The Cairns Day 18 – 2019

The northern part of the trench showing the village beyond the broch and the souterrain at lower left. Thanks to Bobby Friel

Unbelievably the digging season is nearly at an end at The Cairns. It only seems a few days since we started! This blog post is written by Holly Young who is about to start her MSc with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

As the season begins to draw to a close and our thoughts inevitably start turning to the mountain of tyres and tarps that need to be moved back onto site to put it to rest for another year, digging work on site is also being wrapped up.

With the haar rolling in across Windwick Bay, the day began with the final site tour for the team where we got to look at the results of the last four weeks’ hard work and ask any remaining questions about the developments that have occurred.

The rest of the day was spent sprucing up the archaeology for final photographs and recording.

Structure Q in the village

In the broch, Therese, Connor, Calum and Mika have been removing deposits around the primary hearth in the NW quadrant, where a large plan has been drawn that includes the newly revealed substantial paving. Our resident soil wizard, Jo, finished up with her quadrant of beautifully coloured deposits in the SE room, and Alanis photographed the results of her sampling work in the NE quadrant.

Down in Trench Q, Bobby and his team of eager students and volunteers have been doing final digging, cleaning and recording of the various areas across the ‘broch village’. Many areas of the rubble are still giving up finds, including evidence of metalworking, various animal bones and stone tools. Bobby has also been spending his tea-breaks providing us with astounding aerial shots of the site with his drone.

Looking down on part of the souterrain passage

Up in the SW area of the site, Rick and Jen have been polishing off the final pieces of recording. This area of site has been getting progressively more complex with new areas of building popping up and new insights into the substantial terrace that was dug to make way for the construction of the broch coming to light. The portion of the large ditch surrounding the site, which is present in this area, has been blessing its diggers with a large number of finds, including a localised area rich in animal bones and shell which has been very carefully excavated over the last few weeks.

Rick and Bobby have also been putting the various students through their paces across the last few weeks, with various workshops to help build up their archaeological skills. Today, they’ve continued planning various areas across Trench Q and the SW extension.

Now, to task. I am here to draw to attention to the activities that have been taking place in the souterrain this year.

For those of you who are not familiar with these enigmatic structures, souterrains are subterranean passageways, the uses of which are massively up for contention. Whether they be for storage or ritual, or several uses that don’t even occur to us, these buildings remain shrouded in mystery.

The souterrain passage

We have been methodically sampling the possible floor deposits in the formerly-roofed portion of the souterrain, the large roof lintels of which were removed in 2016. In similar fashion to the sampling taking place in the broch, we have been removing contexts on a 50cm grid, for everything from finds recovery to the chemical breakdown of the individual soils in an attempt to understand the kinds of things people were using the souterrain for.

Several things from the sampling are worth noting. The first is that, in the southern section of the grid, a series of greasy deposits have been excavated, including one that was quite a vivid orange colour. These deposits are significant as it may shed light on the activities that were taking place in the souterrain and around this section of the souterrain roof. Above these deposits, the large roof lintels were positioned in such a fashion as to leave a gap, above which were broken fragments of rotary quern-stones and a ‘stone box’ filled with winkle shells. There is a possibility that some kind of liquid was being strained through these shells, gently pouring into the souterrain and being absorbed into the soil. In relation to this, a small cache of the same species of shell was found tucked in a small deposit flush against the souterrain wall.

The entrance to the broch and the souterrain

Now, in the final sampling stages (as is always the norm whenever the end of dig season is nigh!), just as we begin the closing down the site, some deposits of interest have begun to be revealed. The lower fills of this area of the souterrain contain fairly substantial rubble, some of which may possibly be associated with earlier buildings that were part of the broch village. The people constructing the souterrain built through these earlier broch-related structures, sometimes incorporating useful pieces of masonry, sometimes smashing through others, continuing the theme of reuse of earlier structures that is so common throughout the Iron Age in Orkney, and appears to hold a huge amount of significance for the inhabitants of this site.

