Scientific dating research unravels the story of life in prehistoric Orkney


Scientific dating study brings into view how communities in one of the most important Neolithic regions in Western Europe chose to farm, gather together and bury their dead.

Constant and rapid changes in the settlements and monuments indicate communities with rivalries and tensions between households and other social groupings.

A new study, published in Antiquity journal, is challenging the previously understood narrative for prehistoric life on Orkney. It was led by Professor Alex Bayliss of Historic England and is based on the interrogation of more than 600 radiocarbon dates, enabling much more precise estimates of the timing and duration of events in the period c.3200-2500 BC.

The study is part of a much wider project, The Times of Their Lives, funded by the European Research Council (2012–2107;, which has applied the same methodology to a wider series of case studies across Neolithic Europe. That project has demonstrated many other examples of more dynamic and punctuated sequences than previously suspected in ‘prehistory’.

20170908_143202Neolithic Orkney is well-preserved and is a time of stone houses, stone circles and elaborate burial monuments. World-renowned sites such as the Skara Brae settlement, Maeshowe passage grave, and the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness circles have long been known and are in the World Heritage Site (given this status in 1999). They have been joined by more recent discoveries of great settlement complexes such as Barnhouse and Ness of Brodgar.

The new study reveals in much more detail than previously possible the fluctuating fortunes of the communities involved in these feats of construction and their social interaction. It used a Bayesian statistical approach to combine calibrated radiocarbon dates with knowledge of the archaeological contexts that the finds have come from to provide much more precise chronologies than those previously available.


Professor Alex Bayliss of Historic England, leader of the Orkney study, said: ‘This study shows that new statistical analysis of the large numbers of radiocarbon dates that are now available in British archaeology really changes what we can know about our pasts. People in the Neolithic made choices, just like us, about all sorts of things – where to live, how to bury their dead, how to farm, where and when to gather together – and those choices are just beginning to come into view through archaeology. It’s an exciting time to be an archaeological scientist!’

The study indicates:

  • Orkney was probably first colonised in c. 3600 cal BC[1]. There was an expansion and growth of settlement and building of monuments from c. 3300 cal BC.
  • Settlement peaked in the period c. 3100–2900 cal BC
  • There was a phase of decline c. 2800–2600 cal BC, measured by the number of stone houses in use
  • Settlement resumed in c. 2600–2300 cal BC, but only away from the ‘core’ area of the Brodgar-Stenness peninsula in western Mainland. It was probably about this time that the Ring of Brodgar itself was erected, probably bringing people together from across Orkney but into what was now a sacred, not a domestic, landscape

DSC_0089The study suggests that the period saw competition between communities that was played out in how they buried their dead and in their communal gatherings and rituals. The study also throws up other complexities in the sequence of development on the island:

  • An overlap between the construction of different kinds of burials tombs – passage graves and large stalled cairns – in the later fourth millennium cal BC
  • An overlap between the emergence of the new pottery style, flat-based Grooved Ware, characteristic of the Late Neolithic in Orkney, and the round-based pottery of earlier Neolithic inhabitants
  • The first appearance of the non-native Orkney vole, Microtus agrestis, c. 3200 cal BC. This is significant as it is found today on Orkney and on the European continent but not in mainland Britain. It was probably introduced via direct long-distance sea travel between Orkney and the continent. The study therefore also considers whether new people from continental Europe were part of this complex cultural scenario.

Professor Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University, Principal Investigator of The Times of Their Lives, said:  ‘Visitors come from all over the world to admire the wonderfully preserved archaeological remains of Orkney, in what may seem a timeless setting. Our study underlines that the Neolithic past was often rapidly changing, and that what may appear to us to be enduring monuments were in fact part of a dynamic historical context.’

Professor Colin Richards of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in Kirkwall, Orkney, and co-author of the study, said:  ‘Our study shows how much remains to be discovered in Orkney about the Neolithic period, even though it may appear well known. This applies throughout the sequence, including in the period of decline at its end.’

‘Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney’ Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. 2017. Antiquity 91, issue 389 (October 2017), 1171–88. doi:10.15184/aqy.2017.140

[1] cal indicates dates calibrated by radiocarbon dating

Above taken from Historic England Press Release. Research paper available here.


Open Day at Mapping Magnus Dig


A team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute together with volunteers from the local community will be holding an Open Day at the Palace Village dig, Birsay on Saturday 30th September 2017.

All are welcome and the event is free to enter. One of the questions we are asked by potential visitors to our Open Days is, “Can I bring my children?” Children of all ages are welcome and there will be opportunities for them to look at and take part in some of the activities on site.

The Open Day starts at 10am and is planned to end around 3pm to allow the team to clean the area for the next day. There will be signs directing you to the dig site on the day from the Palace Stores.


