University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student Will Lowe is undertaking his work placement with us in the Marketing Department here at Orkney College.
As part of his project Will is looking at post excavation processes and the ways in which information is shared across both the academic and wider community.
Over to Will……
Hi everyone! My name is William Lowe and I’m a MSc student at the University of the Highlands and Islands and in this blog post I will be writing about the 2019 Ness of Brodgar dig and some of its discoveries. Now for those who don’t know what the Ness of Brodgar is, it is an extensive Neolithic site in the centre of an area known as the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”, a world heritage site situated on the mainland of the Orcadian archipelago.
The aim of this blog is to show off some of the finds made this year and how by carefully examining them we can piece together the overall history of this site and the people connected to it. In order to do that I have selected 3 finds in particular.
For the first objects I will disregard the rule that I just set and discuss two objects in particular, these are a piece of bone and a piece of pot that were discovered in the new area, known as Trench T…the “mystery trench”. These may seem like mundane finds compared to some others, but sometimes it is these mundane objects that tell the best stories. They were found in Structure 27, a new structure that has no parallels on the site, let alone Scotland!
These objects were part of the “trash” from the rest of the site that was thrown in the structure after it was abandoned, but not put out of use it seems. The mound was far larger than what the diggers first envisaged, so much so that it must have been clearly visible from far away, and Cristina, the trench supervisor, believes this was done on purpose in order to show off to whomever was in the vicinity!
The second object is a macehead that was found on Friday. It is a stunning find that was never finished, which is unfortunately a mystery we don’t know the answer to. What we do know is that it’s made out of olivine basalt, which may be from another Orkney island to the south-west called Hoy. This is important because it shows that the inhabitants were being extremely selective about their rocks. Similarly other objects from previous seasons known as a “pitchstone” – a volcanic glass from the island of Arran several hundred miles to the SW of Orkney and similar to obsidian was knapped using a technique similar to that found in south Scotland, showing the links the site had and how far they spanned.
The last object is a decorated stone. A myriad of decorations have been found in the past years by Nick and his team, and although similar decorations have been found in Maeshowe, they are still a mystery. Maybe as we find more and through a little research, we will be able to discover more about their hidden histories!
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 email@example.com or give us a ring on 01856 569229 and ask for Sean. If I’m not there then leave a message on my voicemail and I’ll get back to you.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, in partnership with the Yarrows Heritage Trust, are preparing for a fourth season of excavation at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, Scotland.
Previous seasons of excavation at the site have uncovered a complex of Iron Age structures, which are providing an important window into Iron Age society away from the monumental architecture of the Brochs.
This season the team led by Rick Barton from ORCA Archaeology hope to continue to reveal the extent of some of these structures so that they can better understand just how complex the site is. We will also be aiming to recover more information about what life was like for the Iron Age people who lived there two thousand years ago. Analysis of the precious remnants of people’s day to day lives will not only help us to understand the environment and economy of the site at the Burn of Swartigill, but also potentially that of Iron Age Scotland in a much broader context.
The 2019 excavations commence on 19th of August and will continue until 8th of September. The site is located near Thrumster House, a few miles south of Wick. To get to the site, you need to take the Haster and Tannach road from Thrumster and look out for our signs just before the bridge crossing at the Burn of Swartigill. There is limited parking at the roadside, and the dig is a short hike across boggy moorland.
Tours are available and the archaeologists will be on site every day of the week between Monday 19th and Thursday 29th of August. The excavation will then continue from Tuesday 3rd of September until Sunday 8th of September 2019.
Volunteers are welcome and you don’t need any archaeological experience to take part. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or arrive on the day!
A large Norse hall has been discovered during excavations at Skaill Farmstead, on the island of Rousay, Orkney. The hall probably dates to the 10th to 12th centuries AD and was discovered below a more recent farmstead.