Holly working at the souterrain

Finally, the sampling grid has been extended in the last week to cover the portion of the souterrain passage and chamber that was created by the reuse of the broch entrance way. This strategy will be utilised across the next few seasons to draw all the information from across the different areas of the souterrain together to create a coherent story.

And, so, onto the shutting down of the site, which seems to have arrived far more quickly than any of us would like. Putting the site to bed is always a stark reminder that we’re a whole year away from getting stuck in once again.

Thanks to Holly Young, MSc. Archaeological Practice student to be…

The Cairns Day 17 – 2019

Today’s blogger Jo setting up a sample grid in the broch

Hello again to the Cairns followers – it doesn’t seem a year since I was last here on site, and writing once more for the blog! I’m Jo McKenzie, a research geoarchaeologist with the University of Bradford and currently one of the small team working inside the broch as we go into the last couple of days of the excavation.

This is the third year that I’ve been one of the visiting specialists at the Cairns, and as always it’s been amazing to see the development of the excavation and how much changes as – especially for me – we progress through the deposits preserved in the broch interior.

Sample grid across the floor of the southeast room of the broch

As a geoarchaeologist, my focus is using a range of archaeological science techniques to investigate the soil deposits on site. At Cairns, my analyses will hopefully help us understand the very important floor surfaces which are now exposed in almost all areas inside the broch. I’m using a technique called soil micromorphology to enable us to look at the floors in a way we can’t using traditional excavation methods. Small blocks of deposit are carefully removed, using a metal tin so that they remain undisturbed. Resin is poured into these blocks and hardened, allowing a microscope slide to be made through a ‘slice’ of the floor surface.

Looking down a corridor space towards the south room in the broch

Under the microscope, we can examine in detail what often prove to be many, many more deposits that can be seen with the naked eye. This technique is a powerful tool for understanding how the floor surface deposits form and the microscopic information they contain – fuel residues, bone, plant residues and other pointers to human activity, as well as a whole range of indicators for environmental conditions on site and how these have changed through time. 

In The Cairns Broch

This year at the Cairns however, it’s been a case of less sampling and more trowelling, as it becomes clear that we’re getting closer to what could be the absolute primary surfaces within the broch – a crucial stage and one that it’s so important to get right. All samples are meaningless without understanding their archaeological context, and so this year I’ve mainly been within the so-far largely unexcavated south east quadrant of the broch, carefully cleaning the complex activity surface we can now see there, doing some head scratching, and making comparisons between the sequence of hearths, floors and features we see in this quadrant and those of the other areas of the interior, so that we can plan the next stage of our sampling strategy. Roll on next year, and once again, so many thanks to Martin and the rest of the Cairns team for a week of the most amazing archaeology!

Thanks to Dr Jo McKenzie, University of Bradford

The Cairns Day 16 – 2019

One of the tour groups with UHI MRes student Kevin guiding.

Site Director Martin Carruthers takes up the story of the successful Open Day at the excavation….

Well today was the open day on site and the decision we made to slightly postpone the open day really paid-off as we basked in sunshine and blue skies all day!

Fiona overseeing some actual metalworking

The visitors seemed to really enjoy the experience of making their way around the site, witnessing the massive broch and the other buildings, hearing from us about the findings and looking at some of the fascinating artefacts; pottery, stone tools, metalwork, glass beads and fragments, and large volumes of animal bone. As well as showing the fruits of our labours, we also had a demonstration of a little light metalworking going on from Fiona Sanderson, who showed our students and other diggers how to go about it, and our own Carnegie Trust scholarship student Paul was also performing some experimental metalworking!

Lots of the team were involved in the open day, leading tours, and explaining what is happening across the site however, even in the midst of the festive atmosphere of the open day excavation progress continued.

Revealing the further extent of Structure O

In Bobby’s area the northern wall of Structure O was further traced and its outer face, in particular, came nicely into view, reminding us of the solid, double-faced nature of this walling and the substantial upstanding building it must have belonged to.

