Kirkwall Garden Dig 2016

Get Involved in the Kirkwall Garden Dig. 4th-8th August 2016 in Kirkwall Town Centre.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are teaming up with Scotland’s Urban Past to bring together an archaeological extravanganza to Kirkwall Town Centre.

  • 6 garden digs in Kirkwall Town Centre
  • Visit one of the digs in the BBC Radio Orkney Garden
  • Take part in community archaeology workshops in the town centre and learn excavation and building archaeology skills
  • Become an’Urban Detective’ and contribute to the nationwide archaeological record with the Scotlands’s Urban Past team
  • All welcome, free event, accompanied children also welcome to take part

The Kirkwall Garden Dig project is part of The Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative Archaeology Programme ‘Discover Hidden Kirkwall’. This community archaeology initiative has already uncovered parts of the medieval shoreline of the town in a previous excavation held in May 2016.

Garden Dig 2016 Post456

The Kirkwall Garden Dig 2016 will increase our knowledge of the rich heritage present in the town by helping local residents dig five test trenches in their garden and get hands on with history in data gathering workshops for local volunteers.

Local archaeology volunteers will be trained to investigate and record Kirkwall’s history as ‘Urban Detectives’ by Scotland’s Urban Past – a nationwide community engagement project from Historic Environment Scotland and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The sheme invites local people to contribute to Canmore, the national record of architecture, archaeology and industry and one one Scotland’s national collections.

Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, says, ” The Archaeology Institute are thrilled to be teaming up with the Scotland’s Urban Past team to bring an extravaganza of archaeology to Kirkwall. It’s great to offer training in both archaeological excavation and building survey and we hope that Kirkwall residents will get involved.”

Chiara Ronchini, Project Manager Scotland’s Urban Past, adds,”During the Kirkwall Garden Dig, we’ll be running free training sessions to members of the public to give them the skills to record the history on thier doorstep. Participants will have the opportunity to learn about the built environment of Kirkwall through observation and interpretation of its buildings. We encourage volunteers to join our team and become Urban Detectives, investigating and recording Kirkwall’s unique heritage.

Participants will learn how to recognise and identify architectural features and to record them for posterity and submit their findings for inclusion in Canmore.

While most of the garden digs themselves will be on private land and inaccessible to the public, Kirkwall’s residents and visitors are invited to see an archaeology dig in action at the BBC Radio Orkney Garden. This excavation will be open to the public from 9.30am to 5.00pm on the 4th August to 8th August 2016. Drop-in training sessions for ‘Urban Detective’ volunteers will run from 10.00am to 12.00pm on Friday 5th, Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th August.

The research questions which the Garden Dig hopes to address include the following:

  1. What is the location, character and depth of the former shoreline and piers to the west of the town centre (between Broad Street and Junction Road)?
  2. Is there any evidence for the former occupation, land-use and activities within the historic core of Kirkwall?
  3. What is the nature, date and potential of any such archaeological evidence?
  4. What is the nature of the material used in the process of land reclamation along the shoreline in the Post-medieval Period?
  5. What is the character and history of the built heritage surrounding each test pit site?

To find out more or volunteer to become an ‘Urban Detective’ email or ring 01856 569225.

To find out more about Scotland’s Urban Past visit:


The Kirkwall Garden Dig is supported by:

Marine Archaeology Course, Orkney

Remote Sensing Survey

Nautical Archaeology Society MAC Introduction to Side Scan Sonar Survey course. Orkney. Scotland.

  • 2 day course
  • 24th and 25th September 2016
  • Stromness, Orkney
  • Cost £249

This two day course is organised by ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology) and provides an overview of Side Scan Sonar surveying and the application of remote sensing in archaeological surveys.

Students will gain practical experience of designing, completing and interpreting Side Scan Sonar surveys in one of the most exciting marine archaeology environments in the UK. Click through to the Scapa Flow Historic Wreck website for details of the wrecks present around Orkney’s coastline.

This course is suitable for professionals wishing to undertake continuing professional development or for those interested in the remote sensing aspect of marine archaeology.

For more information or to book your place on the course, contact Sandra Henry or ring 01856 569225


Student Life @ The Ness

It is a strength of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute that students are given the opportunity to dig at sites such as The Ness of Brodgar.

Studying archaeology at the UHI Archaeology Institute means that, not only can you study at one of the colleges across Northern Scotland, but you also are given the opportunity to work on some of the most exciting archaeology projects in Northern Europe….be that The Ness of Brodgar, The Cairns, Swandro, Kirkwall THI, Smerquoy or innovative collaborations such as the Yesnaby Art and Archaeology Research Project. That means getting your hands dirty, getting some on site experience and putting it all into context….

