3 Day Archaeology Short Course – The Cairns, Orkney, Summer 2018

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce that the popular hands-on field-based short course is being offered once again during the summer of 2018.

Located at one of Orkney’s leading excavations, The Cairns broch, this three day short course aims to provide participants with basic training and understanding of the practices and processes in Field Archaeology.

  • Date: 20-22 June 2018 (3 full days 9:30 – 16:30)
  • Venue: The Cairns Broch excavations, South Ronaldsay, Orkney
  • Cost: £200.00 per person
  • Booking: contact Mary Connolly at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Training will cover:

  • excavation techniques
  • finds identification
  • the principles of stratigraphy
  • basic site survey and archaeological recording (drawn, written and photographic record).

Participants will be trained by professional archaeologists from the UHI Archaeology Institute and will form part of the large team at the excavation site. If you read this blog,  then you will know that The Cairns is a friendly dig situated in a breath-taking location overlooking the sea.

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The course aims to equip participants with the skills and confidence to engage with other archaeological field projects or lead onto further studies in the discipline.

We recommend that you bring steel toe boots/wellies, full waterproofs, packed lunch and flask. Toilet facilities are provided. Participants are to meet at the excavation site each day at 9:00. Accommodation, travel and lunch are not included. See the Visit Orkney website to book accommodation.

Places are limited (12 max.) so book now!


For more information about the UHI Archaeology Institute visit our website and blog.

Iron Age Leisure Time at The Cairns

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The Cairns archaeology site in South Ronaldsay, Orkney has its fair share of spectacular pieces, such as the carved whalebone vessel, but it is the small finds that provide a glimpse into the ordinary everyday existence of people during the Iron Age.

There are quite a large number of small carved discs from the site, and these are usually interpreted as gaming pieces, or gaming counters in the academic literature of the Iron Age period. If this is indeed what they were then they’re a really interesting insight into the ‘leisure’ time or social lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of the site. Most of these counters have come from the later post-broch Iron Age or Pictish levels of the site.

They are usually small, well-made sandstone discs or counters (although we have a whale-tooth example as well), and are similar to modern draughts counters.
18518395_10154700266656325_6349977046841925377_oOccasionally, there are taller, upright pieces like one in the photo here made from a black shale material such as lignite, cannel coal or even jet.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, continues, “Perhaps these were used in another game, or maybe these are the King/Queen pieces in the game. There are only a very few more like this one from Scottish Iron Age sites such as Scalloway in Shetland. One of the things we’d love to find would be one of the stone plaques or slabs with incised gridlines that appear to have been the boards that the game was played on. These have been found on a few Iron Age sites- we can only hope for one turning up in a future season!”

The final picture shows a nicely carved sandstone ‘counter’ and a smooth, conglomerate pebble. The pebble is perhaps more 18451700_10154700266891325_3279832134332830650_odoubtful as a gaming piece, but it was found next to the carved one and it was certainly selected and brought to the site by human hand. Both pieces were found next to the central hearth in Structure E-one of our Late Iron Age buildings.

Perhaps in your minds eye you can imagine a winter’s evening with a family group gathered around the fire, using these pieces to play a game, while outside the wind howls over the Orkney landscape.


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If you want to know more about The Cairns and are in Orkney on 21st-23rd June 2017 then enrol on our new short course.
For details see our blog post.
Or e-mail Mary Connolly: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Fascinating Finds from The Cairns

Seal Tooth

Enigmatic finds continue to emerge from The Cairns during post-excavation work being carried out by Kevin Kerr – one of our MSc students from 2016.

The picture above shows a seal tooth that was unearthed last summer at The Cairns. It was found in the metal working area that may post-date the broch.

Part of the tooth is highly polished and, despite having been buried for nearly 2000 years, still glistens when held up to the light. To add to the enigma, there is also slight wear on one side which could have resulted from its use as a tool or perhaps it is an item of discarded jewellery?

It is also interesting to note that the wide bay and beach that The Cairns overlooks is still used by seals who regularly snooze on the rocks and sand at the base of the cliff. It is also the site where seal cubs are born and, in autumn, Windwick Bay echoes to the haunting sound of seals calling to their new offspring.