Jenny with the saddle quern rubber, showing its grinding surface, which after use as the top stone of the quern seems to had facets removed to providers scrapers (Skaill knives) for butchery or skinning

In the Southwest extension the last remnant of the special deposit that had included the sheep skull and other items was lifted allowing us to lift and look at the saddle quern rubber stone. It is an object with a more complex history than we thought.  Initially used as a top-stone to grind the grain against a saddle quern, it also shows signs of having been subsequently used as a mortar to crush substances. Finally it looks like large flakes were removed from its original grinding surface.  These may have then been used as ‘Skaill knives’, a form of butchery or skinning scarping tool, or the flaking may have been intended to remove the old working surface from the rubber, a phenomenon sometimes seen in prehistoric querns and quern rubbers!

The saddle quern rubber in situ.

Finally, inside the broch, recording was under way as we prepare for the end of the week and closing down the site.  Prior to this though we still have a few days digging work left and we’ll keep you informed of what we find!

In the broch today
The team relaxing in the beautiful weather at tea break

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns

The Cairns Days 14 & 15 – 2019

Bronze object from the floor of the southern room in the broch

The weather conditions at The Cairns this week have been appalling, so Site Director Martin Carruthers has combined Day 14 & 15 into one blog post….

Well what can we say- this blog incorporates two days of work on site as we’ve been rather truncated and interrupted by recent weather conditions.  Firstly, high winds, and then persistent rain have had an impact on our ability to sustain fully productive excavation across both days.

Looking out over the broch towards the North Sea, shrouded in cloud

Nevertheless, some very interesting insights and results have been forthcoming from the site. In the broch the work has continued to reveal more details of the early occupation. Therese and team have observed a very densely rich crushed shell deposit around what we think are the primary floor surfaces.  This is especially the case in a zone tucked between the western wall face and the edge of the substantial floor slabs. This shell material may be the earliest deposit that we have reached so far in the broch, perhaps even dating to the construction of the massive building, or part of a foundation deposit of some significance.  It shows that even once we have dealt with the ‘primary’ floor slabs in the area (which will be next season) we still have very interesting things in store to find out about the early moments of the broch’s life!

Elsewhere in the broch Yesterday, work recommenced in the Southern quadrant/room.  This began with a gentle clean over the area to remind ourselves of where we left off in the previous season.  Well so much for that simple recognition exercise! Within minutes Mika, one of our Leiden University interns had discovered another little copper alloy (bronze) object.  A roughly ring-shaped object.  This time this piece appears slightly D-shaped and may be some sort of fitting, or even a contorted pin fragment rather than a ring like the one found earlier in the season within the Western room.

Animal skull, bones and saddle quern rubber stone

Outside the broch in the Southwest extension, Rick’s team have also been “coming up with the goods”.  You may recall that this area encompasses a part of the village settlement, and a portion of the inner ditch that formed the enclosure that once surrounded the site.  Rick’s team have been busy re-writing what we thought was going on here.  On the one hand they have established that quite a lot of what we thought of as the natural glacial till is in fact redeposited, slumped over, or actively employed as a building material by Iron Age builders.  The result is that the village building, Structure J, which had the appearance of a rather compact, and neatly defined kidney- shaped building has expanded exponentially to form a rather massive, much more complex, multi-roomed building.  The net result is that the broch-period village on this SW side, which had appeared confined to small belt of features hugging the broch outer wall face is now much larger and impressive! 

A little ‘treat’ for us in this area came when Jenny, one of our UHI excavation module students, was working on the rubble in-fill behind Structure J. This is an area probably related to the foundation of Structure J.  A cache of animal bone and other items seem to have been deposited in the upper part of the rubble. There was an inverted sheep skull, several femurs, some worked deer antler, and a very nice rubber stone for a saddle quern.  This is one more instance of apparently special deposits made at the site relating to the foundation or decommissioning of major buildings and features during the Iron Age.

Trench area M & Q

In trench-areas M & Q on the Northern slopes of the site, Bobby’ team have been doing great work also on the village buildings here.  Almost everyday the substantial nature of the remains there seem to get larger, more massive, and more complex.  There are now myriad walls relating to rectangular, cellular and circular buildings.  Some of the walls are double faced and substantially built in a style that may make them contemporary with the broch, others are single-faced revetments that have been added over time.  It’s a complicated and not immediately clear area to resolve, but this complexity will, ultimately, result in a lovely detailed story of the development of the settlement.  For now, a clearer picture of the interconnected nature of the broch village is emerging with passages, thresholds and wall-piers serving to link some of the buildings and show how movement was achieved between and around this important part of the village complex.

