The Cairns Day 20 – The Final Day.

Site excavation and recording completed and covered up for protection

The University of the Highlands and Islands research dig at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney has now come to an end for this year. With the site safely covered up it is time for Site Director Martin Carruthers to sum up….

Well we have reached the end of this season’s excavations at The Cairns! It’s been an incredibly rewarding season and we have learned a lot about the site.

We’ve been very busy finalising the recording of the features and buildings and then the great task of covering up the trench began.  Hundreds of tyres and many, many metres of plastic were moved around the site and placed with loving care to protect the site from the rigours of the weather for another year. 

Across all the areas of actively excavation we have made real progress, and one of the very satisfying reminders of that has been the number of return visitors to the site who have said they’ve seen real physical change to the site. Even the adverse weather hasn’t dented the spirits or the progress.

Broch Origin Stories…

One of the most startling and very welcome developments is within the broch itself where we have reached the primary occupation levels in the West and Northeast quadrants/rooms. This is very important in terms of our aims of fully excavating the entire suite of floors and occupation within the broch.  It means we are far closer to achieving this outcome than I imagined. We will now be able reflect on the changes that have occurred to the layout and the use of the broch through time from the outset of its life to the very end.  Additionally, we should now be able to obtain radiocarbon dates for the earliest occupation in the broch. It now appears that the major divisions of the room space represent the original layout and that’s important because they are very well preserved and convey a very clear and coherent impression of how movement and activity was organised in the broch.

Farewell from the remaining team on the last day of the excavation.

Within the western room of the broch we have seen that there is a very substantial focus of activity arranged around an impressive hearth, the setting for which is coming into view but there is so much rake out of hearth sweepings, and ashy flooring around it that we will be next season before it is entirely revealed. In terms of artefacts from this area we have added a further piece of glass, a bronze ring and lots of pottery to add to last season’s glass beads and metal objects.  The glass objects are all imports to Orkney and ultimately the material for their manufacture derived from Roman sources. 

The tiny scrap of glass from the broch floor in the west quadrant / room

It’s fascinating to see this obvious trace of interaction with communities on the Scottish mainland as well as with the Roman world. The landscapes of Orkney are often portrayed in the academic literature as tough and marginal places to eke a living from, but the imported objects are a welcome reminder of Orkney’s active participation in prehistoric geopolitics.

Bronze ring from the early phase floor of the broch

The Southwest Extension

In the Southwest extension area, progress has also been significant.  Structure J is the principal building here, constructed directly in the lee of the southern wall-face of the broch. What had seemed to be a fairly small building in previous seasons can now be seen to be far more substantial and complex with its large multi-roomed interior. The building sits within a revetment wall that has itself been built against the great construction cut or terrace for the broch.  We think this indicates the early nature of the village settlement and that it was largely constructed as a contemporary element alongside the broch. If ultimately proven to be the case, this is significant in contributing to the debate about village planning and the primary nature of such extramural settlements!

Also in the SW extension we continued to excavate the inner edge of the ditch.  The ditch surrounds the site forming a large enclosure around 60 metres in diameter.  On the eastern side of this enclosure, the ditch splits in two to form a double line at the front of the settlement, and it is the innermost of these two ditch lines that we have access to in the SW extension.  The ditch was again rich in finds this season, especially in animal bone but also stone tools and pottery.  On the edge of the ditch it became clear that there were several revetments added over time and these must have been intended to hold back the silty clay that we have found redeposited across parts of the buildings, indicating that it was subject to slippage and that this hill wash moved the clay around the site a little. This shows that the inhabitants of the site were trying to hold back the slope wash by constructing these revetments and that shows that they were maintaining the edge of the ditch and the inner bank of clay as a set of exposed earthen ground.

If they had allowed the grass to re-colonise the ditch and bank, then the slope-wash would probably not have occurred in this manner and been anchored by plant roots.  Even this little detail is important as it appears that the broch community routinely maintained the enclosure and terrace. The enclosure must have been more visually prominent and vivid from a distance with its exposed yellow clay than it would have been if vegetated. This just adds detail and colour to how we can visualise the site, as well as pointing to another set of tasks and procedures that the community routinely undertook, presumably in some numbers.

