University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his time at The Cairns dig…and, for those that follow the conversation on Twitter, his created hashtag #absolutecairnage
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Before you ask no, this isn’t a late entry for The Cairns Dig Diary 2018 series – you’ll just have to wait until next year for that. Anyway this will be the first of several pieces I’ll be writing over the summer in relation to my placement with the university. So I guess you can just look at it as my “Summer Of Digging: Pt.1”.
For my Placement with the University of Highlands and Islands, as part of my MSc Masters course, I plan to try engage the wider world with archaeology (both locally here in Orkney and further afield), mainly through the use of social media and getting involved with outreach activities on each of the excavations I’ll be participating in.
I’m fortunate enough to be spending a few weeks at each of the excavations being run by the UHI Archaeology Institute up here in Orkney over the summer: The Cairns (South Ronaldsay), Skaill (Rousay), Cata Sands (Sanday) and the Ness of Brodgar (Stenness, Mainland). I’m also lucky enough to be one of a select few archaeology students within the UHI Archaeology Institute to be chosen to take part in the first year of the Dunyvaig Field School in Islay, which will be running in August in collaboration with the University of Reading.
Anyway enough of an introduction, back to the focus of this piece.
This first piece will focus on the recently finished excavation season at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, an excavation I had the pleasure of spending a whole three weeks digging. I’m sure plenty of you have heard about the site and possibly have visited it previously or even over this past season; however if not, make sure to catch up on all the news and discoveries of this season’s activities (including my Dig Diary entry) right here, under ‘The Cairns Dig Diary 2018’.
Following an in-depth discussion and tour of the site, and a run through health and safety procedures, by site director Martin Carruthers, it was time to get down to business.
The first day on site focused on getting the site ready and uncovered for the new season of excavation. This involved a major group effort from staff, supervisors, students and volunteers in removing the tarp and tyres that had so effectively kept the site safe and protected over the harsh long months that the Orkney winter threw at it.
A future warning to all those involved in re-opening an archaeological site for excavation: waterproofs are a must (even if it’s not raining) as you will get destroyed! Also tyre and tarp build-up are a real thing and you’ll probably get a few instances of muddy water splashing you in the face when the wind picks up and blows the tarp all over the place (not a graceful moment at all). So the odd face/baby wipe wouldn’t go amiss either. Once the site was uncovered the real activities begun and we could start to get our hands dirty!
My first two weeks at The Cairns were completed as part of the Excavation module run by the UHI Archaeology Institute for various archaeology courses and years in the UHI curriculum.
This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. This is a very helpful and important module (in my opinion anyway) because fieldwork is an essential part of being an archaeologist, even for more desk-based academics.
Besides given the choice between being outdoors and conducting college work or being inside writing an essay; I’m sure college students everywhere (no matter what their study subject) would jump at the opportunity of outdoor learning as well. I already had a decent bit of experience in the field before taking part in this module but it was great to get a refresher and go over fieldwork procedures again, especially given the fact I’ll be going all out with excavations until early September. So I’m hoping all the advice and skills I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, will be put to good use over the next few months.
The Excavation module was overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for ORCA.
Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over the two week field school that were explained and demonstrated first by Rick himself; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one to one training whenever the students themselves felt like they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone who heeded their attention.
The site director and brains behind the whole operation is Martin Carruthers.
As the Programme Leader for the MSc Archaeological Practice, I have been fortunate to have worked and dealt with Martin on a regular basis over the academic year through various different modules; but it was something else to be working in the field with someone of his experience. The enthusiasm and joy he shows in discovering more about his project (The Cairns site) is a great sight to behold; and the pleasure he takes in working on his site is probably only equalled to by the pleasure he takes in eating his beloved Tunnock’s Teacakes.
For the whole period of my time spent on site I had the honour of conducting activities within the broch.
The broch is the main structure at The Cairns and seems to have been the focus of activities and settlement for the whole site. Dubbed the ‘A Team’ by Rick himself; Therese, Gary, Kath and myself had the honour of being the first of this season’s team to enter the broch, where we each remained for the duration of our time on site. Many others followed suit over the following few weeks, but we were the OG’s of the broch (apologies to the rest of ye)!