Holly working at the souterrain

Finally, and by no means least Holly has been busy, as ever, excavating and sampling the souterrain to the east of the broch.  This underground passageway has a series of in-fill deposits present but is now resolving on to floor surfaces and we hope to be able to recover deposits that relate to the early use of this enigmatic passageway to the past!

If you’d like to see some of these things for yourself we’ll be hosting an open day at the site on Monday the 8th of July from 11am to 4pm!  Please do feel free to join us on site.

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeologists Lead in International Climate Change Action

Erosion at Skara Brae

The Climate Risk Assessment for Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Property Report, was published this week and launched at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting held on Tuesday 2 July 2019 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The report was co-authored by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Director Professor Jane Downes and Orkney Islands Council Regional Archaeologist and UHI researcher Julie Gibson.

The Climate Vulnerability Index assessment report was produced following a workshop, co-hosted by UHI Archaeology Institute, in Orkney earlier this year to trial the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) framework, which assesses the threat that climate change poses to all types of heritage sites. Supported by University of the Highlands and Islands in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland (HES), James Cook University (JCU, Australia), Orkney Islands Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group, the workshop brought together leading international heritage professionals and climate scientists and islanders whose lives and businesses are bound up with the World Heritage site.

Skara Brae, Orkney. Photo: Adam Lee

The CVI approach examined both the vulnerability of the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Orkney World Heritage site – the basis for its selection as a World Heritage site – as well as community vulnerability, which explored the economic, social and cultural importance of the site for the local community and the potential impact of any loss, as well as its resilience to climate change risks.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney was the first cultural World Heritage site to undergo CVI assessment, following an initial trial of the tool at Shark Bay in Western Australia. The report recommends wider application of the CVI methodology, both in Scotland and internationally, highlighting its significant potential to enhance understanding and support adaptation to address climate change challenges at World Heritage sites worldwide.

Professor Jane Downes commented that, “We are pleased that the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has been involved with the international team in this crucial work to develop a method of assessing damage to economically vital world heritage sites. This report highlights the very real threats to heritage that climate change brings”

Julie Gibson said “The report starkly highlights the severe threats of a changing climate to Orkney’s World Heritage Site – through sea level rise, changes in storm intensity and frequency, and increased rainfall.  The workshop method provides a means of understanding how different communities in the world will relate to the impacts of climate change on their heritage. Hopefully for Orkney, our potential to adapt will be fulfilled”

Ewan Hyslop, Head of Technical Research and Science at HES, said: “It was a great honour for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site to be chosen to pilot the CVI methodology, and we’re pleased to now bring those findings to the international stage during the World Heritage Committee meeting. While the findings of the report reiterate the severity of climate change risk to the World Heritage site in Orkney, there are also positives to take away in terms of the resilience of the site and the wider community to manage the impacts of climate change in the future.”

Adam Markham, Deputy Director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS and a co-developer of the CVI said: “Climate change is the fastest growing threat to World Heritage sites. Sites worldwide are being damaged and degraded by melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons, yet there is no standardized way to assess vulnerability. The CVI is being developed to fill that gap, so that experts and site managers can use local knowledge and the best available science to determine the risk level, and then take the appropriate action to protect them.”

UHI Archaeology Institute Team Return to Skaill Farm

View looking across the Skaill Farmstead site

Next week commencing 8th July 2019, a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will return to dig at the fascinating Skaill Farmstead site on the Orkney island of Rousay.

The team of UHI students, Rousay residents and volunteers will once again be led by Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee from the UHI Archaeology Institute. They will together continue the project to investigate this farm and settlement mound which may have been inhabited for over 1000 years.

