Black Lives Mattered: Ancient Rome, Africa, Scotland, and Orkney.

‘The Black Emperor’, Septimus Severus and family

The Cairns Excavation Site Director & University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Lecturer Martin Carruthers talks about the multi cultural experience of Iron Age society in Orkney as the exploitative Roman Empire appeared in Britain.

In the Mid-First Century AD, historical circumstances conspired to bring together, for the first time, peoples and creatures from continental Africa, Asia, and Europe with Islanders from the Atlantic Islands of Northern Scotland at a single event.

Assembled by the cosmopolitan, but highly exploitative, Roman empire, the meeting of this diverse bunch signals the beginning of the British experience of Africa, and, intriguingly, caught up at the centre of it were Iron Age people from Orkney.

It is late Summer AD43 and the world superpower Rome has invaded Iron Age Britain. After several weeks of hard campaigning by four legions, and thousands of ‘auxiliary’ troops drawn from far corners of the empire, the resistance of the Southern tribes has been worn down, its leadership subdued.

Now the Emperor himself, Claudius, steps ashore on British soil. As he triumphally enters Camulodunum (Colchester) the biggest and most important population centre in southern Britain, he does so with a theatrical flourish designed to intimidate and entirely overawe local Iron Age peoples. He enters the major settlement with creatures from the African continent – he has elephants in tow.

Along with the fabulous beasts, there are African and Asian men present amongst the Roman troops. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the Roman state that it heeds no ethnic and racial boundaries when it comes to those who may be considered useful to the Imperial project. This highly manipulative form of multi-culturalism led to Iron Age Scots appearing in amphitheatres in Morocco and African Emperors leading armies of conquest in Scotland! In this blog we can look at a few details of these ancient African, Caledonian, and Roman lives and why they matter.

Today, one can only imagine what sort of impression the strange and exotic sights of Claudius’ army and his elephants made upon the locals of Iron Age Colchester! But amongst the local Britons watching, there were also some far-travelled visitors. A surprise deputation was present and shortly thereafter met with the emperor himself. These were Orcadians, inhabitants of the far Northern Isles. Orkney at this time was only very dimly known to Rome and seems to have been a by-word in poetry, and prose for the ends of the earth! The Orcadians, described by Eutropius, were led by no less than a Regulus, a King of Orkney, and they were on a diplomatic mission.

That mission and the journey that facilitated it must have been undertaken with a remarkable acuity and forward planning, to synchronise with the mere 16 days spent in Britain by the Emperor! We know little of the detail of the discussions between the Emperor and the Orcadians, but for generations afterwards, Roman authors and monumental inscriptions referred to the submission of eleven British kings to Rome, including that of Orkney. Certainly, it seems treaties were initiated, which, apparently, set up Orkney, for a time, as an unlikely client kingdom to the Empire. In the Roman era, such a status often conferred massive privilege and advantage for some within the client state, but it was also an delicately balanced relationship on a knife edge. Eventually, such client treaties could be summarily revoked by Rome on a whim and clients could be suddenly subsumed as direct possessions of the Emperor, as happened to other British Iron Age client kingdoms.

From the outset of the Roman period in Britain, Africans and Asians were present amongst the soldiery, the merchants, and the administrators of the new power in the land. It may have been in the later 1st century AD that the first ‘persons of colour’ appeared in Orkney itself, and this would have been with the Roman navy and elements of the army who circumnavigated Orkney in AD 83 after the battle of Mons Graupius, which had just taken place on the Scottish Mainland. Their aim, we are told by the Roman historian Tacitus, was to renew the now-lapsed treaties between the leadership in Orkney and the Empire, which had been made with Claudius two generations before. The real purpose of the naval crossing to Orkney was probably to cow the powerful Northern Isles Iron Age powerbase, who had probably contributed to the resistance to Rome on the Scottish Mainland, and to achieve a renowned propaganda coup back home in Rome.

Roman beads and recycled glass from The Cairns broch, Orkney. Photo: Gary Lloyd

Orkney, in those days, was exotic and remarkable for its remoteness amongst Roman writers! The fleet’s Orcadian journey has left no known archaeological traces. We know, however, that The Cairns broch (the subject of ongoing excavations by UHI Archaeology Institute) was the centre of a thriving Iron Age community at that very time. Whichever route the fleet took across the Pentland Firth, whether through Scapa Flow or along the North Sea east coast of Orkney, the elevated position of The Cairns overlooking the Pentland Firth, means the community must have seen the fleet coming. What must the ordinary folk of the community have thought of this strange and sinister swarm of sails.

