Community Archaeology in Orkney- Fieldwalking Starts Soon

Early Bronze Age arrowhead discovered by Chris Gee while field walking in the World Heritage Site Buffer Zone, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have secured funding from Orkney Archaeology Society and Historic Environment Scotland for this year’s community fieldwalking project.

Organised by Dan Lee and Chris Gee, they will be building on the success of the 2016 Orkney World Heritage Site Buffer Zone fieldwalking project in which over 2000 finds were located, recorded and catalogued by archaeology volunteers. Last year, significant scatters of flint, pottery and cramp were found, including stand-out finds such as flint knives, WWII material and decorated pottery.

9-zoom-using-the-gps-on-field-1The project will commence in the next few weeks (dependant on the weather) and will concentrate on fields in the Ring of Brodgar and Maes Howe area, and wider buffer zone which extends either side of the lochs.

If you wish to participate in the fieldwalking and acquire training then contact Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, on

We ask that participants are local to Orkney as dates and sites can change at short notice due to farm activity, weather and other issues outside of our control.

Thanks to Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS)  and Historic Environment Scotland (HES) for grant funding to undertake the fieldwalking.

fieldwalking-poster-080317-page-001There is also a talk being held on Wednesday 8th March by members of the 2016 fieldwalking team at 7.30pm in Stenness Hall. All are welcome and it is free to enter.

Bring along your finds for a show and tell.

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

A Walk Through Time in the Rousay Landscape

img_0980To me, an element of archaeology is about inspiring individuals to consider how people lived in the past….and perhaps reflect on the way we live today.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute welcomes and encourages involvement from people outside academia and we receive many comments from people across the world.

Sometimes we also receive written articles outlining people’s experiences of archaeology landscapes and how they perceive and interact with them. 

A few days ago, a story arrived in my inbox from a resident of Orkney who visited the archaeologically rich island of Rousay and was so inspired by the landscape that she committed her thoughts to paper. I’ve put in links to Historic Environment Scotland web pages on the sites mentioned, but I’ll let Bernie take up the story in her own words…..

“I’ve called this tale, ‘A Walk Through Time’, and I’ll start at the beginning……………..of the tale, not of time!

mid-howeFirst, we visited Mid Howe Chambered Cairn.  You park, by the roadside, and walk down, across the fields, to a big shed!  It’s a slightly strange set-up; a huge, Neolithic cairn, enclosed in a huge, modern, shed!

When inside, and faced with the monument, for some reason, you get the impression of a ship.  I think that this has been mentioned before, by other people.  Maybe it’s the shape, and the way the interior is divided up, like ‘below’ on a ship.  A magnificent monument, but, maybe because of the shed, there is something sad about it.  Boats always look wrong, indoors, even if it’s the best way to preserve them.  They’re meant to be outside, preferably on the water.

We then visited the Mid Howe Broch.  This is an impressive, and appealing structure.  Brochs are understood to have been defensive structures, though maybe not so much actually, actively defensive – more a case of saying “We’re here.  We’re strong.  Don’t mess with us.”  If a people, or a person, gives out that message, often, actual defence, isn’t needed!

This broch, has a good, domestic feel to it.  You can imagine the people, living there, going about their daily business.  This site to me is a family place. I liked it and it’s wonderfully well built.

img_0972And now, we head off on the actual walk.  This is the part of the Walk Through Time, which particularly appealed to me.  Basically, you walk along the coast, from Mid Howe Cairn, through an area called Westness.  What I love about this area is……………you can tell by the place, that the land has been cared for, for a very long time.  Worked, but not worked until it was tired out.  Worked, cared for, fed, tilled, considered.  You can feel it, in the land, and see it, as you look around you.  It’s not worked, now, but the centuries of care, are still evident there.  It appeals to my land-loving, farming ancestry soul.

Then, you come to a little group of buildings and again, the feeling of care is strong.  A group of people, living closely, helping each other out, ‘keeping an eye’.  Probably arguing, too – only human! Working together, working the land, the sea and the little brewing kiln!

