Gairsay Ballast Mounds – Flora and Fauna

Volunteer divers joined a team of archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology last month to start the second phase of an archaeological project to explore Orkney’s early maritime heritage.

The fieldwork concentrated on Milburn Bay on the small Orcadian island of  Gairsay. The volunteer divers not only discovered ballast mounds but in the clear water also filmed an astonishing array of flora and fauna.

The ballast mounds are colonised by a distinct assemblage of species that sets them apart from the surrounding seabed.  The most obvious constituent is the green alga Codium fragile, which grows abundantly on the mounds and less so in the surrounding area.  Its bright green, branched structure forms a dense canopy that adds to the sheltered habitat already provided among the ballast stones.  Sea squirts are also abundant on the mounds, particularly the large pink species

Its bright green, branched structure forms a dense canopy that adds to the sheltered habitat already provided among the ballast stones.  Sea squirts are also abundant on the mounds, particularly the large pink species Ascidia mentula, distinguished by the white spots around the lip of its inlet siphon. Numerous other species were present around and among the ballast stones, including the sea urchin (Echinus esculentus), green crabs (Carcinus maenus) and a variety of small juvenile fishes.

Thanks to Sula Diving. ORCA staff, Paul Sharman, Senior Projects Manager and Sandra Henry, Marine Archaeologist, are leading the project.


Ness of Brodgar Guide Book for Sale online

Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland
Photograph thanks to Jim Richardson

You may already know that the work at the Ness of Brodgar is supported by organisations including Orkney Islands Council, but a huge amount of money is raised through public donations, from people buying from the on-site shop, sponsoring a square or spending a few hours at one of the many other fundraising events.

I guess that this is one of the special things about the Ness of Brodgar-so many people make the excavation possible through their generosity in time and/or money.

One way in which you may want to help fund the excavation is to purchase a Ness of Brodgar Guide Book. This richly illustrated, 34 page book explains the history of the site in detail and looks at the work that is being completed at this important Neolithic Site. Costing just £6, this book makes an ideal stocking filler for those interested in archaeology.

The introductory paragraph to the guidebook introduces the Ness…..”Fifteen generations separate the early settlers on the Orkney archipelago from the architects of the Ness of Brodgar – an island centre that would endure for 60 generations. The last occupants left the Ness 4000 years ago and for 200 generations it has lain, forgotten, beneath the plough.”

Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland
Photograph thanks to Jim Richardson

Contents include:

  • The Ness Through Time
  • What is the Ness of Brodgar
  • Discovery and Excavation
  • The Ness in the Landscape
  • Monumental Buildings
  • Phenomenal Pottery
  • Mace Heads, Axes and Carved Stone Balls
  • Art of Stone
  • Structure 1
  • Structures 8 and 14 – Multiple Piers and Painted Walls
  • Structure 10 – 400 Head of Cattle
  • Structure 12 – Master Builders
  • Great Walls and Great Mounds
  • Who were the People of the Ness
  • The Big Questions
Book front cover.

The money raised goes directly to making the Ness of Brodgar work each year.

You can buy on-line through the Ness of Brodgar Trust website 

Many thanks.

New Evening Class now enrolling- Archaeology of the Highlands and Islands


The course will take students on a tour of the spectacular archaeological remains of the Highlands & Islands region, exploring the sites and landscapes of the past from the Neolithic to post-medieval periods.

Additionally, the course introduces the techniques, methods and concepts that archaeologists use to make sense of this rich past.  The teaching involves several members of the Archaeology Institute staff on a weekly basis to afford students the opportunity to hear from specialist expert researchers on the topics covered by each themed-session.

  • Meetings: 11
  • Cost: £110
  • Mondays 7-9pm
  • Room G4.02, Orkney College, Kirkwall
  • Start Date: 6th February

Additionally, the course introduces the techniques, methods and concepts whereby archaeologists make sense of this rich past.  The approach to the teaching is to involve several members of the Archaeology Institute staff on a weekly basis to afford students the opportunity to hear from specialist expert researchers on the topics covered by each themed session.

Class Details

  • Week 1 (6th Feb) Getting started
  • Week 2 (13th Feb) The Environment of the Highlands and Islands in the past
  • Week 3 (20th Feb) Ceremony and Ritual in the Third and Early Second Millennium BC
  • Week 4 (27th March) Understanding the Archaeological Record
  • Week 5 (6th March) The Bronze Age
  • Week 7 (13th March) Environmental Archaeology
  • Week 8 (20th March) Week 6 The Iron Age
  • Week 9 (27th March) Viking and Norse
  • Week 10 (3rd April) Medieval and Post-Medieval
  • Easter Holiday (2 weeks)
  • Week 11 (17th April) Archaeological Landscapes

Programme may be subject to change.