Down in the Village

Trench areas M and Q make up a large, broad area around the North of the broch, stretching from immediately outside the front door of the broch around to the Northwest extension that was made this year. New walls and entirely new buildings have emerged in this area so swift has been the progress made!  There’s now a much more coherent sense of the shape and extent of previously identified buildings as well. We can now see that Structure O, a sub-rectangular building at the very front of the broch, just to the North of the entrance, is surmounted by the same rubble that clads the outside of the broch here, and this shows that the building was up and running for at least some of the period of the broch. Its fourth (south) wall (only now visible) appears to respect the broch, stopping short of the pathway towards the broch front door and this fact together with O’s well-built double-faced walls make it a very good contender for another building that was constructed at the same time as the broch. Meanwhile Structure R, a newly identified building is anchored on to O but constructed later, and itself opens on to Structure K.

Structure K is now shown to be a very large building (it’s the one that previously yielded lots of metalworking moulds and crucibles dating to around AD300), and we can see that it was in contemporary use with Structure R, because a common doorway and paving connects both buildings. We’re now able to suggest very strongly that Structure O, N and M are primary with the broch, while Q, K and R, are subsequent constructions. K overlies the enclosure ditch and therefore this also points to the ditch being a broch period feature.  All of this phasing is probably best understood in diagrammatic form, so I’ve included a little schematic illustration of how it works.

A schematic illustration showing the main structures to the northeast of the broch and their phasing as we currently understand it

The Souterrain

Looking along the souterrain passage as it makes a right-angle turn and enters the broch entrance passageway, which was itself reused as the chamber of the souterrain

One of our aims this season was to deal with the deposits inside the souterrain, which lies on the eastern side of the broch. We excavated the deposits that in-fill the souterrain and took lots of soil samples to try to understand the composition of this in-fill. What’s more, the way is clear for us to chemically analyse the floor of the souterrain to try to glean more information about how it was used.

A very odd feature of the souterrain seen in a previous season was the quern installation set up on the roof of the structure at its southern end. Essentially, two rotary querns had been set up inverted over an intentional aperture in the souterrain lintels. The central holes of the querns were aligned with the aperture, and the entire feature conveys the impression of being used to pour something into the underground passageway from above. There are several instances of Iron Age querns reused in this way to form a porous lid on pits in wheelhouses in the Western Isles, and in one instance it was suggested that there may have been libations being poured into them! This season we were able to observe a very peculiar deposit located discretely and directly located beneath where the quern installation had lain. Now that we have been able to acquire soil samples these will be subjected to phosphate analysis, amongst other analyses, to try to discern putative traces of the substance that was being poured into the hole in the roof- stay tuned to hear more over the next weeks and months! 

And finally…

In The Cairns Broch

All in all, it has been a very fruitful and enjoyable season, with a lot learned about the nature of the site, from its beginnings to the end, major features of the site such as the excavation of broch floors, the broch construction platform and the ditch will immeasurably help us to understand the character of the settlement, and the finds this year have been very rich and highly useful in a number of ways to elucidate issues relating to dating, the status of the community and their depositional practices.

Now some thank you’s! I’ll take this opportunity to thank the entire project team for their unstinting good humour, patience and enthusiasm. Without them the site would of course remain unexcavated, and it’s only through their sterling efforts that we begin to understand what was going on at the site more than 2000 years ago!

A second bronze ring from the broch floor

This year the public have visited the site as before. We benefitted from a large number of very interested visitors, and they were very generous in their expression of support for the project. The funds will now be spent on important aspects of furthering the research, such as radiocarbon dating the beginning of the broch. I would like to thank all of the visitors and donors, and for allowing us to communicate our findings at the site.

Finally, I would like to thank Charlie and Yvonne Nicholson and all of their family and friends in South Ronaldsay for their many acts of assistance and generosity. Our time at The Cairns is made possible, enjoyable and very amiable due to their great kindness.

