Excavation Iron Age The Cairns

The Cairns dig diary – day two

The covers are off and the broch interior revealed...
Excavating in the North Room of the broch interior. (ORCA)
Excavating in the North Room of the broch interior. (ORCA)

The broch interior revealed…

As an undergraduate student (second year of BSc Archaeological Science), this field school is my first experience of a large-scale research excavation.

We’re only on day two, but I’ve already picked up the essentials – wear more sunscreen, too many snacks is better than not enough, and that archaeological digs could really benefit from an ice cream van that visits at 3pm every day.

In all seriousness though, it really is a steep learning curve – no amount of reading about this site could have prepared me for just how remarkable it is to see in person.

I was lucky enough to visit last year, for a morning of tyre-hauling just before the season was unfortunately cancelled. Even so, the tarps were still covering a significant proportion of the site, and most notably the broch interior, so I wasn’t really able to see the site in its full glory.

Stepping on site this morning was fabulous – mist shrouded the horizon, but a light smattering of clouds and plenty of sun overhead meant that it was already quite warm and looked like it could get even warmer.

I was really looking forward to getting my trowel out!

But first things first. A few more tarps and tyres had to be removed – this time from the broch interior.

Then, for the first time in three years, the sheets were pulled back and a kaleidoscope of colours appeared – rich reds and oranges mixed in with deep browns and black. The layers and layers of tarps were a pain to remove, sure, but they really did their job – the precious floor deposits have been well-protected.

Excavation in Structure O today, with today's blogger, Luci, pictured left. (ORCA)
Excavation in Structure O today, with today’s blogger, Luci, pictured left. (ORCA)

After our morning tea break, I began helping to clean up Structure O, which is one of our focal areas for this season. We want to determine its sequence compared with the nearby criss-crossing walls and maybe figure out if it was built at the same time as the broch itself.

I worked alongside Chloe and together we cleaned a wall and part of the floor of the structure. I still haven’t quite got my head around the concept of “cleaning” deposits, but I’m sure I’ll get some practice over the next couple of weeks!

Some interesting finds were already appearing – mostly bone and shell. I found a shell inside the wall which I left well alone (and hope isn’t just an unfortunate snail) and a disarticulated bone, possibly from a sheep or similar-sized domesticate. For my first couple of finds, I would say they aren’t half bad.

After lunch it was back to the tarps.

We had to work together to lay them out and roll them up again, as some of them are absolutely massive and could well cover a third of the site or more. This resulted in some very entertaining viewing experiences, with some people leaping on rolled up tarps to squash the air out. However, I was very glad to see the end of the tarp-hauling!

Seal teeth recovered from the interior of the broch today. (ORCA)
Seal teeth recovered from the interior of the broch today. (ORCA)

Then I was back in Structure O finishing off my cleaning before moving to work with Hannah on straightening the trench edge. It felt a bit scary to be actually removing material, even though I knew it was just topsoil.

Anthea found another nice piece of bone too, mixed in with some rubble/paving she was cleaning beside us. The clouds disappeared just as we began, and the temperature rose suddenly making a quick sunscreen break very necessary. Who knew Orkney could get this hot!

Unfortunately, after the post-lunch tarp-folding session, most of us are now sporting an “archaeologist’s tan”, which is a smeary mixture of sunscreen and dirt, but from a distance is fairly convincing (until we take our gloves off).

Shell-rich deposit outside the broch, (ORCA)
Shell-rich deposit outside the broch, (ORCA)

I’m really looking forward to the next few days, when we can really start excavating. Plus, it’s going to be sunny, so it’s just lovely to be outside in this weather. The site is looking amazing already!

Luci Galer