Orkney’s Oldest Wooden Bowl Unveiled

A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left
A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left

The Cairns Site Director and University of the Highlands and Islands Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, updates us on the conservation of the two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered at the site in the summer.

A remarkable, perfectly preserved, wooden bowl unearthed from a two-thousand-year-old well has been revealed during conservation work being undertaken on the artefact this week, and an extraordinary story of ancient repair of the bowl suggests it was a valued object during the Iron Age.

The Wooden Vessel Revealed: Old, Bowl-ed and Beautiful!

In July of this year, a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based in Orkney, excavated an enigmatic underground chamber beneath the floor of an Iron Age broch at the site of The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, as part of research at the site.

Now, on-going conservation work on a water-logged deposit, recovered from inside the underground chamber beneath the broch, has afforded an exceptionally rare glimpse of a stunningly well-preserved, two-thousand-year-old, wooden bowl. The nature of the bowl, and the details emerging about its life story, may help archaeologists to better understand the enigma of such subterranean chambers, leading to a fuller appreciation of their complex role within Iron Age communities.

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Looking across The Cairns Broch itself

The first stage of the conservation work was completed this week, as specialist conservators at AOC Archaeology, based in Edinburgh, have now patiently ‘micro-excavated’ the bowl from its protective soil block.

The work offers a clear view of the object for the first time in about two thousand years. The very finely carved vessel, which is nearly complete but fragmentary, is exceptionally smoothly finished, appearing almost burnished. The bowl is around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Although the object has split into two large pieces and about twenty smaller pieces at some point in the past, it is largely complete. The bowl had been skilfully hand carved from a half-log of an alder tree. Tool marks are visible in the interior of the bowl, but the exterior has been finely burnished.

Making a Mend: A History of Repair

On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about sixteen strange looking wiggly strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly-spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large ancient crack. The strips are in fact a very unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and the rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to the vessel to prolong its life.

Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple
Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple

There are other examples of Iron Age bowls with visible repairs, but the distinctive special metal fasteners are unique and appear to be otherwise unknown from the British Iron Age. In form, they might be familiar to modern DIY enthusiasts or wood-workers. Sometimes referred to by building trade suppliers as: ‘saw-tooth fasteners’ or ‘corrugated edge fasteners’ they can be hammered into a cracked wooden surface to stabilise wooden objects and save them from imminent collapse.

The repair work seen on the bowl suggests clues about the importance of the bowl in an Orkney context. Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and director of The Cairns project said: “After first encountering the bowl this summer, we had wondered if wooden bowls, and other objects made from wood, might actually have been much more common than we would have previously expected for the mostly treeless environment of Iron Age Orkney. Perhaps archaeologists have been guilty of overplaying the scarcity of wood in Scotland’s Northern Isles. Maybe there were almost as many wooden vessels in circulation as there were ceramic ones, fragments of which we recover in great numbers from sites like The Cairns.

Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl
Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl

Martin continues, “The bowl discovery made us ask an important question: was the survival of the bowl in the well merely an outcome of the unique quality of preservation down there, or was its presence there also reflective of other special qualities accorded that place by people in the Iron Age? I think the biography of the bowl that is emerging could well help us answer these questions”.

Dr Anne Crone, a specialist in ancient wooden artefacts with AOC Archaeology, who is providing specialist analysis of the bowl, said, “The rarity of wooden vessels in Orkney could be why they went to such lengths to repair what is a quite beautiful object”.

The Enigma of Iron Age Broch ‘Wells’

The bowl was excavated from beneath the floor of the broch inside an enigmatic type of underground chamber, traditionally known as a well. Around 20 such structures have been found during previous excavations, but many of these were 19th Century antiquarian investigations, and fairly few wells have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns.

Archaeologists used to interpret such chambers straightforwardly as ordinary wells, envisaging them as supplying the households that built them, but in recent decades, problems have been identified with this interpretation, and there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, including constricted entrances and steep staircases, has raised doubts about their functionality, and the volume of water found within them is seldom enough to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

The Cairns chamber itself is an amazing feature, comprising a series of seven stone steps descending two metres underground into a chamber that was carefully rock-cut, with a corbelled (bee-hive shaped) roof around two metres in height. The chamber is complete and even more remarkable because, when discovered, it had remained sealed since the Iron Age, thus affording archaeologists the opportunity to excavate it carefully under modern scientific conditions. The bowl must also have been placed in the well at this time, however radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could stem from an even earlier date. Whichever is the case, it is Orkney’s oldest wooden vessel.

‘Bowled Over’!

