UHI PhD Student Magdalena Awarded Prize at AEA Conference

Magdalena presenting her paper at the AEA Conference in Denmark

Magdalena Blanz, PhD Student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is undertaking research into seaweed as fodder, food and fertiliser in the North Atlantic Islands: past, present and future opportunities.

Magdalena attended the AEA 2018 conference, hosted by the Association for Environmental Archaeology at Moesgaard Museum, near Aarhus, Denmark from 29th November to 1st December 2018.

Magdalena’s paper was  entitled “Recreating past effects of seaweed-fertilisation on the isotopic and chemical composition of barley to further palaeodietary reconstructions” for which she was awarded the prize for best student presentation at the conference.

The research concerns how fertilisation with seaweed changes the chemical and isotopic composition of the barley, and what implications this may have for reconstructing past diets. In this study, barley was fertilised with seaweed, and found an elevation in δ15N values of the seaweed-fertilised crops. This indicates that when we study δ15N values in animal and human remains, the position of the consumers of these crops in the foodchain (i.e. trophic level) may be overestimated if seaweed-fertilisation is not taken into account.

Magdalena receiving her prize

For more information on Magdalena’s research and experimental phase of the project, see her previous blog posts:

This PhD studentship is funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme


If you are interested in postgraduate research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then please do not hesitate to get in touch by e-mailing studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our guide page on this blog.

Two Field Trips in One Day

Martin Carruthers addresses the group of UHI students near the summit of King’s Seat Hillfort

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology undergraduate and postgraduate students undertake their studies and research from locations across the whole of north Scotland through the use of video conferencing and a virtual learning environment. 

The blended learning approach adopted by UHI also gives students studying archaeology an opportunity to experience work in the field.

Last week, the staff of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute set off to conduct field trips across Scotland in order to give the widest possible number of students experience of outdoor learning.

Students making the descent to Midhowe broch and chambered cairn, Rousay

On Friday 30th November 2018, Dr Scott Timpany together with Martin Carruthers led a group to King’s Seat Fort, Dunkeld in the Highlands of Scotland where, during the summer, a group of UHI Archaeology students were involved in the ongoing excavations at the site. On the same day, and nearly 300 miles north, Professor Jane Downes led an excursion to the ‘Egypt of the North’ island of Rousay, Orkney. The weather was so windy that it was feared that the ferries may be cancelled, but the window of opportunity remained open for a few hours and the teams made it across to collect students from various locations across Scotland.

Students descending the steep hill side from King’s Seat Hillfort

With field booklet in hand, the students from Inverness, Perth, Moray and Argyll Colleges visiting King’s Seat Fort battled their way through the woods surrounding the hilltop site. The weather miraculously cleared to a cold, blue sky day, to allow Martin, Scott and the UHI students who were involved in the excavations at the hillfort to explain the site, the archaeology and the landscape.

Examining the well at the King’s Seat site

King’s Seat Hillfort has been the subject of archaeological investigations by Perth & Kinross Heritage Trust, Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society, archaeologists from AOC Archaeology and UHI and, according to the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust website, little was known about the site until King’s Seat Archaeology Project started their excavation. Their website continues….”Fragments of crucible, stone and clay moulds used for smelting and casting metal objects were identified suggesting that the site was important in the production of pretige metalwork and may even have been a centre of production in the early historic/Pictish period (c.600-900AD)” The full report can be accessed via the project website.

Approaching Rousay on the ferry.

As the team from the south were scaling the heights of King’s Seat Hillfort, the Orkney contingent approached the Island of Rousay as the clouds gathered ominously above the ferry.

Inside the Midhowe Chambered Cairn building – Professor Jane Downes explains the form and function of the tomb to the students

Driving along the deserted single track road that serves the island, the team soon arrived at the impressive Midhowe Chambered tomb which has been protected from the elements by a huge hangar like building. Once inside, the whole amazing prehistoric structure can be viewed from above from a series of walkways. Back outside in the gathering storm the intrepid group examined the Midhowe Broch which is located literally on the edge of Eynhallollow Sound. Here, Jane explained how such sites can be used as an indicator of how climate change affects coastally eroding archaeology sites and the research being carried out jointly with ICOMOS Climate Change & Heritage Working Group.

Midhowe Broch

The day was concluded with a visit to Taversöe Tuick , Blackhammer and Knowe of Yarso Chambered Cairns while 300 miles south,the students and staff concluded their day in Dunkeld at the local pub for well earned refreshments.

If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

Thanks to Kevin Kerr for photographs of Rousay.

