Field Archaeology Short Course @ The Cairns, Orkney

The stunning location of The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are now enrolling for the popular short course in Field Archaeology to be held at The Cairns Broch excavation – one of Orkney’s leading excavations.

  • When? 19 – 21 June 2019 (3 full days 9:30 – 16:30)
  • What does it cost? £220.00 per person
  • How do I book? Use the form below

This short course in Field Archaeology from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute, run by a team from our commercial unit Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, aims to provide participants with basic training and understanding of the practices and processes in Field Archaeology. Check out last years site diary to give you a flavour of the exciting discoveries, including a wooden bowl and human hair in the well!

Site Director Martin Carruthers talks about The Cairns Well, excavated in 2018

Located at the on-going excavations at The Cairns broch, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, training will cover:

  • Excavation techniques
  • Finds identification
  • The principles of stratigraphy
  • Basic site survey and
  • Archaeological recording (drawn, written and photographic record).
3Recording in the broch

Recommended equipment: Steel toe boots/wellies, full waterproofs, packed lunch and flask. Please note: Toilet facilities are provided. Participants are to meet at the excavation site each day at 9:30. Accommodation, travel and lunch are not included.

Places are limited (15 max.) so book now by contacting Mary using the form below…..

Orkney’s Oldest Wooden Bowl Unveiled

A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left
A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left

The Cairns Site Director and University of the Highlands and Islands Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, updates us on the conservation of the two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered at the site in the summer.

A remarkable, perfectly preserved, wooden bowl unearthed from a two-thousand-year-old well has been revealed during conservation work being undertaken on the artefact this week, and an extraordinary story of ancient repair of the bowl suggests it was a valued object during the Iron Age.

The Wooden Vessel Revealed: Old, Bowl-ed and Beautiful!

In July of this year, a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based in Orkney, excavated an enigmatic underground chamber beneath the floor of an Iron Age broch at the site of The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, as part of research at the site.

Now, on-going conservation work on a water-logged deposit, recovered from inside the underground chamber beneath the broch, has afforded an exceptionally rare glimpse of a stunningly well-preserved, two-thousand-year-old, wooden bowl. The nature of the bowl, and the details emerging about its life story, may help archaeologists to better understand the enigma of such subterranean chambers, leading to a fuller appreciation of their complex role within Iron Age communities.

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Looking across The Cairns Broch itself

The first stage of the conservation work was completed this week, as specialist conservators at AOC Archaeology, based in Edinburgh, have now patiently ‘micro-excavated’ the bowl from its protective soil block.

The work offers a clear view of the object for the first time in about two thousand years. The very finely carved vessel, which is nearly complete but fragmentary, is exceptionally smoothly finished, appearing almost burnished. The bowl is around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Although the object has split into two large pieces and about twenty smaller pieces at some point in the past, it is largely complete. The bowl had been skilfully hand carved from a half-log of an alder tree. Tool marks are visible in the interior of the bowl, but the exterior has been finely burnished.

Making a Mend: A History of Repair

On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about sixteen strange looking wiggly strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly-spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large ancient crack. The strips are in fact a very unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and the rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to the vessel to prolong its life.

Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple
Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple

There are other examples of Iron Age bowls with visible repairs, but the distinctive special metal fasteners are unique and appear to be otherwise unknown from the British Iron Age. In form, they might be familiar to modern DIY enthusiasts or wood-workers. Sometimes referred to by building trade suppliers as: ‘saw-tooth fasteners’ or ‘corrugated edge fasteners’ they can be hammered into a cracked wooden surface to stabilise wooden objects and save them from imminent collapse.

The repair work seen on the bowl suggests clues about the importance of the bowl in an Orkney context. Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and director of The Cairns project said: “After first encountering the bowl this summer, we had wondered if wooden bowls, and other objects made from wood, might actually have been much more common than we would have previously expected for the mostly treeless environment of Iron Age Orkney. Perhaps archaeologists have been guilty of overplaying the scarcity of wood in Scotland’s Northern Isles. Maybe there were almost as many wooden vessels in circulation as there were ceramic ones, fragments of which we recover in great numbers from sites like The Cairns.

Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl
Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl

Martin continues, “The bowl discovery made us ask an important question: was the survival of the bowl in the well merely an outcome of the unique quality of preservation down there, or was its presence there also reflective of other special qualities accorded that place by people in the Iron Age? I think the biography of the bowl that is emerging could well help us answer these questions”.

Dr Anne Crone, a specialist in ancient wooden artefacts with AOC Archaeology, who is providing specialist analysis of the bowl, said, “The rarity of wooden vessels in Orkney could be why they went to such lengths to repair what is a quite beautiful object”.

The Enigma of Iron Age Broch ‘Wells’

The bowl was excavated from beneath the floor of the broch inside an enigmatic type of underground chamber, traditionally known as a well. Around 20 such structures have been found during previous excavations, but many of these were 19th Century antiquarian investigations, and fairly few wells have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns.

Archaeologists used to interpret such chambers straightforwardly as ordinary wells, envisaging them as supplying the households that built them, but in recent decades, problems have been identified with this interpretation, and there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, including constricted entrances and steep staircases, has raised doubts about their functionality, and the volume of water found within them is seldom enough to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

The Cairns chamber itself is an amazing feature, comprising a series of seven stone steps descending two metres underground into a chamber that was carefully rock-cut, with a corbelled (bee-hive shaped) roof around two metres in height. The chamber is complete and even more remarkable because, when discovered, it had remained sealed since the Iron Age, thus affording archaeologists the opportunity to excavate it carefully under modern scientific conditions. The bowl must also have been placed in the well at this time, however radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could stem from an even earlier date. Whichever is the case, it is Orkney’s oldest wooden vessel.

‘Bowled Over’!