Kyle Roscoe, a BA Archaeology and Scottish History undergraduate studying through The University of the Highlands and Islands Perth Campus takes up the story……

“In the beginning, studying to become an archaeologist seemed like a perilous journey and, to us first years, the end goal can sometimes seem unobtainable. So far, the path seemed paved only with jargon-filled textbooks cemented to the ground with sleep rubbed from the tired eyes of last-minute essay writers.

However, as our time here at the Ness draws to close, that goal appears so much closer.

It has reminded us who study on the Scottish mainland of the benefits of studying archaeology through UHI. The Ness is unrivalled in its importance to understanding prehistory, but more so in the perseverance of its outstanding team of professionals and volunteers. I have never seen so many people smiling while being battered with icy cold rain as I have in this past fortnight.

These past two weeks have brought life and personalities to those characters we see over VC every Wednesday, brought understanding to the diagrams in Renfrew and Bahn and most of all inspired us to shrug off any doubts we maybe had about a future in archaeology.

Through field school we have absorbed so many skills, from excavation to flotation, from planning to recording and from living with complete strangers to entering a beer-drinking competition with them and still making it in on time in the morning!

When you come to the Ness, you immediately get a sense of the overwhelming capabilities of what prehistoric peoples could achieve, and I think being thrown into the deep end quite like we have, has given us the ability to picture the possibilities of what we could achieve and has set our bars pretty high for the future. While this fortnight has truly been an enlightening experience, unfortunately as quickly as we stuck our trowels in the ground for the first time we’re hanging them up for another year of studies.

I’d like to thank everyone at the Ness for making this experience one to remember and I really hope we can all come back and do it all again.”

For more information on archaeology courses available at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute click through to

The Artist and the Archaeologist

GPS day 1

The wild landscape of Orkney lends itself well to collaboration. When the winds whistle across the sea, you soon find out that working with your neighbour is a good way to conduct your life.

In fact, collaboration seems to come naturally in such an environment. And so in this vein Dr James Moore, an archaeologist working at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, and Rik Hammond a visual artist resident in Orkney, came together to devise an innovative programme combining art and archaeology.

The Yesnaby Art and Archaeology Research Project (YAARP) was thus created…melding together the principles of both archaeology and art in order to bring the archaeological landscape of Orkney to life.

The project is in its second year and aims to explore the development of the archaeological landscape of Yesnaby and to consider the ways in which the environment can be interpreted and represented using a range of methods…from the traditional to the experimental. The main area of study this year centres on the area around East Bigging in Yesnaby, West Mainland, Orkney and runs from 18th July to 29th July.

This area of Orkney is particularly interesting in terms of landscape archaeology as there is evidence of human activity from the Bronze Age all the way through to the Second World War. This project will investigate, through the use of gephysics, field walking and test pitting, the evolving landscape of Yesnaby.

Each day during field work the team are presented with one of a series of ‘Provocations and Interventions’ to undertake collectively. One of these creative challenges involved a member of the project team gathering GPS data while they worked on an archaeology project during the day. Each track was shown on a map and in effect the process of undertaking archaeology created art (see the photograph above).

James and Rik take up the story by outlining their first day…..”Seven members of the fieldwork team assembled on Day One at the UHI Archaeology Institute at Orkney College for the fieldwork briefing and equipment check, before heading out to the area around East Bigging/Pickabigging in Yesnaby – the main focus of our landscape survey this season. After parking up and introducing ourselves to the neighbours, team members donned wearable GPS receivers and opened our first ‘Provocations & Interventions’ envelope – a daily task/instruction unknown to the wider team, randomly chosen, which today suggested two team members focus on recording audio and video in the landscape. Sarah Jane chose the video camera and Holly the iPad, and spent the day recording.

We then walked the perimeter of our primary survey area – a couple of fields and an enclosure totalling roughly 8 hectares – orienting ourselves within the immediate landscape, in addition to going through a project health and safety checklist, before breaking for lunch. We shared a packet of biscuits for pudding – and began a daily biscuit scoring chart (expertly drawn out on our portable chalkboard by Holly). Today’s ‘Rainbow Cookies’ didn’t score as well as we first hoped, despite their promising packaging! Will tomorrow’s fare better?

After lunch James instructed the team in the setup of the Trimble GPS (which is used to accurately map out a grid across the fields prior to geophysical survey) as the rain became heavier. We eventually abandoned the field a little early – as the rain was clearly not about to stop any time soon – and the team headed home to dry out and prepare for day 2.”


Check out for more information on this innovative project.

Photograph by Rik Hammond

Supported by Orkney Islands Council’s Culture Fund.