Student Field Trip to Bute – Easter 2018

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Archaeology students from the University of the Highlands and Islands colleges across Scotland gathered this Easter for a residential field trip to the island of Bute.

The island itself has a fine collection of archaeological sites ranging from the Mesolithic to post-medieval and has been the subject of study by both Martin Carruthers and Dr Scott Timpany – the two members of staff who led the excursion.

Jasmijn Sybenga, PhD student at the UHI Archaeology Institute takes up the story….

“The trip started from Orkney College UHI on a rather cold, but clear early Friday morning. We rarely get frost in Orkney, but if we did then it would have been one of those mornings. It was early and it was cold, but everyone was excited and looking forward to the trip.

After a long journey we finally arrived in Bute. On Saturday we visited sites in the northern part of the Island starting with a long walk through ancient forest Rhubodach where still past management practices were visible in the composition of trees today. After passing the forest, we emerged into open fields where Michael’s Grave Neolithic Cairn was situated. This cairn is severely reduced by robbing and ploughing but is still well displayed in the landscape.”

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Excavations in 1903 revealed the chamber, which was divided into two equal compartments by a septal stone. The floor of each compartment was covered by a layer of black earth with charcoal also present. Items from the chamber are now in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) and included an undecorated pottery sherd and a piece of pitchstone. Other sherds, a flint flake, fragments of burnt human bones, a tooth of a pig and ox bones were also found at the same time and place, but are now lost.

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Jasmijn continues, “At this point we had a discussion about the past landscape and the palaeonvironmental study that has been carried out at Red Loch area close to this site. We continued our walk up a hill where large stones containing cup marks were scattered around the Glenvoidean Chambered Cairn. This cairn is well situated in the landscape and must have been visible from afar.

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We followed the path back through the forest where we went up a hill once more to visit the Cairnbaan chambered long cairn. In the afternoon we met Paul Duffy who is the director of Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage in Bute. Together we walked part of the old tramline that was opened in 1882 to transfer tourists from Rothesay to Port Bannatyne.

This tramline passed the site of Cnoc an Rath. It remains unknown what this ring and ditch earthwork was used for but recent suggestions include that it was part of a Viking site.

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On our return to Rothesay (where we were staying in a hostel) we visited Rothesay Castle. “

The castle itself was first mentioned in 1230 when it withstood a siege by Norsemen. The building is one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. Archaeological excavations were undertaken during 2002. A watching brief was carried out during the excavation of a new trench in connection with construction work on the new shop site down to the moat.

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Day Two of the fieldtrip to follow…….

Each monument name is linked to Canmore, where you should be able to learn more.


If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

UHI PhD Student Jasmijn Gains Award for Research Poster

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Identifying and counting pollen grains from one of the research sites.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is celebrating the award of Best Research Poster to PhD student Jasmijn Sybenga at the Association for Environmental Archaeology Conference held in Edinburgh in December 2017.

Jasmijn started her PhD in February 2016 after finishing both undergraduate and graduate degree at Leiden University, the Netherlands. She grew up in the east of the Netherlands which is – in contrast to what many people would expect from the Netherlands – hilly and contains woodland.

“I’ve always been interested in the development of woodlands and how people would have managed and used woodlands in the past.” Jasmijn continues,” The topic of my PhD is therefore related to my interests and after a successful application I moved to beautiful Orkney, where the only thing that I sometimes miss are the trees!”

Jasmijn’s research poster was entitled,’ Investigating the feasibility of reinstating the natural woodland of the Highlands by using long-term palaeological records’ – and will contribute to Scottish Forestry Commission reinstatement policy for the natural woodland of the Scottish Highlands.

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One of the research sites: Dalchork

The conference’s theme was the ‘Grand Challenge Agenda in Environmental Archaeology’ and focused on investigating the dynamics of complex socio-ecological systems, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human-environment interactions. The full AEA conference abstract goes on to say, “Environmental archaeology is ideally situated to contribute directly to these challenges, concerned, as it is,with the human ecology of the past – the relationship between past human populations and their physical,biological and socio-economic environments – through the analysis and interpretation of animal and plant remains within the depositional environment of the archaeological site and its surrounds.”

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An auger survey to investigate the depth of the peat and gauge the overall stratigraphic sequence before taking a pollen core

Jasmijn continues…..”Areas of peatland in the Scottish Highlands have been afforested since the Scottish Forestry Commission (SFC) was established in 1919. During the 1980s and the early 1990s these upland areas have been extensively covered with non-native conifer plantations which drastically affected the landscape and present ecosystems. Over the last few years, plantations have started to be felled in order to reinstate peatland.

