The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are delighted to announce a talk by Professor Steve Mithen of the University of Reading on the 15th of May at 5pm in the Orkney College Restaurant.
The talk is entitled: Late Glacial pioneers and Mesolithic explorers in western Scotland: new discoveries from Criet Dubh, Isle of Mull, & Rubha Port an t-Seilich, Isle of Islay
Professor Mithen said, “Scotland has been enjoying a wealth of new discoveries about the Mesolithic, transforming our appreciation and understanding of this period as one of innovation within a rapidly changing climate and environment. In this talk I will cover two such discoveries.
First, a Mesolithic dwelling at Criet Dubh on the Isle of Mull, and its significance for interpreting other recently discovered structures in Scotland such as at Echline and East Barnes; second, the discovery of stratified Late Glacial (?) and early Mesolithic deposits at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, which is subject to on-going excavation.”
This is a free talk held in conjunction with the Orkney Archaeology Society and all are welcome.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the introduction of a new BSc Archaeological Science degree.
This exciting new degree complements our existing archaeology programmes by exploring the range of science-based methods that form an integral part of archaeological research.
The new course offers an opportunity for students to focus on the scientific elements of archaeology including archaeobotany (e.g. cereal grains, seeds, fruit stones), biomolecular archaeology (ancient DNA, lipids, isotopes), geoarchaeology, osteoarchaeology (human bone), palynology (pollen grains), wood and charcoal analysis, together with zooarchaeology (animal and fish bone).
On this course, you will develop scientific skills and knowledge through a range of science-orientated modules including Science and Archaeology, Biomolecular Archaeology and Archaeological Science Dissertation. As part of the course, you also receive practical laboratory-based learning through our residential module Practical Environmental Archaeology.
There will also be opportunities to participate in on-site archaeological excavation at world renowned sites, such as the Ness of Brodgar through our field schools and excavation modules. You will also be able to take part in ongoing archaeological scientific research being conducted by staff, such as in palaeoenvironmental studies and zooarchaeological studies.
As part of the new degree, you will have the option to gain real-world experience of working within the archaeological sector and in furthering your archaeological scientific knowledge through participating in our Placement Module. This module will allow you to make new contacts and increase your future employability for life after your degree. The module will also allow you to experience elements of Postgraduate research should you wish to continue your education with us at Masters or PhD Level.
More information and online application for a start date of September 2018 can be accessed by clicking through to our UHI course webpage.
During two days in April, Martin Carruthers and a group of Archaeology Masters students travelled down to The Cairns on South Ronaldsay, Orkney to commence test pitting.
Digging in the face of rain, hail, driving snow and brilliant sunshine….in fact a typical Orkney Spring day….the team made some interesting discoveries. Their efforts were shared on social media as it happened and this BLOG is a summary of their initial thoughts.
The geophysics completed last season highlighted areas that could benefit from closer scrutiny. We found brilliant evidence for the kinds of ancient activites going on in the hinterland of the broch, including arable field soils dating to the Iron Age, ashy midden overlying the eastern side of the Iron Age village, and a possible hollow way or track that runs up to the front entrance of the broch enclosure and probably separated animals from cultivated crops over two thousand years ago. We also found distinctive Iron Age pottery, stone tools, flint, lots of animal bone and a rare furnace base (or hearth bottom) a residue from iron working.
In this shot we lined up the figure in the background with the end of the linear feature that we knew from the geophysics. The photographer is stood at the other end of the feature. The test pit in the middle established that the feature is an Iron age feature and appears to be a hollow-way or track. This is a remarkable survival of a landscape feature actually associated with a broch, and we think one of the very few ever excavated. We hope to return to see more of this feature in the future !
The stone in the section edges is either rubble from Iron Age structures or, as I think, the remains of post-Medieval ridge and furrow beds. The heaped up stone forming the ridge would itself be rubble from the Iron Age remains.
And….just to prove that The Cairns never disappoints, a very nice mid Iron Age rim sherd emerged from test pit 10 on the first day.
A marine archaeology project led by Kevin Heath of Sula Diving and funded by Orkney Island Council. Research completed by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).
Even now the weather in Orkney can cause difficulties for modern ships. With all our sophisticated navigation equipment and ships, vast seas and gale force winds can combine to close down the islands to all communications. Just imagine trying to sail around our beautiful, but treacherous islands while at war – in a small wooden ship – without local knowledge and without weather forecasts. Then imagine heading into mountainous seas with just your skill as a seaman to keep you from smashing against the rocks. That was the reality facing the warship Utrecht in the winter of 1807.