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A seal relaxing in Windwick Bay – just below The Cairns site.

Kevin Kerr (one of our MSc students from 2017) has the monumental task of recording and cataloguing the hundreds of finds unearthed at The Cairns. He can be found most days, when not working elsewhere, entering data, surrounded by boxes of artefacts stacked in the Finds Rooms at the Institute. While discussing some of the finer points of broch life with Martin Carruthers, Kevin showed me a further small find that on the face of it looked like many other finds unearthed at The Cairns, until two tiny crosses were pointed out. Marks that had obviously been scratched into the bone by a very sharp blade.

They were regular and so cannot be butchery marks, but what was their use? Why did one the of inhabitants of The Cairns broch scratch two tiny regular crosses into a broken animal bone? Do they have significance? Are they just a mark of someone’s boredom? Were they used for counting and recording? I guess we will never know….but the object does represent another reminder of the small things that made up the life of the people living in the broch.

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Two tiny marks scratched into an animal bone

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

Whale Tooth and Metal Working at The Cairns

img_0430As each day passes, post-excavation work at The Cairns broch site in South Ronaldsay provides us with more clues concerning the working lives of the people who lived there two thousand years ago.

Jim Bright is one of our Masters students working with some of the objects unearthed at the site. He is investigating the Iron Age landscape in Orkney and has created 3D images of objects found at the site for his ongoing research. One of the fascinating objects he is working on was found during last year’s excavation…..a 6cm long whale tooth.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, sheds light on the object and the working life of the broch….

“The whale tooth was found in a context associated with metalworking in one of the trenches at The Cairns. Whale-tooth is fairly often used in the production of quite complex composite items during the Iron Age, such as pommels or hilt guards for iron blades like cairns-2016-schematic-page-001swords and knives. It’s possible that this was such a composite part of that kind of object, but any kind of diagnostic feature is missing due to the breakage pattern. It might have been part of a composite object that’s been stripped down for recycling the metal and the whale tooth was discarded, or it may have been destined for such an object but broke before it could be finished. A third possibility is that it was intentionally deposited as part of the ending of the metalworking phase in Trench M.”

You can view the 3d model by clicking the link below:

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Every Stone has a Story-The Scarcement Level at The Cairns

It doesn’t matter how many times you visit an archaeology excavation such as The Cairns, there is always something new to see.

As part of the pre-season planning, Martin Carruthers Site Director, together with a masters student and myself visited The Cairns dig site overlooking Windwick Bay.

The site is in good order, despite the ravages of several winter storms, and while clambering over the earth mounds surrounding the site, Martin stopped and pointed out an assemblage of large, worked stones.

Initially, the stones had formed one side of a passageway in one of the later Iron Age buildings on the site. When the blocks were examined closely the archaeologists realised that they were looking at worked stone that would have formed a scarcement level in the broch structure – before re-use in the later Iron Age building.

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Looking across The Cairns broch showing the scarcement level stones in situ at ‘A’

A scarcement level is in effect a line of massive blocks that were built into the inner wall face of a structure. Their sole function was to hold up timbers that would, in turn, hold up a wooden floor.  If you visit The Cairns broch then you will see  a line of huge stones positioned along the top of the existing wall (A in the photograph above). The stone scarcement-levelarrangement is also visible at Gurness Broch, but there is a difference at The Cairns….the scarcement level blocks are supported below by the wall and do not just “jut out” from the interior structure. The rough field sketch should help to clarify the role of the stones at The Cairns broch.

Martin explains more in this video clip…………..

Student Research Piecing Together Life at The Cairns

dscn0540Work does not stop when the excavations are covered over for the winter. The all important post-excavation work continues.

Postgraduates and undergraduates studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have the opportunity to work on exciting material from the summer’s excavations as part of their studies.

