The Cairns Day Five – 2019

Excavation underway in the Northern part of the site. Todays blogger Hannah is seen standing with the yellow knee pads

Each day a different volunteer or student archaeologist has the chance to write a dig diary entry to put across their experience of the University of the Highlands and Islands research excavation at The Cairns.

It’s Day 5 and so it is Hannah’s turn to write the blog…..

Third year student Hannah (Thompson) here, another report of classic Orkney weather…rain & sunshine, with the weather improving towards the end of the day.

A new area of stonework (possible revetment) emerging in the SW area

So, I have been working down in the bottom half of trench Q, focusing on clearing and sharpening edges of the trench walls and sections, this is to help us learn about relationships between different features and deposits within the trench. This important task then allowed Bobby (trench supervisor) to take some photographs and to record the section and certain rubble spreads before they are removed to further excavate, and reveal even more relationships.

Half of a carved stone vessel (just below the colourful scale), probably a lamp, emerging inside the broch

Whist undertaking all of this, I came across the front part of a Horse skull with 4 front teeth still intact! Neigh bad at all! Aime who is also working in Trench Q came across a nice large chunk of Charcoal (important for understanding human use of the environment, as well as C-14 dating), Mika found the top half of a cranium. So trench Q has been very exciting today. In other parts of the site, such as the south west area, they have been working on excavating soils to see whether there is another phase of revetment walling around the natural enveloping the Broch wall. In the Broch itself they have been excavating and sampling the floors in the Western interior and seem to be finding another phase of occupation with a hearth.

Hannah’s area – a rectilinear building, prepared for photography

From my 1st year until now, it has been wonderful to have such a look into the ways of the Iron Age folk, the many people who have left such wondrous things for us to understand and learn how they lived.  

The team excavating inside the broch today

It’s going to be another fantastic summer here at The Cairns, with more to definitely be revealed by us. Come visit!

Thanks to Hannah Thompson UHI Archaeology student

The Cairns Day Four – 2019

The Outer Broch wall, The Cairns

It’s Day Four at The Cairns dig and Site Director and Programme Leader for the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc Archaeological Practice course takes up the story….

Hi folks, Martin here. I thought I’d take the opportunity to fill you in on some details on the site today and give you an account that described both the very intimate detail of digging on site and, at the other end of the scale, a more zoomed-out sense of our main excavation aims this season.

We had a block of rough weather in mid-afternoon but this didn’t really dampen spirits too much and I was really delighted and impressed by the cheerful hardiness of our team so, firstly, I’d like to say thank you to them for their stoic hardiness today! The rain did make excavation difficult, however, and slowed things down a little. Nevertheless, some great progress was achieved. I managed to find time to get my trowel out myself, which can be a rarity for a site director, so that was very pleasant!


Newly revealed stretch of broch outer wall face in the NW extension and the finds cluster beyond. (Also: note the rotary quern broken in half embedded on edge in the broch wall middle left of the image).

I busied myself in the new (Northwest) extension and attempted to reveal a little more of the western wall face of the broch, which by rights should have been just below the surface of the base of the topsoil. Sure enough, I was delighted to find that within minutes the tell-tale, characteristically large, very level, curving masonry of the top of the broch wall came cleanly into view over an expanse of about half a metre. I must confess this probably seemed too good to be true, as the site seldom gives up what is expected in such a straightforward manner, and, sure enough, moments later, as I continued to trace the wall a little further around to the south, I started to hit an interesting cluster of materials right where the wall should have been.

A large, clearly worked, cobble-stone tool emerged, and then another cobble and then another, within a tight bundle. It wasn’t long before a tiny piece of worked flint emerged and several animal bones, too. It was clear we were dealing with a little finds deposit.

To give you some background to this situation, over the years of excavation at The Cairns we have become aware that little caches of material were sometimes deposited on site. On one hand, these can be very modest in nature, so, for instance, when excavating the rubble infill of the broch, we found numerous instances of these little caches of material- usually no more than a couple of bones, some shell and maybe a piece of bog ore, or a piece of whalebone and a bone or two of another animal. At the other end of the scale a few years ago we found a quite remarkable deposit just outside the broch entrance that had involved the last generation of broch inhabitants placing a carved whalebone vessel, containing two newborn lambs, and a human jawbone, against the broch outer wall with two deer antlers propped against it and the entire deposit pinned into place using a saddle quern. There is, therefore, a considerable track record for these sorts of apparently very deliberate deposits or caches of objects on the site.

The finds cluster of stone tools, cobbles, animal bone and teeth, and a tiny yellowish flint flake

The stone tools, flint and animal bone that I found today were clustered tightly together and placed just above the reduced wall head of the broch and so probably date to really quite soon after the broch was decommissioned. Taken individually, each of these items might have attracted no great attention from us, and would have been recovered, 3-dimensionally recorded, and bagged-up, as yet another find amongst the thousands that have been recovered. However, it is the collection (curation, if you will), of multiple objects, brought together at the moment of deposition by a person, or persons, nearly two thousand years ago that makes the deposit greater than the sum of its parts.

