The Cairns Day 18 – 2019

The northern part of the trench showing the village beyond the broch and the souterrain at lower left. Thanks to Bobby Friel

Unbelievably the digging season is nearly at an end at The Cairns. It only seems a few days since we started! This blog post is written by Holly Young who is about to start her MSc with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

As the season begins to draw to a close and our thoughts inevitably start turning to the mountain of tyres and tarps that need to be moved back onto site to put it to rest for another year, digging work on site is also being wrapped up.

With the haar rolling in across Windwick Bay, the day began with the final site tour for the team where we got to look at the results of the last four weeks’ hard work and ask any remaining questions about the developments that have occurred.

The rest of the day was spent sprucing up the archaeology for final photographs and recording.

Structure Q in the village

In the broch, Therese, Connor, Calum and Mika have been removing deposits around the primary hearth in the NW quadrant, where a large plan has been drawn that includes the newly revealed substantial paving. Our resident soil wizard, Jo, finished up with her quadrant of beautifully coloured deposits in the SE room, and Alanis photographed the results of her sampling work in the NE quadrant.

Down in Trench Q, Bobby and his team of eager students and volunteers have been doing final digging, cleaning and recording of the various areas across the ‘broch village’. Many areas of the rubble are still giving up finds, including evidence of metalworking, various animal bones and stone tools. Bobby has also been spending his tea-breaks providing us with astounding aerial shots of the site with his drone.

Looking down on part of the souterrain passage

Up in the SW area of the site, Rick and Jen have been polishing off the final pieces of recording. This area of site has been getting progressively more complex with new areas of building popping up and new insights into the substantial terrace that was dug to make way for the construction of the broch coming to light. The portion of the large ditch surrounding the site, which is present in this area, has been blessing its diggers with a large number of finds, including a localised area rich in animal bones and shell which has been very carefully excavated over the last few weeks.

Rick and Bobby have also been putting the various students through their paces across the last few weeks, with various workshops to help build up their archaeological skills. Today, they’ve continued planning various areas across Trench Q and the SW extension.

Now, to task. I am here to draw to attention to the activities that have been taking place in the souterrain this year.

For those of you who are not familiar with these enigmatic structures, souterrains are subterranean passageways, the uses of which are massively up for contention. Whether they be for storage or ritual, or several uses that don’t even occur to us, these buildings remain shrouded in mystery.

The souterrain passage

We have been methodically sampling the possible floor deposits in the formerly-roofed portion of the souterrain, the large roof lintels of which were removed in 2016. In similar fashion to the sampling taking place in the broch, we have been removing contexts on a 50cm grid, for everything from finds recovery to the chemical breakdown of the individual soils in an attempt to understand the kinds of things people were using the souterrain for.

Several things from the sampling are worth noting. The first is that, in the southern section of the grid, a series of greasy deposits have been excavated, including one that was quite a vivid orange colour. These deposits are significant as it may shed light on the activities that were taking place in the souterrain and around this section of the souterrain roof. Above these deposits, the large roof lintels were positioned in such a fashion as to leave a gap, above which were broken fragments of rotary quern-stones and a ‘stone box’ filled with winkle shells. There is a possibility that some kind of liquid was being strained through these shells, gently pouring into the souterrain and being absorbed into the soil. In relation to this, a small cache of the same species of shell was found tucked in a small deposit flush against the souterrain wall.

The entrance to the broch and the souterrain

Now, in the final sampling stages (as is always the norm whenever the end of dig season is nigh!), just as we begin the closing down the site, some deposits of interest have begun to be revealed. The lower fills of this area of the souterrain contain fairly substantial rubble, some of which may possibly be associated with earlier buildings that were part of the broch village. The people constructing the souterrain built through these earlier broch-related structures, sometimes incorporating useful pieces of masonry, sometimes smashing through others, continuing the theme of reuse of earlier structures that is so common throughout the Iron Age in Orkney, and appears to hold a huge amount of significance for the inhabitants of this site.

Holly working at the souterrain

Finally, the sampling grid has been extended in the last week to cover the portion of the souterrain passage and chamber that was created by the reuse of the broch entrance way. This strategy will be utilised across the next few seasons to draw all the information from across the different areas of the souterrain together to create a coherent story.

And, so, onto the shutting down of the site, which seems to have arrived far more quickly than any of us would like. Putting the site to bed is always a stark reminder that we’re a whole year away from getting stuck in once again.

Thanks to Holly Young, MSc. Archaeological Practice student to be…