Day Nine at The Cairns archaeology excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney and University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Duncan Foxley expertly tracks todays events…..
Another typical Orkney Summer’s day, dawn came early, but with a dour sky. The day brightened gradually, but the dim morning gave those of us working in the broch plenty of time to get to grips with the mixed context we have been working on for the last week within and around a hearth setting in the west of the structure.
The hard clay is best dug before it can dry, and has begun to reveal a series of slabs which appear to make up a formal hearth setting, with some equally substantial paving abutting it. The dense clay setting of these slabs and their size may suggest that this is the original broch hearth surface, but as always only further excavation can say for sure!
Mika, Callum, Lorna and I, under the helpful guidance of Therese, have slowly cleared most of the overlying material, although with extreme care, as such a rich context not only provides samples which contain valuable information about the lives of the Iron age inhabitants of the broch, but also some amazing finds.
In the upper corner of the hearth, Lorna picked out a small shard of glass, possibly Roman in origin due to the colour. Likely having come from a bead, such finds are an excellent tangible reminder of the interconnectivity of the people of Iron age Britain, a fact easily forgotten somewhere as seemingly remote as South Ronaldsay. Meanwhile, Mika has been painstakingly uncovering a smashed pot, found in-situ atop the hearth setting. So far, a sizeable spread has emerged, and hopefully more will follow. Finally, Therese found a copper-alloy ring in fine condition on the edge of Gary’s pit, adding to the building evidence from beads and jewellery of the extent of the local finery.
Just along the wall face, Gary has continued to work on the
sondage running from the pit to the broch side. A suspicious lack of stone in
the last few inches dug, which are instead composed of orange clay, could among
other things potentially represent the end of the lowest stone coursework of
the broch, although this will require further investigation. If so, this will
provide the first pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel of current
excavation, as it is otherwise difficult to infer how far down the floor
deposits may run. A bittersweet possibility, although there is no shortage of
work to be done in the meantime.
Out with the broch, the ongoing excavation of the
south-western extension has continued to produce interesting structural
features extending from the partial wall of structure J. What seemed to be a
relatively simple rubble overlay was shown through mattocked sondages by Anthea
and Deryck to hide wide lintel style flagstones, along with other structural
elements. Further up, Sue continued work in a cut pit with an orthostat lining
to the south-west end, which seems to be a socket setting of some type. With
two weeks left of excavation, some answers will hopefully emerge as to the
relationship between these elements and the other structures in the area.
On the other side of the site, the structures in trench Q are continuing to take shape. Bobby’s team, including Helen, Ursula and Alan, have uncovered some flagstones overlying a rubble fill within a structure, and in line with a similar surface which extended over an adjoining structure, suggesting that in a secondary phase both were joined by one floor.
The flagstones also appear to create the entrance to an orthostaic cell in south-west section of the super-structure. Within such a complex architectural palimpsest, features such as this, which tie elements together not only physically but within the stratigraphy, are essential in understanding the story of the site itself. On a site which is defined by construction, destruction and re-use, understanding the sequence of these events will hopefully allow further understanding to be gleaned of the people who once lived within and around the broch.
Today is Day Eight and Area Supervisor Therese McCormick continues the story at The Cairns…
Cool and calm weather today at The Cairns and work across the whole site continues steadily. Inside the broch, we’ve been working on some of the floor deposits that will allow us to characterise how the internal spaces within the broch were used throughout its lifetime.
Connor, Mika and Lorna have been making great progress in the north-west
quadrant of the broch interior, where you might remember from previous seasons,
a series of hearths and associated layers of paving and burnt material have
been being steadily uncovered. So far, three large flagstone hearths have been
excavated, each one revealing the next underneath. As each flagstone
deteriorated and cracked from heat, the inhabitants replaced it with another,
and the surface surrounding the hearths was built up in concert with this. So
each of these layers represents its own phase of activity within the broch,
meaning the inhabitants have helpfully left us a nice sequential story to
season, we’ve uncovered a mounded area of clay, which seems to be packing
stones which may represent a more formal hearth arrangement preceding those
we’ve already removed. We should be uncovering this feature in the near future,
so we look forward to bringing you an update!
have been working their way through the layers overlying this promising
feature, using a grid to systematically remove the deposits for sampling. All
of the sampled material will be sorted through and chemically analysed, which
allows us to build a detailed picture of what kinds of activity took place in
this area – and how this part of the broch was used over time. This is also
revealing a further layer of clay-packed stones in the vicinity of the hearth,
possibly another episode of paving. The process has also revealed some
interesting artefacts, including a partial stone lamp and several pieces of
pottery. The deposits have also been rich in animal bone as well as charcoal,
giving us some useful dating evidence for the hearth sequences.