The Romans didn’t stay long in Orkney, just long enough to ‘renew the treaties’, but it was the first direct appearance of the diverse but exploitative world power on the actual shores of Orkney. One of the things that such treaties with Rome often involved was some measure of taxation in goods, produce and quite often levies of men to serve in the Roman army, and indeed slaves, so it is possible that young Orcadian men may have found themselves departing with the fleet to begin 25 years’ service in the auxiliary regiments of Rome, and young men and women in much more unfortunate roles! Another feature of Roman treaties with foreign powers was the ‘fosterage’ of the sons of powerful elites, essentially sons of important local leaders taken off to be ‘educated’, often in Rome itself, and returned at a much later date, having been useful hostages effectively kerbing the likelihood of resistance on the part of ‘barbarian’ elites, and also often securing that the next generation of leadership held a pro-Roman outlook. One can imagine the remarkable multi-cultural experiences and sights witnessed by any such young fostered boys, and probably some horrific ones too! It may, indeed, partly explain the major changes that began to occur in the architecture, and material culture of Iron Age Atlantic Scotland from the later 2nd Century AD onwards.

For several Centuries, from the 1st century AD onwards, a steady but small stream of high-status Roman materials made their way into Iron Age Orcadian communities, including The Cairns, where Roman beads, and recycled Roman glass and metalwork have been found. Other finds from Orcadian sites such as high status Samian pottery, further indicate that the relationship between Orkney and Rome was carried out in the domain of the higher echelons of Iron Age society.

After the end of the First Century AD, the Roman army retired from Scotland for more than a generation to the Tyne-Solway frontier and what became Hadrian’s Wall in AD 122. With the accession of a new Emperor, Antoninus Pius, in AD 139 preparations were immediately made for a renewed burst of intervention in Scotland. The Emperor sent a new governor to Britannia, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who was a North African of Berber descent! Over 3 or 4 years the African governor campaigned in Southern Scotland and then up the northeast Scottish mainland, replicating the Roman line of advance in the preceding 1st Century AD. By AD 142, the army had laid down a monumental marker of the frontier across the central belt of Scotland in the form of the Antonine Wall and for around twenty years it was garrisoned by the densest concentration of troops ever deployed in Roman Britain.

The occupation of the Northern Wall was short in archaeological terms and in the history of Roman Britain but, importantly, it was substantial and intense enough to have left remarkably vivid archaeological traces of the everyday lives of the garrison including aspects of their identities and ethnicities. We know that ordinary Africans and Asians served in the Roman army on the Antonine wall during the 2nd Century AD.

Special ceramics found at several of the Antonine wall forts were made in the style of African pottery; effectively these crocks relate to a form of cuisine very similar to modern North African tagine cooking. It has been suggested that the African pottery may represent the actual presence of African units serving in the garrison of the Northern frontier of Scotland, or that certain regiments had gained a taste for such spiced cuisine from having been earlier stationed in the African provinces. It is a scenario reminiscent of the way that, via the British army, Indian curries have been injected into the post-colonial bloodstream of the UK. Certainly, many different ethnic groups are represented by regiments such as the Syrian Archers from the ancient city of Palmyra, attested at Bar Hill fort on the edge of modern Glasgow.

Later still, at the very beginning of the 3rd Century AD the so-called African Emperor, Septimius Severus renewed Roman attempts to bring to heel the Northern Iron Age peoples, Caledonians and others. Severus had been born in North African at Leptis Magna in present day Libya. Possessing Punic descent on his mother’s side, he was, therefore, descended from the North African state that had once seriously threatened the existence of Rome itself under Hannibal, and he has been called ‘the black emperor’. Severus was not ‘born into the purple’ but had fought a bitter civil war, in part, against the pretender Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia, to ascend the imperial throne in AD 193. In AD 209, taking personal charge of the Scottish campaign, he assembled an army of over 40,000 troops and overran southern Scotland and, again, campaigned up the northeast mainland of Scotland. He established a legionary base at Carpow on the Tay estuary, an intended springboard for further Scottish conquest. That was curtailed by his death of a sudden illness in AD 210. Here was a man who had been born and grew up in Africa, spent the last years of his life on campaign in Scotland, and died at York in Northern England. A remarkable story of pluralism, power, social and actual mobility in the ancient world.