As the excavation of the well commenced, it quickly became clear that it did indeed contain very intriguing remains. Martin Carruthers again takes up the story: “Underground features, especially sealed and damp ones, can yield astonishing survivals in preservation terms, but I was still amazed when perfectly preserved organic items started to turn up as we began to excavate the silt within the chamber at the foot of the staircase. We began to find a lot of plant material – grasses, moss, plant stems from heather and wetland type species – as well as insect remains. Then we found a carved wooden object, some sort of peg, made from willow, again a type of tree frequently present on the edges of wetlands. Frankly, all of this was sufficiently dramatic, and very significant for our understanding of the Iron Age environment. I was already well-satisfied with these findings, but then when the wooden bowl began to emerge…that was simply a spine-tingling moment!”.

Conservation work progressing on the bowl
Conservation work progressing on the bowl

“It was obvious that this was something really very special, a miraculous survival from the Iron Age – a whole wooden bowl! It was still upright and in a level position within the sediments, as though it had been simply placed down on the base of the well the day before. But we knew it was about two thousand years old! During the fieldwork season, the bowl was nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. Throughout the excavation we retained the bowl in its silty matrix, and we recovered it, still in this soil block, to try to keep it together and promote good preservation conditions until we could get it to a specialist conservator. That meant that we hadn’t really clearly seen the full object until the conservation work occurred this week”.

Understanding the Well and the Bowl

The work on the bowl is providing lots of new and forthcoming information and it is hoped that will shed more light on the broch ‘wells’, and more for the project team to weigh up.

Carruthers reflected: “If the bowl was used within the well, and not just placed there at the end of its life, then perhaps this is telling us something about the nature of the well, and how it was used. The great care that was taken over the repair of the wooden bowl to extend its life tends to suggest that such items were not actually common, and the Cairns bowl seems to have been highly valued. Prior to the conservation work and witnessing the fully revealed bowl and its repair work, we weren’t sure whether to think of the bowl as merely the device for drawing off water from the well, or whether to see it as something more significant, perhaps related to the special nature of the underground chamber. The former possibility already seemed unlikely due to what we observed of the bowl during excavation.”

Essentially, the bowl didn’t have a huge carrying capacity, and its rather fine nature and unstable round base wouldn’t be very convenient for routinely handling water or placing the vessel on the ground when it was full. The bowl might have been used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring the liquid to a larger bucket, but alternatively it could have been poured as a libation, or used to perform ablutions within the well, perhaps even, within a ceremonial context.

A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile
A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile

The extended life of the bowl makes it seem even more special, an object that was highly prized, perhaps with a well-known and important history, even a valued relic, curated, if you will, as an heirloom of the broch household. Presumably, that broch household finally placed the bowl in the underground structure at the deepest, innermost end of the chamber, towards the end of the life of both the bowl and the well sometime in the mid- to late-2nd Century AD.

If the bowl was used within the underground chamber for periods before that final deposition and abandonment, then, as well as reflecting the wonderful preservation, it suggests these subterranean chambers also had special qualities for the Iron Age people who constructed and used them. If that’s borne out, then this is an important step towards establishing what the Iron Age subterranean structures are all about.

Next Steps: Restoring Ancient Repairs

Now that the wooden bowl has been excavated from its protective soil block, the first stage of the conservation work has been successfully completed. The next stages will involve recording the object through illustration and scanning work, and then the crucially important, and time consuming, process of soaking the object in consolidant so that it can be stabilised and, ultimately, go on public display. Then it may be possible to restore the bowl to whole again, but this will very much depend on how it behaves during the soaking and stabilisation process.

In addition to consolidating the bowl, there is much more that may be learned about it. Further scientific analysis may reveal more important hidden details. Research questions include: are there any residues present within the bowl that might give further clues to its use? As the bowl appears to have been a curated item, just how much earlier than its final resting place could it be? Radiocarbon dating the bowl will hopefully shed light on this.

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Dr Anne Crone & Alex Wood examining the bowl in the lab

In addition to the bowl itself, there are many other well-preserved organic materials and items from the well, which will also be studied, and which may give further clues to the status of the well. As well as all the plant material, there are preserved insects, and coprolites (fossilised faeces!), and the astonishing survival of hair, which may well be human.

All the conservation work and the scientific analysis costs a fair amount of money and the UHI project team will shortly be launching a crowd-funding initiative to help meet the costs.

Background Notes

• Preservation conditions: The basal silts within the ‘well’ had been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen), and this means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items. It is a circumstance usually only seen in the rare conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations, by AOC archaeology, at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron Age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

Cairns cog: In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and communally passed around to celebrate the marriage.

 

Archaeology in Orkney, Summer 2018 – Part One

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The Cairns looking south

This is the first in a series of blog posts which examine the main findings from the seven major excavations undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute during the summer of 2018.

It has been a busy summer for The University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute (UHI) in Orkney with a total of seven research digs completed across the islands in eight weeks.

Each dig is a major undertaking with teams of volunteers, specialists, students and academics arriving from around the world, and of course the tourists who flock to the sites in search of enriching their understanding of the past. July was especially busy with digs commencing at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, the Ness of Brodgar within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area in Stenness, three excavations on Sanday and two digs on Rousay.

However this was not the beginning of the season for the UHI Archaeology Institute with outreach archaeology projects taking place in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific in June, commercial archaeology projects through the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) taking place year round and local community projects progressing across Orkney – despite the weather in some cases.

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Inside The Cairns Broch

The research digs themselves provide not only opportunities to understand how people lived in the past, but can also help to inform our future through research and teaching. Over two hundred students from the UHI, Canada, the United States and Europe have contributed to the research through excavation, recording and post excavation work as part of their studies.

The summer excavations have unearthed some amazing finds from exceptional Neolithic stone axes and pottery to a two thousand year old perfectly preserved wooden bowl and the first evidence of Viking iron smelting in Orkney. It has truly been an exciting summer for archaeology in Orkney.