A team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Rousay residents and students have been digging at the site for a number of years, investigating the later stages of the farm complex and its middens (waste heaps), with a particular focus on past diet, farming and fishing practices.
Project co-director Dr Ingrid Mainland said “We have recovered a millenia of middens which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions, farming and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century.”
The exciting find this summer, was that walls extending from below the extensive settlement mound have been confirmed as a large Norse building, which is likely to be the hall. Substantial 1m wide stone walls were found 5.5m apart with internal features such as stone benches along either side. The building appears to be in excess of 13m long. The hall is oriented down the slope towards the sea. Finds have included steatite (soap stone from Shetland), pottery and a bone spindle whorl. A fragment of a Norse bone comb was also found.
Although only partly uncovered at this stage, the Skaill hall has parallels with other Norse halls excavated in Orkney, such as Snusgar, and elsewhere in Scotland. The find provides tantalising evidence for the earliest phases of habitation on this farm and settlement mound which may well have been inhabited for over 1000 years. It provides another piece to the 5000 year jigsaw along this archaeology rich stretch of coast at Westness on Rousay – the ‘Egypt of the north’.
The excavation is part of the Landscapes of Change – Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate project. The aim of the project is to explore the farmstead at Skaill from the Norse period to its abandonment in the nineteenth century. The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site.
Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it was always likely that a Norse settlement was located somewhere at Skaill. Earlier structures have been found below the present farm during previous seasons, and this season explored more of the Norse phases of the site.
Project co-director Dan Lee said “The exciting news this season is that we have now found the hall at Skaill, as the place name suggests. You never know, but perhaps Earl Sigurd himself sat on one of the stone benches inside the hall and drank a flagon of ale!”
The project is led by Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dan Lee ,Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon from the UHI Archaeology Institute, based at Orkney College. Funding is from the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund and the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Development Trust. Many thanks to landowners Russell and Kathryn Marwick.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute undergraduate programme offers a professional placement in a commercial or academic organisation.
This provides students with the vital experience of working in the often demanding environment of an organisation and we believe equips students with an insight into the requirements of an employer.
This year, eight of our third year undergraduate students opted for the module that included a placement of several weeks in heritage and commercial archaeology organisations across Scotland. The students themselves had an opportunity to suggest areas of interest in which to work and in collaboration with their tutors narrowed down potential employers likely to offer placements.
The areas of study were wide ranging and included such diverse organisations as SUERC Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, Stromness Museum, National Trust for Scotland, The Crannog Centre, Alder Archaeology and the Museum of London Archaeology.
I was involved in researching the history of the artefacts in a small museum in Orkney in addition to contributing to the outreach activity with local schools….Because it was a small museum I felt that I had a good opportunity to learn about a wide range of curatorial tasks and this positive experience has led me to consider this path as an eventual career.
I gained an understanding of the steps required to obtain dates and the strengths and weaknesses of using radiocarbon dating…I found that this placement also gave me the tools to apply to my research requiring dating and chronologies
After the placement…..I developed a broader understanding of the various sites within the local area and the evolution of environmental archaeology within Perth and Kinross….and have a greater understanding of how commercial archaeology works
Following their placement the students presented their experience with the group and reflected on how the exercise contributed to their research and career progression.
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 email@example.com or give us a ring on 01856 569229 and ask for Sean. If I’m not there then leave a message on my voicemail and I’ll get back to you.
The archaeology dig at the Neolithic houses found on the beach at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney is now underway.
Teams from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire arrived on the island last weekend to uncover the site and begin a series of excavations centred on the sites at Cata Sand settlement and Tresness tomb.
This is the
third year of the excavation and could not have taken place this year without
the support of donations that flooded in following an online appeal. Sufficient
funds to commence the dig and to undertake assessment of the animal and plant
remains were raised and the team would like to express their gratitude for the
donations from people all over the world.
