Explore the Past, Present and Future of Orkney’s Energy Story

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology based at Orkney College UHI is looking for volunteers to join the team undertaking the exciting new Orkney Energy Landscapes Project.

Join us on the 28th March to complete archaeological recording of the turbine sites at Burgar Hill and Costa Head on 18th April 2020.

We will start the surveys at 10.00am and finish by 16.00 on both days. Full training will be given and you do not need any experience of surveying, recording or archaeology. As ever, in March and early April, be prepared for the weather and bring along warm clothing and waterproofs just in case rain makes an appearance. Also, bring a packed lunch as the shops are a good distance away from both sites.

There is no charge for taking part, but places are limited and booking is essential so please contact Kat on Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk or 01856 569345 to book a place.

Upcoming field days are planned at Billia Croo wave energy test site, Stromness Uranium corridor walk, Flotta terminal walk, Eday peat coring and cutting day. Keep an eye on our social media UHI Archaeology Facebook and this blog for details of these events.

Update from Newark, Orkney following Storms

Work continues to protect the fragile site at Newark Bay, Orkney. Photo: Amanda Brend

The storms that have hit the UK in the past few months have brought flooding and disruption to many communities both on the coast and on river flood plains. Orkney has not been spared and our exposed coastal areas have been subjected to massive waves and high storm surges.

As the storms are replaced by snow showers and a period of relative calm, archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) together with a small army of volunteers are inspecting the fragile site at Newark.

January and February’s storms have badly impacted Newark and disrupted many of the measures that have been so carefully put in place in the previous few months – as photographs on various social media sites have shown.

Volunteers repairing damage to the sea defences. Photo: Amanda Brend

The site is being actively watched over by Deerness residents and by volunteers from across Orkney, including students and staff from the UHI Archaeology Institute. We know that the sandbags are not the answer to protecting the site in the long term, but they provide some protection, and as soon as the weather makes it safe to replace and secure them again, we’ll put out a shout for help. In the meantime if you find bags blowing about, please gather them up, weigh them down near the carpark (in a sheltered place) and if we can re-use, we will.

As a separate issue from the protection of the site, Historic Environment Scotland are funding a major 3 year study of the site and the human remains there. Check out our previous blog for details of the project. Currently a major report is being compiled of all that’s been done at Newark in the past, what we know about the site and what needs to be done for the future to best understand it and all that’s found there. The work is being undertaken by ORCA, at the UHI Archaeology Institute here at Orkney College in Kirkwall and is led by a Steering Group made up of landowner, volunteers, ORCA archaeologists and Gail Drinkall of Orkney Museum.

Landowner about to do some claying up on-site, to protect remains. Photo: Amanda Brend

Years 2 and 3 of the project will be examining in depth the human remains, completing DNA analysis and other work to determine as much as we can about the many folk buried there. Many remains were excavated from the site 50 years ago (http://www.hopkinsweb.org.uk/orkney/) and are safely preserved for this work to be undertaken. We know that people were buried there between the 6th and 15th centuries A.D. (https://canmore.org.uk/site/3033/newark) and that their remains may hold information about the little-understood Pictish/Viking transition in Orkney at a time of major change in the North.

A major exhibition about Newark and all our findings will take place in the Orkney Museum over the summer of 2022, and other grants are being applied for in order to extend the project, to complete further research, but we fear indeed that the sea will ultimately win the battle.

In the meantime, please respect this site of human burial and be aware that it’s not safe around the site at present due to undermined banks and boulders making walking dangerous. We will continue to do what we can and if you want to help, watch out for the next call for volunteers.

Archaeology Student Conference 2020: Current Challenges in Archaeology

An Lòchran Building on the Inverness Campus

Student Conference cancelled due to present public health advice.

If you are a University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student get out your diaries and write in, “Student Conference, Inverness” where it says 27th March 2020.

On Friday 27th March 2020 the Archaeological Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands is hosting its second Archaeology Student Conference at the An Lòchran Building on the Inverness Campus.

The conference will be attended by students across all areas of the degree programmes from first-years through to Masters degree and PhD students. The theme of the conference this year is Current Challenges in Archaeology.

The day will consist of a mixture of student presentations relating to this theme and a workshop with break-out sessions, designed to team professionals and students together to identify and come up with potential solutions for these challenges. Hopefully, these sessions will provide some interesting ideas and lively debate.

