‘A whole new world has opened up beneath my feet!’
We are well into the excavation skills practical skills two-week course and the UHI Archaeology Institute students are gathering new knowledge and skills at pace.
While the early days were about how to do the basics and record correctly to site standards, we now have a little more autonomy, with the safety of active supervision, and always someone ask when something new occurs or we need a reminder.
The ORCA excavation handbook and the phone camera are our friends, and reference. Accuracy is an archaeologist’s best friend, with the data, photographs and samples only being as good as the referencing that will enable the off-site experts and site director to interpret it later.
For me, the opportunity to complete context sheets and assess the soil type, complete a scale drawing, then take levels with the Leica ‘dumpy’ level scope, along with the associated paperwork, really ramped up my knowledge and experience.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure what I’d think about a ten-day stint at The Cairns dig. Would it be tedious? Would I enjoy it? Well, the answer is that I’ve loved it. The time has flown by and a whole new world has opened up beneath my feet!
Have you ever seen the spy movies where the enemy mole is revealed on a slow-build computer screen, pixel by pixel? Well, no spy here, although there is a feeling that, pixel-by-pixel, we are building a picture of life in Iron Age Orkney.
As students, we learn the old, but very relevant, skills of drawing and the use of taped offsets and grids. By doing so we learn. As Anthea commented, drawing is a cerebral process that allows the time to reflect on what we see in a way a simple photograph doesn’t. There is a place for established methods along with newer technology.
As we’ve worked today, we have enjoyed a steady flow of visitors, who have been fascinated with the “story so far”.
So, what’s happened today?
By area and structure, here are some of the highlights.
A new area was opened up by Martin and Scott, to the south-west of the main broch wall – a continuation of the broch circle and to see the edge of the post-broch “wag” complex. A “wag” is a type of building well-known in Caithness and Sutherland.
Lots of stone tools were found just in the topsoil here. This little trench may also reveal more about the village that surrounded the broch.
In Structure E, Anthea, Derek, Iain, and Felix carried out further excavation and it’s revealing a continuation of the circular cell wall, hitherto hidden.
Over in Structure O, Sean, Luci and Michael have revealed evidence of burning in the centre of the flagstone surface. Sampling is ongoing and may lead to a hearth being unearthed and evidence of new levels of habitation overlying the earlier ones.
At the broch “frontage” Holly and Chloe began excavating a huge periwinkle midden, with a solid layer of over 1,000 shells excavated so far. Holly mentioned that Greg Campbell’s BAJR guide, which is available free here, is great reading if you’re interested in finding out more about shell deposits.
In the broch’s Central Room, Alannah, Dom, Tom, Rick, and myself, have had an eventful day with a large fragment of an everted rim pot coming to light. This was in addition to much evidence of bone, pottery, charcoal and stone tools.
With all this going on, the less glamorous, but essential, task of cleaning has been ongoing ready for survey, photography, and drawing.
As we uncover new layers, context sheets are used to document the different levels and now we are at the stage to collect a new batch of samples, which, according to our supervisor, Rick, is a great place to be.
All the students have spent a day at the sample flotation and drying area at the UHI Archaeology Institute and worked with an environmental archaeologist processing samples gathered on site. After removal of rock, clay and silt remains are dried.
Today, with Dr Scott Timpany, we had the opportunity to look at samples under a microscope and see what sorts of deposits remain and maybe what they could indicate. They showed many things – bone, charcoal and also seeds and grains.
Beneath our feet, we have the remnants of meals eaten 2,000 years ago, and what was grown and formed the diet of those living in, and around, the broch.
BA (Hons) Scottish History and Archaeology student