Jane Downes said, “During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the
early Neolithic houses, but progress was slow due to the never ending blowing
sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased
storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have
vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors
and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.”
continued, “We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of
the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but had not been able to secure funding to
enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. These
donations now allow us to complete sampling of the floor deposits which in turn
will help to give a full picture of how these earliest farmers lived inside the
archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday was discovered by four
archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the
University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the
University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December
day in 2015 on their way to inspect the tomb at Tresness.
The team had
been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a
huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where
it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune around which
clustered an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit
of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped
into pits cut through the Neolithic house.
team first discovered the archaeological remains, they saw they were in a
vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the
actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that
the site had been exposed only fairly recently. The team also knew therefore
that they had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold
and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community to obtain a better idea of what
the site was, and how extensive it was.
the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that the remains of a series of
early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone
walling and stone-built hearths.
This was a
first for Sanday and although the house remains are incredibly fragile and
disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this
level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and
animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment.
Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from
the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills
that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.
encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it
became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach
surface came from two huge pits that had been dug in more recent times through
the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long
lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping to identify that the
bodies of many whales had been buried.
Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Aberdeen are offering a funded MRes Archaeology to start in January 2020.
The research is entitled: Out of the Round: a palaeoecological investigation into human-environmental interactions of hut circle communities at Gairloch, Wester Ross.
The area of Gairloch, Wester Ross in the north-west Highlands of Scotland has been the subject of recent archaeological survey by the WeDigs community archaeology group. The survey identified a number of prehistoric hut circles (roundhouses) in the area, which radiocarbon dates have shown were occupied during the Bronze and Iron Ages. However, little is currently known on how the people who lived in these structures interacted with their local environment, for example what agricultural methods did they employ (pastoral and/or arable), what woodland resources were available (for construction and fuel), what environmental impact did they have through processes such as metalworking?
In order to answer these questions this project will seek to investigate the human-environmental interaction of the hut circle communities through the application of pollen, non-pollen palynomorph (e.g. fungal spores) and microscopic charcoal analyses, together with geochemical analysis.
Training will be provided to the student in all of these techniques, which will take place at the universities of the Highlands & Islands and Aberdeen. As part of the project, the student would be expected to liaise with the WeDigs community archaeology group to inform of research progress and results.
Some previous experience in pollen analysis is desirable but not essential. Applicants should be able to display knowledge of Scottish archaeology and Holocene environmental change, and will be expected to work both independently and with a supervisory team. Applicants should be enthusiastic with the aim of contributing to the expanding research environment within the Archaeology Institute UHI.
Project supervisors The student will be supervised by:
The University of the Highlands and Islands research dig at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney has now come to an end for this year. With the site safely covered up it is time for Site Director Martin Carruthers to sum up….
Well we have reached the end of this season’s excavations at The Cairns! It’s been an incredibly rewarding season and we have learned a lot about the site.
We’ve been very busy finalising the recording of the features and buildings and then the great task of covering up the trench began. Hundreds of tyres and many, many metres of plastic were moved around the site and placed with loving care to protect the site from the rigours of the weather for another year.
Across all the areas of actively excavation we have made
real progress, and one of the very satisfying reminders of that has been the
number of return visitors to the site who have said they’ve seen real physical
change to the site. Even the adverse weather hasn’t dented the spirits or the progress.
Broch Origin Stories…
One of the most startling and very welcome developments is within the broch itself where we have reached the primary occupation levels in the West and Northeast quadrants/rooms. This is very important in terms of our aims of fully excavating the entire suite of floors and occupation within the broch. It means we are far closer to achieving this outcome than I imagined. We will now be able reflect on the changes that have occurred to the layout and the use of the broch through time from the outset of its life to the very end. Additionally, we should now be able to obtain radiocarbon dates for the earliest occupation in the broch. It now appears that the major divisions of the room space represent the original layout and that’s important because they are very well preserved and convey a very clear and coherent impression of how movement and activity was organised in the broch.