The first few days spent inside the broch interior involved the trowelling and cleaning of the whole floor surface, as being covered up over the winter months had made some areas a bit smudgy and unclear.
Once the initial cleaning was completed, the team targeted certain areas inside the broch under the guidance of Rick. After helping Therese take geochem and bulk samples in the West quadrant of the broch interior for a day or two, I was given the responsibility of taking over my own area in the broch; as the NE quadrant of the broch was re-opened for the new season.
My first job was the arduous and bothersome task of re-stringing the quadrant in a grid of 50cm per section. This was the first time the area was open for excavation since 2015 so what remained of the grid on the ground from previous work, looked nothing at all like what the records from the drawings and context sheets represented.
So after a bit of tussling with some of the old string and the grateful discovery of new string, I managed to re-string the grid fairly accurately. Although the non-compliance of some parts of the ground coupled with several instances of nails being knocked out of place (wasn’t always just myself), led to a few readjustments over the weeks; but sure it seemed to provide my broch compatriots with a few laughs and smiles at times, so at least it kept morale up.
Once the grid was set up, I started to take soil samples which will be used for environmental sampling over coming months, so we can learn more about the presence of materials in the floor deposits.
The purpose of setting up the grid was to maintain control over the sampling of these floors so that when we get results of wet sieving and various soil analysis we can see spatial patterning of activities and inputs across the floors. This was done through collecting a geochem sample (small bag, holding soil samples <1 litre) and a bulk sample (larger bag, holding soil samples <5 litres).
Each square in the grid was done one by one, until the end of this season’s activities when nearly all squares in the grid had relevant samples (some squares were just overlain by large slabs, so these were left as they were for possible future work in coming seasons if needs be).
The start of the second week began with a day off-site as Duncan and I were chosen to spend the day doing environmental sampling at Orkney College UHI with Cecily Webster, (also I may have had a top of the table football match that night in Kirkwall so the closer to the home that day the better – but we won so still top of the league Mon Accies!!!). But anyway…
The environmental sampling involved the wet sieving and examination of previous season’s soil samples taken at The Cairns. The samples were immersed in a tank lined with gauze and the silt massaged away by hand. This allows matter such as seeds, and charcoal to float to the top where it is separated into a sieve then placed on a tray to dry.
The remaining small stones and detritus is also placed on a tray to dry, after which it is sorted through to find miniscule pieces of flint, bone, cramp (ashy slag residue from cooking or cremation) or other similar tiny pieces of archaeological material.
I returned to site the next day to carry on retrieving samples from the gird and bit by bit trowelling down through the layers of the broch’s floor surfaces.
Upon my return to site I had discovered that Rick had nicknamed the NE quadrant ‘Terrence’ apparently for no good reason (to this day I think even Rick himself has said that the origin of the nickname remains an enigma). My work in the area continued up until my departure from the site following the Open Day on the Friday of the third week.
It was great seeing the layers in the different grids of the quadrant come out in such vibrant colours, and hopefully the samples taken from these will allow us to discover more of the story of this particular area in the broch. There were also one or two possible post-setting like features that were excavated in the process of trowelling down through the soil, so hopefully the samples from these particular squares may shed some light on these possible features.
Although my third and final week on-site was a bit different to the previous two (as I had completed the excavation module) and involved less excavation and more of a focus on outreach & social media side of things; it was great to work alongside Dr Jo McKenzie for a day or two and see her expertise in action.
Jo is a soil micro-morphologist – so the knowledge and techniques she used and provided while further sampling parts of the NE quadrant, should reveal even more information in identifying some of the activities which took place within the broch.
My final few days at The Cairns were geared up towards the Open Day and running outreach activities on the day.
My Placement supervisor Dan Lee, came up with the brilliant idea to run a workshop on site creating clay models of the Cairns Character, which was found on-site a few years previous. Dan got in contact with Andrew Appleby, who graciously offered a bag of terracotta clay to use to create the figures. I even had the pleasure to take a run through session with Andrew himself at his pottery a few days before the Open Day, which was much appreciated as the Friday could have been a complete disaster having never really used clay before myself…
Also in the lead up to the Open Day I attempted to try gain the site more attention online and in the local media, by attempting to spread posters and hashtags around as part of Social Media Storm Day. I had access and have been running the @thecairnsbroch account on Twitter for this season’s activities, as well as posting various material on the official UHI Archaeology Institute accounts on both Facebook and Instagram.