There is no need to book…just turn up and discuss the progress of the dig with the team. Already a substantial wall has been unearthed as the trial trenches take shape….who knows what will be discovered on the Open Day itself?

Contact: or 01856 569225 for further information.

Open Day Poster Mapping Magnus V2

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has been commissioned by Orkney Islands Council to deliver a programme of community archaeology activities and events that will explore the story of St Magnus and medieval Orkney.

The Mapping Magnus project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of Magnus 900, commemorating the 900th anniversary year of the death of St Magnus during 2017.


WW1 Destroyer Position Confirmed by Maritime Archaeology Project

HMS Pheasant- Multibeam Echosound Image. Copyright ORCA
Multibeam Echosound Image of HMS Pheasant. Copyright: ORCA

First World War Destroyer Position Confirmed by Maritime Archaeology Project in Orkney.

Most people probably do not realise that when they take the ferry from Scrabster bound for Orkney, that they will be passing over a shipwreck from the First World War – a shipwreck that up until now has been shrouded in mystery and tragedy.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving can now confirm that the archaeological maritime survey conducted last month from the decks of the Marine Scotland vessel MV Scotia has located the site of the First World War destroyer HMS Pheasant and for the first time the wreck can be viewed through the use of Multibeam Sonar technology. The wreck itself is protected as a designated vessel under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 which means that it can be dived but not entered or disturbed without permission from the Ministry of Defence.

HMS Pheasant was an M class destroyer built by Fairfield Shipyard on the Clyde and launched on 23rd October 1916. At 0.15 on the morning of 1st March 1917 the ship left Stromness to patrol the waters to the west of Orkney. Steaming down the west side of Hoy at full speed she most likely struck a mine off Rora Head close to the Old Man of Hoy that had been laid on the 21st January 1917 by German submarine U 80.

The Trawler HMT Grouse was at anchor under Rora Head due to the heavy sea prevailing at the time and two deck hands on watch reported an explosion and smoke at 06.00 but tragically the skipper was not informed till 08.00 when she proceeded to the area. The Trawler HMT Cairo which was patrolling in the Hoy Sound heard a faint explosion at 06.00 but took it to be gunfire and so remained on station off Stromness. The first reports only started coming in two hours after HMS Pheasant struck the mine when at 08.15 the trawler HMT Oropesa reported finding  ‘’ Large quantities of oil and some wreckage one mile west of Old Man of Hoy.” The crew also picked up a life buoy marked HMS ‘Pheasant’.’

Eighty nine crew were aboard HMS Pheasant when she was lost. Only one body was recovered: that of Midshipman Reginald Campbell Cotter RNR. He was 20 years old and he is buried in the military cemetery at Lyness, Hoy, Orkney.

Marine Scotland vessel: MV Scotia

This year marks the centenary of the loss of HMS Pheasant and there is an initiative underway to develop a memorial on Hoy, Orkney to commemorate all those who lost their lives aboard. This is being led by Kinlay Francis, Orkney Uncovered and Kevin Heath, SULA Diving.

This exciting project is led by Sandra Henry of UHI Archaeology Institute, ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Kevin Heath of SULA Diving who have brought together universities, commercial companies and government bodies including Historic Environment Scotland, Marine Scotland, Ulster University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Dundee, and Seatronics – an Acteon company.


  • The project lead is Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
  • Marine Scotland vessel MV Scotia was the work platform for data collection. Data collection involved Marine Scotland undertaking MBES survey, providing calibrated unprocessed raw data and camera equipment for the acquisition of data.
  • Seatronics – an Acteon Company provided ROV, positioning and 3D modelling and spatially cross referenced video inspection equipment.
  • Historic Environment Scotland provided funding, guidance on marine historic assets, survey targets and specialist knowledge on the wreck sites.
  • Ulster University provided input into the specifications for data acquisition for the geophysical and ROV surveys and will provide input into maritime archaeological assessment and analysis.
  • Heriot-Watt University provided input into the specifications for data acquisition for the ROV survey and undertook marine biological studies on the submerged cultural heritage assets.
  • Ministry of Defence provided input into the specifications for data acquisition for the geophysical and ROV surveys, and specialist knowledge on the wreck sites being investigated and environmental studies of the wreck sites.
  • The University of Dundee will process MBES and ROV survey data and work to produce visualisations based on the collected data. This will involve the production of 3D models of the wreck sites from the multibeam echosounder and photogrammetric data.
  • The project was conducted under licence from the Ministry of Defence.




Harvesting Seaweed- Fertilised Bere Barley – Experimental Research Reaps First Results

Field trial

Magdalena Blanz, PhD Student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is progressing well with her research into Seaweed as Food and Fodder in the North Atlantic Islands: past, present and future opportunities.