Within the western room of the broch we have seen that there is a very substantial focus of activity arranged around an impressive hearth, the setting for which is coming into view but there is so much rake out of hearth sweepings, and ashy flooring around it that we will be next season before it is entirely revealed. In terms of artefacts from this area we have added a further piece of glass, a bronze ring and lots of pottery to add to last season’s glass beads and metal objects. The glass objects are all imports to Orkney and ultimately the material for their manufacture derived from Roman sources.
It’s fascinating to see this obvious trace of interaction with communities on the Scottish mainland as well as with the Roman world. The landscapes of Orkney are often portrayed in the academic literature as tough and marginal places to eke a living from, but the imported objects are a welcome reminder of Orkney’s active participation in prehistoric geopolitics.
In the Southwest extension area, progress has also been
significant. Structure J is the
principal building here, constructed directly in the lee of the southern
wall-face of the broch. What had seemed to be a fairly small building in
previous seasons can now be seen to be far more substantial and complex with
its large multi-roomed interior. The building sits within a revetment wall that
has itself been built against the great construction cut or terrace for the
broch. We think this indicates the early
nature of the village settlement and that it was largely constructed as a
contemporary element alongside the broch. If ultimately proven to be the case,
this is significant in contributing to the debate about village planning and
the primary nature of such extramural settlements!
Also in the SW extension we continued to excavate the inner edge of the ditch. The ditch surrounds the site forming a large enclosure around 60 metres in diameter. On the eastern side of this enclosure, the ditch splits in two to form a double line at the front of the settlement, and it is the innermost of these two ditch lines that we have access to in the SW extension. The ditch was again rich in finds this season, especially in animal bone but also stone tools and pottery. On the edge of the ditch it became clear that there were several revetments added over time and these must have been intended to hold back the silty clay that we have found redeposited across parts of the buildings, indicating that it was subject to slippage and that this hill wash moved the clay around the site a little. This shows that the inhabitants of the site were trying to hold back the slope wash by constructing these revetments and that shows that they were maintaining the edge of the ditch and the inner bank of clay as a set of exposed earthen ground.
If they had allowed the grass to re-colonise the ditch and bank, then the slope-wash would probably not have occurred in this manner and been anchored by plant roots. Even this little detail is important as it appears that the broch community routinely maintained the enclosure and terrace. The enclosure must have been more visually prominent and vivid from a distance with its exposed yellow clay than it would have been if vegetated. This just adds detail and colour to how we can visualise the site, as well as pointing to another set of tasks and procedures that the community routinely undertook, presumably in some numbers.
Down in the Village
Trench areas M and Q make up a large, broad area around the North of the broch, stretching from immediately outside the front door of the broch around to the Northwest extension that was made this year. New walls and entirely new buildings have emerged in this area so swift has been the progress made! There’s now a much more coherent sense of the shape and extent of previously identified buildings as well. We can now see that Structure O, a sub-rectangular building at the very front of the broch, just to the North of the entrance, is surmounted by the same rubble that clads the outside of the broch here, and this shows that the building was up and running for at least some of the period of the broch. Its fourth (south) wall (only now visible) appears to respect the broch, stopping short of the pathway towards the broch front door and this fact together with O’s well-built double-faced walls make it a very good contender for another building that was constructed at the same time as the broch. Meanwhile Structure R, a newly identified building is anchored on to O but constructed later, and itself opens on to Structure K.
Structure K is now shown to be a very large building (it’s the one that previously yielded lots of metalworking moulds and crucibles dating to around AD300), and we can see that it was in contemporary use with Structure R, because a common doorway and paving connects both buildings. We’re now able to suggest very strongly that Structure O, N and M are primary with the broch, while Q, K and R, are subsequent constructions. K overlies the enclosure ditch and therefore this also points to the ditch being a broch period feature. All of this phasing is probably best understood in diagrammatic form, so I’ve included a little schematic illustration of how it works.