As the excavation of the well commenced, it quickly became clear that it did indeed contain very intriguing remains. Martin Carruthers again takes up the story: “Underground features, especially sealed and damp ones, can yield astonishing survivals in preservation terms, but I was still amazed when perfectly preserved organic items started to turn up as we began to excavate the silt within the chamber at the foot of the staircase. We began to find a lot of plant material – grasses, moss, plant stems from heather and wetland type species – as well as insect remains. Then we found a carved wooden object, some sort of peg, made from willow, again a type of tree frequently present on the edges of wetlands. Frankly, all of this was sufficiently dramatic, and very significant for our understanding of the Iron Age environment. I was already well-satisfied with these findings, but then when the wooden bowl began to emerge…that was simply a spine-tingling moment!”.

Conservation work progressing on the bowl
Conservation work progressing on the bowl

“It was obvious that this was something really very special, a miraculous survival from the Iron Age – a whole wooden bowl! It was still upright and in a level position within the sediments, as though it had been simply placed down on the base of the well the day before. But we knew it was about two thousand years old! During the fieldwork season, the bowl was nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. Throughout the excavation we retained the bowl in its silty matrix, and we recovered it, still in this soil block, to try to keep it together and promote good preservation conditions until we could get it to a specialist conservator. That meant that we hadn’t really clearly seen the full object until the conservation work occurred this week”.

Understanding the Well and the Bowl

The work on the bowl is providing lots of new and forthcoming information and it is hoped that will shed more light on the broch ‘wells’, and more for the project team to weigh up.

Carruthers reflected: “If the bowl was used within the well, and not just placed there at the end of its life, then perhaps this is telling us something about the nature of the well, and how it was used. The great care that was taken over the repair of the wooden bowl to extend its life tends to suggest that such items were not actually common, and the Cairns bowl seems to have been highly valued. Prior to the conservation work and witnessing the fully revealed bowl and its repair work, we weren’t sure whether to think of the bowl as merely the device for drawing off water from the well, or whether to see it as something more significant, perhaps related to the special nature of the underground chamber. The former possibility already seemed unlikely due to what we observed of the bowl during excavation.”

Essentially, the bowl didn’t have a huge carrying capacity, and its rather fine nature and unstable round base wouldn’t be very convenient for routinely handling water or placing the vessel on the ground when it was full. The bowl might have been used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring the liquid to a larger bucket, but alternatively it could have been poured as a libation, or used to perform ablutions within the well, perhaps even, within a ceremonial context.

A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile
A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile

The extended life of the bowl makes it seem even more special, an object that was highly prized, perhaps with a well-known and important history, even a valued relic, curated, if you will, as an heirloom of the broch household. Presumably, that broch household finally placed the bowl in the underground structure at the deepest, innermost end of the chamber, towards the end of the life of both the bowl and the well sometime in the mid- to late-2nd Century AD.

If the bowl was used within the underground chamber for periods before that final deposition and abandonment, then, as well as reflecting the wonderful preservation, it suggests these subterranean chambers also had special qualities for the Iron Age people who constructed and used them. If that’s borne out, then this is an important step towards establishing what the Iron Age subterranean structures are all about.

Next Steps: Restoring Ancient Repairs

Now that the wooden bowl has been excavated from its protective soil block, the first stage of the conservation work has been successfully completed. The next stages will involve recording the object through illustration and scanning work, and then the crucially important, and time consuming, process of soaking the object in consolidant so that it can be stabilised and, ultimately, go on public display. Then it may be possible to restore the bowl to whole again, but this will very much depend on how it behaves during the soaking and stabilisation process.

In addition to consolidating the bowl, there is much more that may be learned about it. Further scientific analysis may reveal more important hidden details. Research questions include: are there any residues present within the bowl that might give further clues to its use? As the bowl appears to have been a curated item, just how much earlier than its final resting place could it be? Radiocarbon dating the bowl will hopefully shed light on this.

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Dr Anne Crone & Alex Wood examining the bowl in the lab

In addition to the bowl itself, there are many other well-preserved organic materials and items from the well, which will also be studied, and which may give further clues to the status of the well. As well as all the plant material, there are preserved insects, and coprolites (fossilised faeces!), and the astonishing survival of hair, which may well be human.

All the conservation work and the scientific analysis costs a fair amount of money and the UHI project team will shortly be launching a crowd-funding initiative to help meet the costs.

Background Notes

• Preservation conditions: The basal silts within the ‘well’ had been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen), and this means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items. It is a circumstance usually only seen in the rare conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations, by AOC archaeology, at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron Age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

Cairns cog: In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and communally passed around to celebrate the marriage.

