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:

whale-tooth

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.

The Cairns 2016 Season

IMG_0704It has been a hugely successful season at The Cairns. The site is now largely cleared showing the broch outline in totality, finds have shed more light on the social and economic life of the site and of course it would appear that we may have found the remains of an actual inhabitant.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, continues…….

The site is firmly put to bed now and it’s time to take stock, a little, of what the season has been like.

Well, lots of people who have visited the site this year have commented very positively on our progress, noting how different the site looks to previous visits! But how did we really do set against the original aims for the field season this year?

Inside the broch

The bronze pin found inside the broch today.

It was our aim to remove the last chunk of rubble infill from the broch interior – covering about a fifth of the interior space – and get into a position where we could begin to excavate the floor layers and occupation deposits across the whole of the broch.

After waiting for some time for the pied wagtail chicks to fledge, and leave the rubble that they were nesting in, we did, in the end, manage to remove all of the remaining rubble infill from the broch and open up the entire interior.

It looks splendid! We can now really appreciate what a monumental building it really was.

A big surprise that emerged from this process was the discovery of an impressively complete –  still fully roofed – and pristine wall chamber and its well-preserved doorway, opening off of the western wall face of the broch interior.

In the end we were able to excavate the rubble down to the uppermost occupation activity inside the western zone of the broch.

Some of the contents of just one bag of charcoal from one of the hundreds of broch-floor samples. The tiny oval pieces are barley grains.

Across the rest of the base of the broch, we continued to excavate the occupation deposits in the south-eastern and southern rooms of the interior.We resolved how people had accessed these rooms via a corridor space and we found occupation deposits across the whole of this sector. The floors were seen to be every bit as rich as those seen in the north-eastern room in the previous season.

Importantly, we could see that the same cycle of floor creation seems to be at work – where, essentially, a clean clay floor was laid down, then occupation detritus built up on it and then, after a time, this was covered up by another clean clay floor.And so on for a, currently, unknown number of times.

This is great news as it confirms that we will have a depth of floor deposits here with which to assess what was happening inside the broch over a long period of time – hopefully from its very beginning to its end. Students have been sieving and sorting the materials from the floor deposits this year, we can begin to see what kind of material is present. The occupation deposits have yielded vast quantities of charred plant material, especially cereal grains and other charred straw, chaff, and sundry other plants.

There is burnt bone, small stone and bone tools (such as the immaculate needle that came out of the broch entrance passage); the tiny bones of microfauna, such as mice and voles; there’s bird bone and fishbone and there are pottery fragments.Of course, we had a tiny glass bead from the sieving of these deposits a few months ago. We have even got rather a lot of coprolites, i.e. fossilised poo!

The prodigious quantities of cereal grain matches what has previously been found at well-excavated broch sites such as the Howe, in West Mainland, and Scalloway in Shetland, and emphasises that one of the likely roles of brochs was as major collection points for agricultural produce. The volume of charred grain from any archaeological context is always a tiny fraction of that which was lost through complete combustion and this, therefore, tells us that there was at one time a vast quantity of grain likely being stored inside the broch at The Cairns.

This is an important clue as to the role of the broch, which will be followed up and amplified in future work. As well as all the environmental material, the floors also yielded a very nice range of artefacts this year, including pottery, lots of stone tools, a beautiful bronze pin and two tiny bronze rings or chain-links!

The souterrain

The souterrain passage.

For the souterrain, our aims were to reveal the main roof lintels and then remove these and excavate floor deposits inside the underground passageway.

After spending an unexpectedly considerable time revealing no fewer than three layers of superimposed roof slabs, and the soily deposits between them, as well as working out the relationships between these deposits and everything else nearby, we did indeed manage to remove the big lower lintels. Not much time was left to fully excavate the floor deposits, but a selective investigation of the floor appears to confirm that we have likely got two main phases to the souterrain, as it was extended in length at one stage.

A final nice surprise was the discovery of a fragment of a tiny amber bead from the deposit inside the souterrain passage!

Trench M

Trench M - the metalworking area.

Trench M is the metalworking area to the north of the broch.

We had set ourselves the general aim of simply learning more about the nature of the production under way during the Iron Age.

We fully excavated the remains of the clay furnace and found that rather than representing a copper-smelting furnace, as we had previously thought, this feature looks very much like it was for iron smelting.

The slag and other residues indicated that there was heavy processing of iron ores under way.

There were distinctive and diagnostic features uncovered indicating where the tuyere, or nozzle betwixt the base of the furnace and blow-pipes, or bellows, would have sat, assisting in the supercharging of the heat inside the furnace.

Just a small part of the team left at the very end of this season's excavation.