As an addition, the SFC who maintain most of the afforested peatland is keen on developing policies on the reinstatement of the “natural woodland” of the Scottish Highlands. Areas of peatland within the Highlands can contain significant depths of peat (>5m) that have accumulated over thousands of years. The anaerobic conditions of the peat create suitable conditions for the preservation of pollen grains, plant macrofossils and non-pollen palynomorphs (NPPs) which can inform on long-term vegetation patterns and climate change cycles. This is of particularly relevance to modern ecology where studies tend to be relatively short-term in comparison and therefore we can use these records to inform on much longer trends for example vegetation changes in response to human impact or changing climate.

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Checking the stratigraphic sequence

My PhD project will use palaeoecological data from three peatland areas under the care of the SFC to create long-term vegetation records with particular attention on former native woodland. The aim is to understand what these woodlands would have looked like, what caused the demise of these woodlands and whether if planted today these woodlands would thrive or demise in the present conditions of these Highland areas. This information will have implications for future conservation strategies in the Highlands and potentially across Scotland.”

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Jasmijn’s poster

Jasmijn’s PhD title is Seeing the Wood for the Trees. A Palaeological Approach into the Research of Past Natural Woodland in the Scottish Highlands. The research is funded by the Scottish Forestry Commission. PhD supervisors are Scott Timpany, Roxane Andersen and Melanie Smith. You can contact the Association for Environmental Archaeology through their website.


You can study our courses from any one of the colleges in the UHI network and that you can also study MLitt Archaeological Studies from anywhere in the world.

If you would like to chat with us and explore your options at the UHI Archaeology Institute then contact Mary on 01856 569225,e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk.  or see our website.

Letter from Canada – UHI Archaeology Exchange Student Blogs from Ontario

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Gzowski College, Trent University

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has an active international student exchange programme. UHI Archaeology student, Euan Cohen, has just started his studies at Trent University, Ontario, Canada and is writing a blog about his experience.

Euan takes up his story….”Hello all back home, at University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and whoever may be reading this anywhere. I have been at Trent University in Ontario, Canada now for two weeks. It’s been such an eventful two weeks that I have found it difficult to take time to snap photos, write and even take a seat.

On the 29th of August I made my way to Toronto Pearson’s International Airport to meet up with other International student who were arriving that day. As everyone took their seats and introduced themselves with their names and nationalities two things became apparent; the incredible variation of homelands and, how extremely jet lagged everybody was.

Otonabee River at Dusk
Otonabee River at Dusk

I was lucky, I had been on the time-line for around three weeks before. Travelling to New York City, Montreal and Toronto before gave me more than enough time to adjust and my sleeping pattern was back to normal. Those cities above mentioned were all excellent, I would say that if it wasn’t for this exchange programme I’m not sure I would’ve been able to dive into these cities so soon and in the same trip!

On arrival at Trent an International Orientation week was planned for us all to participate in, and it pretty much started from the get go. As soon as we arrived we ate and lived together allowing everyone to meet each other. The next few days breakfast was served from 7-8 am and for all of the travel wearied students this was proving hard – though I think these early wake ups were the quick cure to the jet lag.

There were a load of activities planned and as I am writing this so late it seems to have all merged into one whole load of tiring fun. Two highlights do stick out, first being the culture show.

All of the different nationalities and cultures were truly on display here as groups from all over the globe took to the stage to perform. A group from Japan performed a sort of shadow samurai warrior dance to music that involved a lot of invisible sword swinging. Separately, a Nigerian and Vietnamese student performed some stand-up comedy.

River running through the campus at dusk
River running through the campus at dusk

The second highlight would be canoeing on the winding Otonabee river that runs through the university, groups of three brave, but not so seafaring students were trusted to go out together, and this brought people together. Paddling can be a difficult game as each boat member has to be relatively in sync if the boats to go anywhere so communication is key and having a laugh with the lack of English communication was fun. I’m still friends with the two others I shared a boat with.

After a nice weekend to relax and recuperate, it was time for the main Orientation week (O-week).  I have not mentioned yet, I am an undergraduate doing my third year here in Archaeology (BA), here Anthropology is considered much the same. So from an Anthropological perspective this was what I had been waiting for, to view some North American enthusiasm, reminiscent and only comparable to watching movies displaying this.