I’m not trying to paint an idyllic picture, here.  It will have been a hard life.  My parent’s families were farming in the West of Ireland, in much the same way as these folk.  I remember visiting my Auntie Bridie and Uncle Anthony, in my mother’s family home.  A two room, thatched cottage, with no piped water and no electricity.  They lived there, raised a family of five and worked their farm (what would be called a croft in Orkney), right up until the early 1970’s when they had a new house built in the top field.  The old house became a cow-shed.  A bit hard to take after all those generations caring for it and loving it as home.  But re-use of buildings was not uncommon down the ages and was very necessary, when your resources were limited.

img_0994There’s a lot of archaeological investigation being done along here at the present time by a combination of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the University of Bradford and the University of York (see the Swandro Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust).  As in many places the sea is encroaching and land and sites of historical interest and significance are being lost.  The archaeologists are hoping to record as much as possible to help to place some more pieces in the puzzle before even more is lost to the sea.

The world has been changing for a long time, is changing and will continue to change.  It seems a shame to lose these places, but in the whole scheme of things, it’s just what is so.  And other places are appearing, such as the Ness of Brodgar and the ever-increasing number of sites around Wideford and the Bay of Firth.

Taversoe Tuick is a strange, unique, intriguing little place.  The cairn itself is a little gem.  Getting to it was very difficult.  The land surrounding the monument was very difficult to walk over and it was a matter of leaping from tussock to tussock.

Back to the cairn.  It’s built on two levels, which is unusual.  It also has an off-shoot – an extra little chamber, lying just outside the main cairn.

We recently attended a seminar at Orkney College UHI, where Julie Gibson ( County Archaeologist) mentioned that there is a small ‘channel’ linking this side-cell, to the main cairn.  If sounds are made in the side-cell they can be heard in the main cairn.  All very interesting.

My Walk Through Time on Rousay was a delight, a wonder and provided a slice of human life – even in the pouring rain!”

Diving on the German High Seas Fleet Scrap Sites – Scapa Flow, Orkney

Last Friday marine archaeologists from Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and colleagues from SULA Diving completed a dive on the German High Seas Fleet scrap sites.

Under a clearing blue sky, the team sailed out into Scapa Flow, Orkney on board the MV Halton to complete the second phase of the German High Seas Fleet Scrap Sites project.

Concentrating on sites located through side scan sonar survey completed in phase one, the archaeologists recorded and documented extensive remains of the First World War fleet that still lie on the seabed. The conditions underwater were perfect and visibility was good, allowing the divers to take some excellent photographs and video footage while recording and surveying the wreckage left behind following the inter-war salvage efforts on the scuttled German High Seas Fleet.


Archival research will shed further light on the debris itself and will identify from which ships the wreckage originated.

rpa_0682The salvaging of the German High Seas Fleet in the 1920s-40s raised battleships, battlecruisers and destroyers from the seabed for scrapping at dockyard sites further south such as Rosyth. Today the remains of these ships and their associated salvage lie on the seabed, continuing to tell the story of the High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, and providing an exciting and interesting heritage resource.

The project is designed to showcase the significant wreckage of the scrap sites of the German High Seas Fleet and was conducted on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland.

All photographs copyright UHI Archaeology Institute and courtesy of Bob Anderson.

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NAS Foreshore Recorder and Surveyor Short Course – Enrolling Now

Orkney has attracted seafaring activity over a long period of time-in both war and peace. The foreshore and intertidal zone around the islands are therefore littered with maritime archaeological remains of ships and equipment.

This NAS short course offers the opportunity to learn how to record and survey remains of our important maritime heritage on the beaches and intertidal zones around Orkney. 

The University of the Highlands and Islands together with the Nautical Archaeology Society are now enrolling students for a 2-day marine archaeology course: Foreshore Recorder and Surveyor Days.

  • Duration: 2 Days
  • Time: 9.00 am to 5.00/6.30 pm
  • Venue: Orkney
  • Dates: 1st and 2nd April 2017
  • Tutor: Sandra Henry, Mark Littlewood
  • Cost: £120
  • Qualification: The Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) Foreshore Recorder and Surveyor Day

The cost excludes accommodation.

This two-day course is aimed at anyone interested in maritime archaeology and heritage. Participants will directly contribute to the understanding of Orkney past landscapes and ongoing monitoring of the wartime heritage in Scapa Flow.

Participants in the course will:

  • Learn about the factors involved in planning archaeological work and projects
  • Understand how to conduct a 2D survey
  • Learn how to set out and position-fix a grid (site dependant)
  • Understand how to use a planning frame
  • Produce a 2D survey that can be used for further project planning.

