A New Mexican in Orkney – MLitt student Don Helfrich

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The Cairns Broch ditch area

The MLitt Archaeological Studies course at the University of the Highlands and Islands can be undertaken from anywhere in the world – as long as you have internet access and a computer.

For the next few weeks we have the pleasure of working with Don Helfrich – one of our MLitt Archaeological Studies students, from New Mexico in the USA – in Orkney.

Don usually completes the course remotely from his home, but for the next few weeks, he is experiencing the slightly different climate of Orkney to continue his research at The Cairns excavation. I caught up with him working with Martin Carruthers and the team in the broch ditch……

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Don Helfrich at work

“This is something different for me. Although the sun is shining, the temperature is not in the high 100’s. I live in the desert of New Mexico and the landscape of Orkney is just so captivating to me. I teach Geography and Cartography part-time at Central New Mexico Community College and work part-time as a GIS/GPS Specialist at American Southwest Ichthyological Researchers. ”

Being a geographer myself, I asked Don how he arrived at Archaeology? He continued, ” This is my third time in Orkney and I have always been interested in prehistory, but after my first visit to Orkney, it became a fascination. In due course I was accepted to study the MLitt in Archaeological Studies at the UHI Archaeology Institute. ”

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Don at work at The Cairns excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

What happened next, I asked and Don continued…..”The course has offered me the most rewarding way to study prehistory. I began with an interest in the Iron Age of Britain and Ireland, but my first visit to the region in 2006 opened my eyes to the Neolithic. Although I have to say that I am now back in love with the Iron Age having been here at the dig at The Cairns. You couldn’t ask for a more immersive experience than to work in such a richly informative site as the Cairns, there’s so much coming to life about this impressive structure occupied at a pivotal time of world history. Realising the effort behind an excavation report, I was still struck by the complexity of this process, giving me a lot to think about regarding the skills I hope to bring to the field of Archaeology. ”

Next steps, Don?

“Well, I will be able to extend my teaching in The States from this experience and the course as I lecture on geography and cartography. This now gives me first hand experience of excavating and researching animal remains from two thousand years ago.”

Oh and what are your perceptions of Orkney?

“This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I am used to long vistas and so the wide horizons of Orkney are to my liking. But it’s also the way of life too. Even the cattle seem happy with their lot!”


If you would like to learn more about studying the MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, see our website or drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk to find out more.

Trondheim to Orkney – the adventure of a lifetime

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Standing stones at Stenness

21 year old Erasmus exchange student Martine Kaspersen has just completed her placement at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in Orkney.

She kindly volunteered to write about her experiences in Orkney…….

“Archaeology and history has always been a big part of my life. As a child, my parents, sibling and I traveled to local museums and historic places regularly and since then, I’ve always found prehistory extremely fascinating. My parents were always supportive of my decision to take an academic education within the field of archaeology and my adventures started there!

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Martine in a seminar in the lab

I started the Bachelors programme in archaeology in Trondhiem in 2016. The course was great, we traveled basically around all of Trøndelag (Which is approximately situated in central Norway). We saw different sites and experienced hands on archaeology. This made us able to spot the difference between a Bronze Age materials and Iron Age materials – just by looking at the artefact.

Even before I started NTNU (Norwegian School of Science and Technology), I knew I wanted to go abroad during the degree programme. The hard part, was deciding exactly where I wanted to go. I had a hard time deciding on this, as I am used to city life and wanted to do something new. In the end, after a lot of thought and consideration, a friend suggested Orkney. One would think that a place with so many connections to Norway and Trondheim, a Norwegian born and raised in Trondheim should know about Orkney. The thing was, I didn’t! Orkney – for some odd reason – is not discussed in any history lessons in school, or at my archaeology course.

I found Orkney very interesting, and the nature and climate was something I already was familiar with (except the lack of hills, mountains and woodland), so the adaption to the place wasn’t too great for me. I fell in love with the history, monuments and how isolated the island can seem for a person who has spent most of her life in a city.

