Renowned Visiting Researchers join the UHI Archaeology Institute, and the Archaeology Institute is established as a significant economic benefit to Orkney.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based at Orkney College UHI, is pleased to announce that three new Visiting Professors – Professor Astrid Ogilvie (Senior Scientist, Stefansson Arctic Institute, University of Akuyeri/University of Colarado), Professor Leslie King (Professor in Environment and Sustainability, Royal Roads University, Vancouver Island), and Professor Mark Edmonds (Emeritus Professor in Archaeology, University of York) in addition to two new Visiting Readers – Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark (Curator of Prehistory, National Museums Scotland) and Dr Gerry Bigelow (Associate Professor in History, Bates College, Maine) have been appointed by UHI and join our existing Visiting Reader Olwyn Owen, an established Viking scholar whom many will remember from her excavations at Tuquoy on Westray.
With research specialisms including the archaeology of the North Atlantic, sustainability and the impact of climate change, past and present in Northern communities, Viking and Norse archaeology and Neolithic Europe, these appointments offer an unprecedented pool of expertise for our students and researchers as well as strengthening our connections and collaborations with universities and other institutions in Canada, the US, Iceland and Scotland.
Researchers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have a fast-growing reputation for their studies of the impacts of climate change and sustainability: the excavation of the Viking hall and landscape at Skaill on Rousay, directed by Dr Ingrid Mainland, is part of the Orkney climate and environmental change research which has recently gained official recognition from UNESCO’s sustainable science initiative ‘BRIDGES’ :- world-wide recognition of the achievements of the team at the site and collaborators from Bradford University and in the wider North Atlantic. Additionally, Professor Jane Downes continues her research on climate change and heritage in the international Heritage on the Edge project which has now been launched by Google Arts and Culture https://artsandculture.google.com/project/heritage-on-the-edge .
In the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) at Orkney College UHI the strong and developing client base established by Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager, has yielded excellent commercial archaeology work associated with infrastructure and energy developments over the past year and the unit has come in on budget. The unit faces challenges as the usual business environment adapts to the social distancing guidelines, and the team are looking forward to the time when they can once again return to the field.
Interesting results from a new independent study have shown that Orkney College UHI Archaeology Institute’s activities generate substantial expenditure in the Orkney economy: for the year 2019-20 the combined expenditure impacts associated with the 54 students studying Archaeology at Orkney College UHI, the Institute’s visiting academics, volunteers and students, and tourist visitors to the Ness of Brodgar to whom the site was critical in their decision to visit Orkney is over £2million, with 79 full time equivalent jobs being supported in this year (including the 25 full time equivalent staff of the Archaeology Institute). The study has found that ‘The Institute has played a substantial role in increasing the profile of both archaeology in Orkney and Orkney as a place for tourists to visit’.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Director Professor Jane Downes said, “The Institute has also attracted substantial investment into Orkney through the winning of major academic research grants – the latest award of over £700,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This together with the successful entrepreneurial activity of Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology has resulted in over 100 commercial projects worth hundreds of thousands of pounds of contracts being placed within Orkney. Furthermore the UHI’s leading archaeology and research excavation at the Ness of Brodgar is now firmly established as one of Orkney’s prime visitor attractions with over 18,000 people visiting during the short 7 week period the site is open to visitors each year.”
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is looking forward to building on this success in the future and attract ever more direct and indirect investment to Orkney – harnessing the innovative, entrepreneurial and creative flair of the staff and students both in Orkney and across the world.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute postgraduate student Hannah Genders Boyd updates us on her continuing MRes research into the Bronze and Iron Age landscapes of Gairloch on the west coast of Scotland.
Hannah takes up her story…….” Hi, I’m the latest Research Masters student to join the Archaeology Institute at UHI, based at Orkney College. I’ll be spending the next year undertaking research in environmental archaeology: primarily using pollen analysis techniques in order to reconstruct a prehistoric landscape.
I’m working with a supervisory team from three institutions: Dr Scott Timpany from UHI, Dr Althea Davies from the University of St Andrews and Dr Tim Mighall from the University of Aberdeen, whose collective expertise will guide me through the project.
My background is in history, archaeology and climate heritage – but putting these things together to tackle Environmental Archaeology is a new challenge for me.
Over the following year I will be undertaking a masters by research (MRes) degree, which is a postgraduate course that involves completing original research and producing a 30,000 word thesis at the end of it. My research is based on a group of hut circles (Bronze and Iron Age roundhouses) in Gairloch, over on the West Coast of Scotland.
One of the hut circles at Achtercairn, in Gairloch. Image credit: Dr Scott Timpany
These were originally excavated as part of the WeDigs community project in 2014, and my role now is to understand how the people who lived in these structures interacted with their environment. The Wedigs community are a passionate group of Wester Ross locals who first caught my attention when they were nominated for a Heritage Angel Award back in 2018. I’m looking forward to building on their work and feeding into this exciting ongoing project.
