces (vertebrae, ribs, scapulae, and other anatomical elements) were from the fin whale species. This is remarkable in of itself, however, 2 key mitochondrial haplotype regions of the genome of each bone were examined, and it is likely that all these fin whale items (except one) are from the same animal. This means that a single, large, fin whale may have been utilised during the last occupation and abandonment of the broch.

The Cairns broch looking across to the North Sea. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

The bones appear to relate to feasting that took place to mark the end of the broch. Some of the whale bones have chop-marks present showing signs of butchery and perhaps bone-working. Others are slightly singed from being subjected to direct heat. The fin whale bones were found in a range of contexts across the broch. Some of the bones were excavated from the uppermost floor deposits of the broch. Others were stuffed into gaps in its walls. Other fin whale bones came from the rubble that was used to infill the broch during the final abandonment.

The presence of this single animal, spread across these varied contexts, links these deposits very closely in time, much more tightly, in fact, than is currently possible with radiocarbon dating alone. It allows the excavators to closely connect several different contexts and stages within the finale of the broch and to appreciate what a relatively swift process the end was. The occurrence of the many bones from a single animal may also allow detailed consideration of the use of whale bone and how it was treated as a resource both physically and perhaps also symbolically.

The Fin whale vessel just outside the broch entrance. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

One of the bones of the giant fin whale is especially remarkable for its treatment. This was a large whale bone, which had been carved from a substantial vertebra to make a vessel. This vessel had been deposited just outside the broch door at the very end of the broch occupation. A remarkable assemblage of objects accompanied the vessel. Two shed red deer antlers had been propped against the outside of the vessel, and a very large grinding stone, or saddle quern, was also placed snuggly against the vessel as though to pin it firmly against the broch outer wall face. Inside the actual vessel, were the remains of two new-born lambs and, most remarkably, the jawbone of an elderly human. This entire collection of items was a very deliberate deposit that appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure for the broch.

Martin Carruthers, site director of The Cairns and UHI lecturer in archaeology said: “It’s just amazing to be able to say with confidence that so many of these whale bones, including the vessel with the human jawbone, actually belong to the same animal, especially as we’ve recovered them from the site over a number of different seasons, not knowing all along that the spread of bone belonged to one huge beast. We had some suspicions that something particularly interesting was going on with the amount of whale bone that was emerging from end of our broch, but we’d never have managed to get to this level of specificity without the input and collaboration with Brenna and Vicki”.

When discovered, the whale bones are in a condition where they were cut-up or processed during the Iron Age. That often makes the original anatomical detail and form of the bones difficult to see clearly. Therefore, it can be challenging to identify them to species, let alone recognise bones belonging to a single individual. Martin continues: “One of the most important things, from my point of view, is how this research helps us to recognise the significant role that the treatment of the fin whale had in the dramatic procedures of deliberately ending of the monumental broch”.

What circumstances led to the use and deposition of the fin whale?
Whale bone seems to have been a highly important material for Iron Age communities. The appearance of these ocean giants on local beaches, when stranded, must have occasioned opportunities to recover a large volume of meat, oil (fuel for lamps), as well as a substantial resource for making objects. Whale bone-work clearly included things like our big vessel (The Cairns has also yielded several more whale bone vessels from across the site), but also tool-making (e.g. weaving ‘batons’, chopping-boards, ‘soft’ anvils, and much more), and even for architectural purposes such as large ribs used as roof rafters.

The whalebone distribution across the site which has been DNA tested. Credit: UHI Archaeology Institute

Indeed, it’s possible that a stranding of a major animal, like a massive fin whale, would have represented an exponential contribution to the community’s resources. Vicki Szabo suggests: “As a free and scavenged resource, whale provides a large volume of high value protein. Large whales are generally 14+% body weight bone, which means that a fin whale represents a massive quantity of soft tissue, meat and blubber at around 70%”.

This amount of food input may have served to energise productive capacity, providing additional assurance of a successful year for the community. Perhaps a stranding may have permitted endeavours and projects that might otherwise have been thought risky, making them more manageable. At The Cairns, this whale boon could have included support for a major undertaking such as ending the premier building, the broch, a structure that had dominated the local landscape and society for generations. It would have been no minor activity to demolish the upper parts of the massive and complex broch, and it is likely that the work of rendering it down would have had some serious consequences for the settlement, at the heart of which, lay the broch. It would have been a physically arduous and time-consuming process, probably involving many people, taking them away from other important tasks required of this busy farming group.

