Archaeology The Cairns Dig Diary 2017

The Cairns Day Nineteen 2017

A new floor revealed in the bottom of a key-hole sondage by Jo
A new floor revealed in the bottom of the key-hole sondage by Jo

Today was the second last day on site. Despite the start of the process of covering up the site in earnest, we nevertheless still carried out some exciting work.

In the broch, yesterday’s blogger; Jo, continued to take special micromorphology samples from the floors. Working in the ‘central passageway’, which is a kind of corridor space that permitted the occupants to access several rooms set against the southern side of the broch, Jo was able to take a sample and reveal a lovely floor deposit underlying the dark, organic occupation deposits. This is really good news because it means that almost all of the areas that we have investigated floors across the whole of the eastern and central areas of the broch we have this fairly standard process of floor-making in evidence. What happens is that nice clean clay floors are laid down, presumably as a kind of beaten earth floor and then these floors are lived and worked upon. This human activity then produces detritus and organics that come to look like thick black charcoal rich deposits. These contain wonderfully rich sources of info’ about how people used the broch.

Not our lunchtime slice of chocolate cake, but a lovely soil block comprising many floor deposits sampled today
Not our lunchtime slice of chocolate cake, but a lovely soil block comprising many floor deposits sampled today

Today when Jo was working in the floors she also found a piece of unburnt wood in one of the dark lenses of occupation. This is a very unusual find as, obviously, wood that hasn’t been charcoaled is prone to decay!

The antler tool or mini-pick found near the late hearth in the broch
The antler tool or mini-pick found near the late hearth in the broch

Elsewhere in the broch, in the western zone, work on the occupation deposits around the late hearth, produced lots of antler, including what appeared to be an antler tool, perhaps for tending the hearth, as well as lots of other animal bones, and what appears to be the edges of an earlier, probably more formal hearth underlying beginning to emerge.

We will be concentrating on the final cover up of the site tomorrow, so only a few things require to be completed and recorded now- but it has been a very good season, and I’ll be rounding that up in tomorrow’s blog. Tomorrow we’ll also tell you about all the fascinating geophysical survey that has been happening at the site while we’ve been digging.

Cairns Bairns! the samples wrapped up for travelling off site to be assessed
The Cairns Bairns! Actually samples wrapped up for travelling off site to be assessed

But as a treat here’s an extra blog piece from Rik Hammond below. Rik’s an artist that has been working alongside us on site for several years.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0009.JPGMy name is Rik Hammond and I’m a visual artist based in St Margaret’s Hope – just up the road from The Cairns, here in South Ronaldsay.

Much of my practice focuses on the archaeological landscape of Orkney (including sites such as The Cairns and Ness of Brodgar) and I’ve been coming along to The Cairns – to observe, interact with and record the site and team – for several years now.
Often I’ll be found atop the spoil heap, drawing, or recording aspects of the site and surrounding landscape using photography, video and GPS. Alongside developing creative work at sites such as The Cairns, I co-direct the Yesnaby Art & Archaeology Research Project (YAARP –, in partnership with Dr James Moore
at the University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute.
YAARP is a multi-year,interdisciplinary, team-based project focusing on the landscape, archaeology and (pre)history of the township of Yesnaby, on the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. Being on site at excavations such as The Cairns offers us the opportunity to develop an ongoing dialogue and potential collaborations with archaeologists in regards to projects such as YAARP.
This season, in addition to my regular work, I’ve been spending some time conducting aerial photography tests of the site – with some of the YAARP and Cairns team, using the YAARP UAV (aka ‘drone’) – to provide Martin with some up to date aerial photographs of the site, as well as getting some more airtime in prior to our YAARP fieldwork in August.
It’s also been an opportunity to think about ways to visualise a site and landscape, and ways we can then map and model aspects of the landscape digitally (for example using photogrammetry and 3d modelling). I even got the chance to digitally record Jim Bright, an Archaeology Masters student at UHI – aka the on-site ‘digital archaeologist’ – creating a 3d model of him in a similar way to how he himself has been recording the site and artefacts this season.
Between now and next year, I’ll be back in the studio, developing new work – both in traditional and digital media – in response to my time here again at The Cairns. You can keep up to date with my ongoing practice at and on my Facebook Page at
Finally, I’d like to thank Martin and his team for welcoming me to site yet again and making me feel very much part of the ongoing research here at The Cairns.
Rik Hammond