The presence of the Emperor and his family in Scotland gives us interesting opportunities to consider the interaction between this Afro-Roman family and the local Caledonians! The Roman historian Cassius Dio tells us that the Imperial family actually met socially, with Caledonian aristocracy. On one such occasion Severus’ wife, Julia Domna, apparently made inquisitive small talk with the unnamed wife of a Caledonian noble called Argentocoxos (‘Silver Arm’!). Beginning to challenge the apparently loose sexual morals of Caledonian women, Julia Domna was met with a short critical rebuttal from the woman: “We fulfil the demands of nature in a far better way than you Roman women, for we consort openly with the best of men, whereas you let yourselves be degraded in secret by the most vile”. It is, perhaps, a very knowing and sharp critical commentary on the plight of the majority of ‘free’ women in Roman patriarchal society as chattels of their husbands, or fathers, and as bargaining collateral in the great game of Roman politics and alliances.

Detail of the ‘tartan’ trews of the defeated Caledonian depicted on Severus’s triumphal arch in Morocco. Photo: The Scotsman https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/earliest-depiction-scottish-tartan-discovered-roman-statue-1598796

The actual physical mobility brought about by the exploitative networks of the Roman empire also meant that there were Iron Age Scots present at corners of the Empire very distant from their Caledonian homeland. Shortly after Septimius Severus’s campaigns in Scotland, a massive bronze statue was erected in the city of Rabat, Morocco, as part of a triumphal arch in honour of Severus’ son Caracalla, who took part in the Caledonian campaigns, and who himself took the throne after his father. Only fragments survive of the bronze statue but just a few years ago one of the pieces was recognised as depicting a defeated Caledonian warrior, arms bound. He is bare-chested but wears a cloak and plaid or tartan trews! Now, one wonders what impact these strangely clad ‘barbarians’ would have made on the locals.

It is clear, however, that more than mere depictions of Iron Age Caledonians appeared in Roman Africa. For another piece of Roman art, a mosaic from Tunisia shows another Caledonian being killed by wild animals in the local amphitheatre, an exotic entertainment for the Roman African locals.

What all of this strongly suggests is that the lives of Romans, Caledonians, Africans, Asians, and even Orcadians, were strangely entangled in many various ways much earlier than people tend to think possible, via the networks of opportunity and exploitation that connected the far-flung Roman Empire and the Roman Iron Age world. Sometimes, as with the Claudian invasion, Africa was deployed very deliberately in a form of intimidatory exoticism (a trope familiar from our own imperial past), impressing Iron Age Britons, and Orcadians.

At other moments, the exoticism lay in the other direction with exotic noble captive Caledonians executed in the amphitheatres of Roman Africa and depicted in Roman African art. Between these dramatic polarities we know many Africans and Asians were present in Roman Iron Age Britain and Scotland, ordinary soldiers, merchants, husbands, wives and, yes, probably also slaves, were present at times. And more elevated Africans: governors, generals and even a black emperor spent major parts of their military and political careers engaging with Caledonia. Black lives were lived in Britain and Scotland almost two thousand years ago. Remarkably, it is possible to reach out and touch those lives through archaeology and ancient history. In the ancient world those black lives mattered, in the present day those past Black Lives Matter.

Whale Bone Genetics and the Extraordinary Closure of a Broch

A Fin Whale. Photo: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid. Creative Commons

New DNA results shed light on Iron Age use of whale bone and the remarkable process of ending a broch two thousand years ago.

Results of DNA investigations undertaken on a large collection of whale bone from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Iron Age archaeological site of The Cairns, have afforded a glimpse into the complex relationship of Iron Age communities with whales.

In particular, the identification of multiple whale bones as belonging to a single large fin whale shows how its carcase was strategically and even ceremonially used and deposited during the ending of the monumental broch.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns excavation. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

In the early Summer of 2019, Dr Vicki Szabo (Western Carolina University, North Carolina) and Dr Brenna Frasier (Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Martin Carruthers (University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute), to examine the collection of whale bone artefacts recovered from The Cairns excavations, being undertaken by UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney. The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what species of whale, or cetacean, were present at the sites.

The research is part of a large international project funded by the National Science Foundation which is investigating the past use of whales in North Atlantic society. Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney in February 2018 where they examined the whales found at another archaeological site in Sanday, Orkney and other whale bone artefacts from The Orkney Museum.