Students presenting at the first Archaeology Student Conference in Orkney 2017.

The mix of professionals and students at the first conference was deemed a rewarding experience for all involved and we would love to repeat that experience this time round. We hope the workshop session will be particularly informative and it will be interesting to see if challenges identified by students will be the same as those identified by you and other professionals.

The Programme of Events

Conference Opens, Coffee and Biscuits 9:30-10:00am
Student Presentations 10:00-11:15
Coffee & Biscuits Break 11:15-11:30
Student Presentations 11:30-12:30
Lunch (provided) @ Grumpy Chef cafe 12:30-13:30
Workshop and Break-Out Sessions 13:30-14:30
Coffee & Biscuits Break 14:30-14:45
Workshop and Break-Out Sessions 14:45-15:30
Round-up and Thank yous 15:30-16:00
Evening refreshments 16:00 onwards

Student presentations will be given from both our UG and PG students on a mix of topics. A fuller programme will be provided on the talks and the speakers at the conference, with updates also available through this blog https://archaeologyorkney.com/

The Conference will be held at the An Lòchran Building on the Inverness Campus, the address of which is:
An Lòchran
10 Inverness Campus
Details on how to get there can be found here: http://www.invernesscampus.co.uk/get-there/

There is free parking available at the campus with spaces directly outside of the main college building.

For more information and any questions contact Mary on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Major New International Research Project to Investigate Early Modern Trade Routes

Natascha Mehler surveying the German Trading site at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland used around 1600. Photo Mark Gardiner

A team of archaeologists and historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, University of Lincoln and the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven have been awarded a grant of £779,000 from The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Council (DFG) to undertake a major international research project into how emerging economies identified and adapted to opportunities for trade in early modern Europe.

The three-year programme is entitled Looking In From The Edge (LIFTE). The UK team is led by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon at the UHI Archaeology Institute based at Orkney College UHI, who will work collaboratively with Dr Natascha Mehler from the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, who is leading the German team.

The UK team includes Associate Professor Mark Gardiner from Lincoln University and a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands comprising Dr Jen Harland, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Paul Sharman, Julie Gibson and Dan Lee.

Skaill multiperiod farmstead, Rousay, Orkney. Photo Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

During the early modern period the development of a world system of capitalist trade gradually extended until it brought much of the globe within its influence. In Europe as well, it led to peripheral places becoming closely tied into continental European trade networks, transforming their largely subsistence and low-level trading economies to commercialised, surplus-producing ones.

This exciting European project will not only involve academic teams from across northwest Europe, but will also engage local communities and train individuals in various methods of research from archaeology, history and geography. The research teams will use archive research, land and sea surveys, excavation of trading sites, study of artefacts and biological remains to examine in detail how the islands of Orkney and Shetland were integrated into a wider economic realm in early modern Europe. In effect the research will look at how communities were affected and became involved in the very early stages of the global economy that we know today through the mechanism of the Hanseatic League and other trading networks across the North Sea.

17th century storehouse, St Marys, Orkney

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon said, “This project offers us an exciting opportunity to work as an international team with communities in Orkney, Shetland, Germany and Norway on the little-researched impact of international trade on north-west Europe’s peripheral communities during the period from 1468–1712. The work will give us an opportunity to look into the mechanisms of early modern trade and how the Northern Isles adapted to a changing economic world. How did this emerging international trade change the islanders’ way of making and trading their wares and products? What were the consequences of this rapidly changing and expanding world on the social and economic ways of life for the islanders? All questions that are surely as relevant now as they were more than 300 years ago.”

Dr Mark Gardiner continued, “The east coast of England, with its major ports on the Humber and around The Wash, played an important role in fishing and trading. It looked both to the Hanse ports of continental Europe and the communities of the North Atlantic. We will be studying historical sources and using excavation to show how the Northern Isles of Scotland were brought into these trading networks of early Modern Europe.”

The research team at UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College, with Professor Neil Simco, Vice-Principal (Research and Impact) of the UHI, and Professor Jane Downes, Head of the UHI Archaeology Institute

Dr Natascha Mehler said,“In recent years, German trade with the North Atlantic islands has been studied in more detail and our knowledge about trade mechanisms and the cultural impact of this trade has increased considerably. But the focus of recent projects has been mainly on Iceland and its role within the network of the Hanseatic League. This new project now allows us to zoom into Orkney and Shetland and put into context the enterprise of Bremen and Hamburg merchants who travelled to the Northern Isles.”


