Spotlight on Research: Art & Archaeology

Antonia looking at rock art at the Ness of Brodgar

Each month we aim to bring you a snapshot of research carried out at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

This month we talk to Dr. Antonia Thomas and her research on art & archaeology. 

Dr. Antonia Thomas is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute based in Orkney, Scotland.
Antonia’s work focusses on Art and Archaeology in its broadest sense, from the interpretation of prehistoric art, to the intersections between contemporary art practice and the archaeological imagination.

She is interested in various aspects of visual and material culture, such as stone-carving and sculpture, photographic theory, vernacular buildings, prehistoric architecture, graffiti and mark-making, and contemporary archaeology. Antonia has published widely on these subjects and has collaborated on several transdisciplinary art and archaeology projects.

Talking to Antonia about her latest research she continues….“My two favourite subjects are Art, and, Archaeology. I feel so lucky to be able to combine these in my teaching and research! We run a variety of Art and Archaeology courses here at the UHI, from summer workshops to postgraduate modules.”

Art & Archaeology Residency at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

One of the best aspects of my job is getting to know new people and places. I have been really lucky this year to be invited to speak at some amazing places. I was in Aarhus, Denmark, in February discussing Neolithic art in Orkney as part of a research seminar in the Department of Archaeology. Professor Jens Andresen at Aarhus has been excavating an amazing site on the island of Bornholm, which has produced these lovely carved ‘sunstones’ – it was brilliant to be able to compare these with the carvings we have here in Orkney. And then in July, I was the guest of Renmin University in Beijing, where I presented at a seminar on Cultural Heritage. China is such a culturally rich and fascinating country, and I can’t wait to go back! I am hoping to set up some art/archaeology projects there in the near future with my Chinese colleagues.

And then in September, I was in Shetland at the Shoormal conference, to talk about the relationship between contemporary art and archaeology in Orkney. You can read a version of my paper from the conference in the latest edition of Art North magazine.

Drawing the Wreck of the Norholmen at Warbeth, Orkney

The highlight of my year, however, is always when our popular accredited Art and Archaeology stand-alone courses start up again in January and I get to meet the new students. It is always such a diverse group, and every year’s so different. And, some exciting news for the near future – we’re soon going to be launching a brand new, unique MA programme in Contemporary Art and Archaeology! As well as the opportunities for researching Art and Archaeology for an MRes, or PhD, I can’t wait to see what projects emerge.”

Selected Publications (for full list see Antonia’s UHI Research Page)

  • Thomas, A. in press. (expected 2019). ‘Duration and representation in archaeology and photography’. In L. McFadyen & D. Hicks (eds.), Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive. London, Bloomsbury.
  • Thomas, A. 2019. ‘Parallel Visions: Art, Archaeology and Landscape in Orkney’. Art North 1(3), pp.28-30.
  • Thomas, A. 2019. ‘Image and process in an architectural context: decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar’. In A. Jones & M. Diaz-Guardamino (eds.), Making a Mark: Image and Process in Neolithic Britain and Ireland, pp.142-163. Oxford, Windgather.
  • Thomas, A., Lee, D., Frederick, U. & White, C. 2017. ‘Beyond Art/Archaeology: Research and Practice after the ‘Creative Turn’’. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 4(2): 219-229. https://doi.org/10.1558/jca.33150 
  • Thomas, A. 2016. Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context. UHI Archaeology Institute Research Series: 1. Oxford, Archaeopress.[download link]
  • Thomas, A. 2014. ‘Creating contexts: between the archaeological site and art gallery’. In A. Cochrane & I.A. Russell (eds.) Art and Archaeology: Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms, pp.141-155. One World Archaeology Series, Volume 11. New York, Springer-Kluwer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-8990-0_11 
  • Card, N. & Thomas, A. 2012. ‘Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney: decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar’. In A. Cochrane & A. Jones (eds.), Visualising the Neolithic, pp.111-124. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Interested in studying Art and Archaeology with us at the UHI? Email Antonia on antonia.thomas@uhi.ac.uk for more information on any of these courses.

Ancient DNA Study at The Cairns Lands Massive Whale Tale

The whalebone vessel unearthed at The Cairns

Preliminary results of genetic research into whalebone from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research site at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, show that some very large whale species were sourced for tools, vessels and equipment during the Iron Age.