Built in Rotterdam, the Utrecht was part of the Dutch Navy. On 15th February 1807 the 38 gun warship was on it`s first voyage and was one of three frigates that were sailing to Curacao to reinforce the Dutch garrison stationed there against the British. The vessel was driven off course in a blizzard and was stranded off the North coast of Sanday with a recorded loss of 50 – 100 men. The remaining crew and soldiers came ashore and were stripped of their valuables by the islanders. A detachment of soldiers proceeded to Sanday where they found the survivors “in great distress… objects of pity rather than fear… [who]… had delivered themselves to the authorities in Orkney”. The survivors were brought to Kirkwall where they were briefly imprisoned at a makeshift prisoner of war camp at Gaitnip. They were subsequently taken to Leith where some of them joined the Royal Navy. The remaining survivors were returned home to Holland.
The project aims to build on previous work that located and conducted a preliminary assessment of the remains of the Dutch Frigate Utrecht, which was stranded off the Holmes of Ire, Sanday in 1807.
The remains of the Utrecht represent a unique resource in Orkney waters. The Utrecht is the only vessel of its type known to have sunk in Orkney waters – the closest equivalent being the remains of The Svecia off North Ronaldsay.
The second phase of this project recorded and planned the extent of the site and its artefacts. This would provide an invaluable baseline by which to monitor the wreck site, deterring high risk activities such as the site being plundered before protection measures are instigated. Recording the remains of the vessel through completion of this project contributes to local and national heritage management strategies e.g. Historic Scotland’s Strategy for the protection, management and promotion of marine heritage 2012 – 15, and the Scottish Historic Environment Policy. This project also carried out side scan and magnetometer surveys in order to define the extent of the wreck site. The archaeological dive team carried out site analysis; producing an archaeological record, wreck site and artefact distribution plan.
An illustrated report will be produced and lodged with the relevant local and national bodies. The initial display at the Sanday Heritage Centre will also be added to, using data from the project to highlight the story of The Utrecht.
A 3D model using photogrammetric software will be created of the wreck site elements; this will raise the profile of the wrecksite and will provide an interactive tool to encourage diver tourism in the Outer Islands.
Although the story of the shipwreck has been recorded in local archive sources and regional shipwreck anthologies, the location of the remains and associated artefacts were unknown until discovery during the initial phase of this project. There are several conflicting reports about the size of the vessel, the numbers of crew and passengers and the number of people who lost their lives as a result of this stranding – conflicts that will only be resolved by more detailed desk-based assessment and further investigation of the wreck site.
Every now and then something turns up on an dig that just connects me with a living person from thousands of years ago. The Cairns Character was unearthed a few years ago in South Ronaldsay and for me, living in South Ronaldsay, it immediately made a connection.
I have included photographs of the site where he (is he a he or a she ?) was found and I have especially included pictures that were taken on one of those short Orkney days in winter – when perhaps this character was carved. I can see in my minds eye, someone sitting by the fire 2000 years ago, surrounded by their family – perhaps with a howling gale knocking at the door – gently carving a stone found on the beach. There`s a nose and two eyes and a little crooked smile….it`s a piece that connects me personally with the living from the Iron Age and perhaps suggests they were not so different to us ?
We know very little about the character, and perhaps will never know, but we can perhaps paint a story from his discovery.
The character was discovered in a pit dug into the remains of the domestic building, Structure B. Lying to the north and north-west of the main trench, the Structure B complex contains cellular, rectilinear and sub-circular building remnants, with many well-preserved hearths, stone fixtures and fittings, thresholds, wall piers and floors.
This complex, Martin Carruthers from The Archaeology Institute University of the Highlands and Islands explained, was undoubtedly domestic, and produced artefacts consistent with this – substantial amounts of pottery, stone tools, and an extensive animal bone assemblage.
The stone head had been carefully deposited in a pit, along with a number of other artefacts, presumably at the end of the site’s life. We can only guess as to the carving’s purpose – was it intended to portray a spirit or god, or was it merely a cherished possession.
Martin explained: “One recurring aspect of this site is the fact that there’s a whole series of later features that have muddied the waters somewhat.On the one hand we’ve been able to piece together these really intimate details of life within these structures – the domestic artefacts, the metalworking etc, but at the same time the overall shape of some of the buildings remain obscure – obliterated through time and continual reuse.”
Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and the Orkneyjar website. Click here for more information on The Cairns and a link through to Orkneyjar
The excavation was supported by Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College UHI, the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership, Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) Aberdeen University and Glasgow University. The team would also like to thank the South Ronaldsay community and landowner Charlie Nicholson.
NUTS found during an archaeological dig in Skye were from the hunter gatherer period more than 8,000 years ago, tests have confirmed.
The hazelnut shells were discovered during the five-day excavation by Staffin Bay in September 2015 when University of the Highlands and Islands archaeologists investigated a suspected Mesolithic structure, in collaboration with the Staffin Community Trust (SCT).
Radiocarbon dates have now confirmed the excavated lithics date to the Mesolithic period, towards the latter half of the 7th millennium BC.
