The Cairns Day Four – 2019

The Outer Broch wall, The Cairns

It’s Day Four at The Cairns dig and Site Director and Programme Leader for the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc Archaeological Practice course takes up the story….

Hi folks, Martin here. I thought I’d take the opportunity to fill you in on some details on the site today and give you an account that described both the very intimate detail of digging on site and, at the other end of the scale, a more zoomed-out sense of our main excavation aims this season.

We had a block of rough weather in mid-afternoon but this didn’t really dampen spirits too much and I was really delighted and impressed by the cheerful hardiness of our team so, firstly, I’d like to say thank you to them for their stoic hardiness today! The rain did make excavation difficult, however, and slowed things down a little. Nevertheless, some great progress was achieved. I managed to find time to get my trowel out myself, which can be a rarity for a site director, so that was very pleasant!


Newly revealed stretch of broch outer wall face in the NW extension and the finds cluster beyond. (Also: note the rotary quern broken in half embedded on edge in the broch wall middle left of the image).

I busied myself in the new (Northwest) extension and attempted to reveal a little more of the western wall face of the broch, which by rights should have been just below the surface of the base of the topsoil. Sure enough, I was delighted to find that within minutes the tell-tale, characteristically large, very level, curving masonry of the top of the broch wall came cleanly into view over an expanse of about half a metre. I must confess this probably seemed too good to be true, as the site seldom gives up what is expected in such a straightforward manner, and, sure enough, moments later, as I continued to trace the wall a little further around to the south, I started to hit an interesting cluster of materials right where the wall should have been.

A large, clearly worked, cobble-stone tool emerged, and then another cobble and then another, within a tight bundle. It wasn’t long before a tiny piece of worked flint emerged and several animal bones, too. It was clear we were dealing with a little finds deposit.

To give you some background to this situation, over the years of excavation at The Cairns we have become aware that little caches of material were sometimes deposited on site. On one hand, these can be very modest in nature, so, for instance, when excavating the rubble infill of the broch, we found numerous instances of these little caches of material- usually no more than a couple of bones, some shell and maybe a piece of bog ore, or a piece of whalebone and a bone or two of another animal. At the other end of the scale a few years ago we found a quite remarkable deposit just outside the broch entrance that had involved the last generation of broch inhabitants placing a carved whalebone vessel, containing two newborn lambs, and a human jawbone, against the broch outer wall with two deer antlers propped against it and the entire deposit pinned into place using a saddle quern. There is, therefore, a considerable track record for these sorts of apparently very deliberate deposits or caches of objects on the site.

The finds cluster of stone tools, cobbles, animal bone and teeth, and a tiny yellowish flint flake

The stone tools, flint and animal bone that I found today were clustered tightly together and placed just above the reduced wall head of the broch and so probably date to really quite soon after the broch was decommissioned. Taken individually, each of these items might have attracted no great attention from us, and would have been recovered, 3-dimensionally recorded, and bagged-up, as yet another find amongst the thousands that have been recovered. However, it is the collection (curation, if you will), of multiple objects, brought together at the moment of deposition by a person, or persons, nearly two thousand years ago that makes the deposit greater than the sum of its parts.

We believe that these caches of items are an act of intentional placement and that there is an expressive (and even an aesthetic) quality to this, and that means we are seeing, however dimly, a shadow of practices and behaviours that are beyond what was strictly necessary just for the practical subsistence of life. We could argue about the whys and wherefores of the place of concepts like ‘ritual’ in this, but it certainly seems that these caches are a form of symbolic communication that would have been recognisable and understood by the community in a more detailed and specific fashion than we shall probably ever glean. Nevertheless, as the excavation progresses, and we find more and more of these sorts of caches, you never know, over time, their distribution patterning, contents and arrangements might just begin to allow us a more detailed glimpse of Iron Age mindsets and meanings!