What a week! Everyone got painted up as we watched soccer (football, this’ll be tough) games, there were parties and at the end of the week there was a gown ceremony, with a formal dinner, to end the madness. Speeches from past students and current professors including Professor Symons, the founding president of Trent whom the campus is named after, gave a very warm welcome to a University he was visibly proud to be a part of. I’ll try to be good in the weeks to come and take more photos.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, next update will be in a fortnight by then the classes will have started. Thank you!” Euan Cohen 2017


If you want to know more about applying to study archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then either contact Mary Connolly through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk  or see the UHI website

Places Available on ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference Fieldtrip – 14th September

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Earls Palace, Palace Village, Birsay

Sustainability and Conservation in an Island context.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce that extra places are now available on the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference fieldtrip to West Mainland, Orkney.

Due to demand there will be an extra mini bus which means that we can now offer this exciting fieldtrip to an increased number of delegates. If you have not registered then there is a section on the form which you can fill in….if you have registered and want to attend the fieldtrip then contact us on archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk. If you haven’t registered yet then Download Our Islands Our Past Conference Registration Form and send it to us over the same e-mail address.

This fieldtrip includes sites and landscapes from prehistory to the present, in the dynamic landscape of Orkney’s Atlantic coast. During the day-long trip we will see some of the well-known and World Heritage sites from different perspectives, and not so well known sites and visitor attractions. The fieldtrip will consider islands’ sustainability in relation to economic development, climate change, and community, thinking about sustainability in the past, and into the future.

In Birsay we will visit the Earl’s Palace and Birsay village, thinking about Birsay’s place in the Orkney Earldom, and examining the role of Birsay in the Magnus 900 events and new Pilgrimage Route. At the Brough of Birsay the Pictish and Norse sites give a focus for discussion of coastal erosion and conservation and management.

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Barony Mill – a working water mill

The Barony Mills highlight the role of community again in Birsay’s heritage, and illustrate sustainability, heritage and economic development past and present.

At Skaill Bay we will examine settlement and coastal change through the millennia, with illustration of resilience and adaptation as well as abandonment. Sites visited will include WHS Skara Brae, and Verron Broch at the other end of Skaill Bay.

Join the conversation and use our hashtag #oiopconference

See ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference website.

UHI Archaeology Students on Tour

There is no substitute for studying archaeology in the field, so over Easter, students from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute journeyed to the Western Isles to study a cross section of sites dating from the Early Neolithic to the Medieval.

The itinerary was full and included visits to Barpa Langass (Early Neolithic Tomb), Pobuill Phinn (Late Neolithic Stone Circle), Lionacleit (submerged woodland), Baile Sear (eroding later prehistoric settlement mounds), Bornais (Iron Age broch, wheelhouse and Norse settlement), Cladh Hallan (Bronze Age village), Howmore (medieval chapels) and the medieval Borve Castle. All in two days!

The location of Barpa Langass served as an introduction to the overall landscape of the Western Isles with Dr Rebecca Rennell, Lecturer in Archaeology at Lews Castle College UHI, explaining in detail the context of the monument as the wind whipped around the exposed hillside.

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Up until recently, Barpa Langass was famously the best preserved Hebridean cairn in Scotland and the only example of a Neolithic tomb in the Western Isles where the chamber was still intact and accessible. However, sometime around 2011, a partial collapse of stone, including one of the principal lintels within the passageway, caused considerable damage to the site, which is sadly no longer accessible.

Progressing to Lionacleit submerged woodlands, the students, under the instruction of Dr Scott Timpany, examined the remains of trees and had a brief introduction to the stratigraphy of the location by trying their hand at auguring.

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The second day was marked by a visit to Baile Sear – a small island located off the west coast of North Uist. The island itself is subject to severe and ongoing coastal erosion which has exposed a large number of Later Prehistoric remains. Next on the relentless itinerary was Bornais Iron Age broch, wheelhouse and Norse Settlement. This location is marked by a cluster of three substantial mounds. Bornais 1 initially produced pottery of Middle Iron Age and pre-Viking Late Iron Age date (cAD500-800). Bornais 2 and Bornais 3 yielded grass-impressed sherds of the Viking period.

A very interesting feature of the location of the mounds and the chronological sequence of the three mounds is the suggestion that the origin of the township territories and organisation may lie in prehistory-possibly at the beginning of the Middle Iron Age. Cladh Hallan, Howmore and BroveCastle were also slotted into Day Two…these sites will form part of blog posts in the future.


If you are interested in our research work, then check out our conference………..

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Our Islands, Our Past Conference

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to: archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.