Ness of Brodgar Open Day

1607310821 Ness open daysThe Open Day at The Ness of Brodgar are now finalised:

  • Venue: The Ness of Brodgar Archaeological Excavation and Stenness School
  • Date:Sunday 21st August
  • Time: 11am – 4pm. Last tour at 3.30pm.
  • Continuous tours and demonstrations
  • Refreshments available in Stenness Hall

Activities at the Ness site itself include:

  • Dry-stone walling
  • Stone and colour
  • Pot making
  • Flint knapping
  • Wood working
  • The new Ness of Brodgar jewellery range from Ola Gorie
  • Big Raffle with the main prize of a pendant from the Ola Gorie new jewellery range
  • Orkney Archaeology Society shop
  • Guides and finds

Activities at Stenness School include:

  • Stone tools and rocks
  • Animal bones including “Invent an animal”
  • Willow work
  • Stone felting
  • Wash off Neolithic tattoos
  • Shell jewellery extravaganza for all ages!
  • Community Cafe

Parking is available in the field and at the school as usual. The car park now has a covering of hard core which makes parking a lot easier. Signposting will guide you from the Ness of Brodgar to Stenness School.

I’m sorry, but we can’t cater for coach and mini bus parties and any groups larger than 8 people.


Kids Archaeology Club – Swandro and Skaill

Throughout July, the international team working on the digs at Swandro and Skaill on the island of Rousay, Orkney, have been getting youngsters involved in archaeology.

It has been a great success with parents and children from the mainland as well as local children trying their hand  at archaeology. This week the children had great fun making and decorating Viking pottery, examining Viking artefacts and learning new skills by digging a small test pit.

“I have some pictures from today. It was fantastic. We all loved it.Thank you so much.” Susan and her 2 children.

This Sunday 24h July is the Swandro and Skaill Archaeology Open Day, when not only will the whole site be open to the public, but there will be chances to get involved. The Viking bone carver, Valgar Ketilson will also be on site to help everyone get hands on with the past!

Swandro Open day



Swandro and Skaill Open Day – Sunday 24th July

The international team excavating the eroding archaeological site at Swandro and the Viking Farmstead at Skaill on the Orkney island of Rousay are holding an exciting open day on 24th July 2016.

Everyone is welcome and transport will be available from Rousay ferry terminal for those who travel across as foot passengers (Ring us at 01856 569225 so that we can meet you at Rousay Ferry Pier).

The details are as follows:

  • Venue: Swandro and Skaill archaeology excavations
  • Sunday 24th July
  • 11am – 4.30pm
  • “Living Archaeology” activities
  • Meet Valgar Ketilson, the Viking bone carver and get hands on with the past
  • Site tours around the archaeology excavations
  • Guided walk along the Westness Walk
  • Artefact displays
  • Ferry from Tingwall at 11.55am. Return 5.30pm. Travel as a foot passenger.

Swandro Open day

Background to the Excavations

Julie Bond and Steve Dockrill of the University of Bradford write…….The Knowe of Swandro on the Orcadian Island of Rousay, consists of a mound  which is situated immediately behind a boulder beach on the Bay of Swandro. On its eastern flank is the Norse settlement site known as Westness, excavated by the Norwegian archaeologist Sigrid Kaland in the 1970’s (Kaland 1993). Described by RCAHMS in 1946 as ‘the much disturbed remains of a stony mound’, this knowe has generally been considered to be the remains of an Iron Age broch. At the top of the mound a crescent-shaped wall or ridge faces towards the sea, which looked like the disturbed remains of a curving wall, surrounding an area which had large tumbled stones visible in the grass. Ordnance Survey records suggested it had been investigated at some point in the past but there is no published record.  The mound may have been disturbed during Radford’s investigation of the nearby Westness Norse houses in the 1950’s or 60’s.

Amended map2aAs part of the Gateway to the Atlantic Project a number of coastal erosion sites were selected for investigation on the Island of Rousay. Due to the vulnerability of the remains at Swandro, work has concentrated on the investigation of this site. This research builds on the site and landscape studies undertaken at Tofts Ness, Sanday (1984-8 by Dockrill), Old Scatness and Jarlshof (1995-2006) in Shetland by Dockrill & Bond and the Viking Unst (2006-8) project by Bond.


The Key Questions

  1. What is the extent of the Iron Age settlement and how does this change over time? The understanding of the Iron Age settlement in cultural and economic terms by the excavation and sampling of these sites will provide a current and informed understanding for people living on Rousay in the Iron Age and how this changes over time.
  2. What is the association with the Norse settlement and how does this inform on the question of the Pictish/Viking cultures? The taking of existing estates by Scandinavian settlers is still a contentious issue in terms of its nature and date. Only with more detailed excavation will it be possible to gain an insight into this important transition on what increasingly seems to be a vital site for this transition period.
  3. What is the potential of the Chambered Cairn in providing new data to complement the burial monuments excavated previously in Orkney? The site has the potential to establish the relationship of this monument form to the later Iron Age settlement, a phenomenon observed at a number of sites in Orkney, as well as providing a unique opportunity to investigate the construction of the mound due to the erosion.
  4. The investigation of this eroding site takes place within a research framework, which also demonstrates the relevance of the disappearing record. The long settlement history or “biography” revealed by the erosion enables the study of human behaviour in this particular place through major changes in culture, climate and environment.