The Cairns and the sea. Looking across Windwick Bay. Photo: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

The project has sampled whale bones over a 1400+ year span, from Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroes, Shetland, and Orkney. Orkney and Iceland are the primary centres of analysis, representing the Eastern and Western North Atlantic. Orkney offers exceptional assemblages of whale bone from many periods and sites, from the Neolithic to the Norse eras and thereafter. The types of objects produced in Orkney are remarkably stable over a long period of time, as well. The Cairns, though, has given Vicki and Brenna their first opportunity to sample at an ongoing excavation; with most of the other analysis undertaken on assemblages that were collected in the past.

The results from the study show that some of the whale bones that were uncovered at The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale, North Atlantic right whale, minke, grey whale, and humpback. This is fascinating as it raises questions about whether a site like The Cairns may have been able to stake a claim over the larger whale carcasses, and therefore if this is an indication of relative status and control of resources by the inhabitants of that site. One surprise, though, was the volume of bone belonging to fin whale species in the assemblage.

One of the larger pieces of Fin whale bone found at The Cairns Broch. Photo: Andrew Hollingrake

Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the blue whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. Interestingly, fin whales are also amongst the fastest whales in the sea, capable of bursts of 45KMH when hunting, or threatened, and they can dive fast and very deeply. Indeed, in the modern era, the fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers once the explosive harpoon was invented, and so it is unlikely to have been hunted in the Iron Age, but rather a stranded individual. That does not mean that other types of whale were not hunted, and the question of whether some whales were pro-actively sourced during the Iron Age remains unanswered.

In time, further study of patterns of whale bone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.

The end of two giants: the broch and a Fin whale
The latest stage of the genetic project permits us to connect an entire array of whale bone items. The genetic and molecular study of 33 whale bone items shows that 20 pieces (vertebrae, ribs, scapulae, and other anatomical elements) were from the fin whale species. This is remarkable in of itself, however, 2 key mitochondrial haplotype regions of the genome of each bone were examined, and it is likely that all these fin whale items (except one) are from the same animal. This means that a single, large, fin whale may have been utilised during the last occupation and abandonment of the broch.

The Cairns broch looking across to the North Sea. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

The bones appear to relate to feasting that took place to mark the end of the broch. Some of the whale bones have chop-marks present showing signs of butchery and perhaps bone-working. Others are slightly singed from being subjected to direct heat. The fin whale bones were found in a range of contexts across the broch. Some of the bones were excavated from the uppermost floor deposits of the broch. Others were stuffed into gaps in its walls. Other fin whale bones came from the rubble that was used to infill the broch during the final abandonment.

The presence of this single animal, spread across these varied contexts, links these deposits very closely in time, much more tightly, in fact, than is currently possible with radiocarbon dating alone. It allows the excavators to closely connect several different contexts and stages within the finale of the broch and to appreciate what a relatively swift process the end was. The occurrence of the many bones from a single animal may also allow detailed consideration of the use of whale bone and how it was treated as a resource both physically and perhaps also symbolically.

The Fin whale vessel just outside the broch entrance. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

One of the bones of the giant fin whale is especially remarkable for its treatment. This was a large whale bone, which had been carved from a substantial vertebra to make a vessel. This vessel had been deposited just outside the broch door at the very end of the broch occupation. A remarkable assemblage of objects accompanied the vessel. Two shed red deer antlers had been propped against the outside of the vessel, and a very large grinding stone, or saddle quern, was also placed snuggly against the vessel as though to pin it firmly against the broch outer wall face. Inside the actual vessel, were the remains of two new-born lambs and, most remarkably, the jawbone of an elderly human. This entire collection of items was a very deliberate deposit that appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure for the broch.

Martin Carruthers, site director of The Cairns and UHI lecturer in archaeology said: “It’s just amazing to be able to say with confidence that so many of these whale bones, including the vessel with the human jawbone, actually belong to the same animal, especially as we’ve recovered them from the site over a number of different seasons, not knowing all along that the spread of bone belonged to one huge beast. We had some suspicions that something particularly interesting was going on with the amount of whale bone that was emerging from end of our broch, but we’d never have managed to get to this level of specificity without the input and collaboration with Brenna and Vicki”.

When discovered, the whale bones are in a condition where they were cut-up or processed during the Iron Age. That often makes the original anatomical detail and form of the bones difficult to see clearly. Therefore, it can be challenging to identify them to species, let alone recognise bones belonging to a single individual. Martin continues: “One of the most important things, from my point of view, is how this research helps us to recognise the significant role that the treatment of the fin whale had in the dramatic procedures of deliberately ending of the monumental broch”.

