The Cairns Day Fifteen 2017

Visitors are taken on a tour on open day, while in the foreground the team excavated a section of the ditch
Open Day: Visitors are taken on a tour of the site, while in the foreground the team excavate a section of the ditch

Today was our open day on site and we had a very good turn out from the public whom we very much hope enjoyed the many tours that were undertaken of the site.

The presence of lots of visitors always lends the site a slightly festive atmosphere and all of us on site really enjoy interacting with the public and showing off the site and the wonderful artefacts that have been discovered.  Many of us were giving tours and we’d like to thank everyone who came along for making it such a fun and cheerful day.

The tours took many of us into show-and-tell mode on site, nevertheless, archaeological work in many areas of the site progressed unabated.

In Trench Q, Dave and the team have been continuing to reveal wall-tops, related to the village surrounding the broch, although how contemporary these are with the broch at this stage will remain unclear for some time.  Interestingly, the soily deposits that they are excavating are full of antler-working waste.  There are trimmed off-cuts of antler coming out thick and fast.  This waste is probably from making combs, pins, and tools of a variety of types, examples of which we have found from elsewhere on the site.  Also recovered from around here was a small bronze chain-link!

Hanneke excavating in the terrace cut around the broch exterior
Hanneke excavating in the terrace cut around the broch exterior

In the ditch, over in the SW extension, the finds have also been coming thick and fast.  Even though we’re really still in quite high deposits (relative to the likely fuller depth of the ditch), the volume of animal bone, including cattle, sheep, pig, deer, and many others, has been quite amazing, and these have been big chunks of large beasts.  This has included horn cores, other large skull fragments, and deer antler.  The ditch was obviously a receptacle for lots of midden, with large unabraided (freshly broken) pieces of pottery  and stone tools to add to the litany of discarded materials.


The green stained bronze chain link from site today, lifted on a soil block to preserve the object
The green stained bronze chain link, lifted on a soil block to preserve the object.


However, based on other sites of the Scottish Atlantic Iron Age, the placement of specific types of waste within ditches seems to have happened in particular locations around the circumference of enclosures, and this appears to have been governed by ideological schemes that are reflected in the patterning of deposits.  It will therefore be very interesting to compare what types of material we have in our section, over a lateral part of the ditch, with those from other sites, such as the wonderful Mine Howe site excavated in East Mainland, Orkney by UHI Archaeologists a few years ago.

Another lovely little item that came up today was a highly polished cattle tooth.  This has seen some serious modification of one its surfaces in the past, so much so, that all the normal wavy, ‘corrugated’ surface of the tooth has been worn down to a smooth high sheen polish.  This must have been some sort of burnisher. However, it is a wonderfully beautiful little item in its own right.


The late hearth in the western area of the broch
The late hearth in the western area of the broch


Inside the broch, in the western interior, the late hearth has been fully revealed and recorded, ready for lifting early next week.  It will be very interesting to see what lies beneath this, especially as the entire hearth is raised up, mounded above the level of the surrounding flag floor as if it is sitting on top of something more substantial beneath.   I have a suspicion that this might turn out to be an earlier (hopefully well-preserved) hearth.  We’ll keep you informed.  Menwhile, Alex has exposed more of the in situ articulated cat bones ready for lifting and sampling the soil from around the body.  This will happen next week.

The forthcoming week is our last week of the season this year, however if previous seasons are anything to go by there may well yet be a few surprises in store for us and some lovely finds!  Keep checking out our blog for details…

Martin Carruthers.

The Cairns Day Fourteen 2017

Henrik excavating the upper ditch fills
Henrik excavating the upper ditch fills

A quick update from me, Martin. Even though we had a slightly shorter day today, curtailed by the rain in the afternoon, we managed to make good progress and work across all areas of the site was illuminating and very intriguing!

Over in the Southwest extension, the ditch continues to surprise and delight. So far the ditch fills have been rich in pottery, shell-midden, bronze objects, and today seems to have been the day of the animal bone. Masses of animal bones have been coming to light today. These included large portions of cattle skulls, pig skull fragments and lots of other large bones, especially cattle, and red deer.

Just one of the trays of animal bone recovered from the ditch today
Just one of the trays of animal bone recovered from the ditch

Ditches are frequently rich reservoirs of information about day-to-day life as they do seem to have been filled up with the daily detritus, however, they also seem to have been fairly strictly organised in terms of what exactly is allowed to enter them, and at what point in the circumference of the enclosure. This has been seen in the ditches dug at other Iron Age sites, where certain types of animals, or even certain portions of animals, where deposited in certain ponts around the ditch, and ultimately it will be interesting to see if the patterns of deposition seen at The Cairns are in any way similar to those other places. What’s more this animal bone will be very interesting in terms of insights into diet and even affluence.

Antler-working debris from Trench Q
Antler-working debris from Trench Q

Inside the broch itself, the team have been continuing to excavate later occupation deposits (we think dating to around the mid 2nd Century AD). They have been investigating one particular concentration of black, carbon rich soil in the middle of the Western half of the broch. When this black charcoal soil was excavated and packed into sample boxes it revealed a large, heavily cracked and heat affected slab underneath. It looks fairly certain that this has been a big hearth base slab set up late in the use of the broch. Even more intriguingly we think we can see the tip of an edge set, upright stone peeping out from under this big slab, and this may turn out to be part of another even more substantial hearth setting. Maybe there’s a really big lovely formal hearth awaiting us. We’ll find out and let you know over the next couple of days.