In the early Summer 2019 Drs Vicki Szabo, (Western Carolina University) and Brenna Frasier (St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Dr Ingrid Mainland and Martin Carruthers at the UHI Archaeology Institute, to examine the collection of whalebone artefacts recovered from The Cairns and Mine Howe excavations, Orkney.

The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what types of whalebone, or cetacean, were actually present at the sites. The research is part of a large project which is investigating the use of whale bone in Western Atlantic society over the last 1000 years. Both Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney during February 2018 where they examined the whales found at Cata Sand and other whalebone artefacts from Orkney Museum.

Brenna creating a sample from a whalebone artefact unearthed at The Cairns

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns archaeology excavation said, “Initial results from the study show some of the whale bones that were uncovered at The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale and humpback. One surprise, though, is the appearance of fin whale. Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the Blue Whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. In particular, one very significant artefact from the Cairns site, is a very large vertebra from a fin whale, and that’s an item that was carved into a vessel or container. At the time of its discovery during the 2016 season it was found to contain a human jawbone and two neonatal lambs.”

Iron Age whalebone vessel in situ next to the entrance to The Cairns Broch

Martin continued, ”The vessel had been placed just outside the broch wall, very close to the entrance, when the broch was put out of use around the Mid-2nd Century AD. As well as the whalebone vessel and jawbone, two red deer antlers had been propped against the vessel and a very large saddle quern, a grinding stone, had been positioned against the vessel to pin it firmly in place against the broch wall. All this treatment appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure of the broch.”

The discovery that this vessel is from a fin whale is fascinating in its own right, but there are several more Fin Whale items from the site so it should be possible to identify relationships between animals and also match bones across the site to the same animal. When more results are forthcoming from the study it will be interesting to note any concentrations of fin whale from certain areas of the site, or phases. Martin suggests that it may be possible to effectively trace multiple items from the same animal and see how a carcass was distributed across the site.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns

Beyond the vessel, there’s a particular concentration of bone in the broch and it will also be very interesting to see what this research can reveal about the use of whalebone in this monumental Iron Age structure.

Interesting and intriguingly fin whales are also amongst the fastest whales in the sea, capable of bursts of 45KMH when hunting, or threatened, and they can dive fast and very deeply. Indeed, in the modern era, the fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers once the explosive harpoon was invented, and so it is unlikely to have been hunted in the Iron Age, but rather a stranded individual. That does not mean that other types of whale were not hunted, and the question of whether some whales were pro-actively sourced during the Iron Age remains unanswered. In time, further study of patterns of whalebone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.

The Cairns Broch looking across to the North Sea, Orkney

The results discussed here are simply preliminary findings and ultimately there will undoubtedly be more exciting information, and stories, to come out of this research soon…

For background information to the research, see our blog link: https://archaeologyorkney.com/2019/06/18/extracting-dna-from-the-cairns-whalebone-collection/

Programme of Public Talks @UHI Archaeology

The Cairns Broch Excavation 2019

Dr. Ragnhild Ljosland, Lecturer at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, details the public talks which are planned over the next few weeks.

The talks are open to everyone and are designed to share some of the exciting research carried out by the speakers to a large audience.

Most of the talks will be recorded or can be accessed via video conferencing so that people outside of Orkney can also access the incredible findings of these UHI collaborative research programmes.

  • Thursday 31st October 1-2 pm, Art Department, Orkney College UHI Martin Carruthers Site Director, The Cairns Broch excavation, will be speaking in the Ruination & Decay seminar series: “Ancestral piles: Decay and stabilisation in the culture of ruination at The Cairns Broch, Orkney.” Dial-in 53051@uhi.ac.uk. The seminar has been filmed and will be published shortly.
  • Wednesday 6th November, 7 pm Orkney College UHI restaurant: Olwyn Owen “Curiouser and Curiouser : the puzzling cases of Tuquoy and Scar”.
  • Thursday 14th November, 1 pm Art Department Orkney College UHI. Dial-in 53051@uhi.ac.uk A double bill in the Ruination & Decay seminar: “The sky above the shore” music performance with Peter Noble, Anna Wendy Stevenson & Dr Miriam Iorwerth. Followed by “Reconnecting with ruins: Ancestral Tourism & Heritage work in Tiree” Joanna Rodgers, UHI Centre for History.
  • Friday 15th November, 7.30 pm Warehouse Buildings, Stromness, Ragnhild Ljosland will be giving the George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture for the GMB Fellowship. “Carve the runes: What makes runes so fascinating and why did they appeal to George Mackay Brown?” (No VC available for this lecture.)
  • Friday 29th November, 4 pm Orkney College Lecture Theatre Colleen Batey, Visiting Reader in Northern Studies, is giving the UHI Archaeology Institute Research Seminar with the title “Viking Boat Burial, from Norway to Orkney and Beyond.”