Each blog post will deal with each site in turn….

The Cairns

The dig is part of an archaeological research project investigating the later prehistory of the Windwick landscape on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. The investigation has focused on the excavation of a large Atlantic Roundhouse, or broch, and associated structures from various phases through the Iron Age and Norse period. The project has advanced rapidly this year with the long awaited investigation of ‘The Well’ being put in motion in addition to the examination of the floor layers of the broch.

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The Well is positioned within the broch itself

The Well itself is an amazing underground feature, consisting of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. Placed within the silt was a perfectly preserved wooden bowl that most likely dates from this period.

In addition to the bowl, preserved plant fibres were lodged in the silt, some of which appeared to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seemed to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs. Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, were also present. Overall, these are remarkably rare discoveries and open up entire new avenues for understanding many aspects of the Iron Age.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns (3)
A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Well

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, explains, “After many years of hard work we have now reached the floor layers of the broch – the floor on which the people who lived here two thousand years ago actually moved around and lived. This layer is particularly exciting for us because these deposits contains organic material which will begin to tell us in more detail how these people used this immense structure two thousand years ago.”

If you wish to know more about the 2018 dig at The Cairns click here to see the dig diary.


If you would like to join us to study archaeology at any of the 13 colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk 

 

UHI Student Ross Drummond and The Cairns or #absolutecairnage

Stall at The Cairns
Ross and his makeshift stall for ‘Create you own Cairns Character’

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his time at The Cairns dig…..and, for those that follow the conversation on Twitter, his created hashtag #absolutecairnage

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Before you ask no, this isn’t a late entry for The Cairns Dig Diary 2018 series; you’ll just have to wait until next year for that. Anyway this will be the first of several pieces I’ll be writing over the summer in relation to my Placement with the university. So I guess you can just look at it as my ‘Summer Of Digging: Pt.1’.

For my Placement with the University of Highlands and Islands as part of my MSc Masters course I plan to try engage the wider world with archaeology (both locally here in Orkney and further afield), mainly through the use of social media and getting involved with outreach activities on each of the excavations I’ll be participating in. I’m fortunate enough to be spending a few weeks at each of the excavations being run by the UHI Archaeology Institute up here in Orkney over the summer: The Cairns (South Ronaldsay), Skaill (Rousay), Cata Sands (Sanday) and The Ness (Stenness, Mainland). I’m also lucky enough to be one of a select few archaeology students within the UHI Archaeology Institute to be chosen to take part in the first year of the Dunyvaig Field School in Islay, which will be running in August in collaboration with the University of Reading.

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The magnificent setting of The Cairns

Anyway enough of an introduction, back to the focus of this piece. This first piece will focus on the recently finished excavation season at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, an excavation I had the pleasure of spending a whole three weeks digging. I’m sure plenty of you have heard about the site and possibly have visited it previously or even over this past season; however if not, make sure to catch up on all the news and discoveries of this season’s activities (including my Dig Diary entry) right here on this blog, under ‘The Cairns Dig Diary 2018’.

Following an in depth discussion and tour of the site, and a run through health & safety procedures for the site by site director Martin Carruthers; it was time to get down to business. The first day on site focused on getting the site ready and uncovered for the new season of excavation. This involved a major group effort from staff, supervisors, students and volunteers in removing the tarp and tyres that had so effectively kept the site safe and protected over the harsh long months that the Orkney winter threw at it. A future warning to all those involved in re-opening an archaeological site for excavation: waterproofs are a must (even if it’s not raining) as you will get destroyed! Also tyre and tarp build-up are a real thing and you’ll probably get a few instances of muddy water splashing you in the face when the wind picks up and blows the tarp all over the place (not a graceful moment at all). So the odd face/baby wipe wouldn’t go amiss either. Once the site was uncovered the real activities begun and we could start to get our hands dirty!

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The Broch Ditch

My first two weeks at The Cairns were completed as part of the ‘Excavation’ module run by the UHI Archaeology Institute for various archaeology courses and years in the UHI curriculum. This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. This is a very helpful and important module (in my opinion anyway) because fieldwork is an essential part of being an archaeologist, even for more desk-based academics.

Besides given the choice between being outdoors and conducting college work or being inside writing an essay; I’m sure college students everywhere (no matter what their study subject) would jump at the opportunity of outdoor learning as well. I already had a decent bit of experience in the field before taking part in this module but it was great to get a refresher and go over fieldwork procedures again, especially given the fact I’ll be going all out with excavations until early September. So I’m hoping all the advice and skills I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, will be put to good use over the next few months.

The Excavation module was overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for ORCA. Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over the two week field school that were explained and demonstrated first by Rick himself; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one to one training whenever the students themselves felt like they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone who heeded their attention.

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Rick and Ross in the broch

The site director and brains behind the whole operation is Martin Carruthers. As the Programme Leader for the MSc Archaeological Practice, I have been fortunate to have worked and dealt with Martin on a regular basis over the academic year through various different modules; but it was something else to be working in the field with someone of his experience. The enthusiasm and joy he shows in discovering more about his project (The Cairns site) is a great sight to behold; and the pleasure he takes in working on his site is probably only equalled to by the pleasure he takes in eating his beloved Tunnock’s Teacakes.

For the whole period of my time spent on site I had the honour of conducting activities within the broch. The broch is the main structure at The Cairns and seems to have been the focus of activities and settlement for the whole site. Dubbed the ‘A Team’ by Rick himself; Therese, Gary, Kath and myself had the honour of being the first of this season’s team to enter the broch, where we each remained for the duration of our time on site. Many others followed suit over the following few weeks, but we were the OG’s of the broch (apologies to the rest of ye)!

