It’s Monday and the weekly routine on site starts again.
There is a new batch of first year UHI students on site ready to begin their first second year module bringing with it a slightly extended weekly brief detailing the findings of last week which include the discovery of the outer ditch around the broch, progress on finding the plateau, or terrace, edge, the steady progress in Trench Q, including the voided pit, and the ongoing excavation of the interior of the broch.
Copper alloy emerging from the outer broch ditch
After briefing, the excavation started and with rested excavators, the finds and discoveries quickly started popping up. In the outer broch ditch (in the south west extension) there have been continuous finds of bone, burnt clay, pottery and a piece of copper alloy, adding to and expanding the material record of the site. In the same south west extension, a furnace bottom was found. This is a ‘plano-convex’ shaped cake of solid iron waste that forms in the bottom of a smelting furnace.
Over in Trench Q the continual trowelling and mattocking revealed what looks like an interior wall face. While it remains unknown what this wall relates to, and how far it extends, it looks nicely built and substantial and may well be part of one of the village buildings that goes with the broch.
The team in the interior of the broch have been exposing more of the occupation layers and further distinguishing the interior divisions, giving something to look forward to over the coming weeks as the occupation layers are excavated.
Lastly the furnace keeps on as ever producing slag and keep the small finds team busy, with it looking ever more likely that it was dismantled before it was covered up.
Overall, it is business as usual on site, with people continuing previous efforts to reveal ever more detail about the nature of occupation though it seems that over the coming week there may well be some new discoveries to report on soon.
We will keep you posted!
Ashley Davis, Placement student, University of Bournemouth.
We have reached the end of week two on site, and I thought I’d give a summarised round-up of what we have been doing recently.
It’s been a great week on site, with lots of lovely sunny weather and we have really enjoyed showing off the site to the many visitors that have been coming round the site. The excavations have been going very nicely, with fairly major progress achieved across all of the areas that we are concentrating on this year.
In the broch, the team led by Ricky, have been made their way through the lowest rubble and then they came down on to a roughly paved surface, and a charcoal rich organic deposit spread across large parts of the western half of the building. It looks like this has been the uppermost occupation remains and is obviously very late use of the broch.
More mystifying has been the discovery of a very large pit-like feature in the south-eastern part of the broch interior that appears to have been back-filled with very large rubble. This pit plummets for nearly a metre in depth and has just today come on to a new different fill deposit, but we have not yet reached the bottom. It may turn out that this feature is some kind of stone-lined, or faced, feature set into the broch floor, perhaps a little like ones discovered in other brochs such as Crosskirk broch in Caithness. Our pit has been in-filled with rubble when the broch was abandoned, but only time will tell what the true nature of this feature is and what lies at its very base!
Another surprise discovery from the broch was yesterday’s little blue glass bead mentioned in Hanneke’s blog-piece. Kevin’s very sharp eyes spotted this lying on the top of our ‘red cell’ in the broch after it had been cleaned for photography. Technically, this is a ‘cobalt blue, truncated bi-conical, glass bead’, and although there are ‘native’ glass beads at this time, it appears that the nearest parallels for our bead are from Roman contexts in Britain. It’s a lovely little find and would typically date to the 1st or 2nd Century AD.
In the south-west extension that we have added to the main trench this year, I must confess that my original intention was to open up the area, do only a little work this year and plan for much more work there next season. However, from the outset, the deposits there have been so tantalising and potentially informative of the earliest plan for the Iron Age settlement that we simply couldn’t resist giving it a good bit more attention. For one thing, the SW extension appears to contain evidence of the way that the Iron Age community went to tremendous efforts to landscape the hill-slope in preparation for the construction of the broch. The natural glacial clay that is present in the trench appears to have been cut into during the Iron Age to create a substantial terrace on which the broch was constructed. This must have entailed the movement of hundreds of tons of earth and clay before even the first course of broch masonry was laid. It really strongly indicates the huge effort that was involved in the building project of the broch!
