County archaeologist hangs up her trowel after digging deep into Orkney’s past for quarter of a century

The thrill of never quite knowing what great archaeological find may quite literally be unearthed next is certainly going to be missed by Julie Gibson, who retired as Orkney's county archaeologist at the end of 2022.

The thrill of never quite knowing what great archaeological find may quite literally be unearthed next is certainly going to be missed by Julie Gibson, who retired as Orkney’s county archaeologist at the end of 2022.

Julie Gibson on site.
Julie Gibson at the Knowe of Skea excavation, Westray, in 2005. (Frank Bradford)

It’s a role Julie has held since the late 1990s, but she has now passed the mantle on to Paul Sharman, whose archaeological links with Orkney stretch back to the 1980s, when, as a fledgling archaeology student, he first got a glimpse of the islands’ rich archaeology.

Paul knows he has some pretty big rubber boots to fill but is keen to hit the ground running or should that be digging!

He said: “I’m looking forward to trying to create as much of a legacy for Orkney’s archaeology and cultural heritage as Julie Gibson, which will be impossible, but worth aspiring to!”

But before we look forward, let’s take a look back and the indelible imprint with which Julie Gibson has left on archaeology in the islands.

Brought up in Cornwall, Julie’s interest was first aroused thanks to a teacher who led pupils on explorations of the moors, wandering around the remains of Bronze Age huts and discovering the fascinating, abandoned medieval farms.

She said: “I came to professional archaeology in Milton Keynes. That would seem a contradiction in terms, but building a new city meant erasing a lot of the past – and so the Development Corporation employed archaeologists to record what was under threat.”

Julie has invested around 25 years as Orkney’s archaeologist – a role which developed and grew over time, largely thanks to her passion, foresight and recognition that there is nowhere else in Northern Europe that compares with Orkney in terms of the concentration of accessible and fascinating sites, spanning 5,000 years.

“The job has developed in tandem with the UHI work, over the years,” Julie explained.

“The role was always to look after Orkney’s extraordinary archaeology, working for sustainable development, which I took to mean that I needed to work towards the archaeology of Orkney being in at least in as good a state after a generation as it was when I encountered it.

“Coastal erosion has somewhat undermined that ambition. But working with colleagues in Development Control, we can choose to preserve what we can, whilst letting the world move on.”

November 2021: Recovering red deer remains at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick. Pictured with Julie (third from left) are Professor Jane Downes, Dr Julia Cussans and Dr Ben Elliott of the UHI Archaeology Institute. (Sigurd Towrie)
November 2021: Recovering red deer remains at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick. Pictured with Julie (third from left) are Professor Jane Downes, Dr Julia Cussans and Dr Ben Elliott of the UHI Archaeology Institute. (Sigurd Towrie)

Julie was first employed by Orkney Heritage Society, and later the Orkney Archaeology Trust about the time the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site was inscribed by UNESCO, an accolade that celebrates a small part of the world class archaeology that Orkney is justifiably proud of.

She was instrumental in establishing the Archaeology Institute in Orkney.

“I introduced the idea of an archaeology department to Peter Scott, the then principal of Orkney College and we thought this could be a significant development within the UHI, for Orkney. Just before the turn of the century, we paced out space requirements for a new department – in the car park at the old Stromness Academy, where the archaeologist’s office was and Peter set to and raised the money for the build from Millennium funding.

“But as always, people are the most important thing in any development and once Jane Downes was in post, archaeology in the UHI took off. Gradually various aspects of archaeology were established within the College: ORCA (working with developers), community archaeology, and teaching and research form the Institute.

Sandwick cist.
February 2022: Julie Gibson and Professor Jane Downes examining a probably Bronze Age cist in Sandwick. (Sigurd Towrie)

“Support from OIC and Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been at the very core of this work. Recently, a wee triumph: archaeology came up trumps with a really great score in the Research Exercise Framework, putting UHI Archaeology research firmly above that of many longer-established universities.”

Julie describes the role as “possibly the best archaeological job in the whole of the UK”.

“My first days in the job were to help out with the Time Team film in Sanday, and then the Time Team “special” at Minehowe followed not long after. Since then, there has been discovery after discovery. The Ness of Brodgar is of course amongst the most famous, with so many firsts – including finding Neolithic paint on the walls of some of the houses there.

“I have to admit to a wee partiality for the Viking sites. The Viking cemetery at Westness in Rousay was the reason for my coming to Orkney in the first place. And my most exciting find would be the identification of the Scar boat grave in Sanday.

Minehowe 2003
2003: Julie by the ditch at Minehowe, Tankerness. (Sigurd Towrie)

“In recent times, Ingrid Mainland’s work with the community at Skaill in Rousay, finding a Norse hall is very exciting. And really you cannot underestimate the level of detail nowadays possible in archaeological excavations, so Martin Carruthers’ work at The Cairns, in South Ronaldsay, is fabulous.

“I am pleased too, to see that the interest in the World War archaeology here has begun to rise and with the community-led developments at Twatt and the OIC’s Ness Battery, Stromness is giving people more access to archaeology that marks such important times in recent European history.”