The large heat affected haerth base in the broch under excavation today
The large heat affected hearth base in the broch under excavation

Another very interesting discovery in the broch today was made by Alex when he was cleaning over a surface near to the wall-face on the southwest side. The greater part of a cat carcass emerged. This is highly interesting in its own right, however, we have previously found a cat skeleton on site, last season, and it appeared to have been laid out in a formal way to mark the construction of one of our non-broch Iron Age buildings, (Structure B2). Several Orcadian Iron Age sites have yielded evidence for such feline deposition (including Howe, near Stromness), and so we shall have to see if this cat too is part of some kind of ‘structured’, i.e intentional deposit.

Elsewhere on site, the routine work of cleaning back over ashy midden in Trench Q continues to reveal fragments of masonry and other stony features that will surely turn out to be parts of the village surrounding the broch. In the souterrain Mary and Gary have restarted the work of excavating the soils within our underground passageway today, and time will tell what is in them. So far a lot of animal bone has come out of the souterrain and the soils look rich and ashy.

Trench Q before the rain toay
Trench Q before the rain today

Now, finally, a reminder that if you are in Orkney tomorrow (Friday the 30th of June), and you are able to join us then please do come down to site for our main open day of the season. We’ll be hosting guided tours of the structures and features on site, and showing some of the amazing finds from this year’s excavations. Please do join us if you are able. We are on site from 10am, but if you visit between the hours of 11.00am and 3.30pm then you will see the dig in action.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day Thirteen 2017

Newly emerging walls in Trench Q- evidence of the broch village to the north of the site
Newly emerging walls in Trench Q – evidence of the broch village in the north of the site

In the eastern part of the site, in Trench Q.  On the south side of the Trench, excavation of overlying ashy soils and rubble soil has finally begun to reveal a wall that forms part of a structure, likely, a village building outside the broch.

Excavations also continue and in the north side of the Trench Q where a fragment of clay Furnace-lining uncovered today further points to metal working at the site and hints at the potential core of the furnace itself.

The little curved copper alloy object from the ditch in the SW extension
The little, curved copper alloy object from the ditch in the SW extension

In ‘the pit’ immediately to the east of the Broch a large fragment of deer antler was found wedged between the slabs of another new substantial sandstone built wall, and in the Souterrain near the entrance of the Broch, whole animal bones and fragments and antler have been identified.  Inside the Broch itself work continue on the upper habitation layers.  Later in the afternoon, the Broch was cleared of our tools and archaeologists for aerial pictures taken from a drone.

Overview of the broch where work continues on the floor deposits
Overview of the broch where work continues on the floor deposits

Work also continues in the SW trench extension on the Broch exterior and along with the many bone fragments found in the midden material, a small copper alloy object was discovered. The delicate find was carefully removed in a block with the surrounding soil.

Excavating in the SW extension
Excavating in the SW extension

Though dig season is now two thirds of the way complete for 2017, the well in the broch, the remaining habitation deposits, the Souterrain at the Broch entrance, and the structures to the east of the Broch will continue to be worked opening up the opportunity to yield even more information this season.

More new walls in the pit close to the broch entrance
More new walls in the pit close to the broch entrance

Gary Lloyd, BA Archaeology student, UHI


The Cairns Day Twelve 2017

Two thousand year old occupation deposits in the Eastern half of the broch in the process of clean-up
Two thousand-year-old occupation deposits in the Eastern half of the broch in the process of clean-up

A rather grey and windy day at The Cairns today, yet that didn’t stop the many visitors stopping by.  The weather didn’t stop the exciting developments that have been happening across the site today.

The very long, bronze pin-like object in the SW extension
The very long, bronze pin-like object in the SW extension

The south-west extension was especially exciting today as the bronze object (possibly a pin), which was found yesterday, was lifted by Martin, under the close observation of many onlookers.  At the other side of the extension Gary and I found quite a substantial amount of finds in one small area, these included two different animal jawbones, beside a stone tool, sherds of pottery and an animal bone that has signs of butchery, which were located under some of the rubble that we had just removed.

The crucible showing the spout that would have been used for pouring molten bronze
The crucible showing the spout that would have been used for pouring molten bronze


One of the Star finds of the day was found by Hanneke in the rubble that is butting against the broch wall, a large piece of pottery that turned out to be a piece of a crucible, a vessel that would have carried molten metal.

Down in the broch, things have also been slowly progressing, the floor deposits in the eastern section have been cleaned back.  In the western portion, the paving has been cleaned and is being recorded.

The new wall emerging in Karoline's and Marianne's 'pit', outside the Eastern wall of the broch
The new wall emerging in Karoline and Marianne’s pit, outside the eastern wall of the broch


Across the site in ‘the Pit’, an area of modern disturbance and back-fill, Marianne and Karoline also had quite an exciting day, the wall that started to make its appearance over the last few days is now looking even more enticing, the wall now is adjoining to another wall at a right angle.  Another of the star finds today was also from this area, where articulated cow vertebrae were found.

Down in Trench Q things seem to be coming on quite nicely, though it was previously not quite looking like anything other than ‘voidy rubble,’ it is starting now to show signs of some of wall lines joining through the baulk to a structure in Trench M, if this is the case or not, only time will tell.

Mary Renshaw, BA Archaeology student, UHI.

The Cairns Day Eleven 2017

Cleaning the floors of the broch
Cleaning the floors of the broch

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.

Work continuing in Trench Q
Work continuing in Trench Q

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.

Some of the new partitions emerging inside the broch western interior
Some of the new partitions emerging inside the broch western interior

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.

The Cairns Day Ten 2017


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.

The big pit under excavation inside the western zone of the broch
The big pit inside the western zone 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!

blue glass bead

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.

The dark silty soils of the upper ditch fills appear in SW extension
The dark silty soils of the upper ditch fills appear in the SW extension

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!

Paul excavating animal bones inside the souterrain passage
Paul excavating animal bones inside the souterrain passage

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!

Dave examining the rubble in Trench Q
Dave examining the rubble in Trench Q

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!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.