In addition, the SW extension also unexpectedly contains a large band of dark stony silts in one corner, these appear to be the upper fills of the great ditch that surrounds and encloses the Middle Iron Age period settlement. Today these fills have been coming up trumps in terms of finds as they have been yielding masses of large sherds of beautiful Iron Age pottery rims and bases. I can’t wait to see what else is in these ditch fills over the next couple of weeks!
On the eastern exterior of the broch Paul, Kath and Kathryn have been working in the souterrain, Structure F. The interior soily deposits of this underground passage have been gridded-out for excavation and sampling and so far there has been some intriguing substantial animal bones found in the fill. It’s early days in here, but I think we’re going to find more very interesting deposits and hopefully also solve the mystery of the special aperture that had been created in the roof of the souterrain at its southern end when it was constructed.
Some readers may remember that when we first encountered the in situ stone roof of the souterrain, a special stone setting containing two upside-down, rotary querns had been set up on the roof, and that the holes through these were aligned to the gap in the major roof lintels beneath. We hope that this season excavation and soil chemistry might reveal whether this special aperture was used to pour something into the souterrain, and what that might be. We’ll update you as and when we begin to get a sense of what might have been going on here!
Trench Q is the area to the North and East of the broch, and we anticipate that it ought to contain extramural buildings, a village, surrounding the broch. So far, rather than any obvious sign of substantial village buildings it has been full of rubble and ashy silty soils, masses and masses of soil! There have been interesting things in this Iron Age soil; deer antlers, stone tools and pottery, etc., but no sign of building remains. It looks like they are very much more deeply buried beneath the rubble and ash.
Meanwhile, over in the eastern corner of Trench Q we have encountered an area of modern disturbance, adjacent to a modern pit that we have previously excavated. It appears that this disturbance involved a large amount of very large pieces of rubble being filled into a pit. We can see that there are some massive voids reaching down to about a 1.5 metres below the present surface of the trench. It looks as if next week we may be able to establish what this modern pit hit when it was first dug out, and it looks like it might be a very big voided structure of some kind. We will keep you posted!
Finally, and by no means least, I’d like to extend a big thank you to our Archaeology Short Course students who have joined us on site this week. They began their day with us digging some test pits in the hinterland of the broch. This turned out very well, as they yielded useful insights into the extent of the archaeology on the western side of the broch, and also brought us into contact with the Neolithic mound (a settlement, we suspect) that lies to the north of the main trench. The short course students also helped us carry out some geophysics in the wider landscape and continued to excavate the main trench under Dan Lee’s supervision. Here, they have revealed the fuller extent of Structure E; one of our late Iron Age buildings, and have shown that it is most probably a multi-cellular building or a ‘shamrock’. This is really valuable new information about the site, so thank you to them all for their work this week!
Today was another glorious day at The Cairns. Many visitors have been taking the opportunity to visit the site and enjoy tours by the knowledgeable Martin, Kevin and Ole.
The squad have been working hard and we had various interesting finds today. Kevin spotted a small blue glass bead on the wall of the broch wall in the ‘red cell’. It looked as if it had been wedged between two courses of masonry. Definitely an exciting find!
Charlotte cleaned the metal working furnace and found debris and furnace lining. The team in Trench Q found a very large worked stone and some pottery. Hannah removed a scapula (shoulder blade) from the ditch on the outside of the broch wall. The question in this area is whether the ditch was built before the houses or if the broch developed more organically.
Peter enjoyed some charcoal sampling for carbon dating and Gary made a sketch (planning) as a record of that particular area. I have trowelled down to the natural ‘clay’ and sandstone of what is possibly the upper edge of the terrace created to build the broch. We cleaned the area and a nice clear division between the natural layer and later contexts were revealed.
All in all an enjoyable and exciting day.
Hanneke Booij, MSc Student University of Stirling.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Masters student Jim Bright talks us through his role as The Cairns Digital Archaeologist.
“Over the excavation season at The Cairns Project, I’ll be spending time as the ‘on-site digital archaeologist’. That may sound like an unusual term and one of the reasons for this is that, put simply, it is an unusual thing to do.