 

UHI Student Ross Drummond and The Cairns or #absolutecairnage

Stall at The Cairns
Ross and his makeshift stall for ‘Create you own Cairns Character’

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his time at The Cairns dig…..and, for those that follow the conversation on Twitter, his created hashtag #absolutecairnage

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Before you ask no, this isn’t a late entry for The Cairns Dig Diary 2018 series; you’ll just have to wait until next year for that. Anyway this will be the first of several pieces I’ll be writing over the summer in relation to my Placement with the university. So I guess you can just look at it as my ‘Summer Of Digging: Pt.1’.

For my Placement with the University of Highlands and Islands as part of my MSc Masters course I plan to try engage the wider world with archaeology (both locally here in Orkney and further afield), mainly through the use of social media and getting involved with outreach activities on each of the excavations I’ll be participating in. I’m fortunate enough to be spending a few weeks at each of the excavations being run by the UHI Archaeology Institute up here in Orkney over the summer: The Cairns (South Ronaldsay), Skaill (Rousay), Cata Sands (Sanday) and The Ness (Stenness, Mainland). I’m also lucky enough to be one of a select few archaeology students within the UHI Archaeology Institute to be chosen to take part in the first year of the Dunyvaig Field School in Islay, which will be running in August in collaboration with the University of Reading.

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The magnificent setting of The Cairns

Anyway enough of an introduction, back to the focus of this piece. This first piece will focus on the recently finished excavation season at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, an excavation I had the pleasure of spending a whole three weeks digging. I’m sure plenty of you have heard about the site and possibly have visited it previously or even over this past season; however if not, make sure to catch up on all the news and discoveries of this season’s activities (including my Dig Diary entry) right here on this blog, under ‘The Cairns Dig Diary 2018’.

Following an in depth discussion and tour of the site, and a run through health & safety procedures for the site by site director Martin Carruthers; it was time to get down to business. The first day on site focused on getting the site ready and uncovered for the new season of excavation. This involved a major group effort from staff, supervisors, students and volunteers in removing the tarp and tyres that had so effectively kept the site safe and protected over the harsh long months that the Orkney winter threw at it. A future warning to all those involved in re-opening an archaeological site for excavation: waterproofs are a must (even if it’s not raining) as you will get destroyed! Also tyre and tarp build-up are a real thing and you’ll probably get a few instances of muddy water splashing you in the face when the wind picks up and blows the tarp all over the place (not a graceful moment at all). So the odd face/baby wipe wouldn’t go amiss either. Once the site was uncovered the real activities begun and we could start to get our hands dirty!

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The Broch Ditch

My first two weeks at The Cairns were completed as part of the ‘Excavation’ module run by the UHI Archaeology Institute for various archaeology courses and years in the UHI curriculum. This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. This is a very helpful and important module (in my opinion anyway) because fieldwork is an essential part of being an archaeologist, even for more desk-based academics.

Besides given the choice between being outdoors and conducting college work or being inside writing an essay; I’m sure college students everywhere (no matter what their study subject) would jump at the opportunity of outdoor learning as well. I already had a decent bit of experience in the field before taking part in this module but it was great to get a refresher and go over fieldwork procedures again, especially given the fact I’ll be going all out with excavations until early September. So I’m hoping all the advice and skills I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, will be put to good use over the next few months.

The Excavation module was overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for ORCA. Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over the two week field school that were explained and demonstrated first by Rick himself; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one to one training whenever the students themselves felt like they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone who heeded their attention.

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Rick and Ross in the broch

The site director and brains behind the whole operation is Martin Carruthers. As the Programme Leader for the MSc Archaeological Practice, I have been fortunate to have worked and dealt with Martin on a regular basis over the academic year through various different modules; but it was something else to be working in the field with someone of his experience. The enthusiasm and joy he shows in discovering more about his project (The Cairns site) is a great sight to behold; and the pleasure he takes in working on his site is probably only equalled to by the pleasure he takes in eating his beloved Tunnock’s Teacakes.

For the whole period of my time spent on site I had the honour of conducting activities within the broch. The broch is the main structure at The Cairns and seems to have been the focus of activities and settlement for the whole site. Dubbed the ‘A Team’ by Rick himself; Therese, Gary, Kath and myself had the honour of being the first of this season’s team to enter the broch, where we each remained for the duration of our time on site. Many others followed suit over the following few weeks, but we were the OG’s of the broch (apologies to the rest of ye)!