For her PhD, Magdalena is investigating the importance of seaweed use in the past, and how traditional use of seaweed can inform modern-day practices. In particular, she is researching how the chemical composition of skeletal remains changes with the consumption of seaweed, to allow the identification of past seaweed consumption.

“After starting my reading for the PhD, I realised that distinguishing between the use of seaweed as animal food and the use of seaweed-fertilised terrestrial plants would be important, and might not be straightforward to do chemically, which is why we did the field trial”, Magdalena describes.

Back in May 2017, Magdalena commenced a field trial in partnership with Orkney College Agronomy Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee – planting bere barley and applying seaweed as a fertiliser in a controlled experiment (see earlier blog post here).

far right is not fertilised
Far right sample of Bere was not fertilised

The bere from the field trial has now been harvested and first results indicate that fertilisation with seaweed worked well: Seaweed-fertilisation doubled the yield of bere barley compared to unfertilised plots. Magdalena is now moving onto the second phase of her research: Identifying the differences in chemical composition caused by fertilisation with seaweed.

Magdalena continues: “If there is a significant difference, the question is if this difference will also affect the chemical composition of the skeletal remains of humans and animals that consume seaweed-fertilised crops, and if there is a potential of finding such differences in archaeological charred cereal remains.”

Magdalena in the field in front of UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI

Many thanks to Dr Peter Martin Orkney, Dr Burkart Dieterich and John Wishart from the Orkney College Agronomy Institute. Magdalena’s supervisors are Dr Ingrid Mainland (UHI Archaeology Institute), Dr Mark Taggart (UHI), Dr Philippa Ascough (SUERC) and Prof Feldmann (University of Aberdeen), and she can be contacted at

If you are interested in pursuing research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, contact Mary Connolly or see our website.

This research was funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme.


Letter from Canada – UHI Archaeology Exchange Student Blogs from Ontario

Gzowski College
Gzowski College, Trent University

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has an active international student exchange programme. UHI Archaeology student, Euan Cohen, has just started his studies at Trent University, Ontario, Canada and is writing a blog about his experience.

Euan takes up his story….”Hello all back home, at University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and whoever may be reading this anywhere. I have been at Trent University in Ontario, Canada now for two weeks. It’s been such an eventful two weeks that I have found it difficult to take time to snap photos, write and even take a seat.

On the 29th of August I made my way to Toronto Pearson’s International Airport to meet up with other International student who were arriving that day. As everyone took their seats and introduced themselves with their names and nationalities two things became apparent; the incredible variation of homelands and, how extremely jet lagged everybody was.

Otonabee River at Dusk
Otonabee River at Dusk

I was lucky, I had been on the time-line for around three weeks before. Travelling to New York City, Montreal and Toronto before gave me more than enough time to adjust and my sleeping pattern was back to normal. Those cities above mentioned were all excellent, I would say that if it wasn’t for this exchange programme I’m not sure I would’ve been able to dive into these cities so soon and in the same trip!

On arrival at Trent an International Orientation week was planned for us all to participate in, and it pretty much started from the get go. As soon as we arrived we ate and lived together allowing everyone to meet each other. The next few days breakfast was served from 7-8 am and for all of the travel wearied students this was proving hard – though I think these early wake ups were the quick cure to the jet lag.

There were a load of activities planned and as I am writing this so late it seems to have all merged into one whole load of tiring fun. Two highlights do stick out, first being the culture show.

All of the different nationalities and cultures were truly on display here as groups from all over the globe took to the stage to perform. A group from Japan performed a sort of shadow samurai warrior dance to music that involved a lot of invisible sword swinging. Separately, a Nigerian and Vietnamese student performed some stand-up comedy.

River running through the campus at dusk
River running through the campus at dusk

The second highlight would be canoeing on the winding Otonabee river that runs through the university, groups of three brave, but not so seafaring students were trusted to go out together, and this brought people together. Paddling can be a difficult game as each boat member has to be relatively in sync if the boats to go anywhere so communication is key and having a laugh with the lack of English communication was fun. I’m still friends with the two others I shared a boat with.

After a nice weekend to relax and recuperate, it was time for the main Orientation week (O-week).  I have not mentioned yet, I am an undergraduate doing my third year here in Archaeology (BA), here Anthropology is considered much the same. So from an Anthropological perspective this was what I had been waiting for, to view some North American enthusiasm, reminiscent and only comparable to watching movies displaying this.

