Nine Possible Bronze Age Figurines Unearthed at Substation Excavation in Orkney?

One of the Figurines unearthed at Finstown Orkney after cleaning. Photo: Orkney.com

A team from ORCA Archaeology has discovered an amazing series of half-metre tall stone-carved objects while completing exploratory archaeological excavations connected with the development of an electrical substation on behalf of SSEN Transmission in Orkney.

In total, nine carved stones have been unearthed in the remains of a structure revealed at the proposed Finstown substation site, after digging through sixty centimetres of midden deposits.

Some of the objects look remarkably like stylised representations of the human form, whilst others look more like stones set upright into the floor of a Bronze Age building excavated by EASE Archaeology at the Links of Noltland, Westray. These may have been used to tie mooring ropes onto, to help hold the roof on.

Two of the figurines before cleaning, Finstown, Orkney. Photo: ORCA Archaeology

The archaeologists working on site uncovered the carved stones scattered around a hearth within the remains of an enigmatic structure that contained three cists, two hearths and a partial ring of holes packed with broken off upstanding stones. Three of the roughly carved figures were also important enough to the people who used the building to be incorporated within the structure of one of the hearths and in the foundations of one of the standing stones. The purpose of the building and how it was used by the inhabitants of this site four thousand years ago is still an enigma.

Dating the necked stones firmly will require further work, since they have also been found on Iron Age sites in Orkney. On initial evidence, the ones from Finstown possibly date to around the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, roughly 2000BC. Identifying the purpose of these stones, and if they are figurines, will also require further work, with a close study for abrasion, wear and any other marks on these anthropomorphic objects.

One of the figurines discovered at Finstown, Orkney after cleaning. Photo: Orkney.com

Professor Colin Richards from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute said, “This is a significant discovery in Orkney and probably within North West Europe. It is very rare to find representations of people in prehistoric Orkney and when found, they are usually individual or in very small groups. If they are figurines, to find nine figures within one structure is very exciting and together with the archaeology found at this site has the potential to add to our understanding of Orcadian society in prehistory.”

One of the figurines in situ next to the hearth, Finstown, Orkney. Photo: ORCA Archaeology

The ORCA Archaeology team were also intrigued to uncover direct signs of people working the land some four thousand years ago. In one of the trenches, long marks were found cut into the clay subsoil, which were made by ards (stone ploughshares) providing us with evidence for prehistoric farming in Orkney. These forms of prehistoric ploughs were constructed of wood with a stone shaped into a rough point placed into the wood to plough the soil ready for planting. The lines cross each other at various angles further suggesting that the ground was cultivated by intensively criss-crossing with the ard point by these early Orkney farmers.

One of the figurines following removal from the ground, but prior to cleaning. Finstown, Orkney. Photo: ORCA Archaeology

The survival of these marks together with the remnants of the Early Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement structures gives us an insight into the prehistoric use of this site over some two thousand years with people living, farming and burying their dead across this windswept hillside.

Ard point marks, Finstown, Orkney. Photo: ORCA Archaeology

Pete Higgins ORCA Archaeology Project Manager continues, “This collaborative project with SSEN gives us the opportunity to examine an important prehistoric site that would otherwise not have been excavated. The exploratory trenches are now recorded and covered over, while the significant artefacts are now cleaned and stored for future study. Discussions will take place on the next steps for the development.”

SSEN Environmental Project Manager, Simon Hall said, “We have been working closely with ORCA Archaeology for the past 18 months while they have undertaken archaeological work at our substation site near Finstown . We are delighted that the team have been able to make such a significant find at the site, hopefully furthering the understanding of Orkney’s rich heritage. We will continue to work closely with ORCA Archaeology and all relevant bodies to ensure this find is appropriately managed for the people of Orkney.”

Details of the ‘heads’ of two figurines unearthed at Finstown Orkney. Photo: ORCA Archaeology

The substation is a critical component of the proposed network reinforcement, which is required to support renewable electricity generators across Orkney looking to connect to the main GB transmission system for the first time.  Its progress, as well as that of the reinforcement programme, remains subject to all planning and regulatory approvals.