The first few days spent inside the broch interior involved the trowelling and cleaning of the whole floor surface, as being covered up over the winter months had made some areas a bit smudgy and unclear. Once the initial cleaning was completed, the team targeted certain areas inside the broch under the guidance of Rick. After helping Therese take geochem and bulk samples in the West quadrant of the broch interior for a day or two, I was given the responsibility of taking over my own area in the broch; as the NE quadrant of the broch was re-opened for the new season.

The grid
The grid in the NE quadrant of the broch

My first job was the arduous and bothersome task of re-stringing the quadrant in a grid of 50cm per section. This was the first time the area was open for excavation since 2015 so what remained of the grid on the ground from previous work, looked nothing at all like what the records from the drawings and context sheets represented. So after a bit of tussling with some of the old string and the grateful discovery of new string, I managed to re-string the grid fairly accurately. Although the non-compliance of some parts of the ground coupled with several instances of nails being knocked out of place (wasn’t always just myself), led to a few readjustments over the weeks; but sure it seemed to provide my broch compatriots with a few laughs and smiles at times, so at least it kept morale up.

Once the grid was set up I started to take soil samples which will be used for environmental sampling over coming months, so we can learn more about the presence of materials in the floor deposits. The purpose of setting up the grid was to maintain control over the sampling of these floors so that when we get results of wet sieving and various soil analysis we can see spatial patterning of activities and inputs across the floors. This was done through collecting a geochem sample (small bag, holding soil samples <1 litre) and a bulk sample (larger bag, holding soil samples <5 litres). Each square in the grid was done one by one, until the end of this season’s activities when nearly all squares in the grid had relevant samples (some squares were just overlain by large slabs, so these were left as they were for possible future work in coming seasons if needs be).

The start of the second week began with a day off-site as Duncan and I were chosen to spend the day doing environmental sampling at Orkney College UHI with Cecily Webster, (also I may have had a top of the table football match that night in Kirkwall so the closer to the home that day the better – but we won so still top of the league Mon Accies!!!). But anyway…

The environmental sampling involved the wet sieving and examination of previous season’s soil samples taken at The Cairns. The samples were immersed in a tank lined with gauze and the silt massaged away by hand. This allows matter such as seeds, and charcoal to float to the top where it is separated into a sieve then placed on a tray to dry. The remaining small stones and detritus is also placed on a tray to dry, after which it is sorted through to find miniscule pieces of flint, bone, cramp (ashy slag residue from cooking or cremation) or other similar tiny pieces of archaeological material.

Post setting
Possible post setting

I returned to site the next day to carry on retrieving samples from the gird and bit by bit trowelling down through the layers of the broch’s floor surfaces. Upon my return to site I had discovered that Rick had nicknamed the NE quadrant ‘Terrence’ apparently for no good reason (to this day I think even Rick himself has said that the origin of the nickname remains an enigma). My work in the area continued up until my departure from the site following the Open Day on the Friday of the third week. It was great seeing the layers in the different grids of the quadrant come out in such vibrant colours, and hopefully the samples taken from these will allow us to discover more of the story of this particular area in the broch. There were also one or two possible post-setting like features that were excavated in the process of trowelling down through the soil, so hopefully the samples from these particular squares may shed some light on these possible features.

Possible post setting and Ross
Ross and the possible post setting post excavation

Although my third and final week on-site was a bit different to the previous two (as I had completed the excavation module) and involved less excavation and more of a focus on outreach & social media side of things; it was great to work alongside Dr Jo McKenzie for a day or two and see her expertise in action. Jo is a soil micro-morphologist – so the knowledge and techniques she used and provided while further sampling parts of the NE quadrant, should reveal even more information in identifying some of the activities which took place within the broch.

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One of the numerous tour groups on Open Day

My final few days at The Cairns were geared up towards the Open Day and running outreach activities on the day. My Placement supervisor Dan Lee, came up with the brilliant idea to run a workshop on site creating clay models of the Cairns Character, which was found on-site a few years previous. Dan got in contact with Andrew Appleby (The Harray Potter) who graciously offered a bag of terracotta clay to use to create the figures. I even had the pleasure to take a run through session with Andrew himself at his pottery a few days before the Open Day, which was much appreciated as the Friday could have been a complete disaster having never really used clay before myself….

Also in the lead up to the Open Day I attempted to try gain the site more attention online and in the local media, by attempting to spread posters and hashtags around as part of Social Media Storm Day. I had access and have been running the @thecairnsbroch account on Twitter for this season’s activities, as well as posting various material on the official UHI Archaeology Institute accounts on both Facebook and Instagram.