Hanseatic League: A medieval organisation of mainly North German merchants aiming to represent their common interests and to secure their trading operations abroad. It´s main area was the Baltic Sea and the North Sea where the League was established in numerous towns and cities such as London and Bergen. During the course of the 15th century, it expanded into the North Atlantic.

The significance of 1468: This was the date that Orkney and Shetland passed from Norwegian to Scottish control. 

Early Modern period: c 1500 to c 1780, spanning significant changes in religion, society, work and trade, bracketed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology receives £10,000 National Lottery support for Orkney Energy Landscapes Project.

Wind Turbine Burgar Hill, Orkney. Photo: Dan Lee

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) based at Orkney College has received a grant of £10,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the Orkney Energy Landscapes Project.

The work will be carried out in partnership with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) and the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews.

This exciting new project explores the past, present and future of energy production and the role of energy in shaping the identity of island communities. ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee is teaming up with Anthropologist Dr Richard Irvine from the University of St Andrews to undertake activities throughout 2020. These will be based around energy themes of oil, uranium, wind, wave and peat. The year-long project will tour Orkney islands, including Eday and Flotta, and also energy sites in the West Mainland.

Fieldwork will involve archaeological recording at contemporary energy sites, peat coring, oral history interviewing, fieldwalking, community events and schools workshops. Sites include the EMEC’s wave energy test facility at Billia Croo near Stromness. The project will produce a sound archive of stories connected with energy sites and resources for schools. The aim is to explore ways to understand and record energy sites, with the ultimate aim of creating an Orkney Energy Trail.

Anybody interested in delving into Orkney’s energy heritage, wants to help record energy sites, or with stories to share about our energy landscape is welcome to get involved and should contact Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk

Billia Croo. Photo Colin Keldie

Orkney has a long history of energy production, from the use of traditional fuels such as peat, to the more recent extraction of oil, exploration of uranium, and the current world leading renewables industry. Energy needs have long shaped Orkney’s landscape, and today the islands are home to a global innovation hub in renewable energy. These industries have left physical traces in the landscape which can be recorded archaeologically, and stories and memories within communities that should be preserved.

Support from the National Lottery will allow participants to explore and record the physical remains of energy sites (e.g. concrete turbine bases, test sites), record stories and memories, and contribute to our understanding of Orkney’s energy landscapes now and for the future. Volunteers will learn skills and assist in recording energy sites and developing the concept and route of a potential future Energy Trail during the activities.

Old wind turbine base Burgar Hill, West Mainland, Orkney. Photo: Dan Lee

The project will record oral histories of community recollections and experiences of the islands’ energy histories, exploring how the interaction with different energy sources has come to shape contemporary Orkney and its identity.

Dan Lee (ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist) said, “We are really excited about exploring some of the most important and overlooked contemporary archaeological sites in Orkney – those from the renewable and oil industries – and work towards sharing these in an Orkney Energy Trail”

Richard Irvine (Anthropologist, University of St Andrews) said, “From peat cutting to wind turbines, the search for energy sources has played a key role in shaping the identity of these islands. There are energy stories everywhere in the landscape – whether we’re talking about the economic and social impact of oil, or the political self-determination that grew around the threat of Uranium mining, or debates about the role of renewables in Orkney’s future economy. I’m really excited about working with communities to gather these stories.”

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) offers both terrestrial and marine historic environment services across the Highlands and Islands and north of Scotland. We work closely with a wide range of clients from the renewable energy, electricity transmission, oil and gas sectors in addition to infrastructure developers and legislative bodies, to provide historic environment solutions.

ORCA operates as part of Orkney Islands Council, and within the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute.

You can join the conversation at #OrkneyEnergyLandscapes

New Digital Archaeology Project to bring Uist sites to Life.

Project Leaders Dr Emily Gal and Dr Rebecca Rennell

Imagining prehistoric structures, how they were thousands of years ago and examining long lost society is one of the most exciting elements of any archaeological study of the past.

Digital technology now allows us as archaeologists to visualise theories in 3D and through the use of mobile phones and other smart devices help the wider public view and imagine how people lived thousands of years ago.