Quite often, digital work undertaken for archaeological excavations is completed after the dig season has finished. 3D models of finds created using photogrammetry are usually made in the comfort of a warm office or lab after the finds have been categorised, labelled and wrapped up for preservation, or put on display in a museum. 3D models of trenches during an excavation season are sometimes made, however usually this is just a single model of a particular context during excavation.
Being on the excavation site for the entirety of the dig here at The Cairns, enables the opportunity to generate some 3D models of the same trench at different phases, when different contexts are being discovered. Moreover, when a particularly interesting find is discovered, I can be there to make a 3D model just as it’s unearthed. That way, we can get some 3D models out there for everyone to view the day they are found. Recently, I made the model below of what has been termed the ‘Red Cell’. The Red Cell is a small compartment or room, just off from the centre of the broch.
I’ll be posting more models over the season which I will include in future blogs. Some models may appear on the Friends of the Cairns Facebook page and the @thecairnsbroch twitter page, along with the @UHIArchaeology page, all great sources for information about the Cairns project and what we are doing.
I will also be trying out some interesting new techniques for photogrammetry, utilising different software packages and trying out some experimental digital archaeology, so there will be a lot to see and a lot to write about. Indeed there will be much for me to reflect on during my placement here as a Masters degree student at UHI.”
Blog written by Jim Bright, MSc Archaeological Practice student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
The weather was kinder to us today which meant that the site was a hive of activity.
With many visitors to the site, Ole and Kevin spent much of the day running guided tours, sharing their impressive knowledge of the broch and its associated features.
After yesterday’s introduction to the type of finds that can be expected on site, the students from Stirling University: Stephan, Maria, Bethan and Hanneke were set to work cleaning the exterior of the southern outer wall face of the broch and reported small finds, mainly comprising bone and stone tools. Cleaning is an important component of managing the site as it enables us to see areas of contrast, colour or potential features that become obscured after an area has been exposed to the elements for some time, or compacted due to footfall.
The Cairns has several areas which have suffered from historical collapse and teams have been clearing “shillet” – a mix of shattered stone, soil and rubble from these areas to enable identification of structures underneath. Now that the broch floor is mainly clear of this, Woody and Alex continued the planning and recording of the floor features, a necessary task to complete before any further excavation can continue.
To the north of the site near Trench Q, there is another area of historical collapse. Duncan, one of our eagle-eyed UHI students discovered a fragment of bone pin whilst clearing away more shillet. This was a remarkable find due to the method of “rough trowelling” used to clear away this coarse rubbly deposit.
On a personal level, today has been very exciting. Myself, Paul and Kathryn, all of us UHI students, had the opportunity to plan and grid the souterrain floor and begin the task of gathering 100% of the floor deposits for sampling. The floor was divided into 14 squares known as F1-14 (Structure F is the souterrain) and alternate squares were excavated, material from each square was separated into sample buckets for processing later.
The area that Paul was excavating is directly underneath a (now removed) lintel that was found to contain an aperture that may have been used for pouring a libation into the souterrain. It is hoped that the soil samples may show whether liquids were indeed poured into the opening and what these liquids were. Tantalisingly, during the excavation of his first grid square, Paul discovered a substantial piece of bone, possibly a femur from a yet unknown species. This discovery would correlate with Goodfellow’s 1901 account of bone being discovered nearby in the broch entrance that he had mistaken for a souterrain. The next few days will no doubt reveal more exciting finds in the souterrain deposits.
Blog written by Kath Page second year UHI Archaeology BA Hons student.
Today started out a bit wet, resulting in our spending some of the morning in the shelter of our hard-won site Portacabin, having a look at some of the nicer and most archetypal finds from previous seasons.
This was a good introduction for those new to the site or to excavation in general, as well as recidivists like myself who’ve been at the Cairns before but can always learn something from a refresher – not to mention the added motivation in seeing examples of some of the fascinating and beautiful things that presumably still remain to be found!