We believe that these caches of items are an act of intentional placement and that there is an expressive (and even an aesthetic) quality to this, and that means we are seeing, however dimly, a shadow of practices and behaviours that are beyond what was strictly necessary just for the practical subsistence of life. We could argue about the whys and wherefores of the place of concepts like ‘ritual’ in this, but it certainly seems that these caches are a form of symbolic communication that would have been recognisable and understood by the community in a more detailed and specific fashion than we shall probably ever glean. Nevertheless, as the excavation progresses, and we find more and more of these sorts of caches, you never know, over time, their distribution patterning, contents and arrangements might just begin to allow us a more detailed glimpse of Iron Age mindsets and meanings!

Ok now on to other matters, and the aims of the excavation this season:
One of the more obvious aims of the project, perhaps, is to excavate a broch! To put it in more formal terms: we want to “investigate the circumstances of the construction, multi-phase use, and abandonment of a major Iron Age broch/Atlantic roundhouse and its associated complex of buildings and feature areas”.

In terms of how this plays out for this season, we are going to continue to carefully and methodically excavate the floors and occupation deposits of the interior of the broch. This is a rather slow process loaded up with a requirement to produce huge amounts of records, however, it is also a very rewarding one, for example just today a stone lamp was recovered from the broch floor excavation. The really substantive reward, however, comes in the understanding the lives of the broch inhabitants through the less obvious, often tiny, sometimes microscopic, materials they left behind, trapped in the floor deposits. The full battery of our scientific techniques and perception will be levelled at the broch interior to try to map out ancient activities, tasks and practices inside in a manner seldom previously accomplished.

A second grand aim of the project is: “To understand the relationship between the site of The Cairns and its landscape at a variety of levels, and the relationship between the site and the other ancient built places within that landscape”. Well, just one example could suffice here: every day on site we discover items such as animal bones or carbonised cereal grains that will ultimately tell us a great deal about the way that the community inhabited and manipulated the wider landscape around the settlement. In many ways the buildings and features of the site acts like traps for information about the landscape and we only have to think about what was involved in cultivating these resources by the community to understand how they were responsible for changing the environment.

The third main aim of the excavation is: “To investigate later prehistoric subterranean structures to obtain fresh evidence for how and why these structures were built and used”. This year should see us finally complete the excavation of our souterrain ‘Structure F’, a remarkable underground structure that has already yielded some intriguing clues as to how special and important these structures were. We’ll be commencing that excavation in earnest tomorrow and you can see what we find there over the next weeks.

The Cairns Site Plan

Of course, last year we excavated a slightly different subterranean structure, the ‘well’, underneath the floor of the broch. It turned out to be very dramatic with its anaerobic preservation and water-logged contents that included a wooden bowl and even human hair! I doubt we shall be this lucky when excavating the souterrain, but we may find something either in the detailed study of the floor deposits or in the objects that we find in the souterrain that gives some clues as to what actually went on inside. Please stay tuned to find out!

Finally, I thought I’d leave you with the site plan of the major structures and areas of the excavation to help you orientate yourself with our diaries over the next few weeks!
Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day Three – 2019

Looking northwards across the broch, down-slope to the village

Today is the turn of University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student Alana to write the daily blog from The Cairns…..

The weather on The Cairns today has been good, a little windy at times but mainly very sunny. While working on a southern section of the broch outer wall (adjacent to Later Iron Age building E), I had quite a few finds, mainly shards of animal bones and a cattle tooth. A significant part of the work in this area is intended to reveal more of the outer wall face of the broch.

Just a few of the pottery sherds and deer antler objects from today

In this area of the broch we think that the builders of the late Iron Age building had pulled away much of the broch masonry, filled the gap in with rubble and paved it over, however, before today we were unsure as to exactly where this truncation had occurred.

Looking south across the site today, over the village settlement towards the broch

Towards the end of yesterday and more fully throughout today we have uncovered the clear view of exactly how and where the broch was dismantled. Happily, however, the lower part of the broch wall seems to remain intact and it will require further excavation to establish how far round the broch wall the late Iron Age/Pictish disturbance extends.

A small pot lid from the southern section of the enclosure ditch

We used mattocks to remove the silty layer of rubble and allow a clearer look at the wall, revealing more settled layers of soil beneath. In the material against the broch, small voids appeared giving an indication that loose rubble was hurriedly banked against the outside of broch. The clear evidence of later people tampering with the outside of the broch wall, is really interesting to observe and made me wonder why they dismantled this part of the wall before filling it in and paving over the top of it!