It’s fascinating that we therefore seem to have bronze-working – as evidenced by the large assemblage of pin and brooch moulds, crucibles and copper alloy waste previously encountered here –  as well as iron-working going on at the same time and place.

This is reminiscent of the Iron Age workshop excavated at Minehowe, in Tankerness, and it may be that the complex pyrotechnical processes and skills required for both types of metal production were complementary, and mutually served in a shared facility.

Another important thing learned this year from Trench M was that this rich episode of metalworking was not the only one to have occurred in the area. As we nudged into deposits further into the depth of the building in the trench we found lots of iron slag, bog ore and cakes of iron furnace bases, indicating that metalworking had been a hallmark of the northern part of the site for a longer time.

Indeed, a surprise discovery was the emergence of what appears to be another, possibly better-preserved, iron-working furnace to the south of the original one! We’ll learn more about this next season.

The new extension trench

In Trench Q, the walls of the village buildings surrounding the broch begin to emerge.

Trench Q was our extension trench this year. We removed a big spoil heap and broke new ground in order to link through the metalworking area of Trench M to the broch and in so doing hoped also to reveal a sector of the putative extramural village surrounding the broch.

This went well and although its early days for this trench, we nevertheless were able to reveal substantial wall-heads and faces, which were obviously double-faced and therefore free-standing walls of substantial buildings rather than the single-skinned, revetted walls (walls that are dug down into, and against deposits that predate them), that are usually the hallmark of later Iron Age buildings.

We were able to add to these architectural observations aspects of the artefacts, as the pottery from both above, and against, these walls appeared to be of the Middle Iron Age type (the period of the broch) which have “everted” (splaying-out) rims and nice rounded, globular bodies.

Indeed, in one place, up against one of the walls, we found the greater part of a whole vessel that had likely fallen apart when in use, as five heat-affected rocks (“pot-boilers”) and a pot lid were found inside the remains of the vessel as though it had accidentally split apart due to the thermal shock.

Trench Q, therefore, has demonstrated that we do appear to have a substantial village surviving surrounding the broch and in future seasons we will be able to learn a great deal more about it. Many important questions will hopefully then be able to be addressed.

Is the village absolutely contemporary with the construction of the broch? Did its inhabitants have the same lifestyle as whoever was resident inside the broch? What was the precise social and political relationship between villagers and broch occupants?

Middens and houses

One way we hope to address the question of different social status among the different houses and households of the settlement is through analysing their middens. They do say that you are what you eat after all! Our aim is to be able to match specific buildings to their waste products, discarded midden, and the like, so that we gain a window into their cycles of production, consumption and waste.

We hope that will represent a better, more detailed, and thorough index of the status of these buildings than simply plotting the status of the artefacts from within the buildings. We hope this will form the basis for comparison of each house against the others.

The very good news is, therefore, that this season we think we may have begun to uncover some of the midden that goes with the broch itself. Just outside the front door of the broch, and snug against the outer wall face, we have uncovered a thick, rich, organic soil, full of shell midden, animal bone and charcoal, that is a likely contender for having come from inside the broch itself.

The further exploration of this deposit in future years will hopefully mean we gain a direct access to the waste product of the broch household, which, taken in tandem with the occupation deposits from inside the broch, will be incredibly informative about the role and status of the broch.

The human remains

The whalebone vessel that contained the human jawbone, with the red deer antlers snug against it.

Finally, one thing that was not a part of our original research agenda and aims for the site this season was possibly the most surprising discovery of all!

This was the human remains – a jawbone and some other fragments that had been placed inside the upper fill of the whalebone vertebra vessel, with two deer antlers and a saddle quern snug against the whalebone.This is a remarkable set-piece depositional event! There will be far more post-ex work required to elucidate the details of what this may mean, but already there are some very interesting issues to contemplate.

First of all, this deposit or cache of items have been placed on the top of the broch midden that I have just described. Immediately after their placement, they were buried in substantial rubble that appears to mark the end of the broch as a free-standing building in the same manner and at the same time as the rubble fill in the interior of the broch.

So we may be looking at an act of closure and abandonment or decommissioning of the broch, which was given a heightened significance or drama through the use of human remains. Many questions therefore stem from this.

How old were the human remains at the point when they were placed in the whalebone vessel and buried? Do they date to the time of the deposition or are they much older remains, possibly held over, curated, as an heirloom or a relic? Maybe even perceived as relating to the ancestral generation who founded the broch several centuries earlier?

Are the remains, in fact, even older than this?

They might even be fragments of human skeleton, found during the Iron Age, within the low mound just to the north of the main trench, which we know is a Neolithic site!

Well, before we get too carried away with the many possibilities, I should simply reflect on the fact that we will hopefully begin to answer at least some of these questions in the next few months as we undertake post-excavation analysis.

I look forward to sharing the results with you.


Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and Orkneyjar