For further information on the proposals https://www.ssen-transmission.co.uk/projects/orkney/

Thanks to Orkney.com for the use of their images in this post.

Media contact: Sean Page sean.page@uhi.ac.uk

Lost Kirkwall Cathedral Buildings Found During Roadworks in Orkney

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Part of the wall of the sub deans manse looking towards St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

A team from ORCA Archaeology discovered sections of wall that were part of the St Magnus Cathedral Close last week while undertaking a watching brief for an Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project in the heart of historic Kirkwall. 

A series of walls, pottery and animal bones were unearthed only inches under the surface of the road near the entrance to Victoria Street. Archaeologists know from previous work that remains of structures dating back to the Iron Age exist in this area, but this is the first time that structures directly relating to the cathedral precinct have been identified in this particular area.

Comparing the walls to the 1882 map, the structure appears to be part of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Deans Manse, which were demolished in the 1930’s to make way for a car park and to allow vehicle access to Victoria Street. In common with many Cathedral precincts in the British Isles these imposing buildings would have been part of a large complex used to welcome pilgrims and house ecclesiastic staff associated with the Cathedral. 

The gable wall of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Dean’s Manse was recorded standing to more than 0.9m in height directly beneath the present road surface. It was aligned East-West, running from near the top of Tankerness Lane towards the entrance to the Daily Scoop Cafe, directly underneath the new kerb line. The gable wall which was 1.35 metres thick was built with very large flagstone slabs bonded with clay. 

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Part of the sub deans manse wall.

​Interestingly, although the walls appeared to be the actual house walls rather than foundations there was no sign of the gable door visible in the old pictures. The western end of the wall appears to have been demolished earlier and the door may have been lost there. There is a possibility therefore that the building demolished in the 1930s was built on top of these earlier walls of the Chaplain’s Chamber / Sub-dean’s Manse.

What was the Cathedral Precinct, why was it there and who lived in it? All the buildings from the site of the Kirkwall Community Centre South into the top of Victoria Street and East up to the Bishop’s palace formed the Cathedral Precinct. Although there would have been earlier buildings to house Cathedral staff most of the buildings, including the Chaplain’s chamber and Sub-dean’s Manse were built under bishop Robert Reid as part of a grand piece of town planning in the 1540s shortly after he became bishop of Orkney. At this time Orkney and the rest of Scotland were still predominantly Roman Catholic and the cathedral was a Catholic cathedral. Reid had previously studied law in Paris, worked as an ambassador and was the president of the Scottish College of Justice amongst other things. 

On his arrival in Orkney he found the Bishop’s Palace partly ruined and the diocese in some disorder. To rectify this he appointed seven new top staff members – known as dignitaries in the church – to take responsibility for aspects of its running along with thirteen chaplains. It was within the cathedral precinct that these and other staff members lived and worked.
The Sub-dean, who lived in the manse that the ORCA Archaeology team uncovered, for example had the responsibility of the Cathedral provost when he was unavailable. This involved the management of the canons, prebends and chaplains as well as having responsibility for the vicarage of South Ronaldsay and the maintenance of the Burwick Kirk. The Sub- dean also worked as butler to the Bishop and had the parsonage of Hoy and the vicarage of Walls.

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The site of the Cathedral Precinct today

Along with the construction of the Cathedral precinct bishop Robert Reid also built the Moosie Tower and rebuilt St Olaf’s Kirk of which the archway in Olaf’s Wynd is a part. Several of the buidings of the precinct are still existing today:  the old grammar school, part of a “large court of houses to be a colledge for instructing of the youth of this country in grammar and phylosophy”, is on the north east side of the Daily Scoop cafe. The Sub-chantry, Arch-deanery and residence of the chancellor are standing as parts of The Orkney Museum. 

The old name for Tankerness Lane was School Wynd where you would have seen and heard the scholars of the Cathedral’s Kirkwall Grammar School running down to the shore of the Peedie Sea to play after school. 

