The Cairns Dig Diary 2019

The Cairns Day 9 – 2019

More broch bling – the bronze ring found today

Day Nine at The Cairns archaeology excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney and University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Duncan Foxley expertly tracks todays events…..

Another typical Orkney Summer’s day, dawn came early, but with a dour sky. The day brightened gradually, but the dim morning gave those of us working in the broch plenty of time to get to grips with the mixed context we have been working on for the last week within and around a hearth setting in the west of the structure.

The hard clay is best dug before it can dry, and has begun to reveal a series of slabs which appear to make up a formal hearth setting, with some equally substantial paving abutting it. The dense clay setting of these slabs and their size may suggest that this is the original broch hearth surface, but as always only further excavation can say for sure!

Mika, Callum, Lorna and I, under the helpful guidance of Therese, have slowly cleared most of the overlying material, although with extreme care, as such a rich context not only provides samples which contain valuable information about the lives of the Iron age inhabitants of the broch, but also some amazing finds.

The tiny shard of Roman glass from the broch floor

In the upper corner of the hearth, Lorna picked out a small shard of glass, possibly Roman in origin due to the colour. Likely having come from a bead, such finds are an excellent tangible reminder of the interconnectivity of the people of Iron age Britain, a fact easily forgotten somewhere as seemingly remote as South Ronaldsay. Meanwhile, Mika has been painstakingly uncovering a smashed pot, found in-situ atop the hearth setting. So far, a sizeable spread has emerged, and hopefully more will follow. Finally, Therese found a copper-alloy ring in fine condition on the edge of Gary’s pit, adding to the building evidence from beads and jewellery of the extent of the local finery.

Detail of some of the pottery spread found in the broch

Just along the wall face, Gary has continued to work on the sondage running from the pit to the broch side. A suspicious lack of stone in the last few inches dug, which are instead composed of orange clay, could among other things potentially represent the end of the lowest stone coursework of the broch, although this will require further investigation. If so, this will provide the first pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel of current excavation, as it is otherwise difficult to infer how far down the floor deposits may run. A bittersweet possibility, although there is no shortage of work to be done in the meantime.

Out with the broch, the ongoing excavation of the south-western extension has continued to produce interesting structural features extending from the partial wall of structure J. What seemed to be a relatively simple rubble overlay was shown through mattocked sondages by Anthea and Deryck to hide wide lintel style flagstones, along with other structural elements. Further up, Sue continued work in a cut pit with an orthostat lining to the south-west end, which seems to be a socket setting of some type. With two weeks left of excavation, some answers will hopefully emerge as to the relationship between these elements and the other structures in the area.

Mika working on the pottery spread today

On the other side of the site, the structures in trench Q are continuing to take shape. Bobby’s team, including Helen, Ursula and Alan, have uncovered some flagstones overlying a rubble fill within a structure, and in line with a similar surface which extended over an adjoining structure, suggesting that in a secondary phase both were joined by one floor.

The team working in the broch

The flagstones also appear to create the entrance to an orthostaic cell in south-west section of the super-structure. Within such a complex architectural palimpsest, features such as this, which tie elements together not only physically but within the stratigraphy, are essential in understanding the story of the site itself. On a site which is defined by construction, destruction and re-use, understanding the sequence of these events will hopefully allow further understanding to be gleaned of the people who once lived within and around the broch.

Thanks to UHI student Duncan Foxley


  1. Glass – Roman? – Bead? Yey!

    Here’s a thought – it’s not something I could do, as I don’t know enough – I have the ideas, but not the ability to put them into action! Would someone like to put together something specifically about the jewellery found at The Cairns? There’s the lovely brooch, the beads ( I can picture a necklace of alternating blue and yellow beads….), and now a ring. The ring may not look much now, but, new – shiny – bronze, it will have been very appealing.

    I’ve been thinking, recently, that there is now quite a lot of art work based on, and things written about the art/archaeology at the Ness, but not so much, at The Cairns, yet there is scope, for someone with the talent/ability/knowledge, to produce something – make paintings, pieces of some kind? I know, there’s the reproduction brooch – I’m thinking wider than that.
    Come on Jeanne – and jewelry makers – I can see it, but I can’t produce it!
    Maybe, one day, a shop at The Cairns, like the one at The Ness, selling reproductions – helping to fund the dig?

      1. Exactly – if someone has the time and knowledge, to put something together about them all? With illustrations? Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away with the idea – but I think it would work, and appeal to folk.
        Who has the time and knowledge though? – those who have, will be busy working on the site.
        Maybe it’ll happen – I’d like to see it.

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