The Cairns Day Fourteen – 2018

Today we are trying something different….a photoblog by Ole Thoenies….a collection of photographs of the day 5th July 2018.

There are no captions to overload you with information, just images to give you an impression of our day.

Enjoy.

And in slideshow format for those of you with Javascript on your machine….Perhaps we need music in the background? Diane has already suggested ‘Farewell to Stromness’.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Cairns Day Thirteen – 2018

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Looking across the broch to Windwick Bay

It’s Day Thirteen and Conal O’Neill, BA (Hons) Archaeology UHI student steps into the breach to write todays blog post from The Cairns.

As day thirteen of excavations on The Cairns draws to a close the amazingly good weather has remained.

Within the broch, or Structure A, soil sampling continues alongside planning by Therese while Gary continues to dig a large pit. A new addition to the team, at least since I arrived at the start of the week, is Jo, who has been enacting soil micromorphology, where small soil block samples are analysed to provide a detailed assessment of the microscopic floor layers of the broch.

Jo preparing to sample floors in the broch
Jo preparing to sample floors in the broch

Within my own area, of soil sampling within a grid, a worked bone, possibly antler, was discovered. Following the cleaning of the area surrounding the antler it was photographed, however then I was called away to write this blog, so excavating it will sadly have to wait until tomorrow.

Conal's antler object
Conals antler object

In structure J, Sam continues to lower the soil in the corner of the structure, and further tidy it up for photographing. The ditch area, dug by Gary, Iona, has been further cleaned and excavated yielding lots more animal bone and revealing a large lump of slag in the process, which may actually be a furnace base.

Structure J where Sam has been working
Structure J where Sam has been working

In Structure O some high, superficial orthostats (upright stones) were removed to reveal the wall beneath and further excavation has revealed bone, pottery and possible worked bone.

Finally, in Area Q the team is continuing to excavate the trench to the level of Area M eventually forming a ‘super trench’!

Today's blogger Conal digging in the South quadrant of the broch
Todays blogger Conal digging in the south quadrant of the broch

Anyway the hut’s about to be locked up and Bobby’s threatening to lock me in here for the night, so before I become part of The Cairns I’m going to leave!

Cheers.

Conal O’Neill, BA (Hons) Archaeology UHI Student.

!!Stop Press!! Towards the end of the day Dr Scott Timpany arrived on site and told us that he’d managed to identify the wood species of the wooden bowl from the well. It’s made from Alder.

A tiny portion of the wooden bowl under the microscope revealing the structure and identifying it as Alder
A tiny portion of the wooden bowl under the microscope revealing the structure and identifying it as Alder

Meanwhile he has also been out in the landscape near to The Cairns visiting a wetland site where the conditions may allow us to obtain a picture of the ancient environment at the time of the site. There will be a very useful palaeoenvironmental record of hundreds if not thousands of years embedded in this!

Scott's core through the old loch that will help to reveal the environment of the landscape around The Cairns
Scotts core through the old loch that will help to reveal the environment of the landscape around The Cairns

The Cairns Day Twelve – 2018

Roundwood from the well today- possibly birch
Roundwood from the well today – possibly birch

Day Twelve at The Cairns and UHI Archaeology Institute student Gary Lloyd has unearthed something very special so I shall hand over to him to continue the story.

To this point the weather has been extremely cooperative and today was another beautiful day. Though with the sunshine the temptation is to play hooky and go to the beach, work at the site goes on.

For me the day began learning to use the EDM to get reference points for all of the small finds (artefacts) collected today and ended with a real surprise. But for now, I’ll talk about the rest of team.

Beginning at the south extension the team excavating the area of the ditch fill continues to expose animal bone and pottery fragments with Gary uncovering a large fragment of salmon coloured pottery. To the north of the ditch area Sam has been excavating and has now revealed the clearly defined arc of a wall in structure J along with a cache of animal bone.

Area Q-M on site with its myriad walls
Area Q-M on site with its myriad walls

Having spent most of my time in the Broch I hadn’t noticed, until today, the amount of work Bobby’s team has accomplished on the NE side of the site in the Q and M trenches. The maze of wall features is relatively complex and sorting rubble from wall has been quite a challenge. Dagmar, Hannah, Ruby, and Marianne, are working to expose walls at the north side of the trenches. Lindsay and Charlie are drawing back layer 1401 to determine if walls continue from trench M into trench Q and distinct structures are now coming into view including the large Structure (O) just outside the Broch entrance where Henrik has been working.

