The Cairns Day 13 – 2019

An aerial view of The Cairns site using drone photography by Bobby Friel @takethehighview

Day 13 turned out to be unlucky for us as the weather closed in and torrential rain set in, meaning that we had to leave site early. There is always tomorrow!

So today on site we were subject to some less than conducive weather- with squally rain and wind hampering our activities. Across all of the active areas of the site we are now working in fairly sensitive areas so eventually, when the rain really set in for the day, we had little option but to pack up and head off.  Therefore, today’s blog is a photo montage of events and activities from earlier today and yesterday….

The substantial early paving within the West Room of the broch
Mika excavating a pottery spread up against the broch wall in the West Room
Working in Structures Q and R in the village
Working on the rubble in-fill of Structure O in the village settlement

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day 12 – 2019

In the foreground, the rubble in-filling Structure O outside the broch

We are pleased to welcome international students from around the world at The Cairns and today it is the turn of Mickey Van Lit from Leiden University to walk us through the day at The Cairns……

Mooing cows and squeaking wheelbarrows shape our background music. The scrape of trowels against stones is like a war drum, urging us on to keep working. Hoodies are taken off. Five minutes later, hoodies are put back on. Rain nor wind nor sun can stop us from doing what we do. But what exactly are we doing?

The village buildings to the north of Structure O

At first glance, the area I have been working on – and am still working on – might seem a bit boring. There is a whole lot of rubble, and even more dirt. Yet, with a bit of singing, talking and the occasional ray of sun, it is quite a nice area to work on.

It is located right at the entrance of the broch, with only the souterrain between the broch and ‘my’ patch. On the right, there is a wall that seems to dive underneath our area. When we started two weeks ago, the area looked quite different than it looks now. Near to no stones were visible. Along with four others, I have been trowelling the dirt away to try and uncover the rubble. Underneath this rubble are the remains of at least one wall, but hopefully more.

A pottery rim, one of many pieces coming from the site at the moment

When trowelling, we quickly learned to squat while trowelling, as the rocks dug into our knees whenever we would kneel. During the second week, voids started to appear. According to Bobby, we should be happy with these voids, as they signalled that we were getting close to the big rubble. Unfortunately, the voids meant that there were no stable rocks to stand on, as everything was wobbly or crumbling. It was quite like playing Twister. But Bobby was right (of course) and we soon got down to the bigger rocks that we were hoping to find.

Closer to the trench edge, the soil was trampled by us, and we could not get through with our trowels. We got out the big tools: mattocks. Within a day, we had cracked down upon the bigger rubble there as well. In fact, the first rock we found was massive, and it took us a while to find the end of it. Finally, after two weeks and one day, we were able to take the obligatory pictures. While I am writing this blog, my co-workers of this area are removing the rubble on top. When that has been done, we will find the rest of the wall that ducked beneath our area.

Vivid floor deposits in the southeast room of the broch and the dark stony area of the hearth in the background

Even though the work appeared to be a bit monotonous, we had a lot of fun. My team had a tendency to sing, if only two lines before we switched to a new topic of conversation. The conversations consisted mostly of nonsensical facts and awful jokes – you know, the interesting kind of conversations. Every once in a while, Holly would pop up from the souterrain to make a comment, which of course only added to the fun. We have gotten quite good at multitasking: talk and dig, people, talk and dig.

Todays blogger Mickey writing the blog in the site office

To end this blog on a (slightly) more serious note, it has to be said that this site is brilliant, and the people just as much. No matter the weather or the hard work, everyone is enthusiastic and interested in what we are doing. Therefore, I propose a round of applause for everyone that has been working here. Looks great, keep going, guys!

The mooing cows in the field next to The Cairns

Thanks to Mickey Van Lit, Leiden University Archaeology Student

The Cairns Day 11 – 2019

Excavating across the broch today

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Alanis Buhat writes our blog today from a wind and rain battered site.

What an exciting start to the third week of the Cairns 2019! Despite the wind and rain, fresh new faces have joined us from various parts of the world to brave the Orcadian weather.

A slightly short summary of today’s activities – further structural features continue to transpire on site, with particular interest to the North East section of Structure A (the broch) where we are joined by Geoarchaeologist Dr. Jo McKenzie from University of Bradford.

Dr Jo McKenzie at work in the broch

Samples are being taken for micromorphology analyses and this will allow us to look at the structural make-up of the site soils at microscopic level. This method will be extremely useful in providing detailed information on the exact nature of the occupation surfaces.