Chris Gee, Project Manager at ORCA Archaeology said, “Kirkwall was quite different then from the town we know today. In the area of Bridge Street and Albert Street lay the old Royal Burgh and secular trading centre. As we have seen previously the castle stood around the southern limit of the Burgh at this time backing out onto the Peedie Sea and the main harbour of Kirkwall. It was much larger and deeper then with the plots on the west of the street backing onto its shore. There were slips and piers for unloading and loading goods from lands around the North Sea. The reformation was to come though within a couple of decades and see an end to this sacred centre with many of the manses being acquired by wealthy merchants. Some of the rivalry between these two centres may still be seen played out between the Uppies and Doonies on Christmas and New Year’s day. “

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​Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, lecturer specialising in medieval ecclesiastic research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute added,” We know from written sources that buildings extended from the Cathedral in the direction of present day Victoria Street. To see the physical evidence of cathedral precinct structures so close to the surface of Broad Street is very exciting and reminds us of the importance of Kirkwall being at the centre of the Cult of St Magnus in the medieval period. We can imagine pilgrims journeying from all over the medieval North Atlantic area to venerate the remains of St Magnus here at St Magnus Cathedral.”

The archaeology has now been recorded and the site carefully covered over to preserve for future generations. The Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project continued without delay.

ORCA Archaeology Secure Funding for an Important New Project

Newark Bay

ORCA Archaeology is pleased to announce that they have been awarded a grant of £202,000 by Historic Environment Scotland to complete an important archaeology research project centred on Newark Bay, Deerness, Orkney.

Newark is the site of an early medieval chapel and extensive cemetery and was the focus of rescue excavations by the late Professor Brothwell between 1968 and 1972. Due to various circumstances, the work never came to publication and part of this new ORCA Archaeology project will be to address this. 

Like so many sites in Orkney, coastal erosion is a significant problem and has caused structural and human remains to have been lost over the years since Professor Brothwell’s original excavation.

Some 250 burials were recovered, making it one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Scotland. It was also the location of a post-medieval mansion house, partly revealed during excavation. Subsequent work at Newark includes recovery of a Class II Pictish Carved Stone, the second almost complete example of its type from Orkney. 

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Pictish Carved Stone discovered at Newark Bay

ORCA staff examining the newly excavated Pictish Carved Stone. Note how close the beach is to the find site.Professor Brothwell’s archive is not publicly available, and with his excavation findings remaining unpublished, the potential for further analysis of the skeletal assemblage has yet to be fully exploited. This project therefore aims  to address these issues and aims to:

  • Bring the site to publication;
  • Disseminate the archive
  • Complete comprehensive skeletal analysis of the human remains
  • Create an ancient DNA project
  • Include the wider community through the use of outreach workshops, social media and other digital platforms
  • Train volunteers in basic archaeological recording techniques

The project will be rolled out over three years starting in April 2019……..

Year One
Publication: bringing together all work at the site from Professor Brothwell onwards, providing a current statement of knowledge and understanding, and setting out recommendations for future research.

Archive: bringing the Newark archive within the public domain via a digital repository. Includes cataloguing all skeletal material and digitising the archive.

Year Two 
Analysis of the skeletal remains, including full recording, C14 dating and isotopic analysis of a percentage of the assemblage. A full report will be published of findings.

Year Three
Creation of a collaborative ancient DNA project. Creation of mobile exhibition about the site to be held at Orkney Museum and local community hall(s).

Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager, ORCA Archaeology said, “We are very excited to have secured this funding for work at such an important site that is continually under attack from coastal erosion. We are looking forward to involving the community in the process through outreach training and workshops and, over the next three years, this project will provide vital information for the record which in turn will help us understand more fully the society that these people created in Orkney during the medieval period. The site includes finds from the Pictish through to the Viking period.”

The community are integral to the project. They have a long-term investment in the site at Newark and want to see previous work brought to publication and the archive disseminated. This project provides opportunities for their involvement throughout.