Please feel free to contact programme co-ordinator Ragnhild Ljosland if you have any questions or comments. Her e-mail address is Ragnhild.Ljosland@uhi.ac.uk

PhD Opportunities at the UHI Archaeology Institute

The University of the Highlands and Islands is seeking outstanding applicants for doctoral AHRC funded studentships in Archaeology.

A select number of studentships will be available for PhD applicants living the UK and the European Union. Successful UK applicants will benefit from a fully-funded PhD studentship (stipend plus fees). For successful EU applicants, only fees will be covered.

The initial deadline to submit your application is 4 November 2019, Midday GMT. If you wish to apply, please see the eligibility criteria and details of the application process on the University of the Highlands and Islands website here.

We are able to offer supervision in a wide variety of specialisms: Neolithic and Later Prehistory, Norse and Medieval North Atlantic, Contemporary and Historic Archaeology, Funerary Archaeology, Environmental Archaeology, Zooarchaeology, Landscape, Art and Archaeology.  We also accept students who wish to self-fund.

For more details on the UHI Archaeology Institute, staff research interests check out our website here.

If you are interested in applying please contact Dr. Ingrid Mainland in the first instance ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk

UHI Archaeology Institute Autumn Seminar Series

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Research series of seminars is restarting for the season on Friday 11th October with an exciting monthly programme scheduled for the next semester.

This seminar series provides a platform for researchers connected with the UHI archaeology institute and invited guests to share ongoing research within the Institute and further afield.

New for this year, the seminars have now also been opened up to the wider community, recognising the broad interest in archaeology in the Highlands and Islands. Anyone with an interest in archaeology is welcome to come and listen, either in person in Orkney or dialling in using the UHI’s video-conference system (requires Cisco Webex Teams software).

October is a busy month with two seminars. First up in the seminar series, on the 11/10, is Siobhan Cooke of UHI Archaeology Institute and Stromness Museum, who will be talking about “The Wrecks of Scapa Flow: Salvage and Collecting at Stromness Museum”.

Following on the 25th is Astrid Nyland, special guest from the University of Stavanger, with “More than meets the eyes! The use of rock and quarries in the Mesolithic and Neolithic of Norway.” This should invite an interesting comparative perspective considering what we know of rock use during Orkney’s prehistory.

And in November, the UHI Archaeology Institute is delighted to welcome Colleen Batey from the University of Glasgow, who will be presenting on “Viking Boat Burial: From Norway to Orkney and Beyond” on the 29th November.

This talk ends the autumn season, but the seminar series will carry on also in the spring, with talks from Orkney County Archaeologist Julie Gibson and specialist on Neolithic art Antonia Thomas scheduled for January and February, and more to follow throughout the spring.

New UHI Archaeology Paper Examines the Origins of Aquaculture

Combined cultivation of rice and tilapia fish aquaculture in a paddy field. Source: Wiki Commons Kembangraps

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the publication of an important research paper in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.

The paper by Dr Jen Harland, Lecturer in Archaeology UHI Archaeology Institute, examines the wider implications of the work published by Nakajima (2019) comparing the size of ancient and modern carp. The paper concludes that the initial stages of aquaculture began around 6000BC, perhaps three thousand years earlier than was previously thought.

Utilising the three stage model of fish domestication proposed by Nakajima (2019),Dr Harland reiterates that the process of domesticating common carp commenced with the use of wild species in managed ponds and ditches within two areas in the world – an eastern population in China, Laos and Vietnam and a Western population in the Black Sea, Aral Sea and Caspian Sea areas.