I’m proud to claim the hashtag #AbsoluteCairnage as my own brainchild, although it’s a bit of a catch 22; as trying to follow up on the catchiness of that hashtag for future excavations over the summer may strain my creative muscles…

The Open Day itself was a huge success, with visitors making the trip down to South Ronaldsay and arriving in numbers early as 10:30 that morning. The clay workshop was also a hit and really added another dimension to activities on the day. Parents & adults got all the information and saw the amazing finds which had been discovered during the excavation season, while the ‘Create Your Own Cairn’s Character’ provided an outlet and activity for children to get involved in archaeology and the site, without having to just sit through a tour and a load of talking.

The best part was all those who made a Cairns Character, were able to bring it home themselves after; as a memento from the day. It wasn’t only the children who got their hands dirty either, as many older visitors (older as in not a child – before any offence is caused) had a go at making their own clay model. The workshop provided a good laugh to everyone who got involved and who stopped by the make-shift stall, with a lot of positive feedback saying it was a great idea; and I had a lot of fun myself running the activities.

After all the visitors had left it was time to pack up the site for the day. Following the few hours of hustle and bustle it was nice to have a moment to take in the broch and catch a glimpse of ‘Terrence’ once last time before being covered over again. Hopefully I’ll return at some stage to walk the steps as the ancestors did and possibly work on further examination & analysis of the NE quadrant again, but who knows what the future will bring; so for now all that’s left to say is ‘Bye Bye Broch’!

Martin in The Well
Martin re-emerging from the depths of The Well

As for a personal highlight of my time at The Cairns, it would have be when Martin discovered the wooden and organic objects in ‘The Well’. Many of you may have already read or heard about these discoveries in the media recently; if not make sure you check out this blog and the UHI Archaeology Facebook page for more details. But with the NE quadrant being right beside ‘The Well’ I was one of the first ones to hear the screams of absolute joy coming from down there when Martin emerged with the objects in hand, which saw the light of day for the first time in around 2,000 years!! The pure look of glee and the smile beaming across his face was great to see, that with all the years of experience and excavations behind him, Martin still gets excited over finding new artefacts & materials (although to be fair these objects in particular are highly significant for Scottish archaeology as a whole)!!!

Either that or the time when making my way to the beach for a lunch-time dip in the sea, I came across this sight… Could not have planned the photo better myself, and just about managed to take a decent photo before bursting into a fit of laughter… Good ol Dig Dog!

Dig Dog
Dig Dog ready for action

Anyway that’s probably enough of me yapping, you’re probably sick of me by now (if you’ve managed to stay reading). Hopefully this has been interesting an insightful into a first-hand experience of being in the frontline of the trenches (pun intended). Thanks for reading and look forward to updating ye all in my next instalment of my ‘Summer of Digging’ in upcoming weeks. I would apologise for any bad archaeology jokes and puns included in this post, but I thought they were funny so guess you’ll just have to dig my awful sense of humour if you plan on following my archaeological adventures over the summer (please do, I’ll try improve the jokes…..maybe).

Before leaving at this stage I feel it would be poor form if I didn’t acknowledge and give a shout out to all those who kept the gears of The Cairns machine running and advancing over the four weeks of activities. I think I speak for all students and volunteers in giving a massive thank you to Martin Carruthers (site director), for giving us the opportunity and privilege to take part in excavations on his project. Also a big thanks to all the supervisors over the four weeks: Rick Barton, Bobby Friel, Colin Mitchell, Linda Somerville, Kevin Kerr and Dr Jo McKenzie; for their guidance and advice on various topics and tasks.

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Some of The Cairns Squad

Also a mention of thanks for Ole, who saved most of our voices by taking responsibility for conducting the majority of tours for visitors over the duration of the four weeks. Shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! Also a big thanks and much appreciation to all of you who visited the site and followed the story and updates & used the hashtags on the various social media platforms, your support and interest means a lot!

Next stop for myself is Skaill on Rousay, make sure to keep tabs on social media outlets for info and updates on progress there in the near future!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student


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For further information on studying for a Masters in archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute contact studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website

Two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered in underground chamber beneath broch site.

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The Cairns Broch site

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were astonished last week when they unearthed a two thousand year old wooden bowl from an underground chamber beneath The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

The vessel itself is the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney and will give the team from the UHI Archaeology Institute a unique insight into life in an Iron Age broch in Northern Scotland.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns
A detached section of the wooden bowl following initial cleaning

The beautifully preserved object is a complete, wood-turned bowl around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and rounded base. Although the object has split at some point in the past, it is complete and was being held together and protected by the muddy silts of the excavation.

