Excavation Ness of Brodgar Skaill Farmstead Swartigill The Cairns

Excavation at The Cairns gets this summer’s dig season under way

Our 2023 dig season kicks off today, with a full team returning to The Cairns Iron Age site.
The Cairns broch from above. (Bobby Friel)
The Cairns broch from above. (Bobby Friel)

Summer is upon us, but at the UHI Archaeology Institute it’s not holidays that thoughts turn to but excavation. Our dig season kicks off today, with a full team returning to The Cairns Iron Age site.

Four major digs resume this year – three in Orkney and one in Caithness – not only allowing research to continue but providing venues for our students to participate in archaeological field schools.

All are open to the public so keep an eye on the website for updates and more details.

The Cairns, South Ronaldsay

Cairns interior
Excavation under way at The Cairns broch, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. (ORCA)

Getting the ball rolling is The Cairns, in South Ronaldsay, Orkney.

Work began on the site in 2006, revealing a large Iron Age broch (c100BC-AD200) and structures dating from the Iron Age through to the Norse period.

Excavation of the broch has permitted unrivalled access to the superbly well-preserved, stratified occupation deposits inside, which are rich in artefacts and detailed environmental information relating to the life and use of the Iron Age household 2,000 years ago.

The archaeology of The Cairns broch presents us with both the monumental, architectural substance and more intimate and momentary details of human life during the many generations of inhabitation.

Accompanying and surrounding the broch is an extensive settlement of village houses that sit within a ditched enclosure some 65-70 metres in diameter. Later in the building sequence, the settlement sprawled even more extensively over the infilled remains of the enclosure ditch.

Picture: Bobby Friel
The Cairns site from the air, looking out to Windwick. (Bobby Friel)

To date, 21 buildings have been partly or wholly excavated and these provide remarkable evidence for the range of activities and practices carried out in the settlement – including food processing and consumption, metalworking, bone-working, textile production, and animal husbandry.

Also present are two fully preserved and still roofed underground structures; a souterrain, and a subterranean chamber under the broch floor.

The last full season of fieldwork at The Cairns was in 2019, with the 2020 and 2021 digs falling victim to the pandemic. Excavation in 2022 was on a much-reduced scale.

This year’s dig runs from Monday, June 12, until Friday, July 7, with UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer and Iron Age specialist Martin Carruthers at the helm.

The site is near Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. To visit, follow the sign to Windwick on the A961 between St Margaret’s Hope and Burwick.

Please be aware that parking spaces are limited, so look out for our staff members or students who will be able to advise you on the best place to park.

Ness of Brodgar

The gate at the Ness of Brodgar re-opens on July 5, with the excavation running until August 17.

Visitors at Ness of Brodgar (Jim Richardson)
Visitors at Ness of Brodgar (Jim Richardson)

The site occupies a central position within the Orkney archipelago, lying between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, in the middle of the islands’ most imposing complex of Neolithic monuments.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the site’s discovery – in a field half-way between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. Since then, archaeological research has uncovered an astonishing array of Neolithic structures (3700-2500BC) and a biography spanning millennia – from traces of Mesolithic (9000-4000BC) activity to the site’s Neolithic heyday, through to the early Bronze Age (2500-800BC) and a later episode of use in the Iron Age (800BC-AD800).

At its zenith, in the main phase currently under investigation (around 3100BC), the Ness was dominated by huge, free-standing buildings flanked by massive stone walls.

This was much more than a domestic settlement: the size, quality, and architecture of the structures, together with evidence for tiled roofs, coloured walls, and over 900 examples of decorated stone – not to mention the rich assemblages of artefacts recovered from them – all add to an overall sense of the Ness being special in some way.

Structure Twenty-Seven’s north-western wall. (Sigurd Towrie)

This summer all eyes will be on a decidedly enigmatic building that lay buried beneath tonnes of deliberately deposited domestic refuse.

Christened Structure Twenty-Seven, the building is as big as it is perplexing. Whatever it was, it is unlike any other examples of Neolithic architecture excavated in Orkney to date and was robbed of most of its stone and partially dismantled in the late Neolithic.

Excavation under way outside Structure Twenty-Seven in 2022. (Sigurd Towrie)
Excavation under way outside Structure Twenty-Seven in 2022. (Sigurd Towrie)

First encountered in 2015, this sub-rectangular structure is approximately 17 metres long by 11 metres wide, with walls over two metres thick. Its internal space is defined by enormous stone slabs – looking for all the world like recumbent standing stones – set horizontally along the interior walls.  

Large, rectangular slabs were inserted in the gap between these prone orthostats and the wall, cladding the internal faces.

Unfortunately, after it went out of use, Structure Twenty-Seven fell victim to major episodes of stone robbing that saw most of its south-eastern and south-western walls removed. It had long been hoped that more of the north-western wall had survived, and, in 2022, that was confirmed.

As the overlying midden and rubble layers were removed the stunning quality of the surviving wall’s stonework shone through. It was, quite simply, exquisite.

Arguably the finest masonry uncovered on site to date, the wall was formed by regular courses of perfectly fitted stone, the precision of their placement unsurpassed. On top of that, the Neolithic builders had also incorporated a deliberate, but very subtle, curve into the length of the wall.  The outer face was also supported on massive projecting, or stepped, foundation slabs, some over two metres long.

But the good news doesn’t end there. Judging by the floor level of the building’s interior in 2022, the stunning north-western wall could survive to almost one metre in height!

Although elements of Structure Twenty-Seven’s impressive architecture have become clearer, the question of its age and role has not. Was it another variant of the monumental buildings elsewhere on site? Or something totally different?

And will 2023 see it give up some of its secrets?

Skaill farm, Rousay

Picture: Bobby Friel
Skaill farm from the air. (Bobby Friel/@takethehighview)

From prehistory we jump to more recent times and the ongoing investigations at Skaill farm on the island of Rousay. Work at the multi-period farmstead began in 2015, the results so far suggesting it may date back to the Norse period of Orcadian history, around AD1100.

Skaill Excavation, Rousay
Excavation under way at Skaill in 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)

Geophysical survey has revealed features below the remains of the 18/19th century buildings that correspond to several earthworks, such as platforms and enclosures, visible on the ground surface. The present farmstead is on a low mound, suggesting that the ground built up over numerous phases of activity.

In 2019, the remains of an 11th or 12th century AD Norse hall were revealed to the west of the farmhouse. The building, with substantial metre-thick walls, appears to be over 13 metres long.

This year, the aim is to clarify the relationship between the different areas of the site with the focus on the floor areas of the early farm buildings.

Picture: Bobby Friel
Drone shot of the Skaill excavation, Rousay. (Bobby Friel)

The excavation, which forms part of the international Looking in from the Edge research project, runs from July 10-28.

Swartigill, Caithness

Picture: Bobby Friel
Aerial view of the Swartigill excavation site in 2022. (Bobby Friel)

We leave Orkney for the final excavation of the season, heading south across the Pentland Firth to Caithness.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie
Swartigill souterrain. (Sigurd Towrie)

There, from August 14, until September 8, work resumes at the Burn of Swartigill – a collaboration between the UHI Archaeology Institute and the Yarrows Heritage Trust.

The excavations have provided a glimpse of everyday life in Iron Age Scotland – but a life that does not centre on the monumental architecture of the brochs.

Since 2015, the excavation has uncovered the remains of a settlement area spanning over a thousand years – from c350BC until AD945.

All the UHI Archaeology Institute excavations are open to the public, so if you’re in the area drop in and see some archaeology in action.