I’m proud to claim the hashtag #AbsoluteCairnage as my own brainchild, although it’s a bit of a catch 22; as trying to follow up on the catchiness of that hashtag for future excavations over the summer may strain my creative muscles.
The Open Day itself was a huge success, with visitors making the trip down to South Ronaldsay and arriving in numbers early as 10:30 that morning. The clay workshop was also a hit and really added another dimension to activities on the day. Parents & adults got all the information and saw the amazing finds which had been discovered during the excavation season, while the ‘Create Your Own Cairn’s Character’ provided an outlet and activity for children to get involved in archaeology and the site, without having to just sit through a tour and a load of talking.
The best part was all those who made a Cairns Character, were able to bring it home themselves after; as a memento from the day. It wasn’t only the children who got their hands dirty either, as many older visitors (older as in not a child – before any offence is caused) had a go at making their own clay model. The workshop provided a good laugh to everyone who got involved and who stopped by the make-shift stall, with a lot of positive feedback saying it was a great idea; and I had a lot of fun myself running the activities.
After all the visitors had left it was time to pack up the site for the day. Following the few hours of hustle and bustle it was nice to have a moment to take in the broch and catch a glimpse of ‘Terrence’ once last time before being covered over again.
Hopefully I’ll return at some stage to walk the steps as the ancestors did and possibly work on further examination & analysis of the NE quadrant again, but who knows what the future will bring; so for now all that’s left to say is ‘Bye Bye Broch’!
As for a personal highlight of my time at The Cairns, it would have be when Martin discovered the wooden and organic objects in the “Well”. Many of you may have already read or heard about these discoveries in the media recently; if not make sure you check out this blog and the UHI Archaeology Facebook page for more details.
But with the NE quadrant being right beside the “Well”, I was one of the first ones to hear the screams of absolute joy coming from down there when Martin emerged with the objects in hand, which saw the light of day for the first time in around 2,000 years! The pure look of glee and the smile beaming across his face was great to see, that with all the years of experience and excavations behind him, Martin still gets excited over finding new artefacts and materials (although, to be fair, these objects in particular are highly significant for Scottish archaeology as a whole!)
Either that or the time when making my way to the beach for a lunch-time dip in the sea, I came across this sight… Could not have planned the photo better myself, and just about managed to take a decent photo before bursting into a fit of laughter… Good ol Dig Dog!
Anyway that’s probably enough of me yapping, you’re probably sick of me by now (if you’ve managed to stay reading).
Hopefully this has been interesting an insightful into a first-hand experience of being in the frontline of the trenches (pun intended). Thanks for reading and look forward to updating ye all in my next instalment of my ‘Summer of Digging’ in upcoming weeks. I would apologise for any bad archaeology jokes and puns included in this post, but I thought they were funny so guess you’ll just have to dig my awful sense of humour if you plan on following my archaeological adventures over the summer (please do, I’ll try improve the jokes…..maybe).
Before leaving at this stage I feel it would be poor form if I didn’t acknowledge and give a shout out to all those who kept the gears of The Cairns machine running and advancing over the four weeks of activities.
I think I speak for all students and volunteers in giving a massive thank you to Martin Carruthers (site director), for giving us the opportunity and privilege to take part in excavations on his project. Also a big thanks to all the supervisors over the four weeks: Rick Barton, Bobby Friel, Colin Mitchell, Linda Somerville, Kevin Kerr and Dr Jo McKenzie; for their guidance and advice on various topics and tasks.
Also a mention of thanks for Ole, who saved most of our voices by taking responsibility for conducting the majority of tours for visitors over the duration of the four weeks. Shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! Also a big thanks and much appreciation to all of you who visited the site and followed the story and updates & used the hashtags on the various social media platforms, your support and interest means a lot!
Next stop for myself is Skaill on Rousay, make sure to keep tabs on social media outlets for info and updates on progress there in the near future!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student
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