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

Test Pitting @ The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

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Charlotte and Simon excavating a test pit on the north western side of the ditched enclosure around the broch.

MSc students from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute ventured out to The Cairns last week to investigate several features around the site.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, takes up the story….

“We began by excavating test pits at The Cairns.  In glorious sunshine, our intrepid MSc students began to investigate the Neolithic midden, Iron Age soils close to the ditch surrounding the broch and the natural boulder clay in the northern part of the field; all of which help us to define the extent of the archaeological remains here.

18358843_10154675732601325_2490963565498319916_oA previously unknown, probably prehistoric site, located 180 metres to the south-east of The Cairns was brought to light in a shallow test pit containing ashy midden and a stone setting, possibly a remnant wall. Not visually spectacular at this stage but highly significant in our ever-expanding awareness of the landscape around The Cairns. Finds were few but a fragment of a saddle quern came out of the ashy soil and hints that the site is prehistoric. This ‘new’ site aligns to one end of a buried linear feature previously investigated, which turned out to be a ditch or hollow-way, maybe a track leading from the entrance of the broch village down-slope to this point in the landscape.

The image below is looking from the test pit back up-slope in the direction of The Cairns mound. The ‘hollow-way’ takes a line from here straight through the modern telegraph pole, to the mound of The Cairns beyond it.”

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The Cairns excavation starts on the 12th June 2017 and continues until 7th July 2017. Martin and the team welcome visitors during the season. The site is literally in the middle of a field so bring wellies and wet weather gear if it has been raining. One of the team would be pleased to show you round and explain the emerging features of this intriguing site.

Contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk if you require directions or more information.

Fascinating Finds from The Cairns

Seal Tooth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two tiny marks scratched into an animal bone

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

The Cairns Whalebone-the inside story

IMG_3822Post-excavation work is progressing well on the whalebone vessel unearthed at The Cairns late last year.

The vessel not only contained a human jawbone, but also animal bones, remains of ceramic pots and stone tools.

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MLitt student, Karen Kennedy, is working with Dr Ingrid Mainland (Programme Leader for MLitt Archaeological IMG_3828Studies), examining, recording and cataloguing the animal bone fragments as part of her research into ‘Feasting in the Iron Age’.

Initial findings suggest that neonatal lamb, calf and pig bones were deposited within and around the huge whalebone container in addition to fragments of broken pottery and stone tools. This indicates that the inhabitants of the broch took part in a final feast and ceremony to close the structure down following hundreds of years of occupation.

Post-excavation work on the whalebone is almost complete. The object has been carefully cleaned and emptied of all contents. This has enabled a closer examination of the huge find and gives us an insight into the processes involved in the making of this impressive piece. The transverse processes had clearly been hacked off with a sharp blade, but when examined closer, small knife marks are clearly visible around the rim and the whole of the interior.

The Iron Age inhabitants of The Cairns broch seemed to have a liking for whalebone. This object forms part of a growing collection of whalebone objects emerging from the site. Over 60 whalebone objects have been unearthed in the 2016 season alone.

Karen’s work will not only add to our understanding of the rituals involved at The Cairns but on a personal level, will also enhance her career prospects as she learns new techniques involved in front line archaeological research.

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Marks on the whalebone vessel rim.

More details concerning our research at The Cairns will be discussed at ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held in Kirkwall between 14th and 17th September 2017. For more information about our conference, contact archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk or see our conference website.

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Call for papers poster outlining the themes

The Mystery of Iron Age Burials

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The research by Dr Mary Macleod Rivett raised several questions from a number of people on social media, concerning burial in Iron Age Britain generally and more specifically the significance of the face down burial.

The following is a brief synopsis of a conversation between Mary Macleod Rivett and Martin Carruthers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and raises some interesting points about the role of the dead in Iron Age society. 

In terms of Iron Age face-down burials, I’m not aware of very many.  There’s one adult male from the in-fill of a souterrain at Bu, near Stromness in Orkney where he was buried on his front with his hands apparently behind him, head slightly tilted to one side.  He was also accompanied by a further half a dozen or so human individuals, in the same souterrain back-fill, of a range of sexes and ages, including some quite young children.  I wouldn’t want to jump to any sinister conclusion about what this configuration means, but it is interesting that the in-fill of the souterrain also seems to have been one of the final acts during the Iron Age period on this particular site.  It’s probably different from the burial described by Mary Macleod, I would suggest, as it doesn’t carry the same formality and the fascinating grave goods.

I suppose one of the things that is often thought to limit what we can say about burials from this period is that there are so relatively few of them (and traces of human remains more generally) and therefore it’s very uncertain how representative any of the burials actually are, in terms of a ‘normal’ or normative burial tradition as such.  The Early and Middle Iron Age burials that have been found are very diverse in terms of the treatment of the deceased.  There are inhumations like this one, cremations, semi-articulated portions of bodies, and completely disarticulated pieces of human bone (like the jaw found at The Cairns recently).

There are even pieces of modified human bone like the pierced femur heads from some sites where they seem to have been used as spindle whorls, or the pierced skull plates that seem to have been hung on strings for display.

And although there have been more Iron Age burials discovered in recent years, most regions of the UK (except parts of East Yorkshire, or the South East) still stubbornly refuse to give up anything like the volume of burials that we know must have gone with the relatively large population size during the Iron Age.

We still have a very long way to go to start putting these burials in a better contextual understanding.  However, that does actually mean that each and every new Iron Age period burial is very significant as they are such a relatively rare resource for understanding the treatment of the dead during the period.

Mary adds, “I also dug a prone, male, IA burial (no C14 date) several years ago at A’Cheardach Ruadh, Baile Sear, North Uist, but the body there had a twisted spine (scoliosis), and there may have been practical reasons for that one…”

Sounds like a good subject for a PhD!!!