Lews Castle College UHI , University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have been awarded a grant of £271,000 from the Scottish Natural Heritage Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund to complete an exciting digital archaeology project, helping people to understand the archaeology of the Western Isles, Scotland. The programme is called the Uibhist Virtual Archaeology project and will be undertaken over the next three years.

3D computer model of Skaill Farmstead in Orkney, demonstrating the possibilities of on-site modelling of archaeology

This pioneering new community project, led by Dr Rebecca Rennell and Dr Emily Gal from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute at Lews Castle College, aims to help tourists visualise and understand some of the most archaeologically significant sites in the Western Isles, Scotland. The project will also work in collaboration with the Comhairle’s Heritage Service and community groups across the island to create a sustainable heritage resource that will help further develop the local tourist economy.

Using mobile phone digital hotspots, 3D augmented reality reconstructions and clickable explanations, a downloadable app will display information on the latest research on seven sites located on the Hebridean Way walking route in Uist and Benbecula. The reconstructions will also be supported by complementary mixed-media exhibitions located at local museums.

Pobull Fhinn North Uist

The new app will bring the visitor experience of these archaeological sites to a completely new level of quality, by visually transporting visitors back in time via a multisensory experiences. The visitor will see a stunningly detailed, moving, seemingly real-life representation of prehistoric structures as they were in the past – seamlessly interwoven with the landscape of the real-life present. Through the app, the visitor will explore the site visually, and access detailed information about sites and their history. Multimedia information within the app will be ‘triggered’ only at site locations on the Hebridean Way, encouraging people to engage with and access these significant places and wider heritage landscapes. The use of augmented reality within a ‘real’ landscape setting is a unique product – no directly comparable product exists for engaging the wider public in archaeological heritage in Scotland

Dun an Sticer: Iron Age dun with Medieval Occupation.

The first site to be designed will be the Bronze Age roundhouses and mummified remains at Cladh Hallan, South Uist which date to around 1500BC. Site Director, Professor Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) said “the discovery of Cladh Hallan’s Bronze Age mummies is of international interest. It is great that this fascinating prehistoric settlement will feature in this innovative project, becoming accessible to visitors whilst protecting sensitive locations.”

Dr Rennell said: “We are really excited to bring decades of archaeological research at these fantastic sites to the wider public. It will deliver community benefits, unlock economic potential and improve visitor experience in a way that conserves and protects the unique natural and cultural heritage recognised across the highlands and islands.”

The project itself is part of a new £5 million Scottish programme of projects to invest in the Highlands and Islands to provide more high-quality opportunities for visitors to enjoy natural and cultural heritage assets. The Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund is led by Scottish Natural Heritage and is part-funded through the European Development Fund (ERDF). The project has also received a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £85,000 and £17,220 from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Pobull Fhinn North Uist

Councillor Donald Crichton, Chair of the Comhairle’s Sustainable Development Committee said, “I welcome this innovative approach to help unlock the economic value of Uist’s exceptional archaeological assets and to promote the area as a major destination for heritage tourism. We are pleased to be working in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands to support and develop archaeology in the Outer Hebrides.”

Dr Gal noted that “community stakeholders have been involved with the project since its inception, and this will continue. Ensuring that schools and community interest groups are involved in shaping the digital products is essential to the project”.

Bronze Age roundhouse at Cladh Hallan, South Uist

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan said:
“This is a very exciting initiative and it would be wonderful to see the islands being a trailblazer when it comes to developing augmented reality to enhance archaeological tourism. I look forward to seeing this project develop.”

The whole programme is supported by Scottish Natural Heritage, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Comhairle.

Funded Archaeology Masters Places Available

UHI student at Skaill Farm, Rousay

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is offering a limited number of funded places on the MSc Archaeological Practice and MLitt Archaeological Studies courses.

The Masters programme offers archaeology courses which equip you with the tools for work in the real world. Key practical skills are emphasised using the rich archaeological resource of Orkney as your research ‘laboratory’.

Core modules will develop your practical skills in a suite of archaeological techniques including project management, excavation, non-intrusive field archaeology, environmental archaeology and post-excavation analysis. You will gain additional vocational experience through our professional placement enabling you to take full advantage of employment opportunities.

