New Research-Finding Ancient Harbours on Papa Westray, Orkney


It is well known that Orkney is open to the elements and is battered by storms during the winter months. Activity, even now, is governed by the weather and harbours have been and are an important element in Orcadian life.

If you visit or indeed live in Orkney you will notice the well known archaeological sites, but you may not notice the traces of human activity in the intertidal zone-the shoreline exposed between high and low tide. If you do stop and look at the mud and sand, you may just notice stones curving out towards the sea. These could be landing places or sheltering places for ships; used by Orcadians over the centuries to protect their vessels from storms.


New research by Edward Pollard, Julie Gibson and Mark Littlewood explores the intriguing ‘ayre’ or spit harbour complex at Weelie’s Taing on the Orkney Island of Papa Westray.

The study revealed a previously unknown type of harbour since identified in several locations around Orkney. Situated in exposed environmental situations, shelter is formed by an ‘ayre’-a type of spit that encloses a loch-and which has been used historically as a landing place or crossing of the inter-tidal zone.

journal-of-maritime-archaeology-copyA complex landing area, pier, tower (which could be defensive or a sheep fort) and ship-blockage suggest Weelie’s Taing was used as a harbour. Important fishing grounds exploited since the Neolithic are nearby, and Papa Westray was the site of water-focussed religious communities.

It is suggested that Weelie’s Taing was in use in the medieval period when Papa Westray was less isolated than today.

This project on medieval harbours and landing places is being taken forward by an expanded team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Sula Diving that includes work on some underwater ballast piles off Gairsay (the home of the notorious Viking pirate Swein Asleifarson).

The full paper is available to view online in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology

The project was funded by Orkney Islands Council Archaeological Fund.

To find out more about Papa Westray then visit the Papay Development Trust website. There is also an excellent video taken from the shortest scheduled flight in the UK.

Orkney World Heritage Site Fieldwalking Exhibition Planned

Preparations for a new exhibition at Orkney Museum showing finds from the 2016 Orkney World Heritage Site Fieldwalking Project are underway.

The overall project provided hands-on training and memorable experiences in field archaeology to the local community through a fieldwalking project in the landscape of Orkney’s World Heritage Site at Maes Howe and Brodgar, Mainland Orkney.

4-chris-mark-in-the-rainThe project was organised to run throughout 2016 using a series of workshops and events designed to teach people about the practice of archaeological fieldwalking, the processes that occur after fieldwork and how to present the results in a presentation, more traditional report format and museum exhibition. The weather wasn’t always kind-the volunteers experienced archaeology in rain, sun and occasionally hail- but everyone enjoyed the experience.

Throughout, the main aim of the project was to involve members of the local community and generate internationally significant research in a World Heritage area and thereby contribute to the wider understanding of these sites and present the results themselves in an exhibition at Orkney Museum in early 2017.

flint2I have really enjoyed learning more about stone tools and flints from the highly knowledgeable staff and others involved in this project and meeting new people who share my interest in the pre-history of Orkney. Fieldwalking in the Orkney winter is not for those who like to be cosy and dry or who are unfit but I found it a strangely pleasurable experience and once I had begun to recognise flint lying on the soil surface, field walking became very addictive!

If I had to pick one highlight it would be finding my first flint tool – beginners luck! It is thrilling to hold something that was last held by one of our Neolithic ancestors 5000 years ago. Helen Aiton

In total, quite a haul was collected from 26 fields!

  • 1633 pieces of pottery
  • 414 glass fragments
  • 66 flint tools and fragments
  • 11 stone tools
  • 53 pieces of iron debris
  • 305 cramp (fuel ash slag) deposits
  • 12 broken clay pipes

Thanks to Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS) who were awarded grant aid funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund Sharing Heritage scheme to undertake a fieldwalking project within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site Buffer Zone (HONO WHS), West Mainland, Orkney.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were commissioned by OAS to undertake professional services for the project, including the fieldwork, training workshops and post-excavation.

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

CHAT 2016 Conference Videos Go Live

The Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference hosted by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in Kirkwall was a great success. Now the papers are available as video presentations.