The bowl has been confirmed to be made from alder and the dating is known from the location within the subterranean chamber which the archaeologists on site have termed, ‘The Well’.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns (2)
A detached section of the wooden vessel showing the rim

This amazing underground feature, consists of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. It is assumed that the bowl dates from this period also, however, radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could be even earlier than this time. At any rate it will be Orkney’s oldest preserved complete wooden vessel.

The rim of2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Cairns Broch, Orkney, still encased in the silt from The Well 2
The rim of the 2000 year old wooden bowl, still encased in the silt from The Well

In addition to the bowl, there are preserved plant fibres, some of which appear to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seem to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs.

Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, are also present. There appears to be more waterlogged objects waiting to be lifted from the silt. Ancient insect remains and probably a host of other tiny items, perhaps including parasite eggs and coprolites (fossilised faeces), may even be found.

Site Director, Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said: ‘It’s miraculous that we’ve got this wooden vessel. It’s really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at The Cairns! In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink. Its round base makes you think that it would have been required to be constantly held when full, and perhaps used socially, passed around from hand to hand, person to person. It’s already been nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. “

Martin continued, “I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of ‘The Well’. For one thing it’s not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water, but if it were used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket or, dare I say it, poured as a libation, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps”.

There is still much work to do in The Well, and there are other amazing remains to be recovered from the silts there, as well as across the site. The excavations are on-going and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time. The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects. It is hoped that funds can be raised as soon as possible to pay for specialist conservation.

*In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and passed around to celebrate the marriage.

Iron Age Settlement
Excavations have been taking place at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, since 2006 under the auspices of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The site is a substantial Iron Age period village settlement with a broch (tower-like monumental house) lying at its heart. The ancient buildings on the site are very substantial and rich in finds. The broch itself and the village buildings are very well-preserved and already this season there have been many artefacts recovered including a bronze ring and a glass bead.

Three years ago an opening into an underground chamber was discovered under the floor of the broch, but only this year has the excavation project turned its attention to fully excavating the well. The subterranean structure is preserved intact with its stone roof still in place and it has been sealed since the Iron Age. Steps lead down into the partly rock-cut cavity that dates back to the time of the construction of the broch.

Iron Age ‘Wells’ and Waterlogged Remains
Traditionally, these structures have been termed wells by generations of archaeologists, however, there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, with constricted entrances and the steepness of their staircases, have raised doubts about their function in recent years, and the volume of water found in the structures is seldom sufficient to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation
The stairs leading into The Well at The Cairns Broch

Additionally, previously excavated examples have contained an unusually high amount of wild animal bones, such as red deer and fox, in their in-fills, suggesting the wells had some special significance. Famously, a massive ‘well’-type structure was discovered at Mine Howe, East Mainland, Orkney, and also excavated by archaeologists from UHI in the early 2000s. Although the subterranean chamber at Mine Howe had previously been informally excavated in the 1940s and its contents emptied, the archaeologists found that it lay at the heart of a high status metalworking complex that was also apparently the scene of ritual practices and the deposition of the human dead.

About 20 such structures have been found beneath brochs in previous excavations, but many of these investigations were undertaken by antiquaries in the 19th Century, and fairly few of these structures have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still, have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns. It would seem that the basal silts within the ‘well’ have been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen). This means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items and, therefore, there is incredible preservation of organic items, usually only seen in the rarefied conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

At The Cairns there has been little previous reason to suspect that such preservation conditions existed. However, the depth of the well at over two metres under the floor of the broch, and a further two metres beneath the modern ground surface, has meant that  the base of the well remained damp since the Iron Age and allowed for the protection of the wood and organic items.

The excavations ran until the 13th of July and visitors were encouraged to see the work at the site for themselves, throughout the excavation period.

Media contact: Sean Page, Marketing Officer, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. Sean.page@uhi.ac.uk Tel: 01856 569229
High Resolution images are available.

The Cairns Day Eighteen – 2018

Excavating in the western zone of the broch today
Excavating in the western zone of the broch in the gathering mist

The digging season at The Cairns is nearly over and Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, talks us through the penultimate day at the excavation.

Today we started the process of placing the covers over parts of the site. We began in the Area Q/M in the North of the site weighing down tarpaulins with tyres. Nevertheless, we remain in an active digging mode in other parts of the site.