Kai Wallace, a fourth-year student studying BA (Hons) Archaeology at Perth College UHI, has come up to Orkney to work on bone assemblages recovered from The Cairns this summer. This important research work will form the basis for his dissertation on animal bone groupings in Iron Age Orkney.

dscn0538Unusually there is little evidence for complete articulated bone assemblages in Iron Age Orkney. Unlike England and the Western Isles, where animal burials are common, most animal bone remains are found disarticulated with little sign of deliberate deposition such as ritual activity.

However recent discoveries at The Cairns, including the discovery of a human jawbone and whalebone vessel, point to a highly ritualistic culture. So why is there no real evidence for articulated (joined up) bones in Iron Age Orkney?

The reasons behind this could be varied and could be due to weathering, erosion or the fact that the various bones recovered have not been recognised as part of the same animal. Kai is re-examining a sample of the animal bones unearthed at The Cairns and is piecing together bones that may have been part of the same animal. This requires patience and a knowledge of animal anatomy in addition to archaeological skills, but with the help of Dr Ingrid Mainland, Kai is making progress in this giant sized jigsaw puzzle!

Already an articulated assemblage, discovered lying on top of the capping stone of the broch ‘well’, has been identified as the backbone of a sheep and a series of red deer bones look as if they may be part of one animal that was placed with its head tucked under its body.

Kai’s research is beginning to piece together the story of these bones and add more detail to the way of life of the people of The Cairns 2000 years ago.


If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more, either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

Death & Life at The Cairns-New Radiocarbon Dates.

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Death and life at a broch: New radiocarbon dates at The Cairns site shed more light on rituals of living and dying during the Iron Age.

Newly acquired C-14 dates and a dietary assessment for a remarkable deposit of human remains discovered at The Cairns, an Iron Age broch site under excavation in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have given new insights into the nature of what was probably an act of closure at the end of the life of the broch.  Additionally, analysis has revealed some details of the life and death of the individual who is considered likely to be one of the occupants of the broch.

Background

To recap: in July of this year excavations at the Iron Age period settlement site yielded a surprise discovery: a disarticulated human jaw.  It had been placed in the upper fill of a very large, carved whalebone vessel made from a substantial vertebra.  The vessel was resting against the outer wall-face of the broch near to its main entrance.

Also present within the whalebone container were the loosely articulated remains of three new-born lambs, and other animal bones.  Propped against the side of the whalebone vessel/container were two substantial red deer antlers placed upright, on-end.  These were shed antlers, and were both right-sided and therefore from two different animals.  On the opposite side of the container from the antlers, a very substantial saddle-quern had been placed snug against the base of the whalebone vessel.

Prior to the new dates, it had been considered possible that the human remains, which are thought to be male, might date to an earlier point than the actual deposit they were placed in.  This is because it has sometimes been suggested that Iron Age communities might be holding on to fragments of their ancestors, curating them as it were, in order to use them to add even more drama and significance to certain rituals performed at important times in the life of the community.   The new dates, however, make it more likely that the man died quite soon before the time that his jaw was deposited in the ground.

Time of death

The new radiocarbon dates show that the man died sometime between AD120 and AD240 in the latter part of what is conventionally termed the Scottish Atlantic Middle Iron Age.  As well as dating the human bone, one of the new-born lambs from the contents of the the-location-of-the-whalebone-vessel-and-human-jawbone-deposit-against-the-outer-wallface-of-the-brochwhalebone vessel was also dated.  This returned a date of AD89 to AD214.  The semi-articulated nature of the lamb bones means that this almost certainly conveys the time when the whalebone deposit was placed in the ground and is, therefore, an independent verification of the date for the human bone.  Thus, the dates largely overlap and this means that the human jaw probably did not represent a curated item, held over for a protracted period of time after death, before being finally deposited.  Instead, the date of the death of the man is of the same period as the last occupation of the broch itself before it was partly demolished and infilled with rubble, as indicated by previously obtained dates.  These were AD 84-210 and almost identical to the date range for the lamb bones!  This is also supported by the relative dating information obtained from our reading of the stratigraphy from the deposits.