The weather cleared up after lunch and we resumed our work from last week in the sunshine. In Trench Q, the cleaning back of the surface area continued with mattocks complementing trowels today as we carry on searching for more evidence of the village complex around the broch, with lots of animal bone still coming up in this layer as well as a nice piece of antler.
Charlotte and I continued working to expose and define the structure of the furnace and establish its relationship to the surrounding structures and the nearby metalworking area in Trench M. Patches of rubble were removed and samples were taken of the soil surrounding the articulated animal bone meticulously excavated by Charlotte last week. Meanwhile, those working in the new trench extension removed some rubble to reveal more of the outer wall face of the broch and pushed on with cleaning back to characterise the deposits in that area.
We hope this will reveal, among other things, the shape and size of the presumed cut for the construction of broch, which would tell us a great deal about the scope of the builders’ original intentions for the site. A nice piece of boar tusk was found in the far corner of the site where Hannah and Peter have been looking for evidence of the ditch that has been hinted at by geophysical survey and test-pitting around the site.
And in the broch itself, Woody and Alex prepared to draw a plan of the current interior surface, as some of the structure’s internal divisions start to show themselves in the form of orthostats peeking out through the rubble.
So steady progress being made and with the weather looking more reasonable for the remainder of the week, hopefully our efforts in cleaning back across much of the site will soon be rewarded with some exciting revelations.
This blog post was written by Therese McCormick, field archaeologist, and former MSc Student with the UHI Archaeology Institute
In contrast to yesterday the weather has been kind. Happily, and despite some reduced numbers on the team today, significant progress has been made.
In the north-east quarter of trench Q the furnace structure has revealed ever more detail of its construction and use and further articulated remains of a young sheep (or goat) have been lifted from the teardrop shaped construction in front of the furnace along with a variety of animal bone including a jawbone probably from an older animal. Some of the collapsed stone behind the furnace has also been shown to be contemporary with its construction, so Dave has told me.
Meanwhile, back in the Broch itself the hard-working crew led by Woody (who probably has a real name, but nobody knows) has managed to complete the herculean task of emptying several tonnes of rubble from the interior, lifted over the standing structure and across difficult terrain to finally reveal the remaining standing construction inside the structure
For myself and the others, working in the new extension of the trench (currently known simply as “South West Extension”) further sessions of heavy trowelling have successfully revealed a layer of large stones that may, or may not, be “a something”.
We have also convinced ourselves that we have one or two possible edges of a ditch (or the remains of ridge and furrow) that are revealed at this early stage. Time and trowel will tell as they say…
As an older volunteer, I can recommend The Cairns as a friendly environment in which to work, but in hindsight I would have done more to increase my fitness and stamina before the start of the dig. The first week ends with very few of my leg muscles being in good condition. You live and learn! ‘
Today was certainly a mixed one in terms of the weather, and the team worked through very warm sunshine and some really torrential rain showers as well! But results were well worth the labour!
Spirit unabated progress continued in the trenches. In the broch, the team have been excavating the lowest rubble deposits from the western half of the interior, revealing patches of tantalising black organic occupation material here and there. The hope is that once some more of the rubble has been removed we will see that the greater portion of the area is taken up with this nice deposit so that we can then begin to excavate in a strategic manner on a grid, taking many soil samples for analysis.
Even the rubble, though, has significant points of interest. For example, Kath, one of our degree students found a nice sizeable chunk of whalebone set in the rubble snug against the broch inner wall face. There are also other little bone finds in here too, such as a sheep jawbone, shells and occasional stone tools. It appears that even the rubble infill relating to the abandonment of the broch (about the middle of the 2nd Century AD), apparently contained deliberate little deposits of items, a phenomenon we have previously witnessed in other zones of the broch infill.
Meanwhile in Trench Q, during our exploration of the extramural features around the outside of the broch on the north and east side we found quite thick blankets of silty soils and light rubble that contain a lot of artefacts and environmental remains. Hannah has been finding some chunky cattle bones, for example, and there has been a lot of pottery, including a nice sherd with decoration in the form of applied diagonal pellets under a nice rolled rim. This decorated pottery is Middle Iron Age in date and therefore roughly of the period of the broch, however, in this case it probably dates to a time just after the broch was abandoned.
