Excavation Skaill Farmstead Student Stories

Skaill farm – a student’s experience of the excavation field school

Undergraduate student Sarah James reports on her experience over the two-week excavation field school at Skaill farm, Rousay. 
Lunch on the beach during the Skaill farm dig. (📷 Sarah James)
Lunch on the beach during the Skaill farm dig. (📷 Sarah James)

The Skaill farm excavation, in Rousay, hosted one of the UHI Archaeology Institute student field schools again this summer, open to the archaeology undergraduate and postgraduate excavation modules. This season the team explored the medieval and post-medieval farmstead to the east of the Norse hall.

Undergraduate student Sarah James reports on her experience over the two-week field school. 

Excavating in Trench 19. (📷 Sarah James)

I am in my second year of a BA (Hons) Archaeology degree at the UHI. I live on the Inner Hebridean island of Mull, where I run a small farm and tourism business with my family. 

I had visited the Skaill dig twice before – in the 2019 and 2021 seasons – while on holiday in Orkney and I was excited when the opportunity to do field school there came up.

Finding out more about the multiperiod Norse to 19th century character of the site appealed to me, particularly because it is situated on the archaeologically rich stretch of coastline at Westness, with Swandro and Midhowe on either side.  

I am interested in public / community archaeology and have always been impressed by the UHI Archaeology Institute’s active commitment in its work engaging with the local and wider community.

The Skaill dig team includes Rousay residents, staff, students and volunteers. There was a steady flow of visitors to site throughout the fortnight I was there and the open day was pleasingly busy.  

Structures in Trench 19. (📷 Sarah James)
Structures in Trench 19. (📷 Sarah James)

I learned a lot from what was my first experience of excavation – from the use and selection of the different tools, distinguishing between contexts, section drawing, photography, treatment of finds and an introduction and use of the survey instruments used for measuring angles and distances on site.  

Early in the second week of the field school, we looked at the Wirk – a ruinous fortified medieval towered hall-house and St Mary’s Kirk – lecturer Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon. The aim was to learn more about why the finds of worked red sandstone fragments at Skaill farm are significant.

Red sandstone at the Wirk. (📷 Sarah James)
Red sandstone at the Wirk. (📷 Sarah James)

Sarah Jane explained how similarities in construction, placenames and landscape analysis could be seen between the Wirk and other towered structures in Orkney, such as Cubbie Roo’s Castle in Wyre.

These were buildings which formed part of substantial medieval estates in Orkney – in this instance possibly part of the estate of Sigurd of Westness, a powerful Norse chieftain mentioned in Orkneyinga Saga.

The fragments of worked, red sandstone found at Skaill and also at the Wirk and in and around St Mary’s Kirk and kirkyard also point to the high status of the wider site in the medieval period. There may even have been another medieval kirk constructed, or partly constructed, nearby, perhaps echoing the choice of red sandstone used for the construction of St Magnus Cathedral and referencing the cult of Saint Magnus.  

Planning structures at Skaill farm. (📷 Dan Lee)

The field school was definitely a rite of passage for me – my first experience of what is the defining activity of archaeology – fieldwork.

I found it an ideal educational experience – a small number of students in a less formal setting and being taught conversationally with practical experience. I expected it to be physically hard work. And it was.

There were many highlights – finding some red sandstone on site, lunch on the beach, the cattle traffic jams, Rolf the digger driver’s fearless little dog, Riccardo’s cigar, the delights of the Rousay shop, fish and chips at the Taversoe Hotel, the kindness and friendliness of everyone and, most of all ,the site itself and what it continues to reveal.  

Sarah planning. (📷 Dan Lee)
Sarah planning. (📷 Dan Lee)

Sarah is undertaking the BA (Hons) degree in archaeology, where the core Excavation Skills module is a key component of practical training for students. You can find out more about this, and other degree courses, here.