What a week! Everyone got painted up as we watched soccer (football, this’ll be tough) games, there were parties and at the end of the week there was a gown ceremony, with a formal dinner, to end the madness. Speeches from past students and current professors including Professor Symons, the founding president of Trent whom the campus is named after, gave a very warm welcome to a University he was visibly proud to be a part of. I’ll try to be good in the weeks to come and take more photos.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, next update will be in a fortnight by then the classes will have started. Thank you!” Euan Cohen 2017

If you want to know more about applying to study archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then either contact Mary Connolly through  or see the UHI website


Mapping Magnus Community Excavation – Palace Village, Birsay


The hunt for medieval structures continues in Palace Village, Birsay Orkney.

A team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute together with community volunteers will commence the excavation phase of the exciting community archaeology ‘Mapping Magnus’ project by digging test pits around the medieval site of the Bishops Palace.

The dig begins on the 25th September and continues for two weeks until 6 October 2017 and visitors are most welcome to view the excavations as they happen and discuss the progress with the team as they continue to investigate medieval Palace Village. The digs commence at 9am and finish at 5pm each day.


You can join the team by contacting UHI Archaeology Institute’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, Dan Lee at – no previous archaeological experience is necessary as training will be given, but please contact us as places are now limited. Volunteers meet at Palace village car park opposite the kirk.

There will also be an Open Day on 30th September in which visitors can view the progress and discuss the results with the archaeologists.

Join the conversation #MappingMagnus #Magnus900

Background to the Mapping Magnus Project

20170604_155155The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has been commissioned by Orkney Islands Council to deliver a programme of community archaeology activities and events that will explore the story of St Magnus and medieval Orkney.

The Mapping Magnus project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of Magnus 900, commemorating the 900th anniversary year of the death of St Magnus during 2017.

Based around the central themes of the Mapping Magnus project – Movement & Pilgrimage, Religion & Power, Stones & Bones – activities include archive research, storytelling and collecting, geophysical survey, walkover survey, excavation, coastal survey, a noust survey and community and schools workshops. Fieldwork activities are focussed in Palace village and the surrounding area of Birsay. Other key places within the story, such as the site of Magnus’ Martyrdom on Egilsay and the Mansie Stane sites where his body was rested during transit will be included.

All activities will involve training and hands-on experiences for the local community and schools, and local volunteers are encouraged to get involved.

Supported by:


A Big Thank You – ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference


The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute held the inaugural ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference in Orkney over the weekend of 14th to 17th September 2017 and we would just like to say thank you to all those people who made the event such a success.

So, firstly, a big shout out for all the delegates that travelled from around the world to be present at our conference. And of course those delegates who gave so many interesting and stimulating papers that contributed so much to the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ theme. And the Chairs who kept us all in order….

Also a big thank you to the organisations that supported us including Orkney College UHI, Orkney Islands Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Shetland Amenity Trust, ScARF and Historic Environment Scotland.

And the traders and others that gave up a weekend to support us………please click on the website links and help them in turn…

  • Artworks of the Earth – what a great display of art that added colour to the foyer
  • John Rae Society – who at short notice put together a great stand
  • Stromness Bookshop – thank you so much for putting together a display of brilliant and relevant books from stock
  • CHERISH – great to talk to you about the project and many thanks for putting together an exhibition stand and giveaways.
  • Orkney Archaeology Society – once again thank you to Hayley and George for putting together and manning the OAS exhibition stand. Check out their website for another chance to buy an Orkney Archaeology Review.
  • Brodgar Chocolates – added Brodgar shaped chocolate to the whole event!
  • BAR Publishing – thank you for both supplying books for sale, lots of goodies for the conference packs and supporting our student conference.
  • Archaeopress – once again thank you for your support and supplying titles for the front of house display
  • Oxbow Books – thank you for the conference pack material

And those who made the food for the occasion so memorable….

  • Orkney College Hospitality Department – the food and drink was just awesome in quality and quantity
  • Palace Stores, Palace Village Birsay – everyone on the conference fieldtrip was amazed at the selection of Orkney food on offer in the platter you made up for us. Presented brilliantly with descriptions of each food item and where they came from in Orkney. Just wow!


And a special shout out for Norrie Rendall at Orkney Theatre….nothing was too much trouble, both in and out of the theatre.

And Barony Mills for opening up and making a Victorian Watermill come to life.

And of course the volunteers who gave up their weekend….Jim Bright, Julie Ritch, Therese McCormick, Magdalena Blanz, Siobhan Cooke, Jasmin Sybenga, Frank Forrester, Rick Barton, Darroch Bratt…..without whom the conference would not have happened.

And Mary Connolly, Kat Fryer and Ros Aitken of the Conference Organising Team….And the Conference Committee who set the theme and selected the papers and the multitude of other tasks that a conference demands.

The website for the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference is still live and you can still join the twitter conversation at #oiopconference if you wish or just view the ‘as it happened’ comments.

If I have missed anyone out then please excuse me…and then e-mail me.

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