The first few days spent inside the broch interior involved the trowelling and cleaning of the whole floor surface, as being covered up over the winter months had made some areas a bit smudgy and unclear. Once the initial cleaning was completed, the team targeted certain areas inside the broch under the guidance of Rick. After helping Therese take geochem and bulk samples in the West quadrant of the broch interior for a day or two, I was given the responsibility of taking over my own area in the broch; as the NE quadrant of the broch was re-opened for the new season.

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The grid in the NE quadrant of the broch

My first job was the arduous and bothersome task of re-stringing the quadrant in a grid of 50cm per section. This was the first time the area was open for excavation since 2015 so what remained of the grid on the ground from previous work, looked nothing at all like what the records from the drawings and context sheets represented. So after a bit of tussling with some of the old string and the grateful discovery of new string, I managed to re-string the grid fairly accurately. Although the non-compliance of some parts of the ground coupled with several instances of nails being knocked out of place (wasn’t always just myself), led to a few readjustments over the weeks; but sure it seemed to provide my broch compatriots with a few laughs and smiles at times, so at least it kept morale up.

Once the grid was set up I started to take soil samples which will be used for environmental sampling over coming months, so we can learn more about the presence of materials in the floor deposits. The purpose of setting up the grid was to maintain control over the sampling of these floors so that when we get results of wet sieving and various soil analysis we can see spatial patterning of activities and inputs across the floors. This was done through collecting a geochem sample (small bag, holding soil samples <1 litre) and a bulk sample (larger bag, holding soil samples <5 litres). Each square in the grid was done one by one, until the end of this season’s activities when nearly all squares in the grid had relevant samples (some squares were just overlain by large slabs, so these were left as they were for possible future work in coming seasons if needs be).

The start of the second week began with a day off-site as Duncan and I were chosen to spend the day doing environmental sampling at Orkney College UHI with Cecily Webster, (also I may have had a top of the table football match that night in Kirkwall so the closer to the home that day the better – but we won so still top of the league Mon Accies!!!). But anyway…

The environmental sampling involved the wet sieving and examination of previous season’s soil samples taken at The Cairns. The samples were immersed in a tank lined with gauze and the silt massaged away by hand. This allows matter such as seeds, and charcoal to float to the top where it is separated into a sieve then placed on a tray to dry. The remaining small stones and detritus is also placed on a tray to dry, after which it is sorted through to find miniscule pieces of flint, bone, cramp (ashy slag residue from cooking or cremation) or other similar tiny pieces of archaeological material.

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Possible post setting

I returned to site the next day to carry on retrieving samples from the gird and bit by bit trowelling down through the layers of the broch’s floor surfaces. Upon my return to site I had discovered that Rick had nicknamed the NE quadrant ‘Terrence’ apparently for no good reason (to this day I think even Rick himself has said that the origin of the nickname remains an enigma). My work in the area continued up until my departure from the site following the Open Day on the Friday of the third week. It was great seeing the layers in the different grids of the quadrant come out in such vibrant colours, and hopefully the samples taken from these will allow us to discover more of the story of this particular area in the broch. There were also one or two possible post-setting like features that were excavated in the process of trowelling down through the soil, so hopefully the samples from these particular squares may shed some light on these possible features.

Possible post setting and Ross
Ross and the possible post setting post excavation

Although my third and final week on-site was a bit different to the previous two (as I had completed the excavation module) and involved less excavation and more of a focus on outreach & social media side of things; it was great to work alongside Dr Jo McKenzie for a day or two and see her expertise in action. Jo is a soil micro-morphologist – so the knowledge and techniques she used and provided while further sampling parts of the NE quadrant, should reveal even more information in identifying some of the activities which took place within the broch.

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One of the numerous tour groups on Open Day

My final few days at The Cairns were geared up towards the Open Day and running outreach activities on the day. My Placement supervisor Dan Lee, came up with the brilliant idea to run a workshop on site creating clay models of the Cairns Character, which was found on-site a few years previous. Dan got in contact with Andrew Appleby (The Harray Potter) who graciously offered a bag of terracotta clay to use to create the figures. I even had the pleasure to take a run through session with Andrew himself at his pottery a few days before the Open Day, which was much appreciated as the Friday could have been a complete disaster having never really used clay before myself….

Also in the lead up to the Open Day I attempted to try gain the site more attention online and in the local media, by attempting to spread posters and hashtags around as part of Social Media Storm Day. I had access and have been running the @thecairnsbroch account on Twitter for this season’s activities, as well as posting various material on the official UHI Archaeology Institute accounts on both Facebook and Instagram.

I’m proud to claim the hashtag #AbsoluteCairnage as my own brainchild, although it’s a bit of a catch 22; as trying to follow up on the catchiness of that hashtag for future excavations over the summer may strain my creative muscles…

The Open Day itself was a huge success, with visitors making the trip down to South Ronaldsay and arriving in numbers early as 10:30 that morning. The clay workshop was also a hit and really added another dimension to activities on the day. Parents & adults got all the information and saw the amazing finds which had been discovered during the excavation season, while the ‘Create Your Own Cairn’s Character’ provided an outlet and activity for children to get involved in archaeology and the site, without having to just sit through a tour and a load of talking.

The best part was all those who made a Cairns Character, were able to bring it home themselves after; as a memento from the day. It wasn’t only the children who got their hands dirty either, as many older visitors (older as in not a child – before any offence is caused) had a go at making their own clay model. The workshop provided a good laugh to everyone who got involved and who stopped by the make-shift stall, with a lot of positive feedback saying it was a great idea; and I had a lot of fun myself running the activities.

After all the visitors had left it was time to pack up the site for the day. Following the few hours of hustle and bustle it was nice to have a moment to take in the broch and catch a glimpse of ‘Terrence’ once last time before being covered over again. Hopefully I’ll return at some stage to walk the steps as the ancestors did and possibly work on further examination & analysis of the NE quadrant again, but who knows what the future will bring; so for now all that’s left to say is ‘Bye Bye Broch’!