To reserve a place please contact:

  • Sandra Henry, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1LX.
  • E-mail:
  • Tel: 01856 569225


Nautical Arch Soc logo

German High Seas Fleet Scrap Site Survey in Scapa Flow

sdrThis weekend, to a wintery backdrop, maritime archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and colleagues from SULA Diving continued a high-resolution side scan sonar survey of Scapa Flow.

The project is designed to showcase the significant wreckage of the scrap sites of the German High Seas Fleet and was conducted on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland.


Mast and searchlight platform from an unknown ship

The salvaging of the German High Seas Fleet in the 1920s-40s raised battleships, battlecruisers and destroyers from the seabed scrapping at dockyard sites further south such as Rosyth. Today the remains of these ships and their associated salvage lie on the seabed, continuing to tell the story of the High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, and providing an exciting and interesting heritage resource.


Analysis of the sonar data will be undertaken to identify what is present on the seabed and from which ships. Archival research and diver ground truthing are assisting in this phase of the project.

A University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Side Scan Sonar course is now enrolling for 18th and 19th March. The course is being held in Shetland. More details available from


The Mystery of Iron Age Burials


The research by Dr Mary Macleod Rivett raised several questions from a number of people on social media, concerning burial in Iron Age Britain generally and more specifically the significance of the face down burial.

The following is a brief synopsis of a conversation between Mary Macleod Rivett and Martin Carruthers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and raises some interesting points about the role of the dead in Iron Age society. 

In terms of Iron Age face-down burials, I’m not aware of very many.  There’s one adult male from the in-fill of a souterrain at Bu, near Stromness in Orkney where he was buried on his front with his hands apparently behind him, head slightly tilted to one side.  He was also accompanied by a further half a dozen or so human individuals, in the same souterrain back-fill, of a range of sexes and ages, including some quite young children.  I wouldn’t want to jump to any sinister conclusion about what this configuration means, but it is interesting that the in-fill of the souterrain also seems to have been one of the final acts during the Iron Age period on this particular site.  It’s probably different from the burial described by Mary Macleod, I would suggest, as it doesn’t carry the same formality and the fascinating grave goods.

I suppose one of the things that is often thought to limit what we can say about burials from this period is that there are so relatively few of them (and traces of human remains more generally) and therefore it’s very uncertain how representative any of the burials actually are, in terms of a ‘normal’ or normative burial tradition as such.  The Early and Middle Iron Age burials that have been found are very diverse in terms of the treatment of the deceased.  There are inhumations like this one, cremations, semi-articulated portions of bodies, and completely disarticulated pieces of human bone (like the jaw found at The Cairns recently).

There are even pieces of modified human bone like the pierced femur heads from some sites where they seem to have been used as spindle whorls, or the pierced skull plates that seem to have been hung on strings for display.

And although there have been more Iron Age burials discovered in recent years, most regions of the UK (except parts of East Yorkshire, or the South East) still stubbornly refuse to give up anything like the volume of burials that we know must have gone with the relatively large population size during the Iron Age.

We still have a very long way to go to start putting these burials in a better contextual understanding.  However, that does actually mean that each and every new Iron Age period burial is very significant as they are such a relatively rare resource for understanding the treatment of the dead during the period.

Mary adds, “I also dug a prone, male, IA burial (no C14 date) several years ago at A’Cheardach Ruadh, Baile Sear, North Uist, but the body there had a twisted spine (scoliosis), and there may have been practical reasons for that one…”

Sounds like a good subject for a PhD!!!


Always Visible-How Lewis Archaeology shows Enduring Love of the Land

Mary Macleod Rivett carefully excavates the unique iron bracelet from beside the Iron Age woman’s skull.

Dr Mary Macleod Rivett from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute talks about her research in the Outer Hebrides.

An Iron Age woman buried beneath the fragile, sandy turf of the Isle of Lewis is helping to provide some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the deep bond between ancient Scottish islanders and their homeland, according to a paper soon to be published.

Illustration showing the grave site with the skeleton of an Iron Age woman. Credit: Alan Braby.

Dr Mary Macleod Rivett, an archaeologist at the Stornoway Campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), is one of the senior researchers at the UHI Archaeology Institute. Her new paper uses four decades of research to map thousands of years of local movement on Barvas machair, on the west side of Lewis. In a comparatively small space bounded by sea, rivers and today’s main road to Stornoway, people from Neolithic times onwards have chosen to make homes and fields alongside the reassuring physical evidence of how their predecessors lived. For many generations, she says, ‘the past was always visible in the present’.