Maurits, one of our students from Leiden University with the worked antler he found today

To the south of the broch there are different parts being excavated. One group is working to uncover whether a formation of rocks could possibly be the foundations of another wall of a possible building. In the southeast corner of the trench another group are working to excavate the enclosure ditch revealing part of the natural glacial clay that the ditch was originally cut through.

A significant number of small-finds, mostly consisting of animal bones, burnt stone and charcoal have been uncovered alongside pieces of pottery and a lovely piece of worked antler. This latter object has been pared down to make an amazingly regular square section. Towards the north, north east end of the broch a group has been photo cleaning rubble filling Structure Q, one of the big buildings outside the front of the broch. In so doing they are attempting to establish how far the known walls of this building extends.

Dealing with the rubble infill of Structure O

Another group of diggers in Structure O have been taking soil samples of charcoal from the lovely soft soil infill of the building. Amongst the riot of walls in the northern slope of the site they are attempting to establish if one of the walls is part of an existing structure or the start of another structure entirely. While this has been going on all the many small-finds found today have been surveyed in using a total-station.

Today’s blogger, Alana, reviewing her work on the disturbed area of the broch wall.

Thanks to Alana S A Smith, Year 1 Archaeology student, Moray College UHI.

The Cairns Day Two – 2019

Excavators working on the southern side of the broch

Day Two at The Cairns dawns bright with a blue sky and today it is University of the Highlands and Islands student Sara Marioni turn to write the dig diary.….

A pretty awesome second day of excavation at The Cairns! After yesterday’s unpredictable weather and this morning’s freezing cold wind, we’ve been blessed with a drier and warmer afternoon, which also brought quite a few visitors to the site.

The day started with a tour of the various trenches, which included a brief summary of the main aims and areas of interest for this year’s excavation. Later, we organised ourselves in two groups, each assigned to a different area of the excavation.

Looking across the broch to the East and Windwick Bay, with just a little rain on the lens

I was working with Vicky, Aimedaphi and Mika in trench Q of the extramural settlement, trowelling a midden deposit rich in bone fragments and charcoal. Our main objective was to obtain a clearer view of the walls of one of the Iron Age buildings, so that the features and their relation to one another could be studied.

I believe my team had a great first day of digging, as only half an hour into the job a pottery rim emerged from the soil we were removing, followed, later this afternoon, by a modified animal tooth with tool marks on its surface. In addition to trowelling and learning how to record small finds, we also took a soil sample of the context we were working on.

Today’s blogger: Sara and student colleagues excavating the in-fill of Structure Q in the extramural complex (broch village)

Meanwhile, the second group of diggers was focusing on the area south-west of the broch, removing deposits to try and identify the edges of the ditch and where the broch terrace was cut into the hill-slope. While most people where working outside Structure A (the broch), Therese was on the inside of the broch re-establishing the sampling grid-lines and Paul was just a few metres away from the site building a furnace and lining it with clay for his experimental archaeology project.

Thanks to Sara Marinoni, First Year Archaeology student, UHI.

The Cairns Day One – 2019

Looking down the entrance to the broch into the interior where the covers are being removed

Welcome back everyone to the daily blog for The Cairns excavations from me, Martin Carruthers the site director!

It’s absolutely fantastic to back on site and be able to share our findings with you once more. Each day of the project we’ll be bringing you updates and perspectives from different members of the team.

We welcome back many familiar faces to take part once again in the project and we also say hello to an equal number of new faces to the site. Altogether, the team already shows great promise in terms of good humour and commitment, necessary qualities in these very opening stages of the work, as well as beyond.

The Western extension with already established buildings to the left and just the tops of building stones beginning to show up in the extension itself

Today was the first day of the new season, and although a little advance party of us took a lot of the covers off the trench last week we nevertheless had a lot more tidying up of the site to do today with the big team. After site introduction and the obligatory health and safety briefings, it was onwards to moving the tyres out of the fenced area of the site and gathering up weathered fragments of plastic to generally neaten up things.

The weather was sometimes a challenge today with bouts of quite heavy rain, and even hail at one point. Nevertheless very good progress was made by the big team and most of the covers were off the site by the end of the day.

Dramatic skies over the site today

Over in this year’s trench extension on the western side of the site the work to clean over the newly revealed deposits was also going well. It looks very much like we have the continuation of substantial building remains in parts of this area and in the northern end of the extension perhaps the upper fills of the great ditch that encircles the broch period settlement. The deposits here are gratifyingly here with a little shell midden deposit, and pieces of pottery, boding well for the richness of these soils.

The top of the little shell midden in the Western Extension today

Tomorrow, we’ll press on with the site cleaning and then really start to get our teeth into the deposits and features. We’ll keep you posted on how we get on!