Within the North East room of the Broch, we have been slowly excavating the occupational deposits and taking samples at each stage. Now we are ready to extend the grid to find the relationship between these floors/occupation material and the Broch walls and the features surrounding it such as the Orthostats, kerbstones and other stonework that divide the Broch into the different areas.

Vivid floor and occupation deposits in the northeast room of the broch

Similar methods will be applied to the south room of Structure A for the rest of the week. So if you are interested in geoarchaeological or environmental studies, this will be the time to joins us and discover “the unseen”. Come visit us on site or keep up to date and follow our daily vlogs on The Cairns Facebook page. We hope to see you soon!

Thanks to Alanis Buhat, M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, UHI.

The Cairns Day 10 – 2019

Looking across part of the village settlement with Structure Q in the foreground

Today, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student, Aime Sohkhlet writes our blog…

For most of my time on site, I have been working on area Q and as the two weeks passed by, I was slowly able to see new and great developments throughout.

From a levelled area of soil to emerging rocks, bones and walls, area Q now has character and definition through all that we have uncovered. Day 10 at the Cairns has been quite a productive day. With no rain and relatively no sun, I think it was a perfect day to work and bask in the fog that sheltered us from any harsh working conditions, considering the task that was given to my group today.

A saddle quern and red deer antler discovered in one corner of Structure Q during cleaning the building for photography

The task set for my final day on site was simple but equally important as the rest of the work involved in understanding the lives of Iron Age people. We were tasked with photo cleaning area Q specifically context (1851) and getting it picture perfect! This process in my opinion might have been the most difficult thing I’ve done so far (and this is saying a lot because fieldwork is hard work all around haha…)

Photo cleaning is an aspect of fieldwork that I am now appreciating. The most important thing that my supervisor got me to think about is presentation and perspective. The skill of presenting our work through a single photograph not only involved our hard work of cleaning the site but it also depended on Mother Nature. Just picture us all praying for a cloud to pass in front of the sun everyday so that our pictures weren’t over exposed by the harsh sun haha… the presence of the fog today was a great bonus really. 

Today’s blogger Aime ‘photo-cleaning’ in Structure Q

A single shot is supposed to be able to tell an observer a story. A picture can serve a thousand words and because of this, we had to meticulously clean and present our site in such a way that even a person with just little knowledge about The Cairns would be able to understand the context and what our aims were for that particular part of it all. Every angle and every shot was taken and recorded and through this process, we are able to see progression on site and present it to everyone else with the confidence that everything was, and I say this with much joy haha… Picture Perfect!

Fieldwork demands dedication and through every task that was given to me and the group that I was in, I think we learnt to dedicate ourselves toward hard work and something close to perfection in everything that we do and because of this I think my first two weeks of excavation (EVER) at the Cairns, was a success!

Thanks to Aime Sohkhlet, UHI, BA Archaeology Student

The Cairns Day 9 – 2019

More broch bling – the bronze ring found today

Day Nine at The Cairns archaeology excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney and University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Duncan Foxley expertly tracks todays events…..

Another typical Orkney Summer’s day, dawn came early, but with a dour sky. The day brightened gradually, but the dim morning gave those of us working in the broch plenty of time to get to grips with the mixed context we have been working on for the last week within and around a hearth setting in the west of the structure.

The hard clay is best dug before it can dry, and has begun to reveal a series of slabs which appear to make up a formal hearth setting, with some equally substantial paving abutting it. The dense clay setting of these slabs and their size may suggest that this is the original broch hearth surface, but as always only further excavation can say for sure!

Mika, Callum, Lorna and I, under the helpful guidance of Therese, have slowly cleared most of the overlying material, although with extreme care, as such a rich context not only provides samples which contain valuable information about the lives of the Iron age inhabitants of the broch, but also some amazing finds.

The tiny shard of Roman glass from the broch floor

In the upper corner of the hearth, Lorna picked out a small shard of glass, possibly Roman in origin due to the colour. Likely having come from a bead, such finds are an excellent tangible reminder of the interconnectivity of the people of Iron age Britain, a fact easily forgotten somewhere as seemingly remote as South Ronaldsay. Meanwhile, Mika has been painstakingly uncovering a smashed pot, found in-situ atop the hearth setting. So far, a sizeable spread has emerged, and hopefully more will follow. Finally, Therese found a copper-alloy ring in fine condition on the edge of Gary’s pit, adding to the building evidence from beads and jewellery of the extent of the local finery.