Martin in The Well
Martin re-emerging from the depths of The Well

As for a personal highlight of my time at The Cairns, it would have be when Martin discovered the wooden and organic objects in ‘The Well’. Many of you may have already read or heard about these discoveries in the media recently; if not make sure you check out this blog and the UHI Archaeology Facebook page for more details. But with the NE quadrant being right beside ‘The Well’ I was one of the first ones to hear the screams of absolute joy coming from down there when Martin emerged with the objects in hand, which saw the light of day for the first time in around 2,000 years!! The pure look of glee and the smile beaming across his face was great to see, that with all the years of experience and excavations behind him, Martin still gets excited over finding new artefacts & materials (although to be fair these objects in particular are highly significant for Scottish archaeology as a whole)!!!

Either that or the time when making my way to the beach for a lunch-time dip in the sea, I came across this sight… Could not have planned the photo better myself, and just about managed to take a decent photo before bursting into a fit of laughter… Good ol Dig Dog!

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Dig Dog ready for action

Anyway that’s probably enough of me yapping, you’re probably sick of me by now (if you’ve managed to stay reading). Hopefully this has been interesting an insightful into a first-hand experience of being in the frontline of the trenches (pun intended). Thanks for reading and look forward to updating ye all in my next instalment of my ‘Summer of Digging’ in upcoming weeks. I would apologise for any bad archaeology jokes and puns included in this post, but I thought they were funny so guess you’ll just have to dig my awful sense of humour if you plan on following my archaeological adventures over the summer (please do, I’ll try improve the jokes…..maybe).

Before leaving at this stage I feel it would be poor form if I didn’t acknowledge and give a shout out to all those who kept the gears of The Cairns machine running and advancing over the four weeks of activities. I think I speak for all students and volunteers in giving a massive thank you to Martin Carruthers (site director), for giving us the opportunity and privilege to take part in excavations on his project. Also a big thanks to all the supervisors over the four weeks: Rick Barton, Bobby Friel, Colin Mitchell, Linda Somerville, Kevin Kerr and Dr Jo McKenzie; for their guidance and advice on various topics and tasks.

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Some of The Cairns Squad

Also a mention of thanks for Ole, who saved most of our voices by taking responsibility for conducting the majority of tours for visitors over the duration of the four weeks. Shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! Also a big thanks and much appreciation to all of you who visited the site and followed the story and updates & used the hashtags on the various social media platforms, your support and interest means a lot!

Next stop for myself is Skaill on Rousay, make sure to keep tabs on social media outlets for info and updates on progress there in the near future!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student


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For further information on studying for a Masters in archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute contact studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website

Two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered in underground chamber beneath broch site.

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The Cairns Broch site

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were astonished last week when they unearthed a two thousand year old wooden bowl from an underground chamber beneath The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

The vessel itself is the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney and will give the team from the UHI Archaeology Institute a unique insight into life in an Iron Age broch in Northern Scotland.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns
A detached section of the wooden bowl following initial cleaning

The beautifully preserved object is a complete, wood-turned bowl around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and rounded base. Although the object has split at some point in the past, it is complete and was being held together and protected by the muddy silts of the excavation.

The bowl has been confirmed to be made from alder and the dating is known from the location within the subterranean chamber which the archaeologists on site have termed, ‘The Well’.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns (2)
A detached section of the wooden vessel showing the rim

This amazing underground feature, consists of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. It is assumed that the bowl dates from this period also, however, radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could be even earlier than this time. At any rate it will be Orkney’s oldest preserved complete wooden vessel.

The rim of2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Cairns Broch, Orkney, still encased in the silt from The Well 2
The rim of the 2000 year old wooden bowl, still encased in the silt from The Well

In addition to the bowl, there are preserved plant fibres, some of which appear to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seem to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs.

Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, are also present. There appears to be more waterlogged objects waiting to be lifted from the silt. Ancient insect remains and probably a host of other tiny items, perhaps including parasite eggs and coprolites (fossilised faeces), may even be found.

Site Director, Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said: ‘It’s miraculous that we’ve got this wooden vessel. It’s really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at The Cairns! In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink. Its round base makes you think that it would have been required to be constantly held when full, and perhaps used socially, passed around from hand to hand, person to person. It’s already been nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. “

Martin continued, “I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of ‘The Well’. For one thing it’s not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water, but if it were used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket or, dare I say it, poured as a libation, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps”.

There is still much work to do in The Well, and there are other amazing remains to be recovered from the silts there, as well as across the site. The excavations are on-going and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time. The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects. It is hoped that funds can be raised as soon as possible to pay for specialist conservation.

*In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and passed around to celebrate the marriage.

Iron Age Settlement
Excavations have been taking place at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, since 2006 under the auspices of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The site is a substantial Iron Age period village settlement with a broch (tower-like monumental house) lying at its heart. The ancient buildings on the site are very substantial and rich in finds. The broch itself and the village buildings are very well-preserved and already this season there have been many artefacts recovered including a bronze ring and a glass bead.

Three years ago an opening into an underground chamber was discovered under the floor of the broch, but only this year has the excavation project turned its attention to fully excavating the well. The subterranean structure is preserved intact with its stone roof still in place and it has been sealed since the Iron Age. Steps lead down into the partly rock-cut cavity that dates back to the time of the construction of the broch.

Iron Age ‘Wells’ and Waterlogged Remains
Traditionally, these structures have been termed wells by generations of archaeologists, however, there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, with constricted entrances and the steepness of their staircases, have raised doubts about their function in recent years, and the volume of water found in the structures is seldom sufficient to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation
The stairs leading into The Well at The Cairns Broch

Additionally, previously excavated examples have contained an unusually high amount of wild animal bones, such as red deer and fox, in their in-fills, suggesting the wells had some special significance. Famously, a massive ‘well’-type structure was discovered at Mine Howe, East Mainland, Orkney, and also excavated by archaeologists from UHI in the early 2000s. Although the subterranean chamber at Mine Howe had previously been informally excavated in the 1940s and its contents emptied, the archaeologists found that it lay at the heart of a high status metalworking complex that was also apparently the scene of ritual practices and the deposition of the human dead.