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Community Archaeology, Papa Westray, Orkney

Cott ShorehouseV2A team from Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be on Papa Westray during March 2018, recording the current state of some of the archaeological sites being eroded by the sea.

Volunteers from the community are invited to take part in surveying and recording training at three eroding coastal sites across the island, starting with a workshop on 3rd March at Cott/Shorehouse.

  • 3rd, 4th and 5th March 2018, starting at Cott/Shorehouse at 10am.
  • 6th, 7th and 8th March at Munkerhoose
  • Work at Whitehowe is being arranged for later in March.

All are welcome and you do not need archaeology experience to take part. There is no charge for the sessions and you will have the opportunity to learn some basic archaeological techniques.

Wear stout boots and wet weather gear, just in case the weather closes in and bring a packed lunch if you wish to stay for the whole session.
Contact Paul Sharman on paul.sharman@uhi.ac.uk for more information.

The project is funded by Historic Environment Scotland.

Historic Environment Scotland CMYK

 

Evidence of Possible Iron Age Structure Unearthed near A9 Dualling works

Possible Structure A9 Dualling Kingussie
Possible Structure A9 Dualling Kingussie

Work carries on as part of the A9 dualling as archaeologists discover a possible Iron Age structure, pottery and a stone tool near the road. The finds have been made on the Crubenmore to Kincraig stretch of the route to be dualled.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), have been working alongside design consultants CH2M Hill / Fairhurst Joint Venture, and ground investigation contractors, and have opened trial trenches to investigate several interesting anomalies identified in a geophysical survey.

The dualling of the A9 trunk road from Perth to Inverness is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Scotland. Over 80 miles of road will be improved over the next 8 years to improve the quality and reliability of journeys along the road. In common with all major infrastructure projects, Transport Scotland has appointed archaeologists in order to check for previously hidden ancient structures and other significant archaeology.

Raitt's Cave Souterrain Entrance A9
Raitt’s Cave Souterrain Entrance A9

The interest of the archaeologists was heightened further as the ground investigation works are located close to a prehistoric souterrain called Raitt’s Cave near Kingussie. This underground structure is a scheduled monument and is very large compared to most similar structures in Northern Scotland, and yet soutterains in general remain enigmatic as their use is still debated by archaeologists across the UK. They may have been used for storage, defence or some unidentified ritual, but commonly they are associated with settlement in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Following discussions between Transport Scotland and the ORCA team on site, the preliminary work continued as the archaeologists investigated the anomalies. Traces of a previously unknown structure were quickly identified together with a scattering of pottery sherds and a possible stone Ard point – a stone worked into a point for use as part of a plough. The pottery was identified by Martin Carruthers (Iron Age specialist at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute) as a possible collection of early Iron Age sherds. These finds led the archaeologists to believe that the structure may be associated with the souterrain.

Possible Ard Point Prehistoric Stone Tool. A9 Dualling. Kingussie.
Possible Ard Point Prehistoric Stone Tool. A9 Dualling. Kingussie.

Following advice from ORCA, the team quickly formulated a plan to incorporate the archaeological investigation into the schedule, meaning that the important A9 infrastructure development work could continue while the significant archaeology was recorded in more detail.

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Peter Higgins, Senior Project Manager ORCA, commented, “We are tremendously excited by these finds in this archaeologically significant location. We are also pleased that we can work with Transport Scotland to make sure that these finds are recorded correctly without impeding the roadworks so vital to this Scotland’s economic development.”

Keith Brown Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work said:

“Our work to dual the A9 will bring undoubted improvements for road users including improved journey times and significantly improving road safety. At the same time, the ongoing design work has opened a window into Scotland’s past. We have already been able to shed more light on the Battle of Killiecrankie and now these latest finds on another stretch of the route offer evidence for experts on how our prehistoric descendants lived in the Iron Age.”

The A9 dualling project is a £3 billion infrastructure project designed to improve the links between Perth and Inverness.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology is part of The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.