I’m using pollen analysis (palynology) to reconstruct the landscape in which these structures were built and looking for evidence of how these communities were utilising this area, such as evidence of pastoral or arable farming. The pollen I’m analysing was preserved in a nearby peat bog. A 4.2m core was extracted from the bog, which was then sub-sampled for pollen and these samples were processed to create slides.
Pollen grains viewed through the microscope (x400) – tree pollen of alder and hazel can be seen in this photo. Photo Dr Scott Timpany
By identifying the variety of species present, represented by their pollen, we can begin to build a picture of the prehistoric landscape and how it changed over time.
My research will specifically be looking at the Bronze and Iron Age periods to which the hut circles have been dated, a period of around 2400 years (from 2000 BC to AD 400). The project will investigate wider themes such as the temporality of these settlements and whether they were used seasonally, together with how people were manipulating this landscape (e.g. woodland clearance and farming).
I hope to be able to understand more about how these communities responded to climatic changes: we know the end of the Bronze Age saw a serious climatic downturn, I want to know how resilient communities in this area of western Scotland were to environmental challenges and how they adapted to such changes. This is particularly interesting to consider now as communities, and heritage sites, on the West Coast are once again dealing with increased rainfall and other climatic deterioration. I’ll be aided in answering these questions by other techniques, including geochemical analysis and radiocarbon dating.
The view out from the hut circles, looking towards the Isle of Skye. Image credit: Scott Timpany
This year is going to be challenging, as I’m jumping in to palaeoenvironmental studies with both feet. But nonetheless I’m excited. This project offers the chance to delve into an amazing archaeological landscape in Wester Ross and get to grips with how it has been shaped by human activity over time.
Improving our understanding of Bronze and Iron Age land use systems through research which takes into account architecture and landscape is deemed a priority by the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework . Here my research will marry environmental evidence with the knowledge gained through survey and excavation by the WeDigs group: it’s a fantastic opportunity to work alongside the community and enhance the project with specialist knowledge, shining new light on the region through an improved understanding the prehistoric landscape.”
Hannah Genders Boyd University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute @HGendersBoyd
If you are inspired to take the plunge and apply for an undergraduate or postgraduate course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line on email@example.com and we can discuss your options.
In this period of Lockdown, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute invite you to attend a digital research seminar on Friday 24th April 2020 at 4pm BST. Everyone is welcome to dial in…not just UHI students.
Raymond Sauvage, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, will be joining us by video-conference, with a presentation on their latest research excavation, entitled: Settlement and burial practices at Vinjefjorden, Norway – AD 450 to 1000.
The NTNU University Museum is currently conducting a large-scale excavation project at Vinjeøra, at the innermost part of fjord Vinjefjorden, in connection with road development in the southwest of Trøndelag. In 2019, the project has excavated a farm settlement and a closely situated grave field.
Preliminary results indicate that both sites should be seen as a unit, or a farm, with the earliest dates from the late Migration and the early Merovingian period, that continues to be used during the Viking age. The survey results indicate that we can divide the landscape into two parts: a ritual part that contains ritual and mortuary activity, and the settlement part in another area. The settlement has produced several buildings, waste pits, waste layers, and traces of metalworking. In the grave field, several traces of mounds contained evidence of a variety of mortuary practices: three boat graves, mortuary houses, cremation burials, and inhumation burials.
This year, the team will investigate several sites. The project follows two main lines of investigations:
• To study how landscape and society at Vinjefjorden responded to potential climate changes at the transition between the Migration and Merovingian period, about AD 536.
• To examine the development of ritual, social and economic manifestations and practices at Vinjefjorden in the later Iron Age.
The overall aim of the seminar is to present some preliminary results from the first field season. Afterwards Raymond will briefly discuss some of these results in connection with the project goals.
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New DNA results shed light on Iron Age use of whale bone and the remarkable process of ending a broch two thousand years ago.
Results of DNA investigations undertaken on a large collection of whale bone from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Iron Age archaeological site of The Cairns, have afforded a glimpse into the complex relationship of Iron Age communities with whales.
In particular, the identification of multiple whale bones as belonging to a single large fin whale shows how its carcase was strategically and even ceremonially used and deposited during the ending of the monumental broch.
In the early Summer of 2019, Dr Vicki Szabo (Western Carolina University, North Carolina) and Dr Brenna Frasier (Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Martin Carruthers (University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute), to examine the collection of whale bone artefacts recovered from The Cairns excavations, being undertaken by UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney. The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what species of whale, or cetacean, were present at the sites.