Multi-coloured ashy occupation deposits inside the broch
Multi-coloured ashy occupation deposits inside the broch

Inside the Broch the deliberate work of sampling the grids laid out on the floors is being carried out by Conal, Caitlin, Ross, and Hamish with samples collected for both chemical and environmental analysis. The floor area Ross has been working on is particularly rich in contrast, promising some valuable data. Martin’s daily expedition down into the well has yielded even more organic material from the silt, including another piece of wood with some bark still intact. The complexity of the hearth area in the NW quadrant is being carefully recorded by Therese.

Roman Glass
Possible Roman glass

Between the hearth and the pit, I had the pleasure of finding a beautiful piece of blue-green, potentially Roman, glass. This glass was discovered in the same layer as the glass bead found by Therese last week. I have to admit it’s the biggest thrill excavating I’ve had to date.

Gary Lloyd, BA (Hons) Archaeology student, UHI, Orkney.

The Cairns Day Eleven – 2018

Working inside the broch today
Working inside the broch today

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns excavation and lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute continues the exciting story of the dig as it enters week three……………

Today I thought I’d discuss what we hope to achieve in the next half of the project season.

We will carry on with the broch and the work of teasing out the soil floors in the building. It is after all one of the main elements of the site and certainly one of the important contributions that we hope that the project can make; helping us to understand the complex, changing use and lives of brochs. We hope to be able to reach some of the earlier floors within the building. Rick’s team have been doing great work here in arduously sampling the floors on various grid patterns to keep spatial control of all the findings and the environmental and geochemical samples. The hearth in the western area of the broch looks likely to be a lengthy series of hearths, one laid out on top of another!

The new hearth inside the broch that has emerged under the later one
The new hearth inside the broch that has emerged under the later one

This will provide a great sequence of radiocarbon dates and a strong sense of the longevity of certain feature areas, like this, within the broch. Additionally, we aim to finish the excavation of the wonderful well-chamber under the floor of the broch, and to be able to recover all of the incredible organics that survive there (I think I’m still reeling from the preservation of the wooden items there and especially the bowl!). Of course there is still some of the anaerobic deposit to come out of this space and there could be other remarkably preserved objects to come! We’ll keep you posted.

view into the subterranean chamber today
View into the subterranean chamber today

I spent a little time in the well chamber today and I could certainly detect at least one more quite large wooden piece to come. In addition, there are large quantities of plant materials in these silts that we’ll have to recover in sample tubs.

Work in the Southern extension will now concentrate on the deposits in the ditch fills, with just a little work to define village building Structure J. The ditch fills, I feel, still have a few surprises to yield. After all our sneak preview of this feature last year produced 4 bronze objects, lots of pottery and animal bones. Beyond the finds themselves the merit of this ditch exploration is to give a sense of the longer history of the site as the ditch is likely to be filled with deposits from across the phases of the site.

Area QM wall lines and buildings emerging
Area QM wall lines and buildings emerging

In Area Q/M, on the north side of the broch, we anticipate amplifying the good results already achieved in here in elucidating the village buildings. Bobby’s team were at it again today- uncovering new walls and adding to the litany of features and likely buildings in this area! We have the grandly imposing Structure O just outside the broch entrance and running northwards from this another wall related to Structure K or Q! It will be very interesting to see what sense we can make of the jumble of walls in this zone by the time we’re ready to pack up and go home in two weeks’ time, and the likelihood of nice artefacts coming from this area in the meantime is high!

From tomorrow we’ll resume our usual practice of sharing perspectives from the wider excavation team with you as they recount their experiences and their findings!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day Ten – 2018

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Today was day 10 on site and therefore we approach the midway point of the project season. What a couple of weeks it has been!

There’s been quite major progress in areas like the broch interior and the extramural building complex on the Northern side of the site.

Meanwhile the artefacts turning up across the site have been stunning from glass bead to whalebone chopping bock and bronze ring to antler mount. Obviously, in the last few days, in particular, the site has produced items which are just astonishing! I’m referring to the contents of the ‘well’ structure.

The existence of the wooden bowl is just well-nigh miraculous. Its hard to convey how unusual and rare this sort of preservation is in a Scottish context and particularly away from a crannog, or wetland site, such as the wonderful on-going excavations at Black Loch of Myrton in Dumfries and Galloway. Indeed, it seems to have been a weird time in Scottish Iron Age studies recently with sites yielding up this kind of normally exceptionally rare preservation!