Contact Tina Brown at Orkney College, Telephone (01856) 569206 or e-mail for information or to reserve a place.

Ness of Brodgar Artist in Residence Video

The Ness of Brodgar artist in residence, Karen Wallis, was on site during the excavation of August 2016 and produced a collection of excellent images of people at work – some of which were showcased on the BBC News website in September.

Karen has now created a “work in progress” video. These images capture something of the atmosphere of the dig that perhaps photography alone cannot.

ness720 from Karen Wallis on Vimeo.

To find out more about Karen’s work then click through to her website.

They Graze on Wave and Ocean Plants

Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Philippa Ascough, Lecturer & Head NERC Radiocarbon Facility (East Kilbride) talk about their research into foddering strategies in island environments: pig, sheep, goat and cattle diet in Late Iron Age to Viking/Late Norse Orkney.

Within the archaeological literature, the Northern Isles of Scotland are typically seen as being at the limits of arable and pastoral farming.In these islands, the use of foreshore grazing and of seaweed as fodder from the Neolithic period onwards is often equated with marginality, a farming system under pressure, with animals reduced to foraging on the shore to obtain an adequate diet. Yet, today and in the recent past, livestock farming has been one of the mainstays of the economy of the islands, with the fertile coastal soils of Orkney in particular providing ideal grazing for cattle and sheep. Using Late Iron Age (LIA) to Viking (V) and Late Norse (LN) Orkney as a case study, and integrating zooarchaeological approaches with bone stable isotope analysis (carbon, δ13C, & nitrogen,δ15N) we explored the idea of pastoral farming at the margins through an analysis of the differing herding, foddering and grazing strategies employed for domestic livestock at Norse farmsteads of different size and status across the islands.  This forms part of a larger study into the resilience of LIA to Norse herding strategies in Orkney.

Map of Orkney showing sites used in this study

The method employed  a synthesis of zooarchaeological data (species representation, mortality profiles, palaepathological and metrical data)  from 16 sites spanning the Late Iron Age to Late Norse period in Orkney & Shetland3. Bone stable isotope analysis sampled collagen from sheep/goat (n=62), cattle (n=59) and pig (n=41) mandibles from selected sites (in bold Fig 2.1) using standard analytical approaches.

Zooarchaeological Results

  • Sheep and cattle dominated economy in LIA and Viking
  • Increasing evidence of specialisation in Late Norse (eg sheep at Snusgar, pig at Earls’ Bu and Brough of Birsay, cattle at Quoygrew)
  • Sheep: mixed meat, wool and milk in LIA; specialised strategies in Late Norse – meat at Earl’s Bu and Brough of Birsay; wool at Snusgar
  • Cattle: milk important throughout, but increased emphasis on dairying in Late Norse

Change in Foddering Strategies

Grazing/foddering was more opportunistic in earlier periods, including seaweed grazing by ovicaprines. In the Late Norse period,  there is greater consistency between sites, with terrestrial grazing emphasized and the feeding of some pigs on marine waste.


A shift in strategy is identified from LIA to Late Norse in both husbandry and diet which is interpreted as a move from subsistence farming to a system geared towards the production of specific products.  Coastal grazing and/or seaweed consumption is identified but in relatively few individuals, and does not suggest an acute level of resource scarcity for livestock as described, eg, in historical accounts for the Northern Isles.  Moreover, there is evidence from the stable isotope results both in this study and others. 3,5 of the use of supplementary fodders, such as hay or oats, which suggests well husbanded flocks and may reflect the fattening-up of livestock for consumption.   Likewise preliminary analysis of dental microwear in some of the sites examined here shows little evidence for overgrazing in either summer or winter culled animals.3  Overall, the impression is of a productive and well managed farming system during the Viking/Late Norse period. Although sample sizes are small, there is some suggestion that utilisation of marine resources for sheep may have been greater in the LIA.  Jones  et al. (2012)5 also report enriched δ13C in bone collagen in a wider range of Iron Age sites from Orkney, suggesting a more widespread use of seaweed and foreshore grazing by sheep herds at this time though again some variability is evident in the extent to which this resource was utilised.