Julie sounded a note of caution and says a way must be found to allow people to still enjoy what Orkney has to offer but in a sustainable way.

Although she plans to spend more time with her four grandchildren, Julie will miss the friendships made at work and the excitement of never quite knowing what is going to turn up next.

“Working with the community in these islands is consistently what makes the job great. And I once got a big hug off a West Mainland farmer for ‘not being the pollution man’. It’s the compliments that kept me going!”

Paul grew up in Lincoln, surrounded by Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman archaeology, and the “amazing” Lincoln Cathedral, which was the start of his interest in archaeology as a child.

“I moved to Scotland in 1982, and have spent my whole working life here, digging on various sites all over the country. The Northern Isles have always exerted a siren call after my first visit to Orkney, with the amazing archaeology and the wonderful times I had with people here. Orkney’s archaeology, the beauty of Orkney and most especially the folk of Orkney are why I moved here.”

Paul Sharman
Paul Sharman, Orkney’s new county archaeologist. (Tim Winterburn)

Paul has an impressive archaeology haul under his belt already and he is confident his new role will continue to offer up many more exciting opportunities.

“As a Durham University student, I worked on the last year of excavations on the Brough of Birsay. During the 1980s and early 1990s I also worked on the Holm of Papay northern chambered tomb for Anna Ritchie, and on Olly Owen’s excavations at the Norse site of Tuquoy in Westray.

“I worked on all seasons of the excavations at Minehowe in Tankerness, before I finally moved to Orkney in 2005 to work with the Orkney Archaeological Trust and then with ORCA at the UHI Archaeology Institute in the college. I’ve been here ever since.”

Paul believes the role offers varied and wide-ranging opportunities for an archaeologist, from the Neolithic remains to its wartime heritage, both on land and under water.

“The job provides an opportunity to help develop or support projects that benefit Orkney and involve its various communities, contributing to the vibrant, thriving community that is Orkney,” he continued.

“I hope to get around Orkney and to see more sites and meet more people as much as I can. Another part of the job is to work within the planning application system in the Council, to help developers avoid damaging Orkney’s archaeology, whether by something as small as a house extension, or as large as a wind farm. This is almost always possible with early consultation and flexibility in approach. We want to live in a place with the full benefits of modern life after all.

“Many amazing sites and objects have been found by chance in Orkney, whether turned up by plough (like the Ness of Brodgar site) or found on a walk, eroding out of the coast (like the Scar boat burial in Sanday).

“Sites and finds are usually not quite so spectacular, but just reporting something can add to the depth of information we have about Orkney’s past, without requiring further investigation.

“If you are metal detectorist, please follow the National Council for Metal Detecting’s code of conduct, which includes not digging in Scheduled Monuments or other known archaeological sites. Aberdeenshire Council provides a handy summary of the system in Scotland.

“If anyone thinks they have found a possible site, please report it to me at Orkney Islands Council on (01856) 873535 ext. 2535 or mobile 07979 702403. Please report any objects found to the Orkney Museum and to myself.

“If the find is part buried in the ground or exposed in an eroding face on the shore, please don’t pull it out – take a photo on your phone, with a location (you may have a grid reference or Just3Words app on your phone). The same process applies to human remains, if you see bones exposed, and you’ll also need to inform the police.

“One thing is for sure – in Orkney, you just never know what you might find!”

The Orkney Museum’s Tom Muir paid tribute to his colleague, Julie Gibson:

“I first met Julie not long after starting work at the museum in 1988 and have had the pleasure of working on a couple of rescue digs with her over the years, as well as counting her as a dear friend. Her sense of humour is fantastic and I know many professional storytellers who couldn’t hold a candle to her for timing and building the narrative of a story. But there are two things that stand out for me when reflecting on Julie’s legacy to Orkney’s archaeology.

Scar Plaque.
The whalebone plaque from the Scar boat burial, Sanday. (Sigurd Towrie)

“Before she took up that post of county archaeologist, she was the one who identified the Scar boat burial in Sanday as being a Viking Age boat-grave. Her involvement in the excavation at the Westness Viking cemetery in Rousay (her introduction to Orkney and, indeed, to her husband, Norman), was invaluable in identifying the remains of a boat.

“Human remains were eroding out of the section along the shore and it was while examining them that she found a boat rivet, which defined the burial as being Viking Age. Pressure was applied to have the excavation carried out as soon as possible, resulting in the recovery of a Viking sword, arrows, brooch and the famous Scar plaque, among other things.

“As it was later shown, they caught it in the nick of time, as storms after the excavation destroyed that section of the coastline. If it hadn’t been excavated then the Scar Plaque would have been lost, washed away and destroyed without anyone knowing that it had ever existed.”

He added: “Julie championed the dangers faced to our fragile coastline by climate change, and the archaeological sites that are being lost. But she also did something else of huge significance. She engaged with the farming community to let them know that an isolated site, like a Bronze Age cist burial, could be excavated quickly and with as little inconvenience to them as possible.

“Farming and archaeology had not always seen eye-to-eye and Julie played an important role in building bridges between them. They learned to work together and not against each other. This was something that Julie understood and this is the legacy that should be built on.”