  • Study in the outstanding archaeological landscape of Orkney
  • Optional modules allow you to develop professional skills in a range of areas including archaeobotany, archaeozoology, geoarchaeology, survey & geophysics,
    digital recording of archaeological materials and sites
  • The MSc programme offers a 3-month professional placement opportunity to further develop your professional skills in a chosen area(s)
  • The course is flexible to fit in with your personal and professional life

A limited number of places with full tuition fee support are available for Scottish-domiciled/EU students, studying full time, on the MSc Archaeological Practice & MLitt Archaeological Studies courses starting in September 2020. Eligible students must live in Highlands and Islands, including Moray, Perth and Kinross for the period of their studies.

Full details on the course, funding and how to apply see our website  or drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk


UHI Archaeology Student Awarded the Robertson Medal from The Carnegie Trust

Professor Jane Downes, Professor Andy Walker, Professor Neil Simco, Neil Ackerman, Professor Dame Anne Glover, Professor Edward Abbott-Halpin, Professor Colin Richards

Neil Ackerman (32), a PhD researcher at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has been awarded the Robertson Medal from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for academic year 2019-20.

The silver medal is awarded each year to the scholarship candidate judged to be the most outstanding for that year’s competition. Neil becomes the university’s first postgraduate student to receive this honour. He was selected from 18 awards made in this year’s Carnegie postgraduate scholarship competition.

His research, entitled ‘Scotland’s earliest built environment: halls, houses and big houses’, looks at the earliest buildings of Neolithic Scotland. This period reveals a settled farming architecture for the first time, and also a growth in the size of public meeting halls. Studying the Neolithic period from the perspective of both monumental halls and domestic architecture will uncover a new understanding of the earliest Scottish Neolithic period.

Neil Ackerman and Chair of the Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland Professor Dame Anne Glover

Developing an insight into this varied architecture across Scotland, as well as producing a precise chronology, will also revolutionise the knowledge of the Neolithic in Scotland and wider contacts at the time.

Originally from Edinburgh, Neil graduated with a first-class degree in BA (Hons) in archaeology, based at Orkney College UHI in 2016, before working at Aberdeenshire Council’s archaeological historic environment team for nearly three years. He moved back to Orkney in 2019 to set up his own company, Ackerman Archaeology Limited, and continue with his academic studies. He is undertaking his postgraduate degree through the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute with the aid of the Carnegie scholarship funding.

Professor Jane Downes, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute said: “I am delighted that Neil has been recognised for his exceptional work. His undergraduate research supported by a Carnegie Trust vacation scholarship has contributed to our understanding of roofing technology from the Neolithic period. His original thinking has advanced understandings of the extraordinary site of the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney and has had international recognition.”

Talking about receiving this award, Neil said: “This means so much to me. I have not always had a straightforward path to get to this stage. I left school at 16 with few qualifications and worked in various service jobs, before returning to education. I never thought I would go to a university, far less study at this level. “

Neil being presented with his medal today at Orkney College UHI

“To have received a Carnegie Trust scholarship was a massive achievement and to now be awarded the Robertson Medal on top is a huge honour. It helps to confirm all the decisions made to be where I am now. I have a highly supportive supervisory team and together we have put a lot of work into developing a subject that we feel is very important. It is heartening to see our efforts rewarded.”

Neil was presented with his award on Thursday 23 January 2020, at Orkney College UHI, by Chair of the Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland Professor Dame Anne Glover and its chief executive chair Professor Andy Walker, Professor Neil Simco, vice-principal (research and impact) at the University of the Highlands and Islands with Professor Edward Abbott-Halpin, principal of Orkney College UHI.

The Carnegie Trust also operates a vacation scholarship scheme for students undertaking a degree course at a Scottish university. In 2019, four students from the University of the Highlands and Islands were successful in receiving awards.

Applications for this year’s scheme is open until 31 January 2020. For more information visit our website www.uhi.ac.uk

A Year in the Life of Perth College Archaeology & History Soc

Perth College UHI archaeology student Corrie Glover writes about the exciting activities Perth Archaeology and History Society organised in 2019.

Perth Archaeology & History Society was established in October 2018 to allow Perth students to raise funds for conferences, lectures and field trips.

Without realising, the Society has become a family of like-minded individuals willing to discuss class topics, twitter debates, pottery, shell middens, the joys of neat trench edges, excavating beetles and which hill fort is best suited for defence against a zombie apocalypse. 

2019 was a brilliant year to be an Archaeology student in Perth College UHI. The society members organised Culloden Memorial Evening – a night of guest speakers, Irn Bru, bagpipes and showing of the 1964 classic ‘Culloden’ – in the hopes of raising enough money for a field trip. The society was commended and it’s efforts recognised at the Perth OBI awards where we were presented with Best Society and Best Student Led Event, much to our surprise! 