That is not to say that the stranding of a single large whale led to the ending of the broch. There is growing evidence that the period around the 2nd Century AD was a time when many brochs were coming to their end, at least in their initial form as high-walled, tower-like buildings. There is a sense, therefore, that things were changing, more generally, in Iron Age society across Northern Scotland at that time, which the waning importance of monumental broch architecture is a part of. However, we may still wonder if occurrences, such as the stranding of a significantly large whale, might encourage a community, perhaps already considering a radical break with the past, to go for it.

Just some of the whale bone unearthed at The Cairns. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

There was a very practical bonus to be had in the harvesting of a very large whale, but we may also wonder if the appearance of such a large beast stranded on the foreshore meant more to Iron Age communities than just a resource. In many non-Western societies, and, indeed, many ancient European ones, sudden natural phenomena such as the highly prominent death of a significant type of animal may be seen as a conspicuous indication of arcane and esoteric forces, taken as a sign, an auspicious, or inauspicious, omen. Even though stranding may have been more common with a larger population of whales thought to exist in prehistory, it might be that both the practical impact, and the potential ideological and psychological effects of the appearance of a big stranded whale created the critical timing and final motivation for major change.

Other Animal Offerings? Animal Bone Groups at The Cairns
Whales are not the only animals present in interesting circumstances during the final stages of the occupation and abandonment of the broch. Indeed, across the site there are what are known as animal bone groups (ABG’s) present that date to the period of the broch and afterwards. These are articulated animals, or articulated parts of animals, apparently deliberately deposited. These derive from cattle, sheep, and red deer as well as cat, pig, otter and even, in one case, an articulated seal flipper!

To date, around twenty such ABG’s have been recognised from The Cairns. Probably many more await discovery. In many, or most, cases they may well be butchered joints of meat. It may be that these ABG’s are indeed portions of meat, but they are not discarded in middens as one might normally expect and seen elsewhere on the site. Instead, they were left in certain locations within the buildings of the site and across floors, and infills, as if they were actually posed. Indeed, many look like they have been displayed. Some of the bones reveal traces of weathering on the surface of the bone, indicating a period of exposure prior to being covered in soil, rubble or new house floors.

Whale bone from The Cairns…showing cut marks. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

Why formally place animal bones?
What did these deposits mean for the people of the Iron Age? Martin Carruthers says: “At the Cairns, I wonder if many, or all, of these deposits followed on from activities that celebrated the end of the broch and the beginning of new things for the community, who by no means just disappeared thereafter”.

Human occupation of the site lasted at least another 800 years after the end of the broch. Carruthers continues: “they might also be acts of propitiation, an assuagement of the decision to end a major building that had been highly valued for so long, by many previous generations of inhabitants. Perhaps the inclusion of our elderly human jawbone as part of the process was also a nod in the direction of the past of the broch, when it was in its hey-day? When that person was in their youth the broch would still have been the major symbol of authority in the landscape, and the jawbone may well have belonged to someone who had been a member of the broch household”.

A further possibility is that the formality and recurrence of all these depositional acts were themselves a source of comfort and reconciliation, especially in the face of major transitions underway on site, and in wider society, a response to crisis that drew comfort from the long-standing tradition of deposition.

Whatever the truth of the mentalities and motivations, the process of ending the broch was measured, carefully planned, required resources of people as well as of materials, was physically difficult, as well as probably not a little dangerous. It also seems to have entailed serious ideological input and consideration, not least indicated by the deposition of human remains like our jawbone inside the fin whale vessel.

The end of the broch seems also to have involved the butchery and perhaps sacrifice of animals, feasting, and especially, perhaps, reflection on the past, present, and future of the community.

Explore the Past, Present and Future of Orkney’s Energy Story

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology based at Orkney College UHI is looking for volunteers to join the team undertaking the exciting new Orkney Energy Landscapes Project.

Join us on the 28th March to complete archaeological recording of the turbine sites at Burgar Hill and Costa Head on 18th April 2020.

We will start the surveys at 10.00am and finish by 16.00 on both days. Full training will be given and you do not need any experience of surveying, recording or archaeology. As ever, in March and early April, be prepared for the weather and bring along warm clothing and waterproofs just in case rain makes an appearance. Also, bring a packed lunch as the shops are a good distance away from both sites.

There is no charge for taking part, but places are limited and booking is essential so please contact Kat on Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk or 01856 569345 to book a place.

Upcoming field days are planned at Billia Croo wave energy test site, Stromness Uranium corridor walk, Flotta terminal walk, Eday peat coring and cutting day. Keep an eye on our social media UHI Archaeology Facebook and this blog for details of these events.