Two fragments of charred hazelnut shell both returned dates of circa 6800-6600 BC (calibrated). The hazelnuts were recovered from soil samples from the lower part of the sequence at the site, suggesting human activity may have occurred over a long period of time.
The north Skye archaeological excavation has yielded a fragment of worked bone, and several thousand flints which could provide a fuller picture of Staffin’s hunter-gatherer period. The flint assemblage recovered from the same layer is currently being quantified and analysed.
While the structure at the site is likely to date to the post-medieval period, confirmation of Mesolithic dates for the layers below could provide further clues about life in the area 8,000 years ago. The new dates are just a bit earlier than the earliest dates from material recovered from the base of the section excavated at the nearby An Corran rock shelter, which was excavated in the 1990s. Both sites were essentially contemporary and one of many dating to this period along the Staffin Bay coastline.
Dan Lee, Archaeology Institute UHI, lifelong learning and outreach archaeologist, said: “We are really pleased to have such convincing Mesolithic dates from the site. This hints at the huge potential for additional excavations in the area and presents a great opportunity to understand life in the Staffin area during this period.”
SCT director Dugald Ross said: “The lab confirmation of human activity in the local area close to 9000 years ago is a huge bonus to all who took part and we eagerly await the next phase of research.”
SCT would like to thank the Garafad township and Kilmuir Estate for permission to carry out the excavation. The project was funded by the Scottish Funding Council via Interface Scotland, Highland Council and the Carnegie Foundation of New York.
SCT and UHI are to discuss how further work can be carried out in the Staffin area following this exciting discovery from the community-led project, which was attended by more than 200 people, including pupils from Staffin and Kilmuir primary schools.
The Staffin Community Trust has developed projects on behalf of the community since 1994. The organisation was set up after a worrying fall in the Staffin population. The SCT’s objective is to improve Staffin’s economic prospects, stimulate social and cultural activities and improve services, with the Gaelic language an integral part of that. The SCT is now a company limited by guarantee with a board of eight directors, who all live in Staffin, and more than 60 members. www.staffin-trust.co.uk
Research conducted by Andrea Boyar BA, Post Graduate student at The Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, Orkney.
Orkney forms one of the most intensively studied regions in Britain, providing a ‘core area’ for research (Barclay 2004: 34-37). The aim of this study was to establish to what extent Neolithic cairns in this region align with solar events
Determine the orientation of the entrance passages of the Orcadian chambered cairns.
Establish trends within the range of orientations.
Analyse the extent of alignments that fall into the range of orientations.
The funerary monuments of Neolithic Orkney are characterised by stone-built burial mounds situated near water, perhaps indicative of the importance of sea migration (Phillips 2003: 384). These cairns contained inhumations and cremations reflective of collective burial practices, in addition to an assortment of animal bones, stone tools, pottery, and other grave goods (Davidson and Henshall 1989: 52-59). The monuments appear to have been in use for a few hundred years, and there is a “strong possibility” that many were re-used before being deliberately decommissioned (Lee 2011: 43).
Types of Neolithic Cairns in Orkney
Case Study: Rousay
The island of Rousay was selected for a case study due to a high concentration of well-preserved burial architecture. The primary fieldwork aim was to record cairn azimuths in order to measure deviation from solar alignments. Key to this analysis was Stellarium, an open source planetarium used to establish the Sun’s position in the Neolithic period in Britain. By utilising precise measurements, rather than relying upon cardinal point orientations, this approach allowed for a more temporal conclusion to be reached on the relationship between solar alignment and mortuary architecture in the Neolithic.
Orkney-Cromarty cairns were predominantly orientated towards the southeast, with an avoidance of northern orientations
Maes Howe cairns were more variable; there appears to be a shift from the southeast to the southwest, with a complete avoidance of the north
Hybrid cairns were the most random, containing northern orientations within examples of atypical subterranean architecture
Early Neolithic cairns placed an importance on the Midwinter sunrise, while late Neolithic cairns exhibited a shift towards the Midwinter sunset
An avoidance of a northern orientation, which would theoretically place a tomb in a state of perpetual darkness
The outlier cairns orientated to the north demonstrated atypical subterranean architecture, perhaps indicative that these specific tombs were built to intentionally keep light out of the interior
Azimuths provided a temporal range for illumination periods – an area of further research
Considering how this study has evidenced seasonal intervals beyond the solstices as significant, it would be worthwhile to look at how times of illumination may relate to periods when Neolithic Orcadians would visit a tomb, inter their dead, and manipulate the remains. Applying the methods utilised in the Rousay case study to the rest of the region may reveal further insight relating to the temporal function of astronomy in Neolithic Orkney.