While the society took a break over the summer, our members kept the spirit of the society alive at excavations at the Cairns, Ness of Brodgar and King’s Seat before reuniting at the Scottish Crannog Centre in October. ​

Trench T at the Ness of Brodgar, July 2019

With a refreshed committee, plans were made for Darroch Bratt to make his way to Perth and give a public talk about his PhD research into the Archaeology of Whisky, a combination which the Society fully endorses! (Available on Brightspace soon!) 

PhD student Darroch Bratt, Skaill Farm, Rousay. His PhD title is: The Origins and History of Distilling & Whisky Production in the Scottish Highlands and Islands: An Historical & Archaeological Approach.

Challenging ourselves further we took a plunge into the depths of academia and invited Dr Andy Heald to Perth College UHI. Andy gave a lively presentation titled ‘Living and Dying in Iron Age Caithness’ which left most of us speechless and considering our next field trip to Caithness. (Also available on Brightspace soon!)

Bob Carchrie

2020 is now upon us and another public talk is being planned (follow our Facebook for more info!) We have plans to attend a SCARF workshop, the Scottish Student Archaeology Conference in Glasgow University, UHI’s Student Archaeology Conference, PKARF, TAFAC, Pictish Arts Society Lectures, First Millennia Studies Group as well as more field trips!

If you are based at Perth College UHI and would like to join us get in touch at uhi.pahs@gmail.com, follow us on Facebook and Twitter or join us for our weekly blether. On 6th February 2020 we will welcome the Caithness Broch Project where they will talk about Tall Towers with Grass Roots. See the Eventbrite link for more https://www.eventbrite.com/o/uhi-perth-archaeology-amp-history-society-27999009653

Best wishes, 

Corrie Glover 
Chairperson UHI Archaeology & History Society 

New Research Project Commencing in North Isles, Orkney

Mid Howe Tomb, Rousay, Orkney. Credit: Dan Lee

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology has been commissioned by the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme to undertake the Neolithic Landscapes of the Dead project, exploring the tombs of the isles.

The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) based at Orkney College has received a grant from the North Isles Landscape Partnership scheme (NILPS) to undertake the Neolithic Landscape of the Dead project during 2020-2022.

An activities programme of research, walks, archaeological fieldwork and schools activities will investigate some of the most iconic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney as well as bring the lesser known sites into the spotlight – telling the stories of island tombs.

The project will also create new 3D models, interpretation, research archives and a new ‘tombs trail’. The trail will allow islanders and tourists to explore Neolithic sites in the North Isles.

Decorated internal stone at the Holm of Papa Westray tomb. Credit: Antonia Thomas

Few can doubt the importance of archaeology and heritage to the community and economy of Orkney and the Neolithic sits at the heart of the imagination and identity of the islands. Beginning some 5500 years ago and spanning a staggering 2500 years, the Neolithic was when people first farmed the land, grew crops, made pottery and adopted new forms of objects such as polished axes and maceheads.

The Neolithic was also a time when people’s relationship with the dead and their ancestors changed. People were buried communally in tombs, where bones and other offerings were jumbled together into one ancestral place. In Orkney, there are over 80 stone-built tombs of various architectural styles – ‘Maes Howe’, ‘Stalled’ and ‘Bookan’ types – with over 50 of these located in the North Isles. The tombs project will support islanders to explore and tell the stories of this remarkable group of tombs in the islands, and the secrets they may hold, which can play a part in supporting island communities now and into the future.

If you live in the North Isles of Orkney and would like to get involved in the project or find out more, please email: Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk

Quoyness Tomb, Sanday. Credit: Antonia Thomas

Dan Lee (ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist) said, “We are really looking forward to working with islanders to celebrate the amazing Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney, and bring some of these less-explored sites into focus. Who knows what new stories they can tell?”

Andy Golightly Programme Manager said ”This is a really good opportunity for people living in the North Isles, to work with Orkney College to learn more about the unique tombs on their Isles and possibly gain new skills and experience. Having the information produced, displayed and available locally will also benefit visitors to the Isles, opening up more of the Isles history to a wider audience.” 

More information on this project https://www.nilps.co.uk/projects/tombs-of-the-isles