Gary has begun a sondage at the western edge of the broch interior, between the
mysterious pit he uncovered and excavated last year and the broch wall. This is
already proving very illuminating, giving us some hints about the nature of the
pit which now looks to have been clay-lined. It also shows a thick layer of
orange clay up against the broch wall. As it progresses, the sondage will
provide a useful window into what we can expect to encounter as we take the
broch interior down to its primary surface.
through the broch entrance, Holly and Sara have been busy sampling the floor
deposits in the souterrain, hoping to establish whether these represent primary
or secondary phases of use. The area they’re working on includes a greasy
deposit towards the entrance, which may be associated with a deliberate pouring
of liquids into the souterrain, in a potentially ritually significant act!
the broch, the team in Trench Q have been busily taking down rubble deposits to
reveal more of the extra-mural village buildings and establish their
relationship the main broch structure.
south-west extension, the team are further defining the external structures
visible on this side of the broch’s outer wall as well as uncovering potential
new features and investigating the deposits revealed in the primary cut for the
progress bodes well for the weeks ahead, so please stay tuned to see what
rewards it all yields!
Today it is the turn of Lorna Morrison, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student to write the daily blog at The Cairns dig….
Hi Lorna here- the oldest undergrad. student on site. As a UHI student I have two weeks here on my ‘Excavation Skills’ module.
Weather today – breezy and sunny at The Cairns, and the ground dries quickly as we work. My first task today was to clean around some of the orthostats in the Broch inner passageway to prepare them for recording. A couple of small finds popped up – a piece of pot with crimp marks around the base, and some antler. It’s often difficult to tell stone from bone so it all goes into the finds tray for confirmation by finds-meister, Kevin, who keeps us right as to labelling and recording what we see.
The UHI undergraduate students have been honing their ‘planning’ skills – drawing their areas to scale which is a satisfying, if back-aching process. Mairead and Lucy have enjoyed planning the whole of the top of the SW extension, which includes some revetment, Broch wall and flagstone surface.
Further down the SW extension, the team there have been removing rubbly areas to reveal indications of further extra-mural broch village structures. UHI student Cara found some voids at the end of her trowel which was the start of a reveal of a wall running north to south from structure J – one of the small village buildings – out towards the Broch outer ditch. Volunteers Anthea and Deryck also found an adjoining wall, with a lintel over a void deep enough to swallow a site director’s arm (which it did). This whole area now has several people working to expose the stonework and clear it of rubble. During this, Leiden students Maurits, Solveig and Elisabet have excavated bone fragments and slag (iron-working waste).
In this same corner, UHI student Alana has extended her area between structure J and the souterrain to expose possible corbelling and paving. The souterrain squad aka Holly and Sara are still sampling on a grid, coming down to more rubbly soil. The souterrain was previously roofed and below where there was an opening in the roof, the squad have excavated a cache of shells.
Next door, the ‘Rubble Runners’, Connor, Mickey, Robert and Isabelle have cleared a layer of rubble to the south of the Broch entrance, uncovering copious amounts of slag, pot, bone and a worked stone as they work. Still in area Q, but over towards the broch, Luke, Aime and Hannah are clearing back to see more of the structure underneath their feet.
Volunteers Ursula, Helen and Alan have returned this year and already have made some interesting discoveries. Today an animal skull with teeth is being revealed and has been protected until it can be further examined tomorrow.
Inside the Broch itself, Therese, Calum, Duncan, Mika, Gary have been sampling the current floor layer and cleaning back for photos and recording. Everyone is becoming very fond of their own ‘patch’ on the site, and it’s great to see how it changes as we work. The volunteers that are returning from previous years all comment on how it has changed, and we will miss it when we go, and look forward to following the blog and seeing it again next year.
Thanks to Lorna Morrison, UHI Undergraduate Student
Day Six and more from the trenches at The Cairns….
We began today’s excavation in a warm and wet humidity and as the day went on it got wetter with the winds from the sea.
Today everyone had a chance to work on a few areas across
the site. I started the day by continuing my work on the South-West extension
where I and other diggers further uncovered the stratigraphy of the natural and
clay-silt soils. This also allowed us to reveal more of the possible revetment
wall which surrounded the central broch wall.
Once the South-West area was cleaned over and ready to be
photographed and recorded, I moved to the Northern extension to clear up loose rubble.
Our group found a number of patches of shells and bones which were then recorded.
At last, I returned to the South-West extension where myself
and three others dug deeper and tidied up a large area with mattocks, shovels
and trowels. During this time we found a lot of bone, teeth and shells which
highly suggested a midden. This enabled us to imagine the lives of the Iron Age
people and led us to discuss what their diets may have consisted of and where
their priorities stood.
The groups I was surrounded by throughout the day seemed to
have all found something small whether that would be bones, shells or stone
tools, which meant a lot to them, a successful day for all, I’d say.
In the grand scheme of discoveries, however, the glass bead that
was found slightly South of Structure K in the village settlement, from ashy
soils there, must be the find of the day. The bead is a small annular pale yellow
one. Ursula found it in the Area Q just to the south of Structure K. This
brings the total of glass beads found on site to seven.
