Archaeology in Orkney, Summer 2018 – Part One

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The Cairns looking south

This is the first in a series of blog posts which examine the main findings from the seven major excavations undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute during the summer of 2018.

It has been a busy summer for The University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute (UHI) in Orkney with a total of seven research digs completed across the islands in eight weeks.

Each dig is a major undertaking with teams of volunteers, specialists, students and academics arriving from around the world, and of course the tourists who flock to the sites in search of enriching their understanding of the past. July was especially busy with digs commencing at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, the Ness of Brodgar within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area in Stenness, three excavations on Sanday and two digs on Rousay.

However this was not the beginning of the season for the UHI Archaeology Institute with outreach archaeology projects taking place in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific in June, commercial archaeology projects through the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) taking place year round and local community projects progressing across Orkney – despite the weather in some cases.

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Inside The Cairns Broch

The research digs themselves provide not only opportunities to understand how people lived in the past, but can also help to inform our future through research and teaching. Over two hundred students from the UHI, Canada, the United States and Europe have contributed to the research through excavation, recording and post excavation work as part of their studies.

The summer excavations have unearthed some amazing finds from exceptional Neolithic stone axes and pottery to a two thousand year old perfectly preserved wooden bowl and the first evidence of Viking iron smelting in Orkney. It has truly been an exciting summer for archaeology in Orkney.

Each blog post will deal with each site in turn….

The Cairns

The dig is part of an archaeological research project investigating the later prehistory of the Windwick landscape on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. The investigation has focused on the excavation of a large Atlantic Roundhouse, or broch, and associated structures from various phases through the Iron Age and Norse period. The project has advanced rapidly this year with the long awaited investigation of ‘The Well’ being put in motion in addition to the examination of the floor layers of the broch.

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The Well is positioned within the broch itself

The Well itself is an amazing underground feature, consisting of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. Placed within the silt was a perfectly preserved wooden bowl that most likely dates from this period.

In addition to the bowl, preserved plant fibres were lodged in the silt, some of which appeared to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seemed to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs. Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, were also present. Overall, these are remarkably rare discoveries and open up entire new avenues for understanding many aspects of the Iron Age.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns (3)
A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Well

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, explains, “After many years of hard work we have now reached the floor layers of the broch – the floor on which the people who lived here two thousand years ago actually moved around and lived. This layer is particularly exciting for us because these deposits contains organic material which will begin to tell us in more detail how these people used this immense structure two thousand years ago.”

If you wish to know more about the 2018 dig at The Cairns click here to see the dig diary.


If you would like to join us to study archaeology at any of the 13 colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk