Archaeology Conference to Discuss Rural Areas

CHAT 2016 V1 Conference poster A4 WEB

Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) Conference

  • Date:     21st – 23rd October 2016
  • Venue: Orkney Theatre, Kirkwall
  • Theme: RURALITY

Archaeology Conference to Discuss Rural Areas from an Archaeological Perspective

The University of the Highlands and Island Archaeology Institute is hosting an exciting international conference this autumn and encourages Orkney Residents to register for the event.

In a world that is becoming increasingly urban – over 50% of the world’s population now live in an urban environment – archaeologies of the present and recent past have tended to overlook rural places. Hosting the conference in Orkney away from the usual metropolitan centres will offer the CHAT conference a chance to experience rural areas by situating itself within one. Orkney is both rural and island, and a microcosm for wider issues. In the past and present Orkney is a gateway, a crossroads and a hub, typified by recent renewable technology test sites.

The conference theme – Rurality – aims to explore the varied experiences of rural areas archaeologically, explore the social and political economies, landscapes and materialities of the recent past and present in rural areas and islands. How are different modes of movement and travel within urban areas expressed archaeologically? Is it still useful to think of distinct urban and rural areas, or as some would suggest; are we all urban now? How are rural areas orientated towards the future with renewable technologies and other innovations?

These are the questions that a multi-disciplinary group of archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and artists will discuss during the conference. Talks range from archaeologies of rural landscapes in St Kilda, Nova Scotia, and Greece, to the archaeology of rural protest and management of rapid change.

The conference runs from 21st to 23rd October 2016 at the Orkney Theatre in Kirkwall, Orkney. Registration is necessary and booking can be made online (£45 waged, £25 un-waged). There is also a day rate for Orkney Residents. For more information see , enquiries to .

Notes: CHAT is an annual conference which is held in a different place each year, with a different theme, with the aim of exploring archaeologies of the historical period and present. There is an overall standing committee, and each conference is organised and run by the host institution. See for more information.


Archaeology, Teaching and Learning for Class 6

Using archaeology to help teach school children is an important element in our outreach programme.

Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has been working with Glaitness School and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Rangers to integrate fieldwork into the Year 6 curriculum.

The project not only involved the study of archaeology, but also delved into biology by examining animal bones, art by using Neolithic rock art techniques, creative writing through listening to the stories associated with the site, a little science and of course  history and culture!

Neil Oliver from the BBC helping Year 6

The visit was designed to be integrated into the Year 6 curriculum – to include a programme of cross curricula learning experiences which would draw on the day. In effect the idea was to create an ongoing project which would utilise the resources available at the Archaeology Institute UHI. This is an ongoing project which the teachers and archaeologists will continue to develop as the term progresses.

The whole idea does not stop there….the pupils have used digital technology to publish their work by uploading to their own website blog. The project will develop as the children, with guidance from their teacher, add to the digital record of their learning.

But don’t take my word for it….click through to the Glaitness School blog and see for yourself..Glaitness School Year 6 blog

Making a Ness of Brodgar Carved Stone Ball



The lives of the people who built the Ness of Brodgar are surrounded in mystery. Research can help us develop theories about how they led their lives and perhaps how they organised their society, but some things will probably defy explanation for some time to come.

There have been many theories concerning the use of this carved stone ball found at the Ness, but of course we will probably never know for certain why it was carved. However we can propose how it was carved by making one, using the same tools as the Neolithic farmers; combined with a good eye for proportion!

And so Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute set out to remake a Ness of Brodgar carved stone ball using just stone tools and no complicated maths. Chipping away over a period of one week, Chris managed to make a perfect replica of a Ness carved stone ball. The pictures he took show the various stages in the process….


Chris writes….”This shows the various stages in the creation of a carved stone ball shaped only using other rocks found in Orkney. It is based on the Ness of Brodgar ball, particularly the arrangement of the six discs. Otherwise I have chosen to leave the discs fairly large with a sharper shoulders, and also chosen to include the effect of a smaller sphere which the discs sit upon. This can be seen in other carved stone balls. The rock is from an igneous trap dyke and was found on the shore near Skara Brae.”

At least one mystery is now solved….

For more information on the Ness of Brodgar click through to

Nick Card to Present at World Archaeology Congress – Kyoto, Japan


When Nick Card finishes work on one of the world’s most exciting Neolithic archaeological excavations, he is boarding a plane and flying to Japan to present to the World Archaeology Congress.

The paper is entitled The Ness of Brodgar – What can the past do for our future?…..examining the role that archaeology can play in the wider social and economic life of a community.

Nick writes…..Archaeology has always been the linchpin in Orkney’s tourism due to its range of iconic monuments. In recognition of its importance, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site was designated in 1999. This catalogue of outstanding archaeological sites was added to in 2004 with the discovery  of the site of the Ness of Brodgar. The Ness has subsequently grown to an internationally-recognised excavation, attracting thousands of visitors. The publicity generated not only benefits Orkney’s archaeology, but also Orkney’s wider economy. The Ness is used as a case study to show how the past can directly have relevance for today.

The congress paper is by invitation and is funded by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture.




Intriguing Structure Found in Trench T

Trench T
Trench T seen from South East

It is a given in archaeology, that the most perplexing finds are unearthed in the final stages of a dig. So, as the dig at Ness of Brodgar in Orkney started the final week, some of the most intriguing finds of the season started to be unearthed in a trench which goes under the title of ‘Trench T’.

This area of the site is not open to the public, but is part of a research programme to discover what lies beneath the largest Neolithic midden yet discovered in north Scotland.