Plant material- what appears to be heather or grass twisted in a simple weave
Plant material – possible heather or grass twisted in a simple weave

Today as we took stock of that particularly dramatic situation, there was minimal work in the well structure itself, however, we did inspect the deposit at the base of the well again and I can reveal that a third substantial wooden object is present. It appears, at this stage, to be another peg-like piece and possibly driven into the deposit like the previous one, but it appears to be larger and firmer than the first. There is also evidence of other organics including what looks like twisted plant fibres here and there, which may be a simple grass or heather weave, possiby the remains of a net, a mat or a bag! We’ll keep up with the updates over the rest of the work in the well.

Elsewhere on site, Linda’s time with us as supervisor for the South area of the site drew to an end today and so we bid her farewell for now, and reflect on the great progress made even today in revealing the building (Structure J) tucked into the lee of the terrace revetment.

Down slope from the broch on the Northern side of the site in Bobby’s area things have changed dramatically with lots of new walls and new understandings of existing walls coming into evermore sharper focus, and the fascinating thing is that these seem to reflect substantial structures of a likely contemporary date with the broch itself.

Here’ a few pictures, some to remind us of what we’ve seen so far and a few new ones of recent finds and features on site.  I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you…


I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you over the next few days.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns.

The Cairns Day Nine – 2018

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Martin Carruthers continues the exciting story of Day Nine at The Cairns….

Hi folks, Martin here yet again. Not meaning to bore you by doing the blog again two days running but I thought I’d better describe today’s findings. What I have to share with you, however, is anything but boring! It’s been an amazing day on site.

If you’ve been following the blog thus far you’ll know from yesterday’s piece that we began to excavate the so-called ‘well’ that lies deeply under the floor of the broch. This subterranean structure is reached by a set of steep stone steps that curve down, slightly spiralling in a counter-clockwise direction. There’s a very sticky silty fill down there. It’s very wet and claggy and we’ve considered that it might hold out the promise of organic preservation. Today that promise has come true!

Examining organic matter just recovered from the well
Examining organic matter just recovered from the well

Within the partially rock-cut chamber, underneath the very fine upper grey silt deposit we uncovered a darker deposit, still very wet, but with a more compact consistency, and, I have to say, a quite a distinctive smell!

This morning we got the first hint of organic preservation from this dark deposit in the form of what appeared to be grass fibres, some of which even appeared as if they might be woven! There were also pieces of tree bark present. This was sufficiently stunning, and we were just contemplating the significance of this over morning tea break, but this was nothing to the shock of what emerged after the break. I was working in the well myself carefully examining the ‘dark deposit’, and noticed a strange solid curving object beginning to appear amidst the silt. Unbelievably, it was a wooden bowl…

Wooden bowl coated in silt from the well, the rim of the bowl can be seen on the middle right
Wooden bowl coated in silt from the well, the rim of the bowl can be seen on the middle right

I was astonished to see this very dark, very smooth object begin to appear more clearly as a vessel. The bowl is in several large chunks, but all in the correct relationship to each other showing that the vessel was complete, and it was clearly lying upright with the rim upwards. In form, the thing has a lovely out-swinging (or everted) rim just like a contemporary Iron Age pot. The bowl is round-bottomed like some Middle Iron Age ceramic vessels too. Within the curve of the rim I could see that there was further organic preservation – a mass of plant material. Startlingly, a second wooden object became apparent lying near to the wooden bowl, but closer to the bottom step of the staircase leading into the chamber. This time it was a long piece of round-wood about 20 centimetres long with a pronounced carved head at one end and a sort of carved ledge under the ‘head’. The object very closely resembles a modern wooden tent peg!

Before the end of the day we were able to lift the peg and the wooden vessel and safely pack it all up in protective layers and significant amounts of its own silty matrix within a plastic crate. The whole thing will have to be sent off to conservators to stabilise the object and prevent any deterioration of the precious wooden object. In the meantime we have not yet reached the bottom of the chamber. It was quite clear that in lifting the wooden bowl there was more organic material beneath, what seemed like a thick mass of plant fibres, perhaps the bowl was resting on a mat of some sort! Only a little time will tell as we continue to excavate this important feature!

New walling emerging in Structure O the big building outside the broch entrance
New walling emerging in Structure O, the big building outside the broch entrance

Meanwhile in other parts of the site some great progress has also been made. Over in area M/Q Bobby’s team have yet again been revealing more wall lines. By the end of today they now have uncovered three sides of the building that lies just outside the broch entrance (Structure O). This looks like a large imposing building, with very well built walls utilising substantial blocks of sandstone, just the sort of grandeur that would be expected of one of the premier buildings within the broch-village complex. Also, in the same part of the trench a whopping whalebone vertebra has been uncovered and it has been carved, and pierced to provide handle holes, we think, and utilised as a chopping board with many serious chopping scars revealed on the surface.

