Pictish Carved Stone Discovered in Orkney Cliff

The Pictish Cross Slab. Photo by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark

It has to be said that Orkney is an amazing place to study archaeology. It seems that every month, news of another discovery lands on my desk.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) with support from Historic Environment Scotland complete a delicate rescue mission to recover a rare Pictish Carved Stone from an eroding cliff face in East Orkney.

Erosion by the stormy sea surrounding Orkney is a tangible threat to coastal archaeological sites. This situation is brought home especially during the winter months when high tides and powerful winds combine to batter the coastline of these beautiful islands. However, sometimes these same waves, can reveal unique and important finds that have been lost to view for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Following one of these storms, Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, an archaeologist based in Orkney, was examining an area of the East Mainland coast that had been particularly hit during a south westerly gale and discovered something amazing – a stone that had been unearthed by the sea, projecting precariously out of the soft, cliff face. This stone, on closer examination, was different to the other rocks at the site – it had obviously been worked and designs were visible and clearly ancient.

A dragon motif tantalizingly peered out from the emerging stone slab and pointed to a possible Pictish (3rd-8th centuries AD) origin, but further examination was difficult due to the location. This carved stone was clearly significant and needed to be quickly recovered before the next forecast storms that were due to hit the following weekend.

The race was on. Nick Card, Senior Projects Manager at ORCA (University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute), contacted Historic Environment Scotland, who realizing the significance of the find offered funding support to investigate, remove and conserve the precious object.

The reverse side of the slab. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute.

When the carved stone was carefully lifted, the significance of the find was clear – a Pictish cross slab, probably dating from the enigmatic 8th Century, emerged as the soft sand fell away from the front face. The exquisite design had been weathered, but an intricately carved cross flanked by the dragon or beast was clear to see. On the reverse side another Pictish beast design stared out from the stone face – beak open grasping what looked like the remains of a staff.

Sean and Dave excavating the stone. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute.

Nick Card takes up the story,”Carved Pictish Type 2 Stones are rare across Scotland with only 2 of this type having been discovered in Orkney. This is therefore a significant find and allows us to examine a piece of art from a period when Orkney society was beginning to embrace Christianity. Now that the piece is recorded and removed from site, we can concentrate on conserving the delicate stone carving and perhaps re-evaluate the site itself.”

“The Orcadian coastline is an extremely dynamic environment, and it was clear that we needed to act quickly” says Dr Kirsty Owen, HES Senior Archaeology Manager. Because the stone has been properly excavated, we have a better chance of understanding how it relates to the development of the site.”

The excavation of the Pictish stone was undertaken with funding from the Historic Environment Scotland Archaeology Programme, which is primarily intended to rescue archaeological information in the face of unavoidable threats.

The stone is now removed from the site and is scheduled for conservation and possible display at a future date. The site may be re-evaluated with funding being sought for further work.

3D model link below. Thanks to Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

Many thanks must also be extended to the landowner.

CHAT conference was a great success

A big thank you to all those delegates who made the CHAT 2016 conference such a great success.

Last weekend saw the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute host CHAT 2016 (Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory) where 70 international delegates discussed a range of interdisciplinary papers from archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and artists – exploring archaeologies of rural places.

Delegates arrived from all points of the compass including the US, Canada, Netherlands, Australia, Greece, China, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, UK and of course Orkney.

35 papers were presented in addition to a varied programme of films, field trips, presentations, workshops and films including a world premier of Jasper Coppes’ new 16mm film `Flow Country` and Mark Jenkins film `The Imaginary Worlds of Scapa Flow`. A blog of the making of the film is also available here.

If you missed any of the papers or are interested in seeing the presentations, the conference has been filmed in collaboration with Landward Research Ltd and videos of the papers will be made available online soon.

Next year, CHAT will be held at The University of Amsterdam from 3rd-5th November 2017.