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The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Orkney, accompanied by my older sister and mother. January was cold, windy with a lot of rainy days. The people at the course was so amazingly welcoming and I found friends for life, right away. The courses were extremely interesting, and I put heart and soul into essays and presentations – which payed off pretty well. I also attended the Easter field trip to Bute, which was magnificent. I loved every part of it.

After a trip back to Trondheim during Easter, it was right back to writing essays, presentations and preparing for the exam. Everything went well in the end, and before I knew it, I had been in Orkney for almost four months. I loved every single minute of it, and am very thankful for all the help, support and great adventures both the staff at the college and my friends have made possible.

Thank you for having me here, and bearing with me. I will now be heading back to Trondheim to finish my bachelor, and then straight to a Masters degree – and hopefully even a PHD.”


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

Student Field Trip to Bute – Easter 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day Two of the fieldtrip to follow…….

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


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

Celebrating Young People in Archaeology – Work Placement at UHI Archaeology Institute

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Travis working in the lab

Celebrating the contribution young people make to Archaeology during the Year of Young People

At the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute we are developing ways to provide young people with an opportunity to experience archaeology in a workplace environment.

Travis, a 16 year old S5 pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney, is currently undertaking a work placement with us. Each week Travis works with our team at the Institute learning new skills and gaining vocational training. The emphasis is on understanding some of the processes of archaeological work, from the field to the archive.

He has the opportunity to develop skills in a wide variety of areas including finds washing, wet sieving, archiving, photography, excavation, field walking and digital archaeology. In fact as part of the archaeology team, Travis is contributing to the archaeological research taking place in the Institute and is gaining a whole range of experience that will help him develop his career path.

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Travis holding the piece of Medieval pottery he unearthed at the Mapping Magnus dig at Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney

Travis continues, ” I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and when the UHI came into the school and we helped in the archaeology at the RBS Bank (part of the Kirkwall THI project), I thought that this was something that I was interested in. So I e-mailed Dan Lee and he offered a work placement at the University. I was involved in the Mapping Magnus dig in 2017 where I joined the excavation team and found a piece of pottery. That was exciting and despite the weather I really enjoyed it. I have been asked if I would like to help at the Ness of Brodgar in the summer and I am really looking forward to that.”

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A close-up of the medieval pottery discovered by Travis at the Mapping Magnus dig

Travis went on to say that he would like to continue to study archaeology and ideally continue to work in Orkney on some of the incredible sites located on the islands.

Travis is using a BAJR Archaeology Skills Passport to document his progress and log his training. The passport has been designed by British Archaeological Jobs and Resources to help students and volunteers document the main skills that they need to gain employment as a professional archaeologist. All of our students are issued with a BAJR passport to record their practical training. They can be obtained from the skills passport website.


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

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

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UHI PhD Student Jasmijn Gains Award for Research Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the research sites: Dalchork

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

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

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

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

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Checking the stratigraphic sequence

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

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Jasmijn’s poster

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


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

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

From Lincolnshire to Orkney – TJ’s journey into archaeology

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TJ and Leo, her companion dog, working in the lab

Terri-Jane (TJ to everyone) is an archaeology student with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. She starts the ‘Archaeology and Local Studies’ Course in January 2018.

TJ’s story is a success story and demonstrates that there is more than one route into archaeology. Having found her passion for the subject, TJ wanted to share her journey, and takes up the story from here ….

“As a child I wanted to become an archaeologist, but I was not encouraged to follow this route. I am dyslexic and in those days there was not the support in place to follow a university career that there is now. So I kept my interest alive by visiting our local museum, travelling to lectures and watching programmes on television.”

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TJ at the Mapping Magnus Community dig in Palace Village

“I became wheelchair dependent in 2013 and I thought that was the end of my idea of studying archaeology. But in 2016 I moved to Orkney and started an art class at Orkney College UHI and there I met Sorcha….the Highlands and Islands Students Association (HISA) Regional Vice President. Sorcha is an archaeology student, and we talked about my interest in the subject and how I wanted to be involved, but didn’t know how. Following a few more conversations, I was in the Archaeology Institute at Orkney College – talking to staff about volunteering, enrolling on the Archaeology and Local Studies course and accessing all areas! Everyone was so enthusiastic and ,Wow, the next thing I knew I was invited to the Mapping Magnus community dig at Birsay.”