Common Carp: the inpharyngeal bones which facilitated the results from the main study. Photo: Dr Jen Harland

Full domestication commenced in Asia when carp fish farming was combined with a rice paddy cultivation producing a symbiotic relationship in which the fish naturally ate weed plant species and insect pests while providing natural fertilizer. Examining archaeological specimens from the Chinese Neolithic site of Jiahu, and comparing these measurements to modern carp raised in a traditional Japanese rice and fish co-culture, Nakajima and co-authors were able to establish that carp were being managed at Jiahu by 6000BC – much earlier than previously thought.

Dr Harland goes on to emphasise the point that the final stage of domestication can be recognised only when breeding, diet and habitat are all controlled by people. Previous studies have shown that the start of aquaculture in Europe was signalled by the management of carp in controlled ponds during the Roman period in the Danube region. Carp then became truly domesticated in Europe in the 12-14th centuries AD. Various authors have questioned whether the domestication of carp took place in Asia or in Europe, and whether or not the domesticated animal was then moved from one region to another. Given the evidence for the early origin of fish farming reported in Nakajima’s study, Dr Harland states that is is likely that common carp was domesticated independently twice, once in Asia and separately in Europe.

Common Carp bones. Photo: Dr Jen Harland

Dr Harland said… “It was a real honour to be invited to write this news and views piece discussing the wider context of Nakajima’s study on the origins of carp aquaculture. As archaeologists we discuss the advent and spread of farming and domestication in the context of cattle, sheep and pigs, but the domestication of fish is often overlooked. Farmed fish are of huge importance to our diets today, but these intensive methods are very controversial. By using archaeological methods to examine the origins of aquaculture, it’s now apparent that these carp were raised in a sustainable and balanced system alongside rice cultivation for a very long time indeed.”

Dr Harland goes on to state that modern aquaculture will soon produce half of the world’s fish supply, but intensive methods are resulting in environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and non-native species invasions. This paper emphasises that adopting a long established fish-rice co-culture system would continue a long tradition of sustainable farming which largely avoids the pitfalls of modern intensive mono culture fish farming – showing that we have much to learn from traditional methods of agriculture and aquaculture.

New Research Examining Impact of St Magnus Published

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the publication of an important research paper on the impact of medieval saints on the Orkney landscape.

The paper, written by UHI Archaeology lecturers Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dr James Moore, is entitled ‘Storyways: Visualising Saintly Impact in a North Atlantic Maritime Landscape’ and examines the impact of the cult of St Magnus and its veneration throughout the Orcadian landscape and how this can be seen by investigating multiple forms of evidence.

The research presents a new methodological and theoretical approach with which to explore the way veneration and remembrance can be seen within the landscape. There are three churches that carry the St Magnus name, one of them being St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, and there are many altars and dedications to the saint in Scandinavia and Britain, and yet we know very little about his veneration.

A Mansie Stane marking the route of St Magnus’ shrine procession

A multi-source approach examined not only the structural evidence, but also a range of sources such as place names, folklore, history, archaeology and hagiographic evidence. Utilising a GIS (Geographical Information System) Sarah Jane and James were able to explore the ways in which different types, and sources of evidence reflected the spatial distribution of the cult of St Magnus in Orkney, in turn enabling them to investigate how memories and stories link with the landscape features of both past and present.

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon brought experience gained during the ‘Mapping Magnus’ project completed last year, which included a multitude of events and activities led by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute revolving around the story of St Magnus, recounting his funerary and shrine journeys from where he was killed on Egilsay, to his final resting place in the cathedral in Kirkwall.

Sarah Jane and James mapped ‘remembered’ route ways, or story ways, since much of the evidence comes from stories and traditions, which display the impact Magnus had as a saint on the communities living in Orkney and his continuing influence within the wider landscape well beyond the churches dedicated in his name.

This paper establishes a new way to research the impact and scope of belief in a community and shows the embeddedness and layering of multiple-beliefs in the landscape. The paper is now freely available online for everyone in Open Archaeology through De Gruyter in a topical issue on Unlocking Sacred Landscapes: Digital Humanities and Ritual Space.