The theme was Rurality and the papers are now publicly available on YouTube via the Recording Archaeology channel. The videos and playlists are searchable, and the links for each session are below:

The original conference links:

Many thanks to Doug Rocks-Mcqueen and Ben Lewes of Landward Research Ltd for sponsorship and production of the videos, and to Recording Archaeology for hosting.

Island Archaeology on TV- What is the Attraction?

neil-oliver-chats-with-nick-about-developments-since-his-last-visitThe University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have been involved with several film productions this year including Digging For Britain on BBC4 and a major new documentary mini-series on BBC2 being screened in January…

So what is the attraction? There does seem to be a fashion for documentaries on island life including series on the Western Isles and Fair Isle recently being aired on TV, so there is a background to this sudden interest. Could it be the fact that these islands are at the forefront of research and development in many areas…..renewable technologies in Orkney, dare I say archaeology, ….and yet in other areas are still very traditional. Are they worlds in miniature? Or is the attraction of the remote and different way of life? It would be interesting to know what you think.

In any event and whatever the attraction, the BBC screened The Cairns excavation on 13th December 2016 when Martin Carruthers, Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, talked about the intriguing finds at this rich site. If you missed it then you can catch up using iPlayer. Just click the image below and it will take you through….available for the first 28 days in the UK.


The BBC were also filming at the Ness of Brodgar for six weeks during 2016 and we only have to wait a few more weeks to see the finished programme:

  • Episode 1: Monday 2nd January BBC2 at 9pm
  • Episode 2: Monday 9th January BBC2 at 9pm
  • Episode 3: Monday 16th January BBC2 at 9pm

The mini-series is entitled “Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney” and features the exciting research at the Ness of Brodgar, explores archaeology across the islands, includes experimental archaeology investigating how the Orcadians could have moved huge blocks of stone, studies the intriguing geology of the area and reveals the DNA secrets of the Orkney vole.

The series is presented by Neil Oliver, Andy Torbet, Chris Packham and Dr Shini Somara.

The BBC website link is here.

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

“Glow in the ArchaeoDark” – History, Heritage and Archaeology events for 2017


The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are pleased to be teaming up with DigIt2017 for a World Heritage Day event in Orkney as part of the ‘Scotland in Six’ on 18th April 2017.

Visit Scotland has announced a unique event line-up for 2017 themed year: Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology set to inspire us to #facethepast

A Great Roman Bake-Off,  large scale projections of Viking imagery, a live archaeological dig of St Kilda in Minecraft and a colourful international weaving festival are just a few of the events lined up to make history in 2017.

With over one third of visitors drawn to Scotland for its history and culture, VisitScotland has hailed the 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology as an exciting opportunity to relive Scotland’s fascinating past through a range of events and activities.

A total of nine events – supported by a £300,000 Signature Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology Events Fund have been announced with more to be revealed in the coming weeks.

Highlights of the programme (which includes both brand new events and new programmes within existing events) include

  • a spectacular sound and light projection event at New Lanark World Heritage Site to bring to life the mill as it was in the heart of the Industrial Revolution (Shining Lives Project).
  • The Heart of Neolithic Orkney will “Glow in the ArchaeoDark” on World Heritage Day (18th April) with interactive storytelling, music, food and glow-in-the-dark paint (Scotland in Six Project).
  • A unique event in the Outer Hebrides will celebrate the islands’ rich South Asian history with music and art collaboration, exhibitions and performances (Purvai Project).

The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology Signature Event Programme:

Edinburgh Georgian Shadows 23 Feb – 26 March 2017 Edinburgh

Scotland in Six

18 April 2017

(World Heritage Day)


Including Orkney!

Tradfest Edinburgh 26 Apr –7 May 2017


Paisley’s International Festival of Weaving 1 & 2 July 2017


Purvai August 2017 Stornoway


Follow the Vikings Roadshow & Festival 2 & 3 September 2017

8 & 9 September 2017

Horsepower 9 September 2017 Falkirk
Mary Queen of Scots Festival September 2017 Kinross and Loch Leven
Shining Lives Autumn 2017 New Lanark World Heritage Site

The year also provides the opportunity to promote and celebrate a much wider programme of events celebrating Scotland’s history, heritage and archaeology. Partner events within the year include

Scot:Lands, which kicks off the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology celebrations on 1 January with an adventurous journey across Edinburgh’s Old Town

Celtic Connections (19 Jan – 5 Feb) –  the UK’s premier celebration of Celtic music.  And at the end of January, the national bard will come into focus with Robert Burns events celebrating the poet’s rich history.