One of our aims this
season was to deal with the deposits inside the souterrain, which lies on the
eastern side of the broch. We excavated the deposits that in-fill the
souterrain and took lots of soil samples to try to understand the composition
of this in-fill. What’s more, the way is clear for us to chemically analyse the
floor of the souterrain to try to glean more information about how it was used.
A very odd feature of the souterrain seen in a previous season was the quern installation set up on the roof of the structure at its southern end. Essentially, two rotary querns had been set up inverted over an intentional aperture in the souterrain lintels. The central holes of the querns were aligned with the aperture, and the entire feature conveys the impression of being used to pour something into the underground passageway from above. There are several instances of Iron Age querns reused in this way to form a porous lid on pits in wheelhouses in the Western Isles, and in one instance it was suggested that there may have been libations being poured into them! This season we were able to observe a very peculiar deposit located discretely and directly located beneath where the quern installation had lain. Now that we have been able to acquire soil samples these will be subjected to phosphate analysis, amongst other analyses, to try to discern putative traces of the substance that was being poured into the hole in the roof- stay tuned to hear more over the next weeks and months!
All in all, it has been a very fruitful and enjoyable season, with
a lot learned about the nature of the site, from its beginnings to the end,
major features of the site such as the excavation of broch floors, the broch
construction platform and the ditch will immeasurably help us to understand the
character of the settlement, and the finds this year have been very rich and
highly useful in a number of ways to elucidate issues relating to dating, the
status of the community and their depositional practices.
Now some thank
you’s! I’ll take this opportunity to thank the entire project team for their
unstinting good humour, patience and enthusiasm. Without them the site would of
course remain unexcavated, and it’s only through their sterling efforts that we
begin to understand what was going on at the site more than 2000 years ago!
This year the public
have visited the site as before. We benefitted from a large number of very
interested visitors, and they were very generous in their expression of support
for the project. The funds will now be spent on important aspects of furthering
the research, such as radiocarbon dating the beginning of the broch. I would
like to thank all of the visitors and donors, and for allowing us to
communicate our findings at the site.
Finally, I would
like to thank Charlie and Yvonne Nicholson and all of their family and friends
in South Ronaldsay for their many acts of assistance and generosity. Our time
at The Cairns is made possible, enjoyable and very amiable due to their great
Mickey Van Lit from Leiden University brings The Cairns blog up to date.
As the excavation is coming to an end, so is this blog. I very kindly asked whether I could write a second blog, just because I liked it so much. Martin, gratefully accepted my generous and not-at-all self-indulgent offer and… Here we are!
Our last real day of digging was yesterday. In fact, yesterday
was mostly spent not trowelling but recording the newly found structures and
newly uncovered areas. Today, we have been covering the site with tarps and
tyres, to protect it from Orkney’s winter weather. Because finds have started
to slow down, it is perhaps difficult to write a blog about the developments on
site, especially with a conclusive blog coming soon to finish off the season.
Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to write about my own university,
the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.
Together with three other students from Leiden, I signed up
for this excavation as part of a course we are required to do as second-year
archaeology students. For this course, we have to fulfil approximately seven
weeks of work to get the required ECs. Isabelle and I worked together on the
wonderful area I described in an earlier blog (the one from day 12), which has
now become an entirely new structure of itself. Mika mostly worked in the
broch, and he has found a few big pieces of pottery and a semi-D-shaped bronze
ring, as shown on the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/895020910565507/).
The last of us four, Maurits, worked in the southwest extension, cleaning a
structure and in the meantime working down onto the natural soil.
At the University of Leiden, Archaeology is not only a
regular undergraduate course, it is also a separate faculty. This means that
the Faculty of Archaeology has got a lot more autonomy to offer than other undergraduates
that are grouped together under ‘Social Sciences’ or ‘Humanities’. We have an
entire building to ourselves, although sometimes we have to share it with some
Biology students, whose labs are placed in our building. The Van
Steenis-building that we are in, is relatively new, as the old building could
not house the increasing number of Archaeology students any longer. Good to see
that there are more people coming to Leiden to study Archaeology, isn’t it?
