Archaeology The Cairns

The Cairns – June 20th


A warm welcome to our new colleagues, from around the world and from the diverse neighbourhoods of the UHI community, who joined us on this unusually sunny, late-spring day!

Our numbers doubled, with enthusiastic apprentices and veterans, to help unravel the challenging riddles of the broch and its multiple routes of descent down through the Iron Age into the early Medieval and Viking/Norse periods.

Strategy meeting inside the broch.

Early in the day, we came together for “rounds” to learn about where we are collectively and where we are going as the week unfolds.

It is miraculous how Martin’s sense of the relationships within the site transforms the initially chaotic jumble of stone into tentatively coherent structures.

They evolve one into the other over the more than thousand-year life cycle of this remarkable site. But the narrative is contingent and peppered with enigmas wrapped up in questions that are still to be answered.

Work inside the broch is going well. There is a better understanding of its internal divisions and preparations are under way to remove the remaining rubble, deposited in the broch at the end of its days, to provide a foundation for the post-broch hamlet.

The hamlet itself is becoming better defined as a wall is excavated to reveal greater coherence to its jumble of buildings on top of buildings.

Over at the post-broch souterrain, there were new developments.

Conan, Carolina and Niamh next to the 20th century pit, with its wooden planks still in place.

A sawn lumber platform was discovered in a pit, which we think was dug by the father of the current landowner during his exploration of the site in the mid-20th century. This might indicate the bottom is near, below which may be a storied pit.

The souterrain itself is slowly taking shape as its passageways are being better defined.

Down in Trench M, excavation continues on the metal workshop adjacent to a substantial wall that may have enclosed the Iron Age/early medieval community. Bog ore, slag from iron smelting, as well as the debris from copper/bronze work have become common.

As the current layer is removed more and move voids have appeared suggesting the presence of substantial rubble and hopefully important layers below this.

They may help unravel the story of the craftspeople who made pins and penannular brooches that likely defined the social status of the local elite.


Many of our new colleagues are focused on this year’s new trench, known as Trench Q, which is between the metal workshop and the broch.

It is anticipated that this trench will reveal an Iron Age village snug against the broch. As the work exposes the lower layers, this expectation will hopefully be realised later this week.

Once again, a warm welcome to those who joined us today on this remarkable project.

There were a number of interesting finds today, so I hope Martin can add a few pictures and words on this aspect of the work.

David MacInnes
M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student

Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and Orkneyjar