What circumstances led to the use and deposition of the fin whale?
Whale bone seems to have been a highly important material for Iron Age communities. The appearance of these ocean giants on local beaches, when stranded, must have occasioned opportunities to recover a large volume of meat, oil (fuel for lamps), as well as a substantial resource for making objects. Whale bone-work clearly included things like our big vessel (The Cairns has also yielded several more whale bone vessels from across the site), but also tool-making (e.g. weaving ‘batons’, chopping-boards, ‘soft’ anvils, and much more), and even for architectural purposes such as large ribs used as roof rafters.

The whalebone distribution across the site which has been DNA tested. Credit: UHI Archaeology Institute

Indeed, it’s possible that a stranding of a major animal, like a massive fin whale, would have represented an exponential contribution to the community’s resources. Vicki Szabo suggests: “As a free and scavenged resource, whale provides a large volume of high value protein. Large whales are generally 14+% body weight bone, which means that a fin whale represents a massive quantity of soft tissue, meat and blubber at around 70%”.

This amount of food input may have served to energise productive capacity, providing additional assurance of a successful year for the community. Perhaps a stranding may have permitted endeavours and projects that might otherwise have been thought risky, making them more manageable. At The Cairns, this whale boon could have included support for a major undertaking such as ending the premier building, the broch, a structure that had dominated the local landscape and society for generations. It would have been no minor activity to demolish the upper parts of the massive and complex broch, and it is likely that the work of rendering it down would have had some serious consequences for the settlement, at the heart of which, lay the broch. It would have been a physically arduous and time-consuming process, probably involving many people, taking them away from other important tasks required of this busy farming group.

That is not to say that the stranding of a single large whale led to the ending of the broch. There is growing evidence that the period around the 2nd Century AD was a time when many brochs were coming to their end, at least in their initial form as high-walled, tower-like buildings. There is a sense, therefore, that things were changing, more generally, in Iron Age society across Northern Scotland at that time, which the waning importance of monumental broch architecture is a part of. However, we may still wonder if occurrences, such as the stranding of a significantly large whale, might encourage a community, perhaps already considering a radical break with the past, to go for it.

Just some of the whale bone unearthed at The Cairns. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

There was a very practical bonus to be had in the harvesting of a very large whale, but we may also wonder if the appearance of such a large beast stranded on the foreshore meant more to Iron Age communities than just a resource. In many non-Western societies, and, indeed, many ancient European ones, sudden natural phenomena such as the highly prominent death of a significant type of animal may be seen as a conspicuous indication of arcane and esoteric forces, taken as a sign, an auspicious, or inauspicious, omen. Even though stranding may have been more common with a larger population of whales thought to exist in prehistory, it might be that both the practical impact, and the potential ideological and psychological effects of the appearance of a big stranded whale created the critical timing and final motivation for major change.

Other Animal Offerings? Animal Bone Groups at The Cairns
Whales are not the only animals present in interesting circumstances during the final stages of the occupation and abandonment of the broch. Indeed, across the site there are what are known as animal bone groups (ABG’s) present that date to the period of the broch and afterwards. These are articulated animals, or articulated parts of animals, apparently deliberately deposited. These derive from cattle, sheep, and red deer as well as cat, pig, otter and even, in one case, an articulated seal flipper!

To date, around twenty such ABG’s have been recognised from The Cairns. Probably many more await discovery. In many, or most, cases they may well be butchered joints of meat. It may be that these ABG’s are indeed portions of meat, but they are not discarded in middens as one might normally expect and seen elsewhere on the site. Instead, they were left in certain locations within the buildings of the site and across floors, and infills, as if they were actually posed. Indeed, many look like they have been displayed. Some of the bones reveal traces of weathering on the surface of the bone, indicating a period of exposure prior to being covered in soil, rubble or new house floors.

Whale bone from The Cairns…showing cut marks. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

Why formally place animal bones?
What did these deposits mean for the people of the Iron Age? Martin Carruthers says: “At the Cairns, I wonder if many, or all, of these deposits followed on from activities that celebrated the end of the broch and the beginning of new things for the community, who by no means just disappeared thereafter”.

Human occupation of the site lasted at least another 800 years after the end of the broch. Carruthers continues: “they might also be acts of propitiation, an assuagement of the decision to end a major building that had been highly valued for so long, by many previous generations of inhabitants. Perhaps the inclusion of our elderly human jawbone as part of the process was also a nod in the direction of the past of the broch, when it was in its hey-day? When that person was in their youth the broch would still have been the major symbol of authority in the landscape, and the jawbone may well have belonged to someone who had been a member of the broch household”.