Inside the broch the team have resumed excavating the western area on a sample grid. They are now working on floor/occupation deposits beneath the level of the two successive hearths that have been excavated and lifted. Tomorrow will be the last day when excavation occurs here, so will they find lots of lovely environmental information? And will they encounter any nice artefacts to rival the previous finds such as the Iron Age glass bead and the Roman vessel glass in this area? We’ll let you know…

The slightly wetter conditions overnight (in fact it was misty early on today!) have served to very nicely show the soil colours on the site so in the south extension we have been cleaning this area for final photography. Low and behold more animal bone has been appearing in this area, which has previously been so rich in it. Once the excavation is complete for the season, it will be interesting to take a look at all the animal bone that has been generated by the work in the ditch to try to get some idea of the nature of the processes that this bone has been involved in.

One of many trays of animal bone from site
One of the many trays of animal bone from site

Certainly, we have observed butchery marks on some of the bone but by and large the bone is present in large fragments with minimal processing and it therefore looks rather wasteful in terms of the additional calorific content that has not been exacted from these joints of meat. This has often been read off as an index of relative wealth, as poorer communities are expected to be less wasteful. However, we have also observed large parts of articulated carcasses amongst the animal bone suggesting that there may be other processes at work giving rise to at least some of this bone such as structured, or votive, deposition. The post-excavation work of looking in detail at all this bone will be very interesting, indeed.

Tomorrow will be the last day when any excavation occurs anywhere on site, and most of the site will be covered up by the end of the day, we’ll keep you posted on any last minute surprises (almost guaranteed on archaeological sites!).

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at UHI Archaeology Institute

 

The Cairns Day Seventeen – 2018

Aerial View of The Cairns - Bobby Friel
Aerial view of The Cairns site. Thanks to Bobby Friel

University of the Highlands and Islands student Marianne Sim has written todays dig diary from the site.

Today started off very wet and dreary which had mostly cleared by mid morning – unfortunately, when the rain cleared the horse flies arrived…we had to soldier on regardless.

Most of the morning was spent photo cleaning the site in preparation for some aerial photography. This will probably be our last chance to see the whole site fully uncovered and looking pristine before the covers are put back on to protect the archaeology until next season. In some less active areas of the trench weeds and spoil from the trenches had accumulated over the year and we cleaned this up so Bobby could take some aerial photographs with his drone.

Cleaning the southeast area of the broch
Cleaning the southeast area of the broch

In the broch, the crucial job of recording and photographing the new deposits exposed in the western quadrant continued as well as the continuation of sampling and revealing more of the occupation layers in the south west area. Photo cleaning the southern part of the broch floors has really shown the vibrant red, orangey-yellow floor layers around the hearth in this area.

In the southern extension the day has been spent excavating more of the ditch fill deposits in spits with some nice pot sherds and bone being recovered, including a scapula.

The little yellow glass bead from Area Q
The little yellow bead from Area Q

As with the rest of the site most of the day in Trench Q and M was spent tidying and prepping the site for Bobby’s drone shenanigans! However, as is often the way, when you least expect it, just before lunch we found a beautiful delicate beige-yellow glass bead beside a wall which I can tell you is not Roman but still very nice! There were also two red deer antler tines in the Q area.

Marianne Sim, UHI BA (Hons) Archaeology 

 

The Cairns Day Sixteen – 2018

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Looking across the broch with the Pentland Firth in the background

Dr Jo McKenzie has kindly volunteered to write the blog today………….Hello from the beginning of the end – the last week of the Cairns 2018 field season! (and sadly, my last day on site).

Time seems to have gone very quickly, and it doesn’t seem a year since I was last at Cairns sampling the amazing sequence of floor deposits preserved within, especially, the north-eastern quadrant of the broch.

You’ll have seen some of the images of these floors in several of Martin’s posts – beautiful, intricate lenses of material, each tiny layer representing a different episode of activity and deposition by those who were the last before us to spend their days ‘doing stuff’ in the Cairns broch.

I use a technique called soil micromorphology to take small ‘block’ samples which are then used to make microscope slides, allowing us to analyse complex deposit sequences like the broch floors in enormous detail – as outlined in my blog from last year (LINK). Here’s a shot of one of those samples being taken. This tin is just 5×7 cm, but that’s plenty big enough to give us a fantastic sample through the many deposits in this small section through lenses of probable charcoal, burnt peat, burnt stone, bone and much more.

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A micromorphology ‘Kubiena tin’ through the floor deposits of the north-east quadrant.

We now have a great sequence of samples through these complex deposits, traversing the north-east quadrant and nicely aligned within our 50cm grid (affectionately known as Terence for no good reason, except I suppose that it helps to be able to make a personal apology when you’ve kicked yet another of Terence’s nails out for the umpteenth time that day – as fellow north-east quadrant-ers Ole, Ross and Mike can testify!)