The research is part of a large international project funded by the National Science Foundation which is investigating the past use of whales in North Atlantic society. Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney in February 2018 where they examined the whales found at another archaeological site in Sanday, Orkney and other whale bone artefacts from The Orkney Museum.
The project has sampled whale bones over a 1400+ year span, from Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroes, Shetland, and Orkney. Orkney and Iceland are the primary centres of analysis, representing the Eastern and Western North Atlantic. Orkney offers exceptional assemblages of whale bone from many periods and sites, from the Neolithic to the Norse eras and thereafter. The types of objects produced in Orkney are remarkably stable over a long period of time, as well. The Cairns, though, has given Vicki and Brenna their first opportunity to sample at an ongoing excavation; with most of the other analysis undertaken on assemblages that were collected in the past.
The results from the study show that some of the whale bones that were uncovered at The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale, North Atlantic right whale, minke, grey whale, and humpback. This is fascinating as it raises questions about whether a site like The Cairns may have been able to stake a claim over the larger whale carcasses, and therefore if this is an indication of relative status and control of resources by the inhabitants of that site. One surprise, though, was the volume of bone belonging to fin whale species in the assemblage.
Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the blue whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. Interestingly, 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 whale bone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.
The end of two giants: the broch and a Fin whale The latest stage of the genetic project permits us to connect an entire array of whale bone items. The genetic and molecular study of 33 whale bone items shows that 20 pieces (vertebrae, ribs, scapulae, and other anatomical elements) were from the fin whale species. This is remarkable in of itself, however, 2 key mitochondrial haplotype regions of the genome of each bone were examined, and it is likely that all these fin whale items (except one) are from the same animal. This means that a single, large, fin whale may have been utilised during the last occupation and abandonment of the broch.
The bones appear to relate to feasting that took place to mark the end of the broch. Some of the whale bones have chop-marks present showing signs of butchery and perhaps bone-working. Others are slightly singed from being subjected to direct heat. The fin whale bones were found in a range of contexts across the broch. Some of the bones were excavated from the uppermost floor deposits of the broch. Others were stuffed into gaps in its walls. Other fin whale bones came from the rubble that was used to infill the broch during the final abandonment.
The presence of this single animal, spread across these varied contexts, links these deposits very closely in time, much more tightly, in fact, than is currently possible with radiocarbon dating alone. It allows the excavators to closely connect several different contexts and stages within the finale of the broch and to appreciate what a relatively swift process the end was. The occurrence of the many bones from a single animal may also allow detailed consideration of the use of whale bone and how it was treated as a resource both physically and perhaps also symbolically.
One of the bones of the giant fin whale is especially remarkable for its treatment. This was a large whale bone, which had been carved from a substantial vertebra to make a vessel. This vessel had been deposited just outside the broch door at the very end of the broch occupation. A remarkable assemblage of objects accompanied the vessel. Two shed red deer antlers had been propped against the outside of the vessel, and a very large grinding stone, or saddle quern, was also placed snuggly against the vessel as though to pin it firmly against the broch outer wall face. Inside the actual vessel, were the remains of two new-born lambs and, most remarkably, the jawbone of an elderly human. This entire collection of items was a very deliberate deposit that appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure for the broch.
Martin Carruthers, site director of The Cairns and UHI lecturer in archaeology said: “It’s just amazing to be able to say with confidence that so many of these whale bones, including the vessel with the human jawbone, actually belong to the same animal, especially as we’ve recovered them from the site over a number of different seasons, not knowing all along that the spread of bone belonged to one huge beast. We had some suspicions that something particularly interesting was going on with the amount of whale bone that was emerging from end of our broch, but we’d never have managed to get to this level of specificity without the input and collaboration with Brenna and Vicki”.
When discovered, the whale bones are in a condition where they were cut-up or processed during the Iron Age. That often makes the original anatomical detail and form of the bones difficult to see clearly. Therefore, it can be challenging to identify them to species, let alone recognise bones belonging to a single individual. Martin continues: “One of the most important things, from my point of view, is how this research helps us to recognise the significant role that the treatment of the fin whale had in the dramatic procedures of deliberately ending of the monumental broch”.
What circumstances led to the use and deposition of the fin whale? Whale bone seems to have been a highly important material for Iron Age communities. The appearance of these ocean giants on local beaches, when stranded, must have occasioned opportunities to recover a large volume of meat, oil (fuel for lamps), as well as a substantial resource for making objects. Whale bone-work clearly included things like our big vessel (The Cairns has also yielded several more whale bone vessels from across the site), but also tool-making (e.g. weaving ‘batons’, chopping-boards, ‘soft’ anvils, and much more), and even for architectural purposes such as large ribs used as roof rafters.