Ok now on to other matters, and the aims of the excavation this season:
One of the more obvious aims of the project, perhaps, is to excavate a broch! To put it in more formal terms: we want to “investigate the circumstances of the construction, multi-phase use, and abandonment of a major Iron Age broch/Atlantic roundhouse and its associated complex of buildings and feature areas”.

In terms of how this plays out for this season, we are going to continue to carefully and methodically excavate the floors and occupation deposits of the interior of the broch. This is a rather slow process loaded up with a requirement to produce huge amounts of records, however, it is also a very rewarding one, for example just today a stone lamp was recovered from the broch floor excavation. The really substantive reward, however, comes in the understanding the lives of the broch inhabitants through the less obvious, often tiny, sometimes microscopic, materials they left behind, trapped in the floor deposits. The full battery of our scientific techniques and perception will be levelled at the broch interior to try to map out ancient activities, tasks and practices inside in a manner seldom previously accomplished.

A second grand aim of the project is: “To understand the relationship between the site of The Cairns and its landscape at a variety of levels, and the relationship between the site and the other ancient built places within that landscape”. Well, just one example could suffice here: every day on site we discover items such as animal bones or carbonised cereal grains that will ultimately tell us a great deal about the way that the community inhabited and manipulated the wider landscape around the settlement. In many ways the buildings and features of the site acts like traps for information about the landscape and we only have to think about what was involved in cultivating these resources by the community to understand how they were responsible for changing the environment.

The third main aim of the excavation is: “To investigate later prehistoric subterranean structures to obtain fresh evidence for how and why these structures were built and used”. This year should see us finally complete the excavation of our souterrain ‘Structure F’, a remarkable underground structure that has already yielded some intriguing clues as to how special and important these structures were. We’ll be commencing that excavation in earnest tomorrow and you can see what we find there over the next weeks.

The Cairns Site Plan

Of course, last year we excavated a slightly different subterranean structure, the ‘well’, underneath the floor of the broch. It turned out to be very dramatic with its anaerobic preservation and water-logged contents that included a wooden bowl and even human hair! I doubt we shall be this lucky when excavating the souterrain, but we may find something either in the detailed study of the floor deposits or in the objects that we find in the souterrain that gives some clues as to what actually went on inside. Please stay tuned to find out!

Finally, I thought I’d leave you with the site plan of the major structures and areas of the excavation to help you orientate yourself with our diaries over the next few weeks!
Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

2 thoughts on “The Cairns Day Four – 2019

  1. Bernie Bell 24th June 2019 / 9:12 am

    I’m not saying this is why they did it…but…the little caches of items, remind me of the time capsules which we humans still like to place in/under buildings, today.
    We used to live in an old house, and some of the floor boards needed replacing. Before the new boards were put in place, we made a time capsule – a five pence piece, a newspaper of the day, a postcard from a friend ( showing that folk went to far away places, in our time), I can’t remember the rest!

    There’s also the little caches of bits & pieces that I like to place around our house, outside. I just like to do that, and I think that quite a few other folk like to do so, too – things we’ve brought back from places, things that we like, but don’t quite know what to do with. Things that mean something – we have a stone which we brought home from Warberth beach, after visiting an old friend in St. Peter’s Care Home – we knew she was leaving this life, and that we’d never see her again. To us, that’s a memory, connected with her.
    This then leads on to what could be called…ritual, or whatever – not necessarily big, communal, rituals – though the caches could be the result of those, too, but the little rituals we humans like to do, to remember, to make memories.

    In a wood near where we used to live, Mike and I came upon a tree stump where some children – I strongly suspect little girls – would leave their ‘offerings’ – coins, flowers, pebbles, feathers……beads. We started to leave things there, too, for the Spirit of Place.

    We are, they were, people – we don’t change much.

  2. Patricia Vincent 24th June 2019 / 1:26 pm

    All so interesting. Thank you for sharing the Cairns project. Love it and I hope to visit some day.

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