Cata Sand Dig now Underway in Sanday Following Online Appeal

One of the Neolithic houses at Cata Sand from the dunes

The archaeology dig at the Neolithic houses found on the beach at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney is now underway.

Teams from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire arrived on the island last weekend to uncover the site and begin a series of excavations centred on the sites at Cata Sand settlement and Tresness tomb.

This is the third year of the excavation and could not have taken place this year without the support of donations that flooded in following an online appeal. Sufficient funds to commence the dig and to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains were raised and the team would like to express their gratitude for the donations from people all over the world.

Professor Jane Downes said, “During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses, but progress was slow due to the never ending blowing sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.”

She continued, “We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but had not been able to secure funding to enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. These donations now allow us to complete sampling of the floor deposits which in turn will help to give a full picture of how these earliest farmers lived inside the houses.”

Hearth emerging from the sand at Cata Sand

The archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday was discovered by four archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December day in 2015 on their way to inspect the tomb at Tresness.

The team had been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune around which clustered an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped into pits cut through the Neolithic house.

When the team first discovered the archaeological remains, they saw they were in a vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that the site had been exposed only fairly recently. The team also knew therefore that they had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community to obtain a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.

Excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths.

The exposed site at Cata Sand showing the Neolithic houses uncovered on the beach.

This was a first for Sanday and although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment. Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.

Photographing the Neolithic houses at Cata Sand

The team encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug in more recent times through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried.

The funding page is still open by clicking here if you would like to donate towards the post-excavation at the site. The 2019 excavation is supported by public donations raised via the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust.

Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).

Extracting DNA from The Cairns & Mine Howe Whalebone Collections

Brenna creating a sample from a whalebone artefact unearthed at The Cairns

This week, Brenna Frasier from Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia and Vicki Szabo from Western Carolina University joined Dr Ingrid Mainland & Martin Carruthers at the UHI Archaeology Institute to examine the collection of whalebone artefacts recovered from The Cairns & Mine Howe excavations, Orkney.

The research is part of a large project which is investigating the use of whale bone in Western Atlantic society over the last 1000 years. Both Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney during February 2018 where they examined the whales found at Cata Sand and other whalebone artefacts from Orkney Museum.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns excavation

During this visit, they are working with Ingrid to extract DNA and collagen data from the many whalebone items found at The Cairns to add to the literature and environmental research already completed.

The samples taken will enable the team to determine the species of the animals present, the species diversity present in the Western Atlantic region over the last 1000 years, the use to which the animal bone was put in society and even identify individual animals across the collections.

Some of the extensive whalebone collections from The Cairns & Mine Howe

Vicki said, ” The Cairns is a unique site and is the reason we came over. It has the largest prehistoric whalebone assemblage in our region of study and we are confident that the collection will add greatly to our research.”

New Laser Scanning Collaboration in Orkney

The Big Tree in Kirkwall

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology teamed up with Robert Gordon University to begin a series of collaborative projects using advanced digital technology to record heritage across Orkney.

On the suggestion of pupils from Kirkwall Grammar School from a heritage workshop last year, the team decided that part of the initial pilot project would involve laser scanning the Big Tree in the centre of Kirkwall.

Laser scanning The Big Tree using a Leica BLK360

The Big Tree is something of an icon in Orkney and is in fact a 200 year old sycamore tree that has been a meeting place in the town for generations. The tree itself won the accolade of ‘Scotland’s Tree of the Year in 2017 and looks as if it will remain standing sentinel over the comings and goings in the town centre for a good while yet.

The Big Tree project involved the use of advanced digital data capture techniques and forms the trial run for a whole series of collaborative projects between UHI, ORCA Archaeology and RGU.

Laser image of the Big Tree, Kirkwall

The wider project involves recording the built environment in Stromness and Kirkwall and will utilise the laser scanning expertise developed by the team at RGU together with the archaeological, architectural and social history expertise of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The results so far have been stunning and the scans can be viewed in this video produced by RGU……

The work will also be on show at The Architecture Exhibition ‘An Orcadian Caravanserai’ at The Stromness Community Centre from the 17th – 21st June 2019.

Final year students from the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture will present an exhibition exploring the social and cultural connotations of an ever growing tourism industry through a series of architectural interventions.