UHI Student Sam Golder at the Skaill Farm dig, Rousay

The dig is part of the Landscapes of Change – Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate project which is now in its 5th season. The aim of the project is to explore the farmstead at Skaill from the Norse period to its abandonment in the nineteenth century. The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it is likely that a Norse settlement is located somewhere at Skaill. Earlier structures have been found below the present farm last year, and this season we plan to explore more of the Norse and possible Viking phases of the site.

The site is open to the public from 8th July to 26th July and everyone is welcome to visit. Tours are available and archaeologists will be on site most weekdays. Open Day is on Sunday 21st July 2019.

The dig is located on the island of Rousay near the Midhowe Broch. Park in the layby for the broch and walk down the hill until you reach the sea. Turn left and follow the coast until you reach us at Skaill Farmstead! You will need to take the ferry from Orkney Mainland. Check out the ferry timetable before you go.

Check out previous blog posts on the site here.

The Cairns Day 13 – 2019

An aerial view of The Cairns site using drone photography by Bobby Friel @takethehighview

Day 13 turned out to be unlucky for us as the weather closed in and torrential rain set in, meaning that we had to leave site early. There is always tomorrow!

So today on site we were subject to some less than conducive weather- with squally rain and wind hampering our activities. Across all of the active areas of the site we are now working in fairly sensitive areas so eventually, when the rain really set in for the day, we had little option but to pack up and head off.  Therefore, today’s blog is a photo montage of events and activities from earlier today and yesterday….

The substantial early paving within the West Room of the broch
Mika excavating a pottery spread up against the broch wall in the West Room
Working in Structures Q and R in the village
Working on the rubble in-fill of Structure O in the village settlement

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day 12 – 2019

In the foreground, the rubble in-filling Structure O outside the broch

We are pleased to welcome international students from around the world at The Cairns and today it is the turn of Mickey Van Lit from Leiden University to walk us through the day at The Cairns……

Mooing cows and squeaking wheelbarrows shape our background music. The scrape of trowels against stones is like a war drum, urging us on to keep working. Hoodies are taken off. Five minutes later, hoodies are put back on. Rain nor wind nor sun can stop us from doing what we do. But what exactly are we doing?

The village buildings to the north of Structure O

At first glance, the area I have been working on – and am still working on – might seem a bit boring. There is a whole lot of rubble, and even more dirt. Yet, with a bit of singing, talking and the occasional ray of sun, it is quite a nice area to work on.

It is located right at the entrance of the broch, with only the souterrain between the broch and ‘my’ patch. On the right, there is a wall that seems to dive underneath our area. When we started two weeks ago, the area looked quite different than it looks now. Near to no stones were visible. Along with four others, I have been trowelling the dirt away to try and uncover the rubble. Underneath this rubble are the remains of at least one wall, but hopefully more.

A pottery rim, one of many pieces coming from the site at the moment

When trowelling, we quickly learned to squat while trowelling, as the rocks dug into our knees whenever we would kneel. During the second week, voids started to appear. According to Bobby, we should be happy with these voids, as they signalled that we were getting close to the big rubble. Unfortunately, the voids meant that there were no stable rocks to stand on, as everything was wobbly or crumbling. It was quite like playing Twister. But Bobby was right (of course) and we soon got down to the bigger rocks that we were hoping to find.

Closer to the trench edge, the soil was trampled by us, and we could not get through with our trowels. We got out the big tools: mattocks. Within a day, we had cracked down upon the bigger rubble there as well. In fact, the first rock we found was massive, and it took us a while to find the end of it. Finally, after two weeks and one day, we were able to take the obligatory pictures. While I am writing this blog, my co-workers of this area are removing the rubble on top. When that has been done, we will find the rest of the wall that ducked beneath our area.

Vivid floor deposits in the southeast room of the broch and the dark stony area of the hearth in the background

Even though the work appeared to be a bit monotonous, we had a lot of fun. My team had a tendency to sing, if only two lines before we switched to a new topic of conversation. The conversations consisted mostly of nonsensical facts and awful jokes – you know, the interesting kind of conversations. Every once in a while, Holly would pop up from the souterrain to make a comment, which of course only added to the fun. We have gotten quite good at multitasking: talk and dig, people, talk and dig.

