Archaeology The Cairns Dig Diary 2017

The Cairns Day Fourteen 2017

Henrik excavating the upper ditch fills
Henrik excavating the upper ditch fills

A quick update from me, Martin. Even though we had a slightly shorter day today, curtailed by the rain in the afternoon, we managed to make good progress and work across all areas of the site was illuminating and very intriguing!

Over in the Southwest extension, the ditch continues to surprise and delight. So far the ditch fills have been rich in pottery, shell-midden, bronze objects, and today seems to have been the day of the animal bone. Masses of animal bones have been coming to light today. These included large portions of cattle skulls, pig skull fragments and lots of other large bones, especially cattle, and red deer.

Just one of the trays of animal bone recovered from the ditch today
Just one of the trays of animal bone recovered from the ditch

Ditches are frequently rich reservoirs of information about day-to-day life as they do seem to have been filled up with the daily detritus, however, they also seem to have been fairly strictly organised in terms of what exactly is allowed to enter them, and at what point in the circumference of the enclosure. This has been seen in the ditches dug at other Iron Age sites, where certain types of animals, or even certain portions of animals, where deposited in certain ponts around the ditch, and ultimately it will be interesting to see if the patterns of deposition seen at The Cairns are in any way similar to those other places. What’s more this animal bone will be very interesting in terms of insights into diet and even affluence.

Antler-working debris from Trench Q
Antler-working debris from Trench Q

Inside the broch itself, the team have been continuing to excavate later occupation deposits (we think dating to around the mid 2nd Century AD). They have been investigating one particular concentration of black, carbon rich soil in the middle of the Western half of the broch. When this black charcoal soil was excavated and packed into sample boxes it revealed a large, heavily cracked and heat affected slab underneath. It looks fairly certain that this has been a big hearth base slab set up late in the use of the broch. Even more intriguingly we think we can see the tip of an edge set, upright stone peeping out from under this big slab, and this may turn out to be part of another even more substantial hearth setting. Maybe there’s a really big lovely formal hearth awaiting us. We’ll find out and let you know over the next couple of days.

The large heat affected haerth base in the broch under excavation today
The large heat affected hearth base in the broch under excavation

Another very interesting discovery in the broch today was made by Alex when he was cleaning over a surface near to the wall-face on the southwest side. The greater part of a cat carcass emerged. This is highly interesting in its own right, however, we have previously found a cat skeleton on site, last season, and it appeared to have been laid out in a formal way to mark the construction of one of our non-broch Iron Age buildings, (Structure B2). Several Orcadian Iron Age sites have yielded evidence for such feline deposition (including Howe, near Stromness), and so we shall have to see if this cat too is part of some kind of ‘structured’, i.e intentional deposit.

Elsewhere on site, the routine work of cleaning back over ashy midden in Trench Q continues to reveal fragments of masonry and other stony features that will surely turn out to be parts of the village surrounding the broch. In the souterrain Mary and Gary have restarted the work of excavating the soils within our underground passageway today, and time will tell what is in them. So far a lot of animal bone has come out of the souterrain and the soils look rich and ashy.

Trench Q before the rain toay
Trench Q before the rain today

Now, finally, a reminder that if you are in Orkney tomorrow (Friday the 30th of June), and you are able to join us then please do come down to site for our main open day of the season. We’ll be hosting guided tours of the structures and features on site, and showing some of the amazing finds from this year’s excavations. Please do join us if you are able. We are on site from 10am, but if you visit between the hours of 11.00am and 3.30pm then you will see the dig in action.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.