Adrian Challands – ‘a gentle man who will be missed greatly’

The late Adrian Challands during archaeological work at the Stonehall Neolithic settlement in Firth, Orkney.

The late 1980s was a thrilling time for archaeology in Orkney. The late Adrian Challands played a key role in this archaeological revolution and continued to do so in Orkney for many years.

Sadly, Adrian passed away during the evening of Christmas Day 2020. He was a unique, irreplaceable character – a geophysicist, an archaeologist and a gentle man who will be missed greatly.

Among the notable discoveries of the 1980s, field-survey had detected a new Late Neolithic “village” at Barnhouse, which lay within a few hundred metres of the Stones of Stenness. This was an exciting time as the only other Neolithic settlement on Mainland Orkney, of similar date, was Skara Brae. In addition, Barnhouse was the first settlement to be discovered next to a stone circle in Britain.

As part of the Barnhouse investigations, a wider archaeological project was running in Stenness. Part of this was an extensive landscape geophysical survey – using an electrical current to detect buildings, pits and ditches beneath the surface – to find other Neolithic remains between Barnhouse and the Stones of Stenness. This survey was led by Adrian Challands, who had pioneered particular geophysical techniques in large surveys of areas in the Fens of eastern England.

One of the main aims of the survey around the Stones of Stenness was to locate the lost stone-hole of the famous Stone of Odin – a holed-monolith that played a major role in Orcadian folklore and tradition.

Unfortunately, the standing stone had been demolished in December 1814, by the tenant farmer, one Captain MacKay, who went on to attack the Stones of Stenness. Only by the swift action of the local Substitute Sheriff Alexander Peterkin prevented the entire destruction of the Stones of Stenness. But for the Stone of Odin, the intervention was too late.

Clipping from The Orcadian newspaper of July 14,1988, showing the socket hole of the Odin Stone, with Adrian standing at the edge of the trench.

After being broken up, the Odin Stone remains were taken to the farm of Barnhouse where the holed section served as an anchor for a later horse mill.

Adrian spent weeks carefully surveying the field in which the Barnhouse Settlement and the Stones of Stenness lie. All this work resulted in a rather unclear dot-density plot of the area showing sub-surface archaeological features. In fact, for most of us it was difficult to see anything in this plot but Adrian was convinced that some of the darker areas represented the socket holes of missing standing stones.

Working with a small team, Adrian removed the ploughsoil from one of these “dark areas” and, amazingly, revealed the tops of two large oval pits! Excavation confirmed one was clearly a stone-hole as the impression of a large stone was visible at its base – the location of the Stone of Odin had been re-discovered.

Adrian (left) carrying out a magnetic susceptibility survey at Stonehall, Firth.

After this initial work, Adrian’s specialism in geophysical survey was much in demand, both for large-scale surveys and the much smaller analysis of excavated Neolithic house floors. Consequently, he was involved in a number of important archaeological projects from the late 1980s to the present. In particular, Adrian, often accompanied by his wife Norma (an accomplished archaeologist in her own right) worked at the excavations of the Stonehall, Crossiecrown and Wideford Hill Neolithic settlements, between Finstown and Kirkwall.

His archaeological geophysical surveys also included well-known sites such as Maeshowe, where he discovered stone-holes of standing stones now removed, and the Ring of Brodgar where he was able to show the stones (many now missing) increased in number towards the two entrances. This revealed the stones that made up the stone circle were erected at a frequency to exaggerate their number towards the two entrances and impress those entering the great ring.

Reconstruction of the Ring of Brodgar, with the missing stones confirmed by Norma and Adrian Challands (pictured with Prof Jane Downes at the entrance) in 2008, restored.

At the famous Knowes of Trotty Bronze Age barrow cemetery Adrian undertook a very difficult survey – in heather and boggy ground – and discovered a number of new burials and surprisingly located an early Neolithic house which was subsequently excavated. Adrian also undertook geophysical survey on several other Bronze Age burial cemeteries, notably Linga Fiold, and these surveys have contributed greatly to our understanding of cremation in the Bronze Age.

Adrian loved Orkney and its fabulous archaeology and he not only made a huge contribution to its archaeology over the last 30 years, but also formed many friendships during the annual visits to the isles and long periods of fieldwork. Working on site he would often have his magnetic-susceptibility equipment with him – a device resembling a large hoop on a stick that was always known as “Ade’s brain scrambler”.

Adrian with his ‘brain scrambler’ at Stonehall, Firth.

He was always cheerful, charming, well-spoken, kind and a real pleasure to be around. He brought a smile to your face when he entered the room. Indeed, those who knew him will testify to his singularity and good humour – Adrian could quite easily be mistaken for a Victorian gentleman!

A favourite Adrian story revolves around a talk by Professor Colin Richards, in which a slide of a Neolithic settlement had been inserted into the projector the wrong way around. As Adrian was walking down the aisle he was stopped by Johnny Meil, who said: “Here beuy, yin’s backside-foremost.” To which Adrian replied, with a smile: “No, it’s Skara Brae.”

While his passing is immensely sad, one cannot help but smile when thinking about him. He had that effect on people.