About 20 such structures have been found beneath brochs in previous excavations, but many of these investigations were undertaken by antiquaries in the 19th Century, and fairly few of these structures have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still, have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns. It would seem that the basal silts within the ‘well’ have been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen). This means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items and, therefore, there is incredible preservation of organic items, usually only seen in the rarefied conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

At The Cairns there has been little previous reason to suspect that such preservation conditions existed. However, the depth of the well at over two metres under the floor of the broch, and a further two metres beneath the modern ground surface, has meant that  the base of the well remained damp since the Iron Age and allowed for the protection of the wood and organic items.

The excavations ran until the 13th of July and visitors were encouraged to see the work at the site for themselves, throughout the excavation period.

Media contact: Sean Page, Marketing Officer, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. Sean.page@uhi.ac.uk Tel: 01856 569229
High Resolution images are available.

The Structures of The Cairns

Structure A looking eastwards
Structure A looking East

The 2018 digging season is now upon us and The Cairns excavation is now being prepared for the new season.

This is a very exciting time as the covers are removed and the groundwork is commenced. Especially as this year the spoil heap has been moved and a new trench is to be opened. 

It is a measure of the interest generated in this site that the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute team now have a veritable army of volunteers from all over the world ready to start work.  However before the daily dig diary begins, perhaps it might be an idea to talk you through some of the structures that have been discovered at the site, to help you locate the finds that Martin and his team discover over the next few weeks of excavation.  Here is everything you have ever wanted to know about The Cairns, but were too afraid to ask…..well almost…..

Check out The Cairns Dig Diary 2018.

Structure names and numbers

Structure A: The Broch
Structure A is a broch, sometimes known as an Atlantic Roundhouse, a massive sub circular structure around 22m in overall diameter. The walls of the broch are 5m thick, and the structure has an internal diameter of over 11m. It is well-preserved with the remains reaching over 2m in height at some points.

Remains of stairs within the walls of Structure A under excavation
Remains of stairs within the walls of Structure A

The thick outer walls contain at least 4 ‘intramural’ chambers and the remains of a staircase indicating that this was a truly monumental multi-storey building. So far, from the investigations of the interior, the well-preserved internal fixtures and fittings of the layout of space have been uncovered as well as a series of floor deposits of laid clay and flagstones. These floors are rich in artefacts, and environmental evidence for the use of the broch. The Cairns project is a very rare opportunity to explore the entire suite of floors (from the very earliest to the last) from inside a broch, as this has very seldom happened in the modern era. At The Cairns we seem to have very good preservation of these important deposits and this is a real boon to the project. The work here should contribute a great deal to the study of the Iron Age in Scotland.

A complex arrangement of walls, hearth, internal fixtures built over Structure A
A complex arrangement of walls, hearths and internal fixtures built over Structure A

The Ditch
Evidence that a great ditch surrounded the broch and formed a substantial enclosure some 70 metres in diameter has been acquired in both geophysical surveys and in trial excavation. Last season when the main trench was extended on the southern corner we were treated to a view of the inner edge of this feature and we were able to excavate a few deposits from the fills. The ditch fills were very rich in animal bone, and in artefacts, including several bronze objects and a substantial quantity of pottery. This year we will extend the edge of the trench further and hope to gain even more information on this important Iron Age boundary. What deposits and materials will we encounter?

Structure B Area: A Late Iron Age/Pictish Settlement 
In the north and north-west part of the main trench, lies a substantial belt of building remains and features that we have called the ‘Structure B Complex’. This complex partly overlies the top of the remains of the broch (Structure A), as well as spreading beyond it. There are two main rectilinear and buildings present, with many well-preserved hearths, stone fixtures and fittings, small cells or chambers, thresholds, wall piers and floors. Often these various elements can be seen to relate to each other in a complex manner, with successive features cutting and partly demolishing earlier elements. It brings to the fore the rich story of social change that almost certainly lies behind the fairly frenetic changes that have taken place across the Structure B area.

The Cairns Charecter
Carved stone object in the form of a human head

The area has yielded numerous small finds including substantial amounts of pottery, stone tools, an extensive animal bone assemblage, gaming counters, as well as a number of striking metal items, including numerous knife blades. Perhaps most bizarrely, a carved stone object in the form of a human head came from the infill of Structure B2.
We now know that this post-broch settlement began at some point between the mid-3rd and 4th Centuries AD. How long it lasted into the Late Iron Age/Pictish period is not clear as yet.

Long hearth in Structure B emerges. Constrcuted between AD 250-300
Long hearth in Structure B

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Structure B1 building was its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the infilled interior of the abandoned broch make us suspect that the occupants of the B complex were keen to bask in the afterglow of the monumental broch, placing themselves directly over the core of its remains as if to co-opt its former position and grandeur. This has always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time. It may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.
It is intriguing therefore that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor an episode of lavish jewellery-making on site (see Structure K).

Structure C “The Workshop/Smithy”and another possible workshop:Structure E
Structures C and E lie toward the east and south-east of the main trench respectively. They are similar in construction and both directly overlie, and intervene in, the remains of the walls of the Structure A broch. They represent fairly substantial buildings built with a combination of stone uprights and coursed masonry, a style that has been seen as typically later Iron Age or even ‘Pictish’ in the past.