The Ness of Brodgar site itself is no stranger to discoveries, with human remains, possible Neolithic seaweed, rock art and of course the structures themselves giving archaeologists many things to think about Neolithic society in the last few weeks. However, nothing prepared the site director Nick Card and supervisor Ben Chan for the discovery made this week in Trench T.

As digging progressed, the archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute became more and more excited. A structure unlike any other discovered so far at the Ness was emerging from the midden. It was huge being nearly 10 metres wide internally and of unknown length as it disappeared out of the trench, but the construction – the way it was built – seemed to be unique. Although the outer wall faces were constructed of fine, large masonry the inner wall faces were much rougher. However, these inner faces would have been hidden behind upright orthostats ‘cladding’ the interior. More amazing was the size of large prone orthostats that helped support the upright slabs and pinned them in place against the inner wall faces. The only one that has been fully exposed is over 4 metres in length, but there are others, only partially revealed that could be longer!

The excitement intensified as the archaeologists realised that this structure was probably built before the main structures present on the site and that it had been deliberately buried by the huge midden.

The mystery deepened as more questions were asked. Where do these huge stones originate? They have rounded edges that suggest they were weathered or worked in the same way that some of the standing stones at Stenness appear to be. They are smaller than the surviving nearby Watch Stone, but road widening in the 1920’s unearthed evidence for a twin for the Watch Stone. Could these two stones have been part of another stone circle that was mainly dismantled?

Trench T Close up
Close up of the orthostats in Trench T

Nick Card Site Director suggests, “The sheer size and scale of the stones unearthed are unprecedented on this site. The way the stones are built into the construction is also unique to the Ness. This all suggests that they may have been re-used and taken from elsewhere. Perhaps they may be part of a stone circle that pre-dates the main Ness site. It is all a bit of mystery and we won’t know more until we do more work.”

Other questions also remain unanswered for the moment. Was this structure roofed? If so then how was such a space spanned. Was this indeed, the first building on the site? What was it used for? Was it a chambered tomb? In any event it was clearly a special structure to the people who built it, but why was it covered in the largest Neolithic rubbish dump in Scotland?

As the digging season comes to a close it is a fact that these questions will only be answered through more research and more hard work next year.

Many thanks are due to James Robertson at who completed the drone photography and video work for free.

The Enigmatic Structure at Smerquoy

The excavation at Smerquoy had advanced a great deal since my last visit. A whole new trench had been completed. But before Colin Richards and Christopher Gee talked me through this enigmatic area, they guided me over to the back of the site. To an area where the earliest houses in Orkney were built during the Neolithic.

Standing in a deepening fog that was not being cleared by a high wind (Orkney is the only place I have lived where fog and high wind live quite happily together!) Colin pointed out the outline of a substantial house that had been built using clearly worked stone. There were two parts to the wall making up the house with a thicker wall appearing on the downslope side of the structure. To the back of the house there was a single wall which formed the wall cut into the hillside. These houses as discussed before were built on terraces cut into the hillside.

Close up of the worked stone present in one of the houses

The shape of the house was rectangular and was divided by a line of standing stones or orthostats. A dark patch of earth set within the house clearly showed the position of a domestic hearth; the damp conditions aiding our view of the different colours of the floor. However before we moved on, Colin and Chris explained that the house area had at one point been deliberately covered in glacial till, levelled and then re-used for non domestic purposes.

And then we examined the structure that is being a little difficult to interpret. One thing is for sure, it was not a house. It was also built later than the other early Neolithic houses on the site. The walls were oval in shape and very thick with an infill of clay, ash, stone debris and early Neolithic pottery. The structure could have a burial function, but until further work is completed it’s use will remain a mystery.

The mystery structure at Smerquoy

And finally…..The location of this site is quite dramatic; set on a hillside above the sea, but it is even more dramatic to my eyes when the weather is perhaps not as kind as it could be to the hard working archaeologists! A video clip showing the location of the site……on a foggy and windy  August day.

New Research – Trading Identities & Viking Horse Burials in Scotland

Sands of Gill and Pierowall Westray
Aerial photograph of Sands of Gill and Pierowall village, Westray, Orkney

New research by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute PhD student Siobhan Cooke, explores the use of animals, particularly horses, in Viking funerary rituals across Scotland. And how these rituals were used to help develop a cultural identity in the rapidly expanding Viking realm.

Trading Identities Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland
Distribution map of pagan Viking burials containing horse remains

There are over 130 known Viking pagan burials in Scotland. Approximately seven per cent of the pagan Viking graves known in Scotland contained horse remains. This research presents a brief summary of the traditional interpretations of horse remains in burials of this period and presents an alternative interpretation of these remains with particular reference to the Viking cemetery at Pierowall, Westray, Orkney Islands which is dated c. AD 850–950.

It is argued that the act of horse deposition at Pierowall should be understood in the wider social context of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Scottish Islands during the initial period of west-ward expansion and social and political upheaval. It is in this context that the act of horse burial performed a specific communication function which served to create and strengthen cultural allegiances with trading groups travelling from the Scandinavian Peninsula towards the western seaboard of Scotland, and into the Irish Sea.

Identities are fluid; rather than seeing identity as something people are
born with, it is now being considered as an aspect of social relations, something that is
learnt, that is adaptable and that can change over time depending on the ways and contexts
in which people interact (Jones 1997;2000; Lucy 2005: 86–87). It is through identity
that we perceive ourselves, and how others see us, as belonging to a particular group
and not another and being part of a group involves active engagement (Diaz Andreu &
Lucy 2005: 2). Animals can also be actors in social relationships, playing an active role in
the depiction of identity.

The full research paper can be downloaded from Trading Identities: Trading Identities Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland. A Pierowall Perspective