Neolithic Orcadians were an agrarian society, and as such, the changing seasons would have played an integral role to the sustainability of their way of life. For reasons unknown, solar alignments were incorporated into burial architecture; with a focus on the Solstice period, a time when one cycle ends and another begins. It is possible that sunlight was simply useful for physically seeing inside the chamber itself, however, it appears that these alignments reflect an underlying cosmology indicative of the cultural importance of the sun to an agricultural community. Cairns are mortuary structures, thus the alignments evident within them may reflect pivotal periods in the year associated with ancestral rebirth or renewal
Ness of Brodgar excavations, led by Nick Card senior project manager for ORCA, were visited by photographer Tim Winterburn to shoot archaeological dig images for UHI. The dig has been running every summer since 2007. The dig forms a centrepiece of studies for The Archaeology Institute UHI archaelogy students, both undergraduate and postgraduate – affording a unique opportunity to work on a site of major international significance within a World Heritage Site. The dig also attracts Universities from across the globe to bring students and volunteers to the site each summer for field trips.Here, the Ness of Brodgar at dusk.
A new website has been set up by Sam Harris who is undertaking PhD research into archaeomagnetic dating (this is explained on the website) based on samples he has taken at the Ness of Broadgar. Sam’s research should provide complimentary dates to the C14 ones we have done in conjunction with the Times of Their Lives Project. This will help with the refinement of the chronology of the Ness and also the use of this technique.
The primary aim of this PhD project is to develop archaeomagnetic dating in the Neolithic period in Scotland. This research will expand on the pre-existing chronological dating tools available to the archaeologist by extending the calibration curve for archaeomagnetic dating. This will allow investigations of heated archaeological material from older parts of antiquity than previously permitted. Further afield this will contribute to geophysical understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field in the past. The Ness of Brodgar’s ongoing excavations have allowed a significant amount of sampling and will continue to do so as the PhD progresses.
Research conducted by Neil Ackerman, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
This project looked at the roofing flagstones from the Ness of Brodgar. This is the first evidence for Neolithic roofing of this kind on Orkney. Previously, roofs have generally been assumed to be made from organic materials, such as turf or thatch. While stone roofing has been suggested as a potential on a few occasions, this is first time a collapsed flagstone roof has been identified. The majority of flagstones come from Structure 8, providing a detailed sample to study further. This evidence provides a unique opportunity to gain insight into a poorly understood aspect of Neolithic construction.
Understanding the roof furthers our understanding of the structures as a whole. The internal piers in the building could serve to shorten the unsupported span of the roof frame significantly. It also gives a possible explanation for the failure of the south west wall from Structure 12. The significant outward thrust of a roof of this size could easily cause a collapse like this if not properly countered. The shortening of Structure 1 could also be a response to a roof collapse, with the later wall being built directly on top of the collapsed material. Shortening the structure would provide less of a weight to support.
Construction and Collapse
The distribution of the flagstones from the roof in Structure 8 hints towards the construction methodology. The size of the flagstones reduces towards the centre of the structure, but are smallest at the end wall suggesting the roof follows the curve of the wall.As well as showing the way the roof was built, the distribution of the flagstones also shows how it collapsed. They are not found vertically against the walls as they would likely be if the roof had deteriorated over time. Rather, they are spread across the structure with 89% lying at ≤45°.
Large amounts of compact white clay were found with the flagstones when they were excavated. This could serve as a caulking material, as well as keeping the flagstones together. An internal covering is also highly likely, as there is no evidence of direct exposure to the smoke and soot from the internal hearths. A seamer method was used to cover the gaps between flagstones and reduce the amount of moisture getting into the structure.
By looking at historical use of flagstone in roofing, and evidence from the Neolithic flagstones, three models are suggested:
Ingrid Mainland (second author) has had a paper published enitled : Calving Seasonality at Pool, Orkney during the first millennium AD : An investigation using intra tooth isotope ratio analysis of cattle molar enamel.
Abstract : The identification of dairying is essential if we are to understand economies of the past, particularly in northwest Europe, where a high degree of lactose tolerance suggests that fresh milk has long been asignificant food product. This paper explores a possible link between economic focus and seasonality of calving. Although cattle can breed throughout the year, animals living in termperate regionswith minimal or no human management tend to breed seasonally, their breeding behaviour being strongly influenced by the availability of food. In order to achieve a year-round supply of fresh milk in the past, it is likely that multiple-season calving was necessary, which would have required additional husbandry effort.
Alternatively, for meat-focussed economies or those based on storable dairy products, a strategy of single-season calving in spring may have been favoured to maximise the utilisation of spring and summer vegetation. Cattle birth seasonality is invetigated through isotope ratio analysis of tooth enamel. Results for cattle from Pool, Orkney dating to the latter part of the first millennium AD suggest that calving occurred during at least three seasons implying that the continuous provision of fresh milk was of economic importance.