Archaeology The Cairns

The Cairns – June 21st


Students studying at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute join the team at The Cairns.

MSc Archaeological Practice student, Jasmin Park is overseeing the sampling process – looking for environmental evidence of farming and other domestic processes. Jasmin writes…..

The day shaped up to have pleasant weather, with a few bottles of sun cream hopefully making their way out. With everyone in good spirits, the day got off to a good start.

Work continues in Trench Q, trying to peel back the layers and reveal the theorised Iron Age village beneath. It is a lengthy process to gradually take down the level of the trench, but ultimately worth it when you see the excellent level of excavation being carried out by students and volunteers.

Inside the broch, progress continues.The row of orthostats in the south quadrant of the structure have finished being cleaned, with Colin and myself recording and photographing them before excavation in this part of the broch continued.

Helen and Val continued to excavate the floor deposits around the newly found passageway within the broch and came across an interesting discovery.


Within a potential hearth, a large stone slab had been laid flat, though not burnt, and large animal bones – such as five sheep scapula, or shoulder blades, bovine vertebrae, and several sheep metatarsals, or lower leg bones – were all placed around the edge of this feature.

In the final hour of the day – in true last-minute Time Team style – during the next stage of excavation in the south quadrant, I came across a rather large animal bone nestled among the orthostats. A fuller picture will hopefully be found as the excavation continues.

My own role on site, as a placement student for my Masters Course, is to oversee the sampling process and keep an eye out for potential improvements.

Sampling is very important when conducting an excavation as it allows us to find environmental evidence, such as seeds and other fragments of domestic materials, which would otherwise be easily overlooked.


However, it is also important to examine the soil itself as its makeup and miniscule contents can tell us a much wider story.

We are able to identify materials such as fuel residues and midden (domestic waste) material when examining soils. The presence of these things can show us that a community was trying to improve the land upon which they thrived and what they were using to do so.

It is also important to sample in the right way when excavating any archaeological site, and, indeed, each case can require a different method.

Initially, it is highly important to sample thoroughly, still excavating carefully but saving your spoil instead of discarding it. Secondly, we must identify whether it is appropriate to split an area up into smaller sections to sample.

For example, within the broch, when sampling the rich floor deposits, a grid has been mapped out. This is so that we can both lift the entire deposit and do so in a more spatially controlled way.

Hopefully, the lovely weather will continue and many more interesting finds made over the course of the week.

Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and Orkneyjar