The Work so Far

A number of set upright stones were just visible among the pebbles on the beach in 2010. Subsequent excavation indicated archaeological survival on the beach below the erosion face that forms the boundary between land and high water. The presence of these deposits and their subsequent investigation has completely changed our understanding of this enigmatic mound. Initial clearance of the overlying beach material revealed the remains of an Iron Age structure. This was confirmed by an AMS radiocarbon date of 25BC-AD130 at 95% confidence for carbonized barley from a midden, which sealed flagging in one of the compartments. Work in 2012 enabled the nature of the erosion to be more fully understood indicating significant archaeological survival and potential. The sea had created terraces or steps within the archaeological mound, with each of these eroded scars being covered by re-deposited beach material.

In 2012 on the north western side of the cleared archaeological surface the remains of a substantial outer wall forming the arc of a large circular building seemed to form the continuation of a crescent shaped ridge at the top of the mound and it was thought at first to be the outer wall of a large roundhouse of broch proportions. However the presence of a series of stepped concentric outer wall-faces containing a rubble core suggests that the mound represents a Neolithic chambered cairn.

Work in 2013 also concentrated on the continuation of the site south east of the mound. Investigation in 2014 has demonstrated a Pictish phase, indicated by cellular structures built within the infilled remains of more substantial Iron Age structures which themselves show there is a continuation of the site on the foreshore and under the boulder beach. The truncated remains of the Norse Hall clearly overlie this Pictish/Late Iron Age settlement. Excavation at Swandro in 2014 also clearly indicated that the top of the mound forming the Neolithic Chambered Cairn had been partially robbed of stone in the Iron Age and infilled with Late Iron Age (Pictish) midden.

On the seaward area of the beach under the boulders the truncated building (Structure 1) was further investigated. Midden was found to continue to seaward but is clearly being affected by tidal action; deposits of midden located by coring in the intertidal zone in 2011 have now disappeared.

Work on the beach in 2014 concentrated on the excavation of the later Iron Age (Pictish) elements of the site. Excavation revealed a complexity of structural development with building forms found to be nested in earlier, larger structures. The sea had partially destroyed both sets of buildings. The truncations were cleaned as sections, sampled and recorded.  The part-excavation of one of these later truncated buildings (Structure 2) in 2014 saw the sampling of floor surfaces down to the primary flag floor. The excavation and sampling of the infill of a third building form revealed the presence of slag and crucible material suggesting copper alloy working. A broken flagstone within a floor surface of one structure proved to be a capstone to a well. The well was accessed by steps and corbelled on three sides, with clay bonding present in the lower part; it is still filled by a freshwater spring.

The remains of a spring fed Iron Age well showing the steps down to the water.


Excavation in 2015 continued to define the partially eroded structures on the beach and the excavation of the Pictish building (within the extension started in 2014). The passage to the chambered cairn was identified and the upper fill contained evidence of Viking Age activity with the finding of a coin of EANRED (King of Northumbria in the first half of the ninth century AD). Gareth Williams (in discussion of this find and within a Northern Isles context) was happy to see this as being a Viking Age deposition. The upper part of the beach containing the eroded buildings was recorded with both photogrammetry and 3D laser scanning.

The storm beach area containing the chambered cairn, which had been recorded in 2012, was re-examined in 2015 to identify and record the effect and damage caused by the sea since the site had been carefully covered and re-packed with beach cobbles. The tomb revetment demonstrated that heightened wave activity over the intervening winters had shifted deposits and revealed one of the lower revetment stones before clearance. Once uncovered, this area was cleaned and recorded using digital imaging and 3 dimensional scanning. It is worth noting that the cairn has suffered greatly from the effects of erosion in the intervening years, with much of the lower (seaward) circuit of the outer casement wall and the packing contained by it having been removed by the sea. Several of the large blocks from this lower revetment have been torn out and have completely disappeared. The water level at high tide regularly comes to this outer part of the tomb. The large stones that remain were angular when recorded in 2012 and now show significant smoothing by the action of the sea and movement of smaller beach material.

Finally….The erosion is rapid; midden deposits found during an examination of the beach at low tide in 2011 have been completely destroyed by the sea. The sea is actively destroying the eastern part of the site under the earthwork remains of the Norse houses; stonework still survives but most of the sediments and midden deposits have been washed away and the front stones of the remaining features show battering and wear