Indeed, it’s possible that a stranding of a major animal, like a massive fin whale, would have represented an exponential contribution to the community’s resources. Vicki Szabo suggests: “As a free and scavenged resource, whale provides a large volume of high value protein. Large whales are generally 14+% body weight bone, which means that a fin whale represents a massive quantity of soft tissue, meat and blubber at around 70%”.
This amount of food input may have served to energise productive capacity, providing additional assurance of a successful year for the community. Perhaps a stranding may have permitted endeavours and projects that might otherwise have been thought risky, making them more manageable. At The Cairns, this whale boon could have included support for a major undertaking such as ending the premier building, the broch, a structure that had dominated the local landscape and society for generations. It would have been no minor activity to demolish the upper parts of the massive and complex broch, and it is likely that the work of rendering it down would have had some serious consequences for the settlement, at the heart of which, lay the broch. It would have been a physically arduous and time-consuming process, probably involving many people, taking them away from other important tasks required of this busy farming group.
That is not to say that the stranding of a single large whale led to the ending of the broch. There is growing evidence that the period around the 2nd Century AD was a time when many brochs were coming to their end, at least in their initial form as high-walled, tower-like buildings. There is a sense, therefore, that things were changing, more generally, in Iron Age society across Northern Scotland at that time, which the waning importance of monumental broch architecture is a part of. However, we may still wonder if occurrences, such as the stranding of a significantly large whale, might encourage a community, perhaps already considering a radical break with the past, to go for it.
There was a very practical bonus to be had in the harvesting of a very large whale, but we may also wonder if the appearance of such a large beast stranded on the foreshore meant more to Iron Age communities than just a resource. In many non-Western societies, and, indeed, many ancient European ones, sudden natural phenomena such as the highly prominent death of a significant type of animal may be seen as a conspicuous indication of arcane and esoteric forces, taken as a sign, an auspicious, or inauspicious, omen. Even though stranding may have been more common with a larger population of whales thought to exist in prehistory, it might be that both the practical impact, and the potential ideological and psychological effects of the appearance of a big stranded whale created the critical timing and final motivation for major change.
Other Animal Offerings? Animal Bone Groups at The Cairns Whales are not the only animals present in interesting circumstances during the final stages of the occupation and abandonment of the broch. Indeed, across the site there are what are known as animal bone groups (ABG’s) present that date to the period of the broch and afterwards. These are articulated animals, or articulated parts of animals, apparently deliberately deposited. These derive from cattle, sheep, and red deer as well as cat, pig, otter and even, in one case, an articulated seal flipper!
To date, around twenty such ABG’s have been recognised from The Cairns. Probably many more await discovery. In many, or most, cases they may well be butchered joints of meat. It may be that these ABG’s are indeed portions of meat, but they are not discarded in middens as one might normally expect and seen elsewhere on the site. Instead, they were left in certain locations within the buildings of the site and across floors, and infills, as if they were actually posed. Indeed, many look like they have been displayed. Some of the bones reveal traces of weathering on the surface of the bone, indicating a period of exposure prior to being covered in soil, rubble or new house floors.
Why formally place animal bones? What did these deposits mean for the people of the Iron Age? Martin Carruthers says: “At the Cairns, I wonder if many, or all, of these deposits followed on from activities that celebrated the end of the broch and the beginning of new things for the community, who by no means just disappeared thereafter”.
Human occupation of the site lasted at least another 800 years after the end of the broch. Carruthers continues: “they might also be acts of propitiation, an assuagement of the decision to end a major building that had been highly valued for so long, by many previous generations of inhabitants. Perhaps the inclusion of our elderly human jawbone as part of the process was also a nod in the direction of the past of the broch, when it was in its hey-day? When that person was in their youth the broch would still have been the major symbol of authority in the landscape, and the jawbone may well have belonged to someone who had been a member of the broch household”.
A further possibility is that the formality and recurrence of all these depositional acts were themselves a source of comfort and reconciliation, especially in the face of major transitions underway on site, and in wider society, a response to crisis that drew comfort from the long-standing tradition of deposition.
Whatever the truth of the mentalities and motivations, the process of ending the broch was measured, carefully planned, required resources of people as well as of materials, was physically difficult, as well as probably not a little dangerous. It also seems to have entailed serious ideological input and consideration, not least indicated by the deposition of human remains like our jawbone inside the fin whale vessel.
The end of the broch seems also to have involved the butchery and perhaps sacrifice of animals, feasting, and especially, perhaps, reflection on the past, present, and future of the community.
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.
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.
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.”
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
Early Modern period: c 1500 to c 1780, spanning significant changes in religion, society, work
and trade, bracketed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
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.
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. “
“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.
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.
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
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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 email@example.com for more information on any of these courses.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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 results discussed here are simply preliminary findings
and ultimately there
will undoubtedly be more exciting information, and stories, to come out of this
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com 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 pmWarehouse 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