Thank you!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day 19 – 2019

Mickey and the gang excavating in Trench Q

Mickey Van Lit from Leiden University brings The Cairns blog up to date.

As the excavation is coming to an end, so is this blog. I very kindly asked whether I could write a second blog, just because I liked it so much. Martin, gratefully accepted my generous and not-at-all self-indulgent offer and… Here we are!

Our last real day of digging was yesterday. In fact, yesterday was mostly spent not trowelling but recording the newly found structures and newly uncovered areas. Today, we have been covering the site with tarps and tyres, to protect it from Orkney’s winter weather. Because finds have started to slow down, it is perhaps difficult to write a blog about the developments on site, especially with a conclusive blog coming soon to finish off the season. Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to write about my own university, the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.

Mika excavating the broch floor

Together with three other students from Leiden, I signed up for this excavation as part of a course we are required to do as second-year archaeology students. For this course, we have to fulfil approximately seven weeks of work to get the required ECs. Isabelle and I worked together on the wonderful area I described in an earlier blog (the one from day 12), which has now become an entirely new structure of itself. Mika mostly worked in the broch, and he has found a few big pieces of pottery and a semi-D-shaped bronze ring, as shown on the Facebook page ( The last of us four, Maurits, worked in the southwest extension, cleaning a structure and in the meantime working down onto the natural soil.

At the University of Leiden, Archaeology is not only a regular undergraduate course, it is also a separate faculty. This means that the Faculty of Archaeology has got a lot more autonomy to offer than other undergraduates that are grouped together under ‘Social Sciences’ or ‘Humanities’. We have an entire building to ourselves, although sometimes we have to share it with some Biology students, whose labs are placed in our building. The Van Steenis-building that we are in, is relatively new, as the old building could not house the increasing number of Archaeology students any longer. Good to see that there are more people coming to Leiden to study Archaeology, isn’t it?

During my four weeks here, I understood that many lectures at the University of Highlands and Islands can be followed and listened to via an online connection, because many students live away from Orkney College UHI. In The Netherlands, it happens a bit differently. Many lectures have obligatory attendance, with the consequence of not being allowed to sit the exam if the attendance is not met. Some lectures get recorded, but these recordings are meant as repetition of the lecture, not as replacement.

The second bronze ring-like object found by Mika

One similarity between the University of Leiden and UHI is that all first-years are required to do a two-week field school. My field school was a couple hundred metres away from the faculty, where the features of a medieval house were found. It was very clayey soil, much different from the loose silty soil and rocks at The Cairns. The methods of excavation were just as different. Instead of trowelling, we were very often working with spades and shovels and not much was left from the house itself. Our main clues were features, not neatly placed rocks. After having had that kind of field school, The Cairns was a bit of a surprise. But a good one, of course!

To be honest, it feels a bit weird to know that everything is getting covered up. No more trowelling, no more lifting rocks, no more sticking your finds up in the air in victory… After four weeks of work, I have grown fond of the site (and all right, the people were fun as well!). It almost feels like I have no choice but to return to The Cairns next year. Who’s with me?

Thanks to Leiden University student, Mickey Van Lit

The Cairns Day 18 – 2019

The northern part of the trench showing the village beyond the broch and the souterrain at lower left. Thanks to Bobby Friel

Unbelievably the digging season is nearly at an end at The Cairns. It only seems a few days since we started! This blog post is written by Holly Young who is about to start her MSc with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

As the season begins to draw to a close and our thoughts inevitably start turning to the mountain of tyres and tarps that need to be moved back onto site to put it to rest for another year, digging work on site is also being wrapped up.

With the haar rolling in across Windwick Bay, the day began with the final site tour for the team where we got to look at the results of the last four weeks’ hard work and ask any remaining questions about the developments that have occurred.

The rest of the day was spent sprucing up the archaeology for final photographs and recording.

Structure Q in the village

In the broch, Therese, Connor, Calum and Mika have been removing deposits around the primary hearth in the NW quadrant, where a large plan has been drawn that includes the newly revealed substantial paving. Our resident soil wizard, Jo, finished up with her quadrant of beautifully coloured deposits in the SE room, and Alanis photographed the results of her sampling work in the NE quadrant.