Detail of some of the pottery spread found in the broch

Just along the wall face, Gary has continued to work on the sondage running from the pit to the broch side. A suspicious lack of stone in the last few inches dug, which are instead composed of orange clay, could among other things potentially represent the end of the lowest stone coursework of the broch, although this will require further investigation. If so, this will provide the first pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel of current excavation, as it is otherwise difficult to infer how far down the floor deposits may run. A bittersweet possibility, although there is no shortage of work to be done in the meantime.

Out with the broch, the ongoing excavation of the south-western extension has continued to produce interesting structural features extending from the partial wall of structure J. What seemed to be a relatively simple rubble overlay was shown through mattocked sondages by Anthea and Deryck to hide wide lintel style flagstones, along with other structural elements. Further up, Sue continued work in a cut pit with an orthostat lining to the south-west end, which seems to be a socket setting of some type. With two weeks left of excavation, some answers will hopefully emerge as to the relationship between these elements and the other structures in the area.

Mika working on the pottery spread today

On the other side of the site, the structures in trench Q are continuing to take shape. Bobby’s team, including Helen, Ursula and Alan, have uncovered some flagstones overlying a rubble fill within a structure, and in line with a similar surface which extended over an adjoining structure, suggesting that in a secondary phase both were joined by one floor.

The team working in the broch

The flagstones also appear to create the entrance to an orthostaic cell in south-west section of the super-structure. Within such a complex architectural palimpsest, features such as this, which tie elements together not only physically but within the stratigraphy, are essential in understanding the story of the site itself. On a site which is defined by construction, destruction and re-use, understanding the sequence of these events will hopefully allow further understanding to be gleaned of the people who once lived within and around the broch.

Thanks to UHI student Duncan Foxley

The Cairns Day 8 – 2019

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

Today is Day Eight and Area Supervisor Therese McCormick continues the story at The Cairns…

Cool and calm weather today at The Cairns and work across the whole site continues steadily. Inside the broch, we’ve been working on some of the floor deposits that will allow us to characterise how the internal spaces within the broch were used throughout its lifetime. 

The western room of the broch interior with floor deposits gridded-out for excavation and sampling

Calum, Connor, Mika and Lorna have been making great progress in the north-west quadrant of the broch interior, where you might remember from previous seasons, a series of hearths and associated layers of paving and burnt material have been being steadily uncovered. So far, three large flagstone hearths have been excavated, each one revealing the next underneath. As each flagstone deteriorated and cracked from heat, the inhabitants replaced it with another, and the surface surrounding the hearths was built up in concert with this. So each of these layers represents its own phase of activity within the broch, meaning the inhabitants have helpfully left us a nice sequential story to uncover.

Heat affected centrepiece of the western room of the broch

This season, we’ve uncovered a mounded area of clay, which seems to be packing stones which may represent a more formal hearth arrangement preceding those we’ve already removed. We should be uncovering this feature in the near future, so we look forward to bringing you an update!

The team have been working their way through the layers overlying this promising feature, using a grid to systematically remove the deposits for sampling. All of the sampled material will be sorted through and chemically analysed, which allows us to build a detailed picture of what kinds of activity took place in this area – and how this part of the broch was used over time. This is also revealing a further layer of clay-packed stones in the vicinity of the hearth, possibly another episode of paving. The process has also revealed some interesting artefacts, including a partial stone lamp and several pieces of pottery. The deposits have also been rich in animal bone as well as charcoal, giving us some useful dating evidence for the hearth sequences. 

Gary’s sondage up against the broch wall-face showing a riot of vivid orange and yellow clays

Meanwhile, Gary has begun a sondage at the western edge of the broch interior, between the mysterious pit he uncovered and excavated last year and the broch wall. This is already proving very illuminating, giving us some hints about the nature of the pit which now looks to have been clay-lined. It also shows a thick layer of orange clay up against the broch wall. As it progresses, the sondage will provide a useful window into what we can expect to encounter as we take the broch interior down to its primary surface. 

The souterrain passage gridded-out during excavation

Just through the broch entrance, Holly and Sara have been busy sampling the floor deposits in the souterrain, hoping to establish whether these represent primary or secondary phases of use. The area they’re working on includes a greasy deposit towards the entrance, which may be associated with a deliberate pouring of liquids into the souterrain, in a potentially ritually significant act! 

Outside the broch, the team in Trench Q have been busily taking down rubble deposits to reveal more of the extra-mural village buildings and establish their relationship the main broch structure. 

In the south-west extension, the team are further defining the external structures visible on this side of the broch’s outer wall as well as uncovering potential new features and investigating the deposits revealed in the primary cut for the broch itself.

All this progress bodes well for the weeks ahead, so please stay tuned to see what rewards it all yields!

Thanks to Therese McCormick, Area Supervisor