Todays blogger Mickey writing the blog in the site office

To end this blog on a (slightly) more serious note, it has to be said that this site is brilliant, and the people just as much. No matter the weather or the hard work, everyone is enthusiastic and interested in what we are doing. Therefore, I propose a round of applause for everyone that has been working here. Looks great, keep going, guys!

The mooing cows in the field next to The Cairns

Thanks to Mickey Van Lit, Leiden University Archaeology Student

The Cairns Day 11 – 2019

Excavating across the broch today

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Alanis Buhat writes our blog today from a wind and rain battered site.

What an exciting start to the third week of the Cairns 2019! Despite the wind and rain, fresh new faces have joined us from various parts of the world to brave the Orcadian weather.

A slightly short summary of today’s activities – further structural features continue to transpire on site, with particular interest to the North East section of Structure A (the broch) where we are joined by Geoarchaeologist Dr. Jo McKenzie from University of Bradford.

Dr Jo McKenzie at work in the broch

Samples are being taken for micromorphology analyses and this will allow us to look at the structural make-up of the site soils at microscopic level. This method will be extremely useful in providing detailed information on the exact nature of the occupation surfaces.

Within the North East room of the Broch, we have been slowly excavating the occupational deposits and taking samples at each stage. Now we are ready to extend the grid to find the relationship between these floors/occupation material and the Broch walls and the features surrounding it such as the Orthostats, kerbstones and other stonework that divide the Broch into the different areas.

Vivid floor and occupation deposits in the northeast room of the broch

Similar methods will be applied to the south room of Structure A for the rest of the week. So if you are interested in geoarchaeological or environmental studies, this will be the time to joins us and discover “the unseen”. Come visit us on site or keep up to date and follow our daily vlogs on The Cairns Facebook page. We hope to see you soon!

Thanks to Alanis Buhat, M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, UHI.

The Cairns Day 10 – 2019

Looking across part of the village settlement with Structure Q in the foreground

Today, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student, Aime Sohkhlet writes our blog…

For most of my time on site, I have been working on area Q and as the two weeks passed by, I was slowly able to see new and great developments throughout.

From a levelled area of soil to emerging rocks, bones and walls, area Q now has character and definition through all that we have uncovered. Day 10 at the Cairns has been quite a productive day. With no rain and relatively no sun, I think it was a perfect day to work and bask in the fog that sheltered us from any harsh working conditions, considering the task that was given to my group today.

A saddle quern and red deer antler discovered in one corner of Structure Q during cleaning the building for photography

The task set for my final day on site was simple but equally important as the rest of the work involved in understanding the lives of Iron Age people. We were tasked with photo cleaning area Q specifically context (1851) and getting it picture perfect! This process in my opinion might have been the most difficult thing I’ve done so far (and this is saying a lot because fieldwork is hard work all around haha…)

Photo cleaning is an aspect of fieldwork that I am now appreciating. The most important thing that my supervisor got me to think about is presentation and perspective. The skill of presenting our work through a single photograph not only involved our hard work of cleaning the site but it also depended on Mother Nature. Just picture us all praying for a cloud to pass in front of the sun everyday so that our pictures weren’t over exposed by the harsh sun haha… the presence of the fog today was a great bonus really. 

Today’s blogger Aime ‘photo-cleaning’ in Structure Q

A single shot is supposed to be able to tell an observer a story. A picture can serve a thousand words and because of this, we had to meticulously clean and present our site in such a way that even a person with just little knowledge about The Cairns would be able to understand the context and what our aims were for that particular part of it all. Every angle and every shot was taken and recorded and through this process, we are able to see progression on site and present it to everyone else with the confidence that everything was, and I say this with much joy haha… Picture Perfect!

Fieldwork demands dedication and through every task that was given to me and the group that I was in, I think we learnt to dedicate ourselves toward hard work and something close to perfection in everything that we do and because of this I think my first two weeks of excavation (EVER) at the Cairns, was a success!

Thanks to Aime Sohkhlet, UHI, BA Archaeology Student