Structure C workshop
Structure C workshop

Structure C appears to have been sub-oval or circular in plan in its original form, while Structure E was more straight-sided with a rounded gable end. Both structures have yielded evidence for formal hearths in their interiors and, in the case of Structure C, a set of stone-settings and laid clay features indicate the remains of a grain dryer. In addition, there seem to be high temperature hearth stones present and a large quantity of heat affected materials. This and the presence of moulds, bog ore, and fragments of tuyeres (nozzles or sockets used as the interface between furnace features and the bellows) indicate that the building had an industrial or craft-working role, at least during one stage in its life.

Archaeomagnetic dates obtained from these heat-affected features, which themselves seem to represent later activities in the building, indicate that it was abandoned some time before c.AD600. The story of the very final acts inside this building is a very intriguing one. It seems there was a substantial episode of burning within the building. Currently this is interpreted as a deliberate act of decommissioning, which may have involved setting light to the building roof.

Cache of long handled combs inside Structure C
Cache of long handled combs found inside Structure C

Several iron items (surviving to us as rusted, corroded objects) were apparently left on the floor of the building as it was nearing the end. Recent assessment of these indicates that they are several knife blades, one of which appears clad in mineralised organics which is probably a sheath. Also, in the closing stages of the building a remarkable cache of twelve long-handled decorated combs, six of them carefully decorated with incised lines, were deposited in a pot and placed close to the entrance of the building. These combs were themselves caught up in the burning episode, as their fire-cracked, warped and fragmented state reveals.

Structure K: Even More Metalworking Evidence

Structure K Scene of bronze jewellery making AD 240-300
Structure K: Scene of bronze jewellery making

Located in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M, Structure K is an important part of the story of the site. There are the impressive remains of an episode of metalworking that include furnaces; bronze waste, bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze jewellery items.

Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a
variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches. The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community.
Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, their condition and their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.

The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overlay the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement.

Radiocarbon dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. In radiocarbon terms, this makes the jewellery-making directly contemporary with the large post-broch house complex B on the southwestern part of the site. Perhaps it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the later Iron Age community at The Cairns.

The understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking allows us to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.

It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.

Structure F: The Souterrain or “Earthhouse” 

Structure F The Souterrain
Structure F: The Souterrain

Structure F represents the very well-preserved remains of an underground building or passageway. This souterrain or ‘earthhouse’ was constructed after the broch was disused and filled in with rubble, but it appears to make use of the 5 metre long entrance-passage of the old broch for its chamber.

The discovery of the Structure F souterrain at The Cairns is very good news for us as it allows us to examine another example of a souterrain that is (mostly) undisturbed. One of the aims of the project is to explore and investigate these underground buildings in more detail and to try to offer a firmer basis for their interpretation. At Structure F a remarkable feature had been set up on the roof lintels of the building which was composed of two deliberately broken rotary querns (grinding stones), one on top of the other poised over a gap in the lintels. Was the aperture this provided through the roof of the souterrain intended to allow communication to be uttered between above and below, or were substances or libations poured in? This year the complete excavation of the occupation deposits inside the structure may provide answers.

While we were assessing the interior of the souterrain for future full excavation a shaped whale tooth was found, which may originally have been a pommel for an item like a sword. The souterrain will be one of the principal areas for excavation attention this season, and we wait with anticipation to see what further exciting discoveries are made!

Check out The Cairns Dig Diary 2018.


Visitors are welcome to visit the site and chat with Martin and the team. For the location and more information on our digs see our calendar page here

Making Metal, Casting Society at The Cairns, Orkney

ring headed pin moulds with cast pin
Ring headed pin moulds with cast pin

New radiocarbon dates from The Cairns archaeological excavation shed light on the possible structure of society in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD in Orkney.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research excavation at The Cairns, Orkney, talks about the latest research findings from the site.   

“We have been very lucky at The Cairns over the years of the excavations to find a substantial set of remains and residues that relate to Iron Age metalworking. This includes at least two iron-working furnaces, and many other features and artefacts, but there is one particularly big and concentrated event that took place beyond the broch in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M. The remains of this episode include furnaces, bronze waste; bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze objects. Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches.

The remains of 'Structure K' where the jewellery-making episode ocurred
The remains of structure K where the jewellery-making occurred

The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community. Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, as well as their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.

The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overly the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement. We therefore knew from the assessment of the layers (the stratigraphy) on site that the metalworking episode did not occur very early on in the sequence of events and buildings on site but it remained to be seen if it was going on towards the end of the monumental broch period on site, or if it was actually occurring after the broch was put out of use, which we know occurred around the mid-Second Century AD based on previously obtained radiocarbon dates. The calendar date of the metalworking was therefore of great interest. Did the jewellery-making episode date to the period late in the life of the broch, or was it happening after the broch itself was decommissioned and put out of use?

Two moulds for casting penannular brooches
Two moulds for casting penannular brooches

Craft and Chronology
Newly obtained radiocarbon dates make it clear which of these scenarios is correct. The new dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. Now, with this enhanced understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking we can begin to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.

It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.

Jewellery as social currency: Feasting, and gift-giving?
At the end of the bronze-casting event a fairly thick, very rich animal bone midden was laid down in the vicinity and slightly overlying the metalworking area. The close relationship between the metalworking and the animal bone is shown by the presence of a few of the crucibles and mould fragments amongst the midden also. What’s in this midden?

Well lots of domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep and pig, especially large cattle long bones. In addition, there were other mammal bones such as red deer, otter, and even a small quantity of horse. The midden also contained carbonised soils, ash and broken fragments of pottery. Many fire-cracked beach cobbles were also excavated, and these represent the exploded remains of ‘pot-boilers’, heated cobbles that were immersed in vessels to heat up water and cook some of the food. It seems that the people gathered at our feast were consuming beef on the bone, boiled pork, and roasted mutton and venison, some of which may have been washed down by beverages drunk from many pottery vessels.