Jane Downes, Tom Muir and Colin Richards

Ness of Brodgar textile among Scotland’s ‘most groundbreaking archaeological discoveries’ of 2020

Ness of Brodgar Excavation site. (Scott Pike)
Ness of Brodgar Excavation site. (Scott Pike)

Evidence of a woven Neolithic textile found during post-excavation work at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute’s flagship Ness of Brodgar excavation has been named one of Scotland’s “most groundbreaking discoveries of 2020”.

The Covid pandemic has had a profound impact on Scottish archaeology, with the majority of excavation work brought to a standstill. However, archaeologists and volunteers still managed to uncover new details about Scotland’s past.

Dig It!, a hub for Scottish archaeology, has compiled a list of three of the biggest stories from the last 12 months, featuring the Ness of Brodgar textile impression at number two.

The pot sherd with the cord impression (left) and the textile impression towards the bottom right. (Jan Blatchford)

Organic material from prehistory does not often survive, so the study of Neolithic textiles has to rely on secondary evidence, such as the impression that the fabric left when it was pressed against the wet clay of a pot 5,000 years ago. The impressions appear on the inner face of the vessel which suggests that they were made by the potter’s clothing during the pot’s creation.

The Ness of Brodgar team has been investigating this massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings, in Orkney, since 2004, but all excavation and fieldwork was put on hold this year due to the pandemic.

The impressions were discovered during post-excavation examination of the huge quantities of pottery from the site. The project uses a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), which combines multiple photos of a subject to create a highly detailed image that can reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.

The Ness textile joins the Tap o’ Noth Pictish settlement in Aberdeenshire, where, in May, archaeologists from the Leverhulme Comparative Kingship Project uncovered evidence that up to 4,000 people may have lived or gathered in hundreds of houses on the summit around 1,700 to 1,400 years ago.

In Edinburgh, when lockdown was lifted in the summer, archaeologists began unearthing skeletons and artefacts from a medieval cemetery in Leith that were to be affected by the work to extend the Edinburgh Tram line to Newhaven.

The discovery of over 350 burials which could date as far back as 1300 came as no surprise, but this wasn’t the team’s only find. Others included a cannonball that may have been fired during the 1559-60 Siege of Leith, pottery and a coin of Dutch origin which dates to 1628, and bones from the fin of an adult sperm whale, dating to around 1800, which shone a spotlight on Leith’s industrial whaling past.

Dr Jeff Sanders, Project Manager at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s Dig It! project, said: “Archaeology is all about discovering Scotland’s stories and these are just some of the new chapters that have been added despite the pandemic, with other finds ranging from a major Iron Age village in Aberdeenshire to a “lost” medieval bridge in the Scottish Borders.

“As Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy reminds us, archaeology is for everyone, so we hope you’ve been inspired to get involved in 2021 when it’s safe to do so.”

2020 Rhind lectures put Neolithic Scotland in the spotlight

Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar. (Tim Winterburn)

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s annual Rhind lectures are under way and this year the focus is firmly on the Neolithic.

From December 13 until December 18, Dr Alison Sheridan will present a series of six online lectures, bringing together the most up-to-date research to show how Scotland’s early farming communities lived their lives and made sense of the world.

For a lecture programme, and details of how to view them, click here.

Lecture: Radiocarbon and archaeology

Dr Simon Clarke

Dr Simon Clarke, lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is going online tomorrow evening, Thursday, to deliver a free lecture on radiocarbon dating.

Simon will explore the potential and pitfalls of radiocarbon dating – a technique heralded as the single most important scientific tool for examining the development of prehistoric societies.

The seminar runs from 7-8pm GMT on Thursday, December 10.

For details on how to access, click here.

Viking boat burials in the spotlight at Friday’s free online seminar

The Oseberg boat burial, Norway, under excavation in 1904.

From the massive and rich ship burials found in Scandinavia, to the small rowing boats used in boat burials on Scottish isles, the distinctive Viking burial rite making use of a boat to carry the dead into the next life has always fascinated.

On Friday afternoon, as part of the ongoing University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar series, Dr Colleen Batey will explore the variety of Viking boat burials, with examples from Orkney, Lochaber, the Western Isles and beyond.

The vessels themselves, the grave goods accompanying the dead and the excitement of recovery are all elements combining to make this an exciting aspect of the Viking Age.

The whalebone plaque recovered from the Scar boat burial in Sanday, Orkney, in 1991. (Sigurd Towrie)

The most evoked images come from the writings of Ibn Fadlan and his travels on the River Volga where he encountered the burial rites from death to final release and wrote down his experience in candid detail. His viewpoint was as a “superior” traveller and this is reflected in his report, but it does provide a useful starting point for helping us understand something of the rites behind the physical remains we have in the archaeological record.

From the massive and very rich ship burials found in Scandinavia – Oseberg in particular – to the small rowing boats used in the insular context, there is much variety to be explored. The discoveries from Westness, Rousay; Scar, Sanday and more recently at Mayback in Orkney will be considered, in addition to the burial from Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan, and Kiloran Bay, Colonsay, as examples of the distinctive burial form.

The free online seminar is at 4pm GMT on Friday, December 11. For details on how to view, click here.