Down in Trench Q, Bobby and his team of eager students and volunteers have been doing final digging, cleaning and recording of the various areas across the ‘broch village’. Many areas of the rubble are still giving up finds, including evidence of metalworking, various animal bones and stone tools. Bobby has also been spending his tea-breaks providing us with astounding aerial shots of the site with his drone.

Looking down on part of the souterrain passage

Up in the SW area of the site, Rick and Jen have been polishing off the final pieces of recording. This area of site has been getting progressively more complex with new areas of building popping up and new insights into the substantial terrace that was dug to make way for the construction of the broch coming to light. The portion of the large ditch surrounding the site, which is present in this area, has been blessing its diggers with a large number of finds, including a localised area rich in animal bones and shell which has been very carefully excavated over the last few weeks.

Rick and Bobby have also been putting the various students through their paces across the last few weeks, with various workshops to help build up their archaeological skills. Today, they’ve continued planning various areas across Trench Q and the SW extension.

Now, to task. I am here to draw to attention to the activities that have been taking place in the souterrain this year.

For those of you who are not familiar with these enigmatic structures, souterrains are subterranean passageways, the uses of which are massively up for contention. Whether they be for storage or ritual, or several uses that don’t even occur to us, these buildings remain shrouded in mystery.

The souterrain passage

We have been methodically sampling the possible floor deposits in the formerly-roofed portion of the souterrain, the large roof lintels of which were removed in 2016. In similar fashion to the sampling taking place in the broch, we have been removing contexts on a 50cm grid, for everything from finds recovery to the chemical breakdown of the individual soils in an attempt to understand the kinds of things people were using the souterrain for.

Several things from the sampling are worth noting. The first is that, in the southern section of the grid, a series of greasy deposits have been excavated, including one that was quite a vivid orange colour. These deposits are significant as it may shed light on the activities that were taking place in the souterrain and around this section of the souterrain roof. Above these deposits, the large roof lintels were positioned in such a fashion as to leave a gap, above which were broken fragments of rotary quern-stones and a ‘stone box’ filled with winkle shells. There is a possibility that some kind of liquid was being strained through these shells, gently pouring into the souterrain and being absorbed into the soil. In relation to this, a small cache of the same species of shell was found tucked in a small deposit flush against the souterrain wall.

The entrance to the broch and the souterrain

Now, in the final sampling stages (as is always the norm whenever the end of dig season is nigh!), just as we begin the closing down the site, some deposits of interest have begun to be revealed. The lower fills of this area of the souterrain contain fairly substantial rubble, some of which may possibly be associated with earlier buildings that were part of the broch village. The people constructing the souterrain built through these earlier broch-related structures, sometimes incorporating useful pieces of masonry, sometimes smashing through others, continuing the theme of reuse of earlier structures that is so common throughout the Iron Age in Orkney, and appears to hold a huge amount of significance for the inhabitants of this site.

Holly working at the souterrain

Finally, the sampling grid has been extended in the last week to cover the portion of the souterrain passage and chamber that was created by the reuse of the broch entrance way. This strategy will be utilised across the next few seasons to draw all the information from across the different areas of the souterrain together to create a coherent story.

And, so, onto the shutting down of the site, which seems to have arrived far more quickly than any of us would like. Putting the site to bed is always a stark reminder that we’re a whole year away from getting stuck in once again.

Thanks to Holly Young, MSc. Archaeological Practice student to be…

The Cairns Day 17 – 2019

Today’s blogger Jo setting up a sample grid in the broch

Hello again to the Cairns followers – it doesn’t seem a year since I was last here on site, and writing once more for the blog! I’m Jo McKenzie, a research geoarchaeologist with the University of Bradford and currently one of the small team working inside the broch as we go into the last couple of days of the excavation.

This is the third year that I’ve been one of the visiting specialists at the Cairns, and as always it’s been amazing to see the development of the excavation and how much changes as – especially for me – we progress through the deposits preserved in the broch interior.