In April (1-16) Edinburgh International Science Festival will celebrate Scotland’s Themed Year with Moments in Time – a family friendly outdoor installation, situated on the Mound featuring a series of iconic Scottish police boxes that will ‘transport’ visitors back in time to pivotal moments in Scotland’s scientific history.

Over the summer season, visitors and residents alike can soak up Scottish historical culture with the Festival of Museums (May), a major Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (June – Nov) and in August, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo will unite with the Scottish Diaspora to create a ‘Splash of Tartan’.

Scotland will be celebrating a number of significant anniversaries through the historical year including the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh as a world leading festival city (with early celebrations beginning at Edinburgh Hogmanay’s Midnight Moment), the 20th anniversary of Scottish Crannog Centre, 250th anniversary of Edinburgh New Town Plan, 30th anniversary of Beltane Fire Society and the 400th anniversary of the General Register of Sasines –the oldest public land register in the world.

The Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017 will begin on 1 January 2017 and end on 31 December 2017.  For more information, please visit: 


Death & Life at The Cairns-New Radiocarbon Dates.


Death and life at a broch: New radiocarbon dates at The Cairns site shed more light on rituals of living and dying during the Iron Age.

Newly acquired C-14 dates and a dietary assessment for a remarkable deposit of human remains discovered at The Cairns, an Iron Age broch site under excavation in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have given new insights into the nature of what was probably an act of closure at the end of the life of the broch.  Additionally, analysis has revealed some details of the life and death of the individual who is considered likely to be one of the occupants of the broch.


To recap: in July of this year excavations at the Iron Age period settlement site yielded a surprise discovery: a disarticulated human jaw.  It had been placed in the upper fill of a very large, carved whalebone vessel made from a substantial vertebra.  The vessel was resting against the outer wall-face of the broch near to its main entrance.

Also present within the whalebone container were the loosely articulated remains of three new-born lambs, and other animal bones.  Propped against the side of the whalebone vessel/container were two substantial red deer antlers placed upright, on-end.  These were shed antlers, and were both right-sided and therefore from two different animals.  On the opposite side of the container from the antlers, a very substantial saddle-quern had been placed snug against the base of the whalebone vessel.

Prior to the new dates, it had been considered possible that the human remains, which are thought to be male, might date to an earlier point than the actual deposit they were placed in.  This is because it has sometimes been suggested that Iron Age communities might be holding on to fragments of their ancestors, curating them as it were, in order to use them to add even more drama and significance to certain rituals performed at important times in the life of the community.   The new dates, however, make it more likely that the man died quite soon before the time that his jaw was deposited in the ground.

Time of death

The new radiocarbon dates show that the man died sometime between AD120 and AD240 in the latter part of what is conventionally termed the Scottish Atlantic Middle Iron Age.  As well as dating the human bone, one of the new-born lambs from the contents of the the-location-of-the-whalebone-vessel-and-human-jawbone-deposit-against-the-outer-wallface-of-the-brochwhalebone vessel was also dated.  This returned a date of AD89 to AD214.  The semi-articulated nature of the lamb bones means that this almost certainly conveys the time when the whalebone deposit was placed in the ground and is, therefore, an independent verification of the date for the human bone.  Thus, the dates largely overlap and this means that the human jaw probably did not represent a curated item, held over for a protracted period of time after death, before being finally deposited.  Instead, the date of the death of the man is of the same period as the last occupation of the broch itself before it was partly demolished and infilled with rubble, as indicated by previously obtained dates.  These were AD 84-210 and almost identical to the date range for the lamb bones!  This is also supported by the relative dating information obtained from our reading of the stratigraphy from the deposits.