And a common theme in Archaeology when finding something
new, is creating a hypothesis only to discover something an hour later which
changes everything. Today this occurred when Anthea discovered what seemed to
be a curved wall in the South-West extension of Structure J. The conclusions
were looking simple until she discovered there was a hole under the upper
course of wall in which she could put her hand and arm in. Now it is up for
discussion as a fallen slab, broken wall or cupboard/“cubby-hole”. Only time spent excavating over the next
couple of days will tell…
Each day a different volunteer or student archaeologist has the chance to write a dig diary entry to put across their experience of the University of the Highlands and Islands research excavation at The Cairns.
It’s Day 5 and so it is Hannah’s turn to write the blog…..
Third year student Hannah (Thompson) here, another report of classic Orkney weather…rain & sunshine, with the weather improving towards the end of the day.
So, I have been working down in the bottom half of trench Q,
focusing on clearing and sharpening edges of the trench walls and sections,
this is to help us learn about relationships between different features and
deposits within the trench. This important task then allowed Bobby (trench
supervisor) to take some photographs and to record the section and certain
rubble spreads before they are removed to further excavate, and reveal even
Whist undertaking all of this, I came across the front part of a Horse skull with 4 front teeth still intact! Neigh bad at all! Aime who is also working in Trench Q came across a nice large chunk of Charcoal (important for understanding human use of the environment, as well as C-14 dating), Mika found the top half of a cranium. So trench Q has been very exciting today. In other parts of the site, such as the south west area, they have been working on excavating soils to see whether there is another phase of revetment walling around the natural enveloping the Broch wall. In the Broch itself they have been excavating and sampling the floors in the Western interior and seem to be finding another phase of occupation with a hearth.
From my 1st year until now, it has been wonderful to have such a look into the ways of the Iron Age folk, the many people who have left such wondrous things for us to understand and learn how they lived.
It’s going to be another fantastic summer here at The Cairns, with more to definitely be revealed by us. Come visit!
It’s Day Four at The Cairns dig and Site Director and Programme Leader for the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc Archaeological Practice course takes up the story….
Hi folks, Martin here. I thought I’d take the opportunity to fill you in on some details on the site today and give you an account that described both the very intimate detail of digging on site and, at the other end of the scale, a more zoomed-out sense of our main excavation aims this season.
We had a block of rough weather in mid-afternoon but this didn’t really dampen spirits too much and I was really delighted and impressed by the cheerful hardiness of our team so, firstly, I’d like to say thank you to them for their stoic hardiness today! The rain did make excavation difficult, however, and slowed things down a little. Nevertheless, some great progress was achieved. I managed to find time to get my trowel out myself, which can be a rarity for a site director, so that was very pleasant!
I busied myself in the new (Northwest) extension and attempted to reveal a little more of the western wall face of the broch, which by rights should have been just below the surface of the base of the topsoil. Sure enough, I was delighted to find that within minutes the tell-tale, characteristically large, very level, curving masonry of the top of the broch wall came cleanly into view over an expanse of about half a metre. I must confess this probably seemed too good to be true, as the site seldom gives up what is expected in such a straightforward manner, and, sure enough, moments later, as I continued to trace the wall a little further around to the south, I started to hit an interesting cluster of materials right where the wall should have been.
A large, clearly worked, cobble-stone tool emerged, and then another cobble and then another, within a tight bundle. It wasn’t long before a tiny piece of worked flint emerged and several animal bones, too. It was clear we were dealing with a little finds deposit.
To give you some background to this situation, over the years of excavation at The Cairns we have become aware that little caches of material were sometimes deposited on site. On one hand, these can be very modest in nature, so, for instance, when excavating the rubble infill of the broch, we found numerous instances of these little caches of material- usually no more than a couple of bones, some shell and maybe a piece of bog ore, or a piece of whalebone and a bone or two of another animal. At the other end of the scale a few years ago we found a quite remarkable deposit just outside the broch entrance that had involved the last generation of broch inhabitants placing a carved whalebone vessel, containing two newborn lambs, and a human jawbone, against the broch outer wall with two deer antlers propped against it and the entire deposit pinned into place using a saddle quern. There is, therefore, a considerable track record for these sorts of apparently very deliberate deposits or caches of objects on the site.
The stone tools, flint and animal bone that I found today were clustered tightly together and placed just above the reduced wall head of the broch and so probably date to really quite soon after the broch was decommissioned. Taken individually, each of these items might have attracted no great attention from us, and would have been recovered, 3-dimensionally recorded, and bagged-up, as yet another find amongst the thousands that have been recovered. However, it is the collection (curation, if you will), of multiple objects, brought together at the moment of deposition by a person, or persons, nearly two thousand years ago that makes the deposit greater than the sum of its parts.
We believe that these caches of items are an act of intentional placement and that there is an expressive (and even an aesthetic) quality to this, and that means we are seeing, however