Sample grid across the floor of the southeast room of the broch

As a geoarchaeologist, my focus is using a range of archaeological science techniques to investigate the soil deposits on site. At Cairns, my analyses will hopefully help us understand the very important floor surfaces which are now exposed in almost all areas inside the broch. I’m using a technique called soil micromorphology to enable us to look at the floors in a way we can’t using traditional excavation methods. Small blocks of deposit are carefully removed, using a metal tin so that they remain undisturbed. Resin is poured into these blocks and hardened, allowing a microscope slide to be made through a ‘slice’ of the floor surface.

Looking down a corridor space towards the south room in the broch

Under the microscope, we can examine in detail what often prove to be many, many more deposits that can be seen with the naked eye. This technique is a powerful tool for understanding how the floor surface deposits form and the microscopic information they contain – fuel residues, bone, plant residues and other pointers to human activity, as well as a whole range of indicators for environmental conditions on site and how these have changed through time. 

In The Cairns Broch

This year at the Cairns however, it’s been a case of less sampling and more trowelling, as it becomes clear that we’re getting closer to what could be the absolute primary surfaces within the broch – a crucial stage and one that it’s so important to get right. All samples are meaningless without understanding their archaeological context, and so this year I’ve mainly been within the so-far largely unexcavated south east quadrant of the broch, carefully cleaning the complex activity surface we can now see there, doing some head scratching, and making comparisons between the sequence of hearths, floors and features we see in this quadrant and those of the other areas of the interior, so that we can plan the next stage of our sampling strategy. Roll on next year, and once again, so many thanks to Martin and the rest of the Cairns team for a week of the most amazing archaeology!

Thanks to Dr Jo McKenzie, University of Bradford

The Cairns Day 16 – 2019

One of the tour groups with UHI MRes student Kevin guiding.

Site Director Martin Carruthers takes up the story of the successful Open Day at the excavation….

Well today was the open day on site and the decision we made to slightly postpone the open day really paid-off as we basked in sunshine and blue skies all day!

Fiona overseeing some actual metalworking

The visitors seemed to really enjoy the experience of making their way around the site, witnessing the massive broch and the other buildings, hearing from us about the findings and looking at some of the fascinating artefacts; pottery, stone tools, metalwork, glass beads and fragments, and large volumes of animal bone. As well as showing the fruits of our labours, we also had a demonstration of a little light metalworking going on from Fiona Sanderson, who showed our students and other diggers how to go about it, and our own Carnegie Trust scholarship student Paul was also performing some experimental metalworking!

Lots of the team were involved in the open day, leading tours, and explaining what is happening across the site however, even in the midst of the festive atmosphere of the open day excavation progress continued.

Revealing the further extent of Structure O

In Bobby’s area the northern wall of Structure O was further traced and its outer face, in particular, came nicely into view, reminding us of the solid, double-faced nature of this walling and the substantial upstanding building it must have belonged to.

Jenny with the saddle quern rubber, showing its grinding surface, which after use as the top stone of the quern seems to had facets removed to providers scrapers (Skaill knives) for butchery or skinning

In the Southwest extension the last remnant of the special deposit that had included the sheep skull and other items was lifted allowing us to lift and look at the saddle quern rubber stone. It is an object with a more complex history than we thought.  Initially used as a top-stone to grind the grain against a saddle quern, it also shows signs of having been subsequently used as a mortar to crush substances. Finally it looks like large flakes were removed from its original grinding surface.  These may have then been used as ‘Skaill knives’, a form of butchery or skinning scarping tool, or the flaking may have been intended to remove the old working surface from the rubber, a phenomenon sometimes seen in prehistoric querns and quern rubbers!

The saddle quern rubber in situ.

Finally, inside the broch, recording was under way as we prepare for the end of the week and closing down the site.  Prior to this though we still have a few days digging work left and we’ll keep you informed of what we find!