We’ve also been lucky enough to get enough depth of deposit to take a sample close to the large hearth setting in the north-west area of the broch, which is really good news as the closely-packed layers of paving in this area make getting good samples a challenge. Here’s today’s sample extracted, and turned carefully over for the excess material to be carefully shaved off the back of the tin so that the sample can be sealed. A lovely sample of dark, dense carbonised material representing activity around the cracked hearth surface.

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Extracting a sample from the north-west quadrant hearth

It’s intriguing to spot tiny features within the tin samples which I know will be so interesting to examine in detail under the microscope – fine laminations of material, or inclusions such as charcoal or bone. Here’s an example of what must be pretty much the tiniest bones we find on site – a fish vertebrae, seen adjacent to the tin taken next to the north-west hearth setting, seen here magnified under my small geological viewer.

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A tiny fish vertebra

It’s also been great to see the site making such amazing progress – so many new structures being uncovered outside of the broch with Bobby’s team, and spending these last few days working right alongside the fantastic discoveries still being made inside the well. Above all, it’s been brilliant to get the chance once again to work with the great Cairns team – students, volunteers and old hands alike. I think today must have been the busiest I’ve ever seen the broch interior – and needless to say, there was plenty of archaeology for every pair of hands to tackle!

Roll on next year.

Open Day @thecairnsbroch

Visitors on open day
Some of the visitors touring the site

Today was, indeed, open day and a big thank you to everyone who came along and visited the site. There was a great turn out of visitors and fun was had by all.

One of our MSc students, Ross, even ran sessions for the children on making clay replicas of the well-known ‘Cairns character’ our carved head from an earlier season of the site. It was a privilege and pleasure to share our findings directly with the public, both locals and visitors from further afield.

While some of us led tours and showed visitors around, work continued in the key areas of the site. Within the broch the work of recording the slab floor in the western zone was completed, and by the end of the day this late floor could be lifted to reveal…charcoal rich soils…more floors in other words. Lest you think this is in any way disappointing to us – please be disavowed of that idea. In fact these multiple juxtaposed floors, one after the other, are the glory of the broch for us, and they represent a detailed and insightful record of what sorts of activities were going on in the broch, and they’ll yield lots of information on the chronology and tempo of the occupation in the broch.

The work of lifting the late paving in the broch begins
The work of lifting the late paving in the broch begins

Elsewhere in the broch, in the Northeastern zone, Jo has continued to take micromorphology samples from the floors here, in order to see even more detail of the activities two thousand years ago. In the process she has revealed beautiful, vividly coloured, (bright red, brown and black) thin laminations, or lenses, within the ashy floor deposits. It’s exciting to think what will be revealed in the finer microscopic resolution of her eventual studies.

Vivid multi-coloured soils of the occupation deposits in the broch
Vivid multi-coloured soils of the occupation deposits in the broch

In the well, work also continued on the lower fill deposits, and some startlingly well-preserved wood was recovered. This time brushwood was the order of the day, and a fair amount of it. Some quite long pieces of clearly knife-pruned branches and twigs came out, as well as finer mossy and heathery matter. Essentially, this material looks like lining at the bottom of the well.

Over in area M/Q Bobby’s team are still revealing new wall faces and the relationships between them, in the area immediately to the northeast exterior of the broch. We really are now seeing a clear sense of the busy nature of the settlement and something of its development through time here. One amazing find relates to another find we made way back in week one. You may recall we found a very finely made antler mount with drilled perforations. This piece clearly hafted something like a knife, handle. Well on Friday another piece of the same haft turned up in a close by area. At first we thought this new piece of antler was likely to be the piece from the other side of the handle or haft, and that would have been nice enough. However, it turned out to be a refitting fragment of the same antler mount making the piece very long and quite a curving piece. It now looks like it intended to form one side of the handle of a two handed blade, something like a scythe or a serious cleaver.

In the south extension we drew things to a close for this year. Structure J, the village building constructed up against the broch wall here, is now looking very fine, indeed, thanks to everyone involved and to Sam who took care of this area for several days. We can now see the full outline of, at least one phase, of this building and its’ slightly dumbbell shape. We’ll excavate no further in here this season but we now have the building complete with some of its’ internal fixtures and fittings revealed and we can really explore its history of use and inhabitation in the following season.

For now, we have one week left of this seasons’ excavations. We’ll keep you posted as to how we fare with the key areas that we are working within, and any last week surprises that may yet come our way!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.