During my four weeks here, I understood that many lectures
at the University of Highlands and Islands can be followed and listened to via
an online connection, because many students live away from Orkney College UHI.
In The Netherlands, it happens a bit differently. Many lectures have obligatory
attendance, with the consequence of not being allowed to sit the exam if the
attendance is not met. Some lectures get recorded, but these recordings are
meant as repetition of the lecture, not as replacement.
One similarity between the University of Leiden and UHI is
that all first-years are required to do a two-week field school. My field
school was a couple hundred metres away from the faculty, where the features of
a medieval house were found. It was very clayey soil, much different from the
loose silty soil and rocks at The Cairns. The methods of excavation were just
as different. Instead of trowelling, we were very often working with spades and
shovels and not much was left from the house itself. Our main clues were
features, not neatly placed rocks. After having had that kind of field school,
The Cairns was a bit of a surprise. But a good one, of course!
To be honest, it feels a bit weird to know that everything is getting covered up. No more trowelling, no more lifting rocks, no more sticking your finds up in the air in victory… After four weeks of work, I have grown fond of the site (and all right, the people were fun as well!). It almost feels like I have no choice but to return to The Cairns next year. Who’s with me?
Thanks to Leiden University student, Mickey Van Lit
Unbelievably the digging season is nearly at an end at The Cairns. It only seems a few days since we started! This blog post is written by Holly Young who is about to start her MSc with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
As the season begins to draw to a close and our thoughts inevitably start turning to the mountain of tyres and tarps that need to be moved back onto site to put it to rest for another year, digging work on site is also being wrapped up.
With the haar rolling in across Windwick Bay, the day began with the final site tour for the team where we got to look at the results of the last four weeks’ hard work and ask any remaining questions about the developments that have occurred.
The rest of the day was spent sprucing up the archaeology for
final photographs and recording.
In the broch, Therese, Connor, Calum and Mika have been
removing deposits around the primary hearth in the NW quadrant, where a large
plan has been drawn that includes the newly revealed substantial paving. Our
resident soil wizard, Jo, finished up with her quadrant of beautifully coloured
deposits in the SE room, and Alanis photographed the results of her sampling
work in the NE quadrant.
Down in Trench Q, Bobby and his team of eager students and
volunteers have been doing final digging, cleaning and recording of the various
areas across the ‘broch village’. Many areas of the rubble are still giving up
finds, including evidence of metalworking, various animal bones and stone
tools. Bobby has also been spending his tea-breaks providing us with astounding
aerial shots of the site with his drone.
Up in the SW area of the site, Rick and Jen have been
polishing off the final pieces of recording. This area of site has been getting
progressively more complex with new areas of building popping up and new
insights into the substantial terrace that was dug to make way for the
construction of the broch coming to light. The portion of the large ditch
surrounding the site, which is present in this area, has been blessing its
diggers with a large number of finds, including a localised area rich in animal
bones and shell which has been very carefully excavated over the last few
Rick and Bobby have also been putting the various students
through their paces across the last few weeks, with various workshops to help
build up their archaeological skills. Today, they’ve continued planning various
areas across Trench Q and the SW extension.
Now, to task. I am here to draw to attention to the
activities that have been taking place in the souterrain this year.
For those of you who are not familiar with these enigmatic
structures, souterrains are subterranean passageways, the uses of which are
massively up for contention. Whether they be for storage or ritual, or several
uses that don’t even occur to us, these buildings remain shrouded in mystery.