It seems all the more likely that these human remains and the whalebone container etc., are indeed part of the measures taken to provide closure on the broch at the end of its use.  Essentially, these are an act of decommissioning, a ritual marking the end of the broch.

The life (and unusual diet) of the individual

It’s not possible to reveal a fulsome biography of the individual from his remains given that only the mandible bone was present.  A preliminary assessment of the human remains, however, is providing very useful insights into his lifestyle.  The study suggests that the jaw belongs to a person of some considerable age for the period, perhaps 50, but he may well be several decades older than that.  The individual is thought to be male, but it can be difficult to be certain of this given the basis of just a single bone.  The individual seems to have led an active working life judging by the condition of the teeth – only two were left! The jawbone had grown over most of the sockets of the missing teeth showing that these teeth had been lost during life.  This tooth loss may have been brought about partly through the individual using his mouth in the manner of a third hand, to tightly clamp materials, such as grasses and straw, whilst working on them with his hands, perhaps in making plant-fibre items such as bags and containers.  The teeth that did remain were quite substantially worn down, possibly from the activities just mentioned, but possibly also by the abrasive grit accidentally included in bread and bran products made with flour produced on sandstone grinding stones (querns) that have been frequently found on the site.

The analysis of the jaw also revealed more unusual aspects of the dead man’s diet.  The isotopic values of his bone chemistry showed that he had consumed a surprisingly high quantity of marine-derived protein (probably largely fish).  Most isotopic studies of human remains from the Middle Iron Age (the time of the brochs) tend to show very low or imperceptible levels of fish proteins in the human diet.  This might seem surprisingly counter-intuitive considering the fundamentally coastal, island nature of Iron Age Orkney, however, this lack of fish is also amplified by examination of on-site, Iron Age period middens, the rubbish heaps of food waste, which very rarely contain much in the way of fish at all.  For once, we have evidence of substantial fish consumption in a human from this period, and perhaps this feature of his diet is something that marks him as special, a particular category of person, perhaps even an important person.  We are, after all, very often reminded that we are what we eat!

This now makes events at the end of the broch, revealed during earlier seasons of excavation at The Cairns, all the more interesting.  A curious aspect of the late occupation looking-across-the-interior-of-the-brochdeposits excavated from inside the broch is that, unlike the majority of Middle Iron Age buildings, they did contain fairly substantial amounts of fish bone-strewn across one of the uppermost floor horizons, in a manner suggestive that lots of small fish being smoked inside the broch in a final episode of activity.  Is there some connection, then, between the dead man with his unusually high marine protein diet and these fish bones from inside the broch late in its occupation?  Further work on the human bone will be required to try to figure out if the marine contribution to his diet occurred throughout his life, or only at a certain point, or episodically, but the coincidence is intriguing, and also, perhaps, supports the suggestion that he is very much someone who was strongly associated with the broch.

It seems likely, then, that the man from The Cairns actually lived in the last half century, or so, of the main monumental phase of the broch before it went out of use.  When he was a young man, the monumental broch, and its surrounding settlement would still have been the paramount place in the landscape and was most likely a potent symbol of authority and order.  Indeed, it is very tempting to think that the man was himself a member of the broch household, and that by the time of his death, at least, was considered to be an important member of the community, perhaps an elder.  It may not be pushing this line of consideration too far to suggest the possibility that it was his death that occasioned the final abandonment and decommissioning of the broch.  There are plenty of examples in the ethnographic literature, from different cultures around the world, where the death of an important person, who had a significant association with a particular house, resulted in the end of that entire house as well.  Perhaps the death of the man from The Cairns was the final impetus required to end the broch in a period when perhaps its use and integrity had already been in decline for a time.  More analyses in the near future should add even more detail and fascinating new elements to this developing story of life and death during the Iron Age.


The site of The Cairns; the remarkable deposit of human remains and the whalebone vessel/deer antler deposit, will shortly feature in the Archaeology TV series: Digging for Britain.  The programme will be screened on Tuesday the 13th of December, at 9 pm, on BBC Four.

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Martin Carruthers would like to thank Orkney Archaeology Society for funding the new radiocarbon dates.