Do Orcadian Tombs Align with Solar Events ?

 

Research conducted by Andrea Boyar BA, Post Graduate student at The Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, Orkney.

Introduction

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

Research Objectives

  • 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.

Background Context

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

Orkney Carin types

Case Study: Rousay

Rousay orientation.png
Distribution map of the Rousay chambered cairns, showing orientation of entrance passages acording to azimuths measurements

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.

Project Results

Azimuth results
Azimuth of Rousay Cairns

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

Project results

Research Findings

  • 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

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.

Conclusion

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

 

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Nautical Archaeology Society Courses

Are you interested in the maritime heritage of Orkney? Do you want to directly contribute to the monitoring of wartime remains in Scapa Flow? Would you like to learn how to plan a project, locate and record a site, deal with artefacts, undertake ROV surveys and learn how to use GIS mapping software?

Orkney College UHI, Historic Scotland and Nautical Archaeology Society are running a series of courses this year:

 

  • NAS MAC Introduction to ROV Surveys: This two-day course on the 14th- 15th May 2016 will focus on the use of smaller ROVs in archaeological surveys. Students will gain practical experience designing and completing different types of ROV survey. Cost £249
  • NAS MAC Introduction to GIS: This two-day introductory course on the 30th -31st July 2016 will provide an overview of features in QGIS – a freely available GIS software package commonly used by people working with large spatial datasets. Cost £140
  • NAS MAC Introduction to Side Scan Sonar Survey: This two-day course on the 24th -25th September 2016 will provide an overview of Side Scan Sonars, and the applications of remote sensing in archaeological surveys. Students will gain practical experience designing, completing and interpreting Side Scan Sonar survey. Cost £249

To reserve a place on a course or for further information, please contact:

Sandra Henry, Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1LX. 

E-mail: studyarachaeology@uhi.ac.uk 

Tel: +44 (0)1856 569223

Maritime Archaeology Courses (MACs) are open to everyone but only members can gain credits towards the NAS Certificate/Award

Using Archaeomagnetic Dating at The Ness of Brodgar

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.

Already the results are looking very promising!

http://neolithicarchaeomagnetism.weebly.com/

How did the Neolithic Orcadians keep dry ?

 

Research conducted by Neil Ackerman, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Background

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.

Structural Understanding

Rebuilt south west wall of structure 12
The rebuilt south west wall of structure 12

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 reconstructed roofstructure, 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°.

Weatherproofing

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.

Suggested Models

By looking at historical use of flagstone in roofing, and evidence from the Neolithic flagstones, three models are suggested:

a) Uncovered flagstone roof

b) Covered flagstone roof

c) Partial flagstone roof

Research Paper Published

Sanday

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 regions with 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.

The full paper can be accessed below :

Ingrid Mainland Calving Seasonality at Pool

Decisions, Decisions

It`s that time of year again….the Christmas Tree is in the recycling, the mornings are dark, the evenings are dark and the TV is full of adverts about summer holidays. But it is also the time when many of you are planning a new phase of your life – going to university.

UCAS aim to make decisions by the end of March concerning interviews and offers. So have a quick look at the video above and decide to choose the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

By the way, the archaeology section is filmed at The Cairns excavation on Orkney which is used extensively by the Archaeology Institute UHI in its teaching.

3 D Modelling Dissertation Survey

3D modelling is now an accepted part of archaeological analysis and interpretation. However, up until now very few people have studied how these images are used. James Bright, one of our students studying at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, identified this issue and is in the process of gathering information for his dissertation – “The value of 3D models and their use in the archaeology and heritage sector”  

James writes, “The first part of research for the dissertation was spent making some 3D models of items at the Buckie and District Fishing Heritage Centre, using photogrammetry techniques and Agisoft Photoscan. This was to investigate how much time and skill was needed to make good quality models. I had got some very good advice on what does and doesn’t work from Hugo Anderson-Whymark, who makes some excellent models in Orkney. The second part of research was to design some surveys asking different groups their thoughts on the 3D models – did they learn anything from them, did they think they were of value, did they even load on their devices ! ”

 “Once I have enough results from the surveys, I can discuss the value of making the models, is it worth it and are people really learning from these models or just interested in the ‘wow’ factor of the model itself, being a relatively new technology. I want to see if this technology really brings anything to the table in terms of education and dissemination and I’d like to look at any problems or issues people may have had using this technology.”

If you want to help James in his survey then please go through to his website

https://www.virtualpasts.com/survey-for-archaeologists-and-archaeology-students/

 

More Finds on Sanday

Braving the weather on Sanday, Chris managed to take some quick shots of the newly discovered Bronze Age settlement complex. It was blowing a sandstorm at the time so please excuse the quality ! But they are interesting nonetheless.

The first photograph shows a short section of curving wall with the top edge of an upright stone, c0.60m in length, roughly parallel to, presumably, the inside wall face. Just behind the photographer another slightly curving wall face, visible for c2m, was traced among the beach stone and shingle. Reddish brown midden deposits containing shell and bone were also observed close to these features.