Poster presented at the UHI Conference & the AEA conference in Orkney in April 2016. The poster also details the stable isotope results:



  • Amorosi et al. 1996. Env Arch 1, 41-54;
  • Balasse et al. 2009. Env Arch 14.1, 1-14;
  • Mainland et al. 2016. JAS Reports 6, 837-855;
  • Ascough et al., 2012, J. Arch. Sci. 39, 2261-2271;
  • Jones et al. 2012. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 26, 2399–2406.
  • aUHI Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands (
  • Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (

british-academyThis research was supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to Ingrid Mainland (2014-5). 

ØY Papay festival, Papa Westray, Orkney 18-20 Nov 2016

Dan Lee Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist is presenting findings from his research at a festival in Papa Westray, Orkney. More details below…

Archaeologists in Residence

Looking forward to the ØY Papay festival this weekend. You never know, there just might still be spaces to come along! Our talk is on Saturday afternoon:

Experimental mapping and place-marking as contemporary archaeology

This talk will discuss several recent creative archaeological projects that we have been involved in, focussing in particular upon the collaborative residency and mapping work we have undertaken in Papay. Through this we will present our approach to archaeology and explore the role of imagination, experimental practice and collaboration in our contemporary archaeologies of island places.

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Marking Identity in the Medieval Hebrides

Dun An Sticer, North Uist. Reconstruction copyright: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar & David Simon.

Dr. Mary MacLeod Rivett from the University of the Highlands and Islands Lews Castle College talks about her recent research concerning changes in 9th Century domestic and political life in the Outer Hebrides.

In the 9th century, incoming Scandinavians in the Outer Hebrides moved into a settled landscape at odds with their religious, ethnic and cultural identities. They named it, occupied it, managed and buried in it for over 450 years, until AD 1266, when at the Treaty of Perth the islands became part of Scotland. At both these points in time, in the 9th and the 13th centuries, changes in landscape, artefacts and architecture marked the political transition, but were underpinned also with real continuities, suggesting active manipulations of material culture to state and emphasise chosen identities in times of change.  This work highlights specific areas of these changes, in ceramics and in some aspects of architecture.

outer-hebridesThe 9th century saw a change throughout the Outer Hebrides from late Iron Age rounded architectural forms, to rectilinear building.  High status broch sites such as Dun Mhulan in South Uist (Parker Pearson 1999 , 196) and Beirgh in Lewis (Harding & Gilmour 2000, 14) were abandoned. Large, bow-sided halls of Scandinavian type were built near both these sites, reflecting a new political reality (Sharples 2005; Armit 1992).


The Treaty of Perth allowed Hebrideans to choose whether they remained or moved to Norway, ‘freely and in peace’. On the islands, after the 13th century, architecture changed again. Some brochs were reoccupied, for example Dun an Sticer in North Uist and Dun Mhulan (Parker Pearson et al. 2004, 90).  Smaller farms like Cille Pheadair in South Uist (ParkerPearson et al 2004, 137-144) and Barabhas in Lewis (MacLeod Rivett & Cowie, forthcoming) were abandoned, and the big, bow-sided hall at Bornais was replaced by a new, smaller building. The reoccupied brochs in particular referred back to a pre-Scandinavian past, reinforcing the Scottish identities of islanders, strengthening their links to the land they controlled, in the new cultural environment.

Inside the House

bornaisIdentity is more than architecture, though, and arguably life inside buildings says more about people’s perception of their own  identity.  Incoming Scandinavians, from largely a ceramic Norway, adopted the pottery technology of the prehistoric Hebrides, suggesting integration and continuity with local populations.

By the 11th century (Lane 2007, 12-3), the population were producing flat, pottery, baking platters (above), probably used to make hard bread of oats or rye – oat cakes or crispbread.  Analogous platters of soapstone were found across the whole North Atlantic in the areas of Scandinavian occupation.

After AD 1266, some households continued to use this type of pottery into the fourteenth century, for example at Bornais (Lane 2007, 13), a site which showed strong trade and cultural links to Norway throughout the 13th century (Parker Pearson et al. 2004, 144).  This indicates, unsurprisingly, that political change did not necessarily determine the identity that people chose to express privately, in a domestic context, through the food they prepared and ate, and that certain types of food may have been associated with familial identity, or wider perceptions of group identity (Diaz-Andreu et al. 2005, 105-6).

Identity in Times of Change

The expression of identity, overt or private, has the potential to become politically charged in times of change. Bringing together historical and archaeological sources, the 9th and 13th centuries in the Hebrides can be studied as periods of such change, when a population had to adapt rapidly to new realities of power.  Material culture was used in various contexts, at both these times, to signal accommodation with, and subversion of the changes imposed on the people living in the islands.

Maps copyright MacLeod Archaeology and Anne Campbell.

Reconstructions copyright Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and David Simon.