The close stratigraphic association between the fine metalworking and the feasting raises the question of what exactly was going on here. One possibility that I like very much is that the feasting could be the spectacular social event at which the products of the jewellery-making were handed out, or gifted, to their intended recipients by those who had sponsored the metalworking in the first place. We may therefore be peering into the social circumstances of the jewellery-making and the distribution of its products amongst the community at The Cairns. If this is so, then it is a fascinating insight into the moment at which objects like the pins, brooches and rings started off on their biographies, their journey through people’s lives.

This is a very rare opportunity to see more clearly the initial nature of the social and political significance of these objects from their start-point. It would mean that the sharing or gifting of the jewellery was surrounded in the circumstances of a big social occasion, a massive party, if you like. We are seeing their birth and the important role they played in the power-play and social strategies of Iron Age groups and individuals. With the circumstances of the jewellery-making we are able, for once, to investigate the intended status and significance of these items within the context of their birth, rather than depending on the information we usually get, which is based on the discovery of these objects much later in their lives, in fact at the end of their lives, when they went in the ground, perhaps many decades, or more, after they were originally made and worn. Most theories about the brooches and pins and their role in society have been based on what we glean from them in this end-state, but the assemblage of metalworking evidence from The Cairns; the moulds, crucibles, and other items, together with the massive remains of the feasting allows us to grasp what was going on at the point in time when these jewellery items were instigated.

Jewellery, Society and the wider Northern Scottish Iron Age
It is highly intriguing that the birth of these prestigious pieces of jewellery appears to have been accompanied by communal, outdoor feasting and judging by the volume of animal bone it involved a large part, if not all, of the community. In the absence of the big spacious monumental buildings, such as the brochs, which may have previously served to gather large numbers of people under one roof at important times in the life of the community, we can ponder whether feasting events like this were the new arena for expressing the identity and solidarity of the community.

If we now recall Professor Sharples’ aforementioned thesis that the changes at the end of the Middle Iron Age to late Iron Age involved a major transformation of the way people expressed their social identity, from the communal to the individual then this evidence for big community feasting in the early part of the Later Iron Age is very interesting. Perhaps this serves to somewhat modify that concept, because in the post-broch era at The Cairns, for one, the community appears to have retained ways of expressing their greater collective identity. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that everyone was singled-out and gifted one of the pieces of fine jewellery that were produced.

At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period. If so, the excavations are really coming up trumps in terms of allowing us to peer into the social circumstances of Iron Age communities.

New dates for Structure B1: Have we found the elite sponsors of the metalworking?
The period of the jewellery-making is after the end of the broch and we were previously unclear which buildings amongst the many post-broch structures were occupied at the time of the bronze-working. The new dates also allow us to pin-point whereabouts on site, at least some of, the community were living at the time the jewellery-making was taking place. Armed with the new radiocarbon dates, it turns out, that one of the large rectangular post-broch buildings (perhaps a Wag-like building of the type found in Caithness and at The Howe in Orkney) known to us as Structure B1, located about 30 metres to the south-west of the jewellery-making area was first constructed and occupied between the Mid-3rd to 4th Centuries AD, and therefore at the same time as the metalworking.

The big formal hearth in Structure B under excavation- a high status bui...
The large formal hearth in Structure B under excavation

Structure B1 lies directly over the reduced and in-filled remains of the broch. One of the most remarkable aspects of this building is its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the remains of the abandoned broch almost co-opting its former position and grandeur have always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time, and may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.

It is intriguing therefore to now know unambiguously that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor the lavish jewellery-making on site. Pushing this further, it is tempting to speculate that it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the post-broch Iron Age community at The Cairns.”

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.


Martin would like to thank Professor Dave Barclay, Forensic Consultant, and Professor Emeritus, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen for the very kind and helpful donation, which made it possible to fund the most recent radiocarbon dates discussed in this piece.

If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

 

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.

Researching the Origins of The Cairns Broch

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A view along one of the three subterranean passages of the Windwick souterrain

The Cairns is one of the leading research excavations in Orkney. The work carried out at the site, both during the excavation and post-excavation phases, will over time build a more complete picture of life in the Iron Age in the North Atlantic region.

Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, Martin Carruthers, takes up the story, “One of the things we’re trying to research at The Cairns is the original impulse behind the broch building that is so substantially present at the site. The broch itself is a massive monumental roundhouse of towering proportions and it appears to have exerted huge influence over the landscape of the Windwick Bay, and the valley running off of it, for centuries.

Until recently, most discussions of the Northern Scottish Iron Age were dominated by the brochs. They have exerted such a massive gravitational pull over Iron Age studies that much research has been warped around an obsession with them, and yet they were not the only type of place in the Iron Age. There were several very interesting types of settlement that predated the brochs.

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Early Iron Age souterrain which lies 500 metres to the south-east of the main site

We have within the Windwick landscape a number of likely Early Iron Age places; probably settlements, that were founded and occupied before the broch was established at The Cairns. We have previously excavated one of these at Windwick itself, which we know from C-14 dates, began life around 600BC. Another may well lie close by The Cairns itself, immediately to the Northeast of the main trench.

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Plan of the Souterrain at Windwick

These possible precursors to the broch may well hold the key to understanding the nature of the brochs and the reasons for their existence!

Understanding the precise moment in time that our broch at The Cairns came into being and when these other earlier places fizzled out will be very important to seeing more clearly what was going on in Iron Age landscape and society at the outset of brochs.


If you are interested in studying archaeology at The Cairns, The Ness of Brodgar and other important sites across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland then apply for one of our courses through the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute website or drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Funded Postgraduate Places

The University of the Highlands and Islands is pleased to offer a limited number of places with full tuition fee support for Scottish-domiciled/EU students, studying full time, on this course starting in September 2017 to help talented students join this key growth sector for the Scottish economy.

Fees will be funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programmes.

See the University of the Highlands and Islands web page for more details.

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