The second photograph shows one of several raised ridges of shingle which extend underneath the sand dunes to the east. In the foreground of the photograph can be seen a curving ridge of stone which may represent the remains of a building. Modern vehicle tracks cross the image diagonally. Stone tools including ard points, struck cobbles, Skaill knives and stone bars were visible at this location and along the length of the beach.

Ard points are round section flagstones pointed at one end. Many have been chipped and pecked to shape. Ard points were used as stone shares on ploughs without a mouldboard. They passed through the soil breaking it up. Ard points are familiar at Bronze Age sites, and interestingly are also found associated with barrows and burial mounds from that period.

The third photograph shows two “earthfast” sub-rectangular stones to the right of Vicky. These may form part of a building entrance.

Bronze Age Settlement Discovered on Sanday

Tresness (2)
Professor Jane Downes examines one of the house structures on the beach.

Archaeological discoveries are often made when least expected, and this is exactly what happened last Monday 7th December at Tresness, Sanday. In very poor weather, Prof. Jane Downes (University of the Highlands and Islands), Prof. Colin Richards (Manchester University), Dr Vicki Cummings (University of Central Lancaster) and Christopher Gee (ORCA, UHI) were walking out to Tresness to examine the eroding stalled cairn on the point. Initially, Christopher noticed what appeared to be the top of a substantial cairn of stones emerging through the sand. Then, Jane and Vicki spotted a circular spread of stones lying nearby in the intertidal zone on the western side of the ness. Investigating the spread, a large number of ard-points, stone mattocks, stone bars, hammerstones and stone flaked knives were immediately visible on the surface. Closer examination revealed sections of stone walls and uprights, which were clearly part of a house structure. No sooner was the spread of stones identified as the remains of a Bronze Age house, when another spread of stones was seen lying just a few metres away. This too was another house structure covered with a mass of stone tools. As the group continued walking along the sand, one after another, a series of Bronze Age sites were discovered.

The houses are visible as differently shaped spreads of stones, and in all some 14 examples were located distributed over a kilometre stretch along the sand. This vast spread of Bronze Age settlement appears to have been sealed beneath the massive sand-dunes that characterise the approach to Tresness. Indeed, a number are actually in the process of eroding from beneath the dune complex. What this discovery reveals is that an entire Bronze Age landscape on Sanday was covered by the sand dunes formed in the second millennium BC. It was the scale and density of occupation that really surprised the archaeologists as they proceeded along the ness. Not only are house structures present but working areas are also visible. Prof. Downes, who specialises in the Bronze Age was stunned by the extent of the settlement area, “this must be one of the biggest complexes of Bronze Age settlement in the Scottish isles, rivalling the spreads of hut circles in other parts of mainland Scotland”, she exclaimed.

The Bronze Age, in terms of settlement and associated agricultural practices, is probably the least understood period in Orcadian prehistory, and the vast quantity of ard-points testifies to the dominance of arable agriculture occurring at this time. It also confirms the strange practice of depositing numerous ard-points and stone tools in houses after they were ‘decommissioned’ noted by Prof. Downes. Similar Bronze Age houses have been recently excavated at the Links of Noltland, Westray; however, the scale of the Sanday discoveries is unparalleled in Orkney. Cath Parker, leader of the Sanday Archaeology Group, says “This is incredibly exciting. The archaeological landscape concealed beneath Sanday’s  shifting sands never ceases to amaze us. I’m sure the local community will relish the opportunity to be involved with any work which stems from this thrilling discovery.”

This new discovery offers the possibility of examining a dispersed Bronze Age settlement context in detail; an occurrence that will surely shed new light on this rather hazy period in Orcadian prehistory. Prof. Richards noted that “after a long history of excavating the large late Neolithic settlements or ‘villages’, most recently the Ness of Brodgar and Links of Noltland, we now possess a detailed understanding of Neolithic life in Orkney, but what happens in the following Bronze Age period is a bit of a mystery”.

Of course, given their position in the intertidal zone, the settlement complex on Sanday is under substantial threat from coastal erosion and it is only a matter of time before they will be further damaged and destroyed.

 

Discovering Hidden Kirkwall 12th December

Discovering Hidden KirkwallKirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative Archaeology Programme is calling for volunteers !

The Archaeology Institute University of Highlands and Islands is running the first in a series of projects in the Kirkwall  Townscape Heritage Initiative. The project aims to involve local people in archaeology and discover a hidden Kirkwall.

During the day volunteers will undertake a basic archaeological survey in the Kirkwall conservation area – taking photographs, making sketches and describing buildings.

There are 10 places availabe for volunteers
Sat 12th Dec. 10.00am – 2.00pm
Meet Outside the cathedral
Contact to book Daniel Lee
Tel : 01856 569214