A further possibility is that the formality and recurrence of all these depositional acts were themselves a source of comfort and reconciliation, especially in the face of major transitions underway on site, and in wider society, a response to crisis that drew comfort from the long-standing tradition of deposition.

Whatever the truth of the mentalities and motivations, the process of ending the broch was measured, carefully planned, required resources of people as well as of materials, was physically difficult, as well as probably not a little dangerous. It also seems to have entailed serious ideological input and consideration, not least indicated by the deposition of human remains like our jawbone inside the fin whale vessel.

The end of the broch seems also to have involved the butchery and perhaps sacrifice of animals, feasting, and especially, perhaps, reflection on the past, present, and future of the community.

Field Archaeology Short Course at The Cairns, Orkney

The Cairns excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

Field Archaeology – A 3 day hands-on field-based short course located at The Cairns, one of Orkney’s leading excavations.

This three day short course in Field Archaeology from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute aims to provide participants with basic training and understanding of the practices and processes in Field Archaeology.

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).

The Cairns Broch overlooking the North Sea

In a friendly and supportive atmosphere, 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. Participants will be trained by professional archaeologists from the UHI Archaeology Institute and will form part of the large team at the excavation site.

  • When? 17-19 June 2020 (3 full days 9:30 – 16:30)
  • Where? The Cairns Broch excavations, Orkney
  • What does it cost? £250.00 per person
  • How do I book? Email Mary Connolly studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Recommended equipment: 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 9:30. Accommodation, travel and lunch are not included.

Closing date for applications: 29th Feb 2020

Check out the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute webpage here. Places are limited (15 max.) so book now!

Experimental Archaeology at The Cairns

The Cairns Excavation looking across the ditch to the exterior broch wall

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student Paul Jack is preparing to start his exciting Carnegie Vacation Scholarship project at The Cairns dig in a few weeks time.

Paul took a few minutes out from his busy day to talk me through his project which will involve working at The Cairns excavation to re-create an Iron Age furnace.

Paul takes up the story, “So, under guidance from Martin Carruthers, I’ll first be building a traditional ‘bowl’ type furnace based upon archaeological examples from Iron Age Britain. The furnace itself will be constructed from local clay and I’ll be using some form of a bag bellows to blow air into the furnace.”

“The plan is then to construct a series of little thumb bowls out of the clay with varying quantities of grass, wood, stone, and hopefully bone as a temper before placing them in the furnace to be fired. This is to examine if the different temper materials affect the properties in such a way that may be beneficial, or detrimental, to the construction of a mould for bronze working. I’ll also use shell so that there is a point of overlap with Bronitsy and Hamer (1986) to compare my results against.”

Two moulds for casting penannular brooches unearthed last year at The Cairns

Paul continued, “There is a section of academia that believe that experimental archaeology should purely be concerned with providing hard data, but there’s been a growing corpus over the past few decades focusing on interpreting the bodily experience through the archaeological record. I want to try and marry this data driven side of experimental archaeology with the experiential side of experimental archaeology.”

The metal working area at The Cairns

“To do this I will be reflecting on the process of constructing the furnace and processing some bog ore. I’ll also be measuring heat within the furnace (as we are doubtful about the possibility of actually being able to smelt some iron ore). This means that my ability to keep a consistent temperature within the furnace will be used as a proxy for the success of our pretend smelt. The difficulty involved in the process coupled with the hard data produced from the temperature of the furnace will be reflected upon and will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the experience of prehistoric metalworking. The research will then progress by converting the bowl type furnace to a short shaft furnace and the whole experiment will be repeated to compare the two different furnace types.”

Bronze pin re-created from the moulds found at The Cairns.

This is of course not the first time that research has been completed concerning metal smithing at The Cairns. Three years ago Ben Price, one of MSc students created a 3D model of a pin and then cast it in bronze, revealing for the first time in 2000 years a metal article that was to be produced at The Cairns. To remind yourself of that ground breaking research check out the blog post here

The Carnegie Trust Vacation Scholarships provide funding for undergraduate students who wish to develop their own research projects over the summer. Students learn how to manage a research project and prepare for postgraduate study and will have the opportunity to see their research results published in academic journals or presented at conferences

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…..