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The Mapping Magnus community dig, Palace Village, Orkney

“Kath, one of the second year archaeology students, picked me up in her car and off we went to the Mapping Magnus dig at Palace Village, Birsay. I was so excited, but also a little bit nervous. I was about to take part in a real dig, researching the location of a medieval palace!

It was a beautiful sunny day and as we arrived at the dig Kath took me to the site over boards laid down for my wheelchair. Almost immediately I was at work with a trowel and sieving soil samples coming out of the dig. I was working at an archaeological dig!”

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Mapping Magnus Community Dig

“I was so excited to be taking part and within a few minutes I came across my first finds; a medieval fish bone, three animal bones and a collection of limpet shells. The team were so friendly and supported me through the whole process and, perhaps more importantly, I was treated like everyone else. My disability was not a hindrance.

I am now actively involved in the Archaeology Institute’s volunteer programme, volunteering for everything I can at the college in Kirkwall. Only last week I was in the lab washing bones from The Cairns broch and then cataloguing finds from the Orkney World Heritage Site field walking project. There is no stopping me now!”

TJ has signed up for the Archaeology and Local Studies course and starts in January and is on the volunteer list to take part in future community archaeology projects.


The Archaeology and Local Studies distance learning course is designed for people who are interested in learning more about the archaeology of the north of Scotland – from the mesolithic to the medieval and including the study of such incredible structures as brochs.

The course involves 2 hours a week taught classes for 10 weeks. Applicants for the course do not need experience of archaeology and the course can be studied as a standalone course worth 20 credits or used as an access course for studying at university level. As such it is a good opportunity to see if archaeology is for you and learn about the subject.

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

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

 

 

From Chicago to Orkney – the journey of a second year student

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Connor examining pollen grains to understand how landscapes have changed from the past to the present day.

Connor Marrs is a second year student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. He is 22 years old and originally comes from Chicago.

I was intrigued by the motivation of someone like Connor who exchanged life in a big U.S. city for life on an island off the northern tip of Scotland. So, when sitting in the university cafe overlooking the Bay of Kirkwall, I asked him why he decided to study archaeology first of all and then why come to Orkney to study the subject. He replied….

“I was always interested in European history and especially Scottish history and, while at High School in Chicago, started to look at universities in Scotland. While travelling through Scotland, I applied to be a volunteer at The Cairns Broch and, following an exchange of e-mails, ended up in Orkney taking part in the dig! The Cairns is a friendly dig in a breath-taking location overlooking the North Sea and within a few days, I was hooked. By the end of the dig I knew that I wanted to study archaeology and I wanted to study archaeology in Orkney”

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Studying pottery from the Ness of Brodgar

“Following further discussions with Dr. Ingrid Mainland and Martin Carruthers, they detailed the options open to me and how I could study here in Orkney. They were really helpful and supportive. So I applied and have not looked back since!”

Connor moved on to say that the social life in Orkney is great. The students at the UHI Archaeology Institute, because of the relatively small numbers, form a tight knit community very quickly. Everyone is like-minded and enthusiastic about archaeology in general and Orcadian archaeology in particular and so build strong relationships very quickly.

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Ceramics seminar

All sounds fantastic….but I also asked Connor if there were any downsides. Anything that students coming here to study should be aware of. He said yes….the first winter can be daunting. Although Chicago experiences deep snow on a regular basis, the winter in Orkney is somewhat different. There is very little snow, but being an island, transport links can be affected by the weather. You may not be able to get to your destination as quickly as you would like sometimes!

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Student field trip to the Broch of Gurness, Orkney

If you would like to chat with us and explore your options at the UHI Archaeology Institute then please e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk. 

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