Excavation Neolithic Ness of Brodgar Rousay Skaill Farmstead

Orkney excavations highlighted in national campaign to celebrate Scotland’s world-class archaeology

Scotland is shining a spotlight on its world-class archaeology this summer with Scotland Digs 2021. Now in its third year, the campaign will bring together live updates and events for members of the public from June 21 to September 22.
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Scotland is shining a spotlight on its world-class archaeology this summer with Scotland Digs 2021. Now in its third year, the campaign will bring together live updates and events for members of the public from June 21 to September 22.

After the COVID-19 pandemic halted much of the sector’s plans last year, many community-led groups and other dig organisers plan to once again resume fieldwork and welcome members of the public to site.

Trench P at the 5,000-year-old Neolithic complex at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney will be partially uncovered during the Scotland Digs 2021 campaign. (Scott Pike)

In Orkney, two University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute projects resume this summer – although on a slightly reduced scale due to Covid.

At the 5,000-year-old Neolithic complex on the Ness of Brodgar, excavators are back on site for the first time since 2019. Visitors are welcome on weekdays from June 30 to August 11, from 9:30am to 4:30pm.

Nick Card, excavation director at the Ness of Brodgar, said: “Although it will be very different to previous years, we are very much looking forward to welcoming visitors back to the Ness to see the incredible archaeology in two of the three main trenches and once again watch archaeologists in action at a working excavation.”

During the Scotland Digs 2021 campaign, archaeologists will be investigating The Wirk, an enigmatic medieval stone structure on the island of Rousay in Orkney. (Bobby Friel)

A UHI Archaeology Institute team will also return to Skaill Farmstead in Rousay – a site that was in use from the Norse period until it was abandoned in the 19th century. In 2019, a large Norse hall, probably dating to the 10th to 12th centuries AD, was discovered beneath the more recent structures.

This year, the team will also be investigating The Wirk – an enigmatic structure that has variously been interpreted as a 12th-century Norse Castle, a hall-house tower, a defensive church tower and a 16th-century tower and range. The dig runs on weekdays from July 5 to July 16, and visitors are welcome between 10am and 4pm.

Welcoming the return of archaeological work in the county, a spokesperson for Orkney Marketing said: “Orkney’s remarkable archaeology is a big draw for visitors and something that’s also enjoyed greatly by local people who are proud of the unique heritage of the islands.”

“The accessibility of our sites sets us apart from many other areas, but the opportunity to actually witness archaeologists working on digs has always added another dimension to the heritage experience in Orkney. We’ve missed that recently and it’s also been a very difficult period for local archaeological teams. We’re therefore delighted to see digs resume at key sites like the Ness of Brodgar and very much welcome the Scotland Digs 2021 campaign which helps raise awareness of the efforts being made nationally by our archaeologists.”

Elsewhere in the country, the public will have the chance to help investigate the 15th-century ruins of Glengarnock Castle in North Ayrshire with DigVentures and Garnock Connections in July, where a handful of artefacts – such as a copper alloy sword pommel – suggest that the medieval fortress could be much older.

Towards the end of the summer, volunteers can help the Can You Dig It team search for prehistoric stone tools in Dumfries & Galloway, and unearth more of Scotland’s first railway and the remains of 17th-century salt making in East Lothian with the 1722 Waggonway Project – no experience required.

Plans are also being finalised for investigations into Mesolithic mountain dwellings in the Highlands by University College Dublin and a 60 square km-wide Neolithic “axe factory” in Shetland by Archaeology Shetland.

The Scotland Digs 2021 campaign, coordinated by the Dig It! project, also highlights the work of commercial archaeology units, whose work offsets the impact that development (such as the building of new houses, schools or roads) has on the historic environment.

Dr Jeff Sanders, Project Manager at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s Dig It! project, said: “A summer of discovery is an exciting prospect and we’re thrilled that many of these sites are able to open up to the public again. Whether they’re community or development led, each one will help add a new chapter to a bigger story. And as Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy outlines, uncovering new stories helps create a connection to past peoples, gives a sense of perspective on what it means to be human, and helps us imagine how the future can be different.”

Amy Eastwood, head of grants at Historic Environment Scotland, added: “We are delighted to support Scotland Digs 2021. This is a fantastic incentive to get people of all ages in Scotland involved in archaeology and a great opportunity for volunteers to get hands on fun with excavations and explore the fascinating stories of Scotland’s past.”

Dig It!, which advertises archaeology events throughout the year, is coordinated by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and primarily funded by Historic Environment Scotland.   

For more information, follow #ScotlandDigs2021 or visit DigItScotland.com