It seems all the more likely that these human remains and the whalebone container etc., are indeed part of the measures taken to provide closure on the broch at the end of its use.  Essentially, these are an act of decommissioning, a ritual marking the end of the broch.

The life (and unusual diet) of the individual

It’s not possible to reveal a fulsome biography of the individual from his remains given that only the mandible bone was present.  A preliminary assessment of the human remains, however, is providing very useful insights into his lifestyle.  The study suggests that the jaw belongs to a person of some considerable age for the period, perhaps 50, but he may well be several decades older than that.  The individual is thought to be male, but it can be difficult to be certain of this given the basis of just a single bone.  The individual seems to have led an active working life judging by the condition of the teeth – only two were left! The jawbone had grown over most of the sockets of the missing teeth showing that these teeth had been lost during life.  This tooth loss may have been brought about partly through the individual using his mouth in the manner of a third hand, to tightly clamp materials, such as grasses and straw, whilst working on them with his hands, perhaps in making plant-fibre items such as bags and containers.  The teeth that did remain were quite substantially worn down, possibly from the activities just mentioned, but possibly also by the abrasive grit accidentally included in bread and bran products made with flour produced on sandstone grinding stones (querns) that have been frequently found on the site.

The analysis of the jaw also revealed more unusual aspects of the dead man’s diet.  The isotopic values of his bone chemistry showed that he had consumed a surprisingly high quantity of marine-derived protein (probably largely fish).  Most isotopic studies of human remains from the Middle Iron Age (the time of the brochs) tend to show very low or imperceptible levels of fish proteins in the human diet.  This might seem surprisingly counter-intuitive considering the fundamentally coastal, island nature of Iron Age Orkney, however, this lack of fish is also amplified by examination of on-site, Iron Age period middens, the rubbish heaps of food waste, which very rarely contain much in the way of fish at all.  For once, we have evidence of substantial fish consumption in a human from this period, and perhaps this feature of his diet is something that marks him as special, a particular category of person, perhaps even an important person.  We are, after all, very often reminded that we are what we eat!

This now makes events at the end of the broch, revealed during earlier seasons of excavation at The Cairns, all the more interesting.  A curious aspect of the late occupation looking-across-the-interior-of-the-brochdeposits excavated from inside the broch is that, unlike the majority of Middle Iron Age buildings, they did contain fairly substantial amounts of fish bone-strewn across one of the uppermost floor horizons, in a manner suggestive that lots of small fish being smoked inside the broch in a final episode of activity.  Is there some connection, then, between the dead man with his unusually high marine protein diet and these fish bones from inside the broch late in its occupation?  Further work on the human bone will be required to try to figure out if the marine contribution to his diet occurred throughout his life, or only at a certain point, or episodically, but the coincidence is intriguing, and also, perhaps, supports the suggestion that he is very much someone who was strongly associated with the broch.

It seems likely, then, that the man from The Cairns actually lived in the last half century, or so, of the main monumental phase of the broch before it went out of use.  When he was a young man, the monumental broch, and its surrounding settlement would still have been the paramount place in the landscape and was most likely a potent symbol of authority and order.  Indeed, it is very tempting to think that the man was himself a member of the broch household, and that by the time of his death, at least, was considered to be an important member of the community, perhaps an elder.  It may not be pushing this line of consideration too far to suggest the possibility that it was his death that occasioned the final abandonment and decommissioning of the broch.  There are plenty of examples in the ethnographic literature, from different cultures around the world, where the death of an important person, who had a significant association with a particular house, resulted in the end of that entire house as well.  Perhaps the death of the man from The Cairns was the final impetus required to end the broch in a period when perhaps its use and integrity had already been in decline for a time.  More analyses in the near future should add even more detail and fascinating new elements to this developing story of life and death during the Iron Age.

The site of The Cairns; the remarkable deposit of human remains and the whalebone vessel/deer antler deposit, will shortly feature in the Archaeology TV series: Digging for Britain.  The programme will be screened on Tuesday the 13th of December, at 9 pm, on BBC Four.


Martin Carruthers would like to thank Orkney Archaeology Society for funding the new radiocarbon dates.