In the western edge of Trench Q, Charlotte and Therese have been cleaning up in our furnace area, a feature we believe is associated with iron-working. Intriguingly, they have been finding articulated animal bones on the edge of the furnace zone, and this is in an area where we previously found a large pig skull that was severed clean off its body with a substantial edged object, most likely a metal blade! It seems likely that there are also special deposits in and around the furnace!
With the bursts of heavy rain our south-west extension became effectively unworkable with its spreads of clay and thick silty soils, so the part of the team that had been working there, migrated into the broch to help the others and progress in the last part of the afternoon was good.
Tomorrow, with the help of good weather, (fingers and toes crossed!), we should be able to reach our goal of establishing the uppermost occupation deposit across the western interior of the building- then the fun begins!
Today’s fine weather allowed us to get going with preparing various parts of the site for excavation, and getting stuck in to trenches Q and M.
I started this morning re-homing the lintel stones from the souterrain. These were taken out at the end of last season in order to allow the excavation of floor deposits within the souterrain passage this year. This morning a small team of strong-armed diggers moved them to safer pastures outside the work area. Here they’ll be out of harm’s way (and visible if you swing by for a visit!).
Our reward for this hard work was the chance to get in the broch itself – so hard hats went on and the work began to get the broch ready for the serious excavation to come. The team moved out some slabs and stony fill in order to get down to the exciting floor layers below.
Elsewhere on the site Therese and Charlotte cleaned up the furnace in Trench Q, and in the process found some articulated bone – a hopeful sign of even more interesting finds in this area. In the finds tent Kevin and Kathryn reported surprisingly large amounts of pottery coming from all areas of the site – more than has been found in previous seasons – as well as a Skaill knife (a stone blade used in butchery and scraping hides, etc.).
Thankfully the rain largely stayed off during the day, allowing the team to make some progress and build momentum on site – we’re now really getting excited for the coming weeks.
Today’s blog was written by Hannah Boyd – a recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh and a newbie to The Cairns community. This is Hannah’s first time digging at The Cairns and she’s excited to get the chance to work on a broch site – particularly such a rich and interesting site as this!
Hi folks, Martin again, reporting on progress during day two of the project.
We spent the earlier part of the day cleaning over surfaces within the trench and generally tidying up its appearance in preparation for beginning to actually start excavating in earnest.
Indeed, it was during the general clean up, within the extension on the south-west side of the site that we made today’s star find! Woody, who has just completed his degree studies with us, was cleaning the edge of the new trench when he made the fine. It’s a beautiful bronze pin. This particular type is known as a ‘Hand-pin’ because it has a head shaped like an arc or ring with three little beaded projections above. The entire decorated head resembles a little hand.
This is a really nice find, and it’s quite chronologically suggestive as well since pins like this are an early form of the hand-pin (sometimes known as a proto-hand pin) and are thought to date to around the 3rd or 4th Centuries AD, and a little later- so about the same period as the later Roman period in Southern Britain.
The pin had come from a deposit high in the sequence of dark silty soils that we think might be the uppermost fills of the great enclosure ditch that surrounds the site. This could be some very interesting dating evidence for the last infilling of the ditch.
Nearby, Kath, another of our degree students found a really nice piece of pottery with a ‘rolled’ rim, which is, again suggestive of a date in the earlier part of the Late Iron Age.
Meanwhile, as work progressed over on the northern part of the site to clean up in Trench Q, Christine, yet another UHI student found an equally chunky and impressive piece of pottery, but this time of a slightly different sort. It had an everted (out-swinging) rim and a nice globular body. This is more of a Middle Iron Age type- the period of the heyday of the broch itself.
All, in all, considering it was a day largely given over to preliminary clean-up we have had a very nice set of finds and together with the feature and deposits we are encountering they are helping us to formulate the story of the site, yet further.
In future days, we’ll be bringing you perspectives from a range of people involved in the excavations at the site.
Please check in with us again tomorrow for more exciting developments from the trenches.