Abstracts of papers available here chat-2016-orkney-rurality-abstract-booklet-v1

“Many, many congratulations on organising a terrific event. I really enjoyed and valued the experience – much to think about” Delegate via e-mail.

“Thank you so much for a wonderfully lively trip to Orkney. Thanks for putting together such a well-curated conference. Everything fitted together perfectly. I have many highlights, from the inclusion of the journey which served to break down barriers on arrival as well as give a flavour of terrain, space, time; to the last session (Rural Futures) which I was so fortunate in chairing. I’d also highlight Jobbe Wijnen’s really striking paper on local resistance in his hometown to its selection as a the site of a refugee camp, the films and fringe, the fantastic field trip, wonderful new people  – and of course, reacquainting with old CHATters. So thanks Dan, and your team for a very special CHAT. And everyone else for bringing it together.” Sefryn Penrose (Chair, CHAT committee)

CHAT conference welcome!

Welcome to our 70 delegates for the CHAT 2016 conference!

We will be live tweeting throughout the event (#CHAT2016 @CHATArch) and posting on Facebook.

We are filming the event in collaboration with Landward Research Ltd and selected papers will be posted online in due course!

Conference information is here (registration is now closed, sorry!).

Field trips start today!





The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are teaming up with Caithness Broch Project and Orkney Archaeology Society to hold an extravaganza of all things “Broch” this October.

A one day event we are calling “Broch’toberfest” is to be held on Saturday 29th October, 11am to 2pm at St Magnus Centre Kirkwall, Orkney.  If you have an interest in archaeology, the Iron Age or Brochs then drop in for a few minutes or a few hours…you will be most welcome. Entry is free.

The programme is coming together and is looking exciting:

  • 11 -11.05am – Introduction and opening remarks
  • 11.05-11.30 – Excavating a Broch Household. Talk by Martin Carruthers, Site Director of The Cairns archaeological dig on South Ronaldsay
  • 11.30-11.50 – Discussion on Brochs and Iron Age Society
  • 11.50-12.20 – Lunchtime where there will be opportunities to roam around stalls, examine artefacts and talk to some of the archaeologists from the UHI and Caithness Broch Project. Light refreshments will be available including Broch Buns and Brochy Road (the puns keep coming), tea and coffee.
  • 12.20-12.45 – Tall Towers with Grass Roots. Talk by Kenny McElroy and Iain Maclean from the Caithness Broch Project. Brochs and archaeology of Caithness.
  • 12.45-1.05 – Discussion on Brochs and Contemporary Society
  • 1.05-1.30 – Stepping outside of the Circle:Exploring Iron Age Landscapes in Orkney. Talk by Amanda Brend and James Moore of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
  • 1.30-1.50 – Discussion on Broch Landscapes
  • 1.50-2pm – Concluding remarks, discussions and future direction

Timings are approximate and may change as the discussion develops.

Archaeology Festival Planned for Caithness


The Caithness Broch Project and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute team up to bring together a Festival of Archaeology.

There are more broch sites in Caithness than anywhere else in Scotland and yet few people outside of the archaeological community know about these massive, tower like Iron Age structures.

The Caithness Broch Project is a community led archaeological organisation which aims to promote the existence of broch sites, undertake community archaeology projects in Caithness and eventually re-create a replica broch as it would have appeared 2000 years ago.

If the funding required for the project is secured, the Caithness Broch Project and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will team up to organise The Caithness Broch Festival.  This will be a year-long programme of heritage and archaeology projects for 2017, focusing on exploring the broch sites of Caithness.

img_3608-hdr-1The Caithness Broch Festival will provide opportunities for local people and visitors to the area to engage with local archaeology – for many, their first opportunity to do so – whilst conducting significant archaeological research.

The Festival aims to provide members of the public with training in basic archaeological techniques and will give volunteers the opportunity to develop skills in project planning, archaeological survey, field-walking, finds recognition, finds cataloguing, GIS and reporting, as well as basic excavation techniques.