In the broch today
The team relaxing in the beautiful weather at tea break

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns

The Cairns Days 14 & 15 – 2019

Bronze object from the floor of the southern room in the broch

The weather conditions at The Cairns this week have been appalling, so Site Director Martin Carruthers has combined Day 14 & 15 into one blog post….

Well what can we say- this blog incorporates two days of work on site as we’ve been rather truncated and interrupted by recent weather conditions.  Firstly, high winds, and then persistent rain have had an impact on our ability to sustain fully productive excavation across both days.

Looking out over the broch towards the North Sea, shrouded in cloud

Nevertheless, some very interesting insights and results have been forthcoming from the site. In the broch the work has continued to reveal more details of the early occupation. Therese and team have observed a very densely rich crushed shell deposit around what we think are the primary floor surfaces.  This is especially the case in a zone tucked between the western wall face and the edge of the substantial floor slabs. This shell material may be the earliest deposit that we have reached so far in the broch, perhaps even dating to the construction of the massive building, or part of a foundation deposit of some significance.  It shows that even once we have dealt with the ‘primary’ floor slabs in the area (which will be next season) we still have very interesting things in store to find out about the early moments of the broch’s life!

Elsewhere in the broch Yesterday, work recommenced in the Southern quadrant/room.  This began with a gentle clean over the area to remind ourselves of where we left off in the previous season.  Well so much for that simple recognition exercise! Within minutes Mika, one of our Leiden University interns had discovered another little copper alloy (bronze) object.  A roughly ring-shaped object.  This time this piece appears slightly D-shaped and may be some sort of fitting, or even a contorted pin fragment rather than a ring like the one found earlier in the season within the Western room.

Animal skull, bones and saddle quern rubber stone

Outside the broch in the Southwest extension, Rick’s team have also been “coming up with the goods”.  You may recall that this area encompasses a part of the village settlement, and a portion of the inner ditch that formed the enclosure that once surrounded the site.  Rick’s team have been busy re-writing what we thought was going on here.  On the one hand they have established that quite a lot of what we thought of as the natural glacial till is in fact redeposited, slumped over, or actively employed as a building material by Iron Age builders.  The result is that the village building, Structure J, which had the appearance of a rather compact, and neatly defined kidney- shaped building has expanded exponentially to form a rather massive, much more complex, multi-roomed building.  The net result is that the broch-period village on this SW side, which had appeared confined to small belt of features hugging the broch outer wall face is now much larger and impressive! 

A little ‘treat’ for us in this area came when Jenny, one of our UHI excavation module students, was working on the rubble in-fill behind Structure J. This is an area probably related to the foundation of Structure J.  A cache of animal bone and other items seem to have been deposited in the upper part of the rubble. There was an inverted sheep skull, several femurs, some worked deer antler, and a very nice rubber stone for a saddle quern.  This is one more instance of apparently special deposits made at the site relating to the foundation or decommissioning of major buildings and features during the Iron Age.

Trench area M & Q

In trench-areas M & Q on the Northern slopes of the site, Bobby’ team have been doing great work also on the village buildings here.  Almost everyday the substantial nature of the remains there seem to get larger, more massive, and more complex.  There are now myriad walls relating to rectangular, cellular and circular buildings.  Some of the walls are double faced and substantially built in a style that may make them contemporary with the broch, others are single-faced revetments that have been added over time.  It’s a complicated and not immediately clear area to resolve, but this complexity will, ultimately, result in a lovely detailed story of the development of the settlement.  For now, a clearer picture of the interconnected nature of the broch village is emerging with passages, thresholds and wall-piers serving to link some of the buildings and show how movement was achieved between and around this important part of the village complex.

Holly working at the souterrain

Finally, and by no means least Holly has been busy, as ever, excavating and sampling the souterrain to the east of the broch.  This underground passageway has a series of in-fill deposits present but is now resolving on to floor surfaces and we hope to be able to recover deposits that relate to the early use of this enigmatic passageway to the past!

If you’d like to see some of these things for yourself we’ll be hosting an open day at the site on Monday the 8th of July from 11am to 4pm!  Please do feel free to join us on site.