Every now and then something turns up on an dig that just connects me with a living person from thousands of years ago. The Cairns Character was unearthed a few years ago in South Ronaldsay and for me, living in South Ronaldsay, it immediately made a connection.
I have included photographs of the site where he (is he a he or a she ?) was found and I have especially included pictures that were taken on one of those short Orkney days in winter – when perhaps this character was carved. I can see in my minds eye, someone sitting by the fire 2000 years ago, surrounded by their family – perhaps with a howling gale knocking at the door – gently carving a stone found on the beach. There`s a nose and two eyes and a little crooked smile….it`s a piece that connects me personally with the living from the Iron Age and perhaps suggests they were not so different to us ?
We know very little about the character, and perhaps will never know, but we can perhaps paint a story from his discovery.
The character was discovered in a pit dug into the remains of the domestic building, Structure B. Lying to the north and north-west of the main trench, the Structure B complex contains cellular, rectilinear and sub-circular building remnants, with many well-preserved hearths, stone fixtures and fittings, thresholds, wall piers and floors.
This complex, Martin Carruthers from The Archaeology Institute University of the Highlands and Islands explained, was undoubtedly domestic, and produced artefacts consistent with this – substantial amounts of pottery, stone tools, and an extensive animal bone assemblage.
The stone head had been carefully deposited in a pit, along with a number of other artefacts, presumably at the end of the site’s life. We can only guess as to the carving’s purpose – was it intended to portray a spirit or god, or was it merely a cherished possession.
Martin explained: “One recurring aspect of this site is the fact that there’s a whole series of later features that have muddied the waters somewhat.On the one hand we’ve been able to piece together these really intimate details of life within these structures – the domestic artefacts, the metalworking etc, but at the same time the overall shape of some of the buildings remain obscure – obliterated through time and continual reuse.”
Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and the Orkneyjar website. Click here for more information on The Cairns and a link through to Orkneyjar
The excavation was supported by Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College UHI, the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership, Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) Aberdeen University and Glasgow University. The team would also like to thank the South Ronaldsay community and landowner Charlie Nicholson.