The overall aim is for these activities to develop a skilled and engaged group that can develop and sustain archaeological projects within the county. Participants will also contribute to the wider understand of broch sites in Caithness, landscapes and present the results in a temporary exhibition at Caithness Horizons Museum.

For more information follow Caithness Broch Project on twitter and facebook.

And look at their website. Photographs by Chris Sinclair.

Exploring Orkney’s Early harbours, Landing Places and Shipping

Volunteer divers will join a team of archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology in Gairsay on Sunday to start the second phase of an archaeological project to explore Orkney’s early maritime heritage.

The project involves a programme of marine survey fieldwork which will record early maritime sites, structures and artefacts in Orkney.  The recording of material remains, along with the use of historical, place name, ethnographic, cartographic and marine geophysical survey data sources, will help to preserve some of Orkney’s maritime cultural heritage.

This second phase of fieldwork will continue to concentrate on Gairsay, due to the presence of possible ballast mounds or collapsed jetty supports found in Milburn Bay during an earlier phase of the project. Other possible maritime features noted around the edge of the bay will also be investigated over the weekend. The marine archaeologists and volunteers are also hoping to find other maritime features as Milburn Bay has a recorded history of early maritime activity.

It is hoped this project will expand to other areas in Orkney, focusing to begin with on natural harbours with sediments (good for preservation) and involve outreach training, community work and link to other projects.

Being coastal, and in many cases situated directly on the foreshore, maritime sites and structures are most vulnerable to erosion and much information on maritime structures dating before the modern period has probably already been lost to the sea. There is therefore an urgent need for survey and fieldwork that  will help prevent further loss of information.

Thanks to Sula Diving for the video taken for Phase One of the Project.

ORCA staff, Paul Sharman, Senior Projects Manager and Sandra Henry, Marine Archaeologist, will be leading the project.


Investigating Evidence for multi-period Woodland Management – Ballygawley

Dr Scott Timpany from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Tim Mighall from Aberdeen University are to present a research paper at the UHI Staff and Student Research Conference on the 7th -9th November 2016.

Entitled, Investigating the evidence for woodland management from a multi-period Burnt Mound Complex, Ballygawley, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, the research paper explores the possibility of the local population managing the woodland for fuel.

Burnt mounds or ‘fulacht fiadh’ are a common feature in the Irish and British archaeological record, dating from the Neolithic to the medieval period (Ó Néill, 2009) and were widely used during the second millennium BC. They occur in various shapes and sizes. Crescent- or horseshoe-shaped burnt mounds are typical in Ireland but they can also be circular, oval and d-shaped varying in height and diameter (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2004).  Despite being ubiquitous, we know little about their function, with hypotheses varying from cooking, brewing, bathing, dyeing and textile processing together with butchery, sweat lodges and funerary and ritual practices.

This paper provides a summary of the palaeoenvironmental evidence from a complex of 23 burnt mounds excavated by Headland Archaeology Ltd, that have a chronology of activity ranging from the Neolithic to the medieval period at Ballygawley, Co. Tyrone. A range of different wooden trough styles and construction methods were found in association with the burnt mounds, which were located adjacent to a system of streams.

A range of palaeoenvironmental methods were employed to accompany the archaeological investigations including pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs, micro- and macroscopic charcoal, waterlogged worked wood analysis, insects and waterlogged and charred plant remains analysis. The focus of this paper will be on those methods directed at investigating possible woodland management to provide fuel for the burnt mound activity and wood for trough construction.

Pollen analysis provided both regional and local evidence for landscape change and including a ‘seesaw’ pattern of tree and shrub pollen immediately after and preceding a period of burnt mound use. This together with the macroscopic charcoal data and worked wood analysis, indicate possible species selection and management of the local woodland resource for fuelwood. Archaeological finds discovered including bone pins, an arrowhead and scrapers provided potential evidence for butchery and hide preparation practices associated with the burnt mound activity.