When is a cist, not a cist?


Some of the most significant finds in archaeology are not found by trained archaeologists, but by members of the public.

We know that there is so much archaeology to find on Orkney and one of the most exciting elements of being involved with the University of the Highlands and Archaeology Institute is taking a call from a member of the public who has spotted something interesting in a field, on the beach or eroding out of a shoreline.

And so, when Julie Gibson (County Archaeologist for Orkney) took a call saying that someone had identified a possible cist eroding out of the shoreline, we set off with ranging poles, trowel, camera, photograph, map and a set of sturdy boots to investigate.

DSC_0017The weather was perfect with the sun breaking through spring clouds and even Scapa Flow was mirror flat as we searched for the site. The area was not too distant from an identified early settlement site and a ship beaching point and so we were optimistic that perhaps the find was significant.

We soon identified the place from the description, map references and photograph and to all intents and purposes, it certainly did look like a burial cist – upright stones, set within peat in a rectangular shape. The feature was situated on the foreshore of Scapa Flow and was regularly inundated with water and so it could be a feature eroding out of the shoreline – as so much archaeology is so doing in Orkney.

Following a more detailed investigation of the area, it soon became evident that the feature was, in fact, a peculiar geological feature and not a cist as first suspected. But it could have been and it could have been an indicator of another important archaeological discovery in Orkney.

Many thanks to those people who take the time and effort to contact us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute when they come across finds and features in the landscape. Who knows, the next time the phone rings it could well be another Ness of Brodgar!