“Even nowadays, when you drive along the road, you see the remains of two or three houses on each plot – a new home, an old, empty house and maybe the ruin of a blackhouse now being used as a byre. People have always re-used the remains of older buildings as a resource, but also for the sentimental attachments and memories they carry. That blackhouse could be ‘where Granny lived’ – and that was just as true in the past.

“Machair is really fragile and subject to active erosion. Prehistoric folk could always see earlier buildings, burials and field walls. They could see the past all around them and even when people moved – say in the middle Bronze Age when a homestead moved by just 300 metres – they still re-used the early Bronze Age site and buried their dead in it. They had the same kind of sentimental attachments and memories that we have nowadays.”

The burial of an Iron Age woman, excavated by Dr Macleod Rivett in 2001, provides a poignant demonstration of the way in which early people honoured their dead, valued their landscape and acknowledged their own continuing survival. The grave was particularly carefully constructed and lined with matched local stones. The woman lay face downwards – highly unusual in any era – and alongside her head was a beautifully worked iron bracelet with bronze embellishments, the only such find in Scotland. While working on the excavation with the support of the local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), alongside volunteers from the Barvas and Brue Comunn Eachdraidh (historical society) and with professional archaeologists, Dr Macleod Rivett came to know the Iron Age woman very well.

“She was a big strong woman – tall for her time at 5’ 6”, well-muscled and quite young. She was buried sometime between 212 – 387 AD, at least 1,600 years ago, and her burial has been carefully made. As well as the beautiful bracelet which was buried with her, and the well-crafted grave itself, the burial was covered in a cairn of pretty, pale-coloured beach pebbles, each no bigger than could be carried in one hand, and each brought from up to a kilometre away, at the shore. I think she was an important person to her local community – they put a lot of effort into making this a nice grave close to an earlier house, which is evidence of the feelings and memories of the people, their own references back to their past.”

Illustration detailing the fine ornamentation on the iron bracelet. Credit: Marion O’Neil

Dr Macleod Rivett’s full report pieces together research from field-walking finds to the results of detailed excavations. The community which she studies, Barvas or Barabhas in Scottish Gaelic, sits on the distinctive machair landscape, unique to the Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland, particularly along the western shores of Outer Hebridean islands like Lewis. In these areas wind-blown shell-sand mingles with peaty soil at the edge of blanket-bog to create a narrow area of fertile land, intensively used throughout human history to support settlement and food production. With the riches of the sea on one hand, good grazing for livestock and productive land for crops, machair has offered security to small communities over thousands of years.

“We must remember that agricultural people worked outside all the time, so that for them ‘home’ was not a narrow space within walls, but an attachment to the wider land. For them, and for island people right up to my grandparents’ time, home was the whole of what they could see. When you work the land and are dependent on it, you come to know the different resources within it in a very intimate way. Wherever they moved their fields and houses, this whole landscape was their home.”

Barabhas Machair: Surveys of an Eroding Sandscape, by Dr Macleod Rivett and co-authors Trevor Cowie, the late Mark Elliott and Torben Ballin, reviews survey work starting from 1978. Stone structures, burials, middens, tools and weapons show almost 3,500 years of human presence, from 2000BC to the transitional period of the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Western Isles was handed over from Norse to Scottish rule. The Iron Age woman was not the only valuable discovery – Beaker pottery in a house dated to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age is one of very few such finds worldwide, and descendants re-used the ruined home as a cemetery many years later, with crouched burials of later Bronze Age date.

Together with old map evidence, and visible bumps of protruding stone and worked land, the whole area speaks of greater riches still to be found. But on the machair time, erosion and climate change are the enemies. Dr Macleod Rivett says: “Sites may appear and disappear within days or, in extreme conditions, hours. The machair was subject to innumerable gales and storms during the research period, including a catastrophic hurricane in January 2005.” Another storm could expose a new glimpse into the ancient past of Barvas, or destroy evidence for good. More discoveries in the same small area could yet be made, but historic continuity is a Scottish island strength. The present day village of Barvas continues to quietly co-exist with the stones, field lines and ruins of a community that’s both historic and alive,  where ‘the past is always visible in the present.’