We have been methodically sampling the possible floor
deposits in the formerly-roofed portion of the souterrain, the large roof
lintels of which were removed in 2016. In similar fashion to the sampling
taking place in the broch, we have been removing contexts on a 50cm grid, for
everything from finds recovery to the chemical breakdown of the individual
soils in an attempt to understand the kinds of things people were using the
Several things from the sampling are worth noting. The first
is that, in the southern section of the grid, a series of greasy deposits have
been excavated, including one that was quite a vivid orange colour. These
deposits are significant as it may shed light on the activities that were
taking place in the souterrain and around this section of the souterrain roof.
Above these deposits, the large roof lintels were positioned in such a fashion
as to leave a gap, above which were broken fragments of rotary quern-stones and
a ‘stone box’ filled with winkle shells. There is a possibility that some kind
of liquid was being strained through these shells, gently pouring into the
souterrain and being absorbed into the soil. In relation to this, a small cache
of the same species of shell was found tucked in a small deposit flush against
the souterrain wall.
Now, in the final sampling stages (as is always the norm
whenever the end of dig season is nigh!), just as we begin the closing down the
site, some deposits of interest have begun to be revealed. The lower fills of
this area of the souterrain contain fairly substantial rubble, some of which
may possibly be associated with earlier buildings that were part of the broch
village. The people constructing the souterrain built through these earlier broch-related
structures, sometimes incorporating useful pieces of masonry, sometimes smashing
through others, continuing the theme of reuse of earlier structures that is so
common throughout the Iron Age in Orkney, and appears to hold a huge amount of
significance for the inhabitants of this site.
Finally, the sampling grid has been extended in the last week
to cover the portion of the souterrain passage and chamber that was created by
the reuse of the broch entrance way. This strategy will be utilised across the
next few seasons to draw all the information from across the different areas of
the souterrain together to create a coherent story.
And, so, onto the shutting down of the site, which seems to
have arrived far more quickly than any of us would like. Putting the site to
bed is always a stark reminder that we’re a whole year away from getting stuck
in once again.
Thanks to Holly Young, MSc. Archaeological Practice student to be…
Hello again to the Cairns followers – it doesn’t seem a year since I was last here on site, and writing once more for the blog! I’m Jo McKenzie, a research geoarchaeologist with the University of Bradford and currently one of the small team working inside the broch as we go into the last couple of days of the excavation.
This is the third year that I’ve been one of the visiting specialists at the Cairns, and as always it’s been amazing to see the development of the excavation and how much changes as – especially for me – we progress through the deposits preserved in the broch interior.
As a geoarchaeologist, my focus is using a range of archaeological science techniques to investigate the soil deposits on site. At Cairns, my analyses will hopefully help us understand the very important floor surfaces which are now exposed in almost all areas inside the broch. I’m using a technique called soil micromorphology to enable us to look at the floors in a way we can’t using traditional excavation methods. Small blocks of deposit are carefully removed, using a metal tin so that they remain undisturbed. Resin is poured into these blocks and hardened, allowing a microscope slide to be made through a ‘slice’ of the floor surface.
Under the microscope,
we can examine in detail what often prove to be many, many more deposits that
can be seen with the naked eye. This technique is a powerful tool for
understanding how the floor surface deposits form and the microscopic
information they contain – fuel residues, bone, plant residues and other
pointers to human activity, as well as a whole range of indicators for
environmental conditions on site and how these have changed through time.
This year at the Cairns however, it’s been a case of less sampling and more trowelling, as it becomes clear that we’re getting closer to what could be the absolute primary surfaces within the broch – a crucial stage and one that it’s so important to get right. All samples are meaningless without understanding their archaeological context, and so this year I’ve mainly been within the so-far largely unexcavated south east quadrant of the broch, carefully cleaning the complex activity surface we can now see there, doing some head scratching, and making comparisons between the sequence of hearths, floors and features we see in this quadrant and those of the other areas of the interior, so that we can plan the next stage of our sampling strategy. Roll on next year, and once again, so many thanks to Martin and the rest of the Cairns team for a week of the most amazing archaeology!