The whalebone chopping block
The whalebone chopping block

In the south extension Linda’s team have been continuing to work away at the ditch fills, and, nearby, Angus has been revealing even more of Structure J, a village building tucked into the lee of the broch and its construction terrace.

Finally for this round up, back to the broch interior and Therese has been recording the slab floor in the Western quadrant and then she began to lift the shattered remains of the late hearth base slab. Underneath lay more burnt material and edges of stones that suggest an earlier hearth remains to be fully investigated. In the Southeast quadrant of the broch Ross continued to grid-excavate the beautiful ashy floor horizons with their riot of black and vivid red colours.

Gary and Paul have begun to remove the fill (masses of rubble) from a huge pit set in the floor of the broch and we’ll hopefully get to see what this very deep set feature is all about over the next few days- possibly a sub-floor tank that has been partly robbed out for stone and then filled in or something more enigmatic? We’ll see…

Well tomorrow’s another day and we’ll keep you posted on what emerges!

Martin Carruthers, Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute

 

The Cairns Day Eight – 2018

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Under the blazing sun!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at the UHI Archaeology Institute takes up the story of Day Eight at The Cairns….

Martin here again with a today’s update, and what a cracking day today was! The sun shone down on us as we dug. In fact, it was one of those days when you feel bad about wishing it wasn’t quite so warm and dry, and sunny! In the full glare of the of the sun we made good progress across the site.

Over in the south extension Linda’s team have really started to work down the edge of the ditch, and it’s nice to see the profile start to emerge of this once very substantial enclosure. Also in this area Angus and Paul have been revealing more details of the building that crouches in the lee of the revetment. This building will, we hope, be one of the village buildings that allows us to test whether our broch village was founded at the very same time as the broch itself or sometime after.

The slab floor and hearth base in the western interior of the broch
The slab floor and hearth base in the western interior of the broch

Within the broch, Rick’s team have been recording the flag stone floor and hearth in the western area/room of the interior. This occupation level pertains to late use of the western zone and probably dates to sometime around the Mid 2nd Century AD. Soon the team will be able to lift this horizon and see what lies beneath. They strongly suspect there’ll be another hearth for one thing, but also that more rich floor deposits are awaiting our investigation.

details of the Broch wall-chamber A6 revealed
Details of the broch wall chamber A6 revealed

Colin, Anthea and Deryck have further defined the newly emerged wall cell (‘A6’) within the northern segment of broch wall. It’s looking very nice with its mixed construction of coursed masonry and upright stone panels, and it’s much better preserved than we had expected, considering the damage it had received from above during a later Iron Age stone robbing episode. There also appears to be in situ floor/occupation deposits remaining within the base of the chamber. That’s great for ultimately giving us more information about the use of the chamber.

Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation
Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation

Also in the broch today we really started to excavate the subterranean feature in the northern interior of the broch. This type feature is known in the literature as a well, but there are various reasons for suggesting that something more is going on with these fascinating underground structures. Our ‘well’ is very nicely preserved, entirely intact in fact, and was completely sealed when we first discovered it. The entrance is very well built and flush with the broch floor level in this area. A very steep set of steps lead downwards and in an anti-clockwise direction to the partly rock cut chamber below. The structure is quite a substantial cavity about 2 metres deep in total as far as we can tell.

Today we began the arduous process of excavating and sampling (100% recovery) the deep and very silty fill. It’s very wet, loose and prone to a suction effect that makes it difficult to make headway. Nevertheless, we hope this will be a very worthwhile exercise and that we can recover pollen, and lots of other environmental information. Additionally, you never know what else may be in there in terms of artefacts. We’ll keep you posted…

Part of the long wall face in area Q-M under excavation
Part of the long wall face in area Q-M under excavation

In Area Q/M in the Northern area of the site, Bobby’s team have also been making very good progress revealing a beautiful flagstone floor associated with Structure K in one area. Meanwhile, towards the eastern end of Area Q/M various walls out the front and north of the broch exterior that have seemed quite disparate and bitty are now starting to come together very nicely, and they seem to be tracing the outline of a whopper of a building.

It looks very like one particularly long and sinuous stretch of walling represents a major building and part of the broch village complex, perhaps a type of building seen in other broch villages such as the one at Gurness in West Mainland, Orkney, which was itself an impressive and substantial structure close to the front of the broch and designed to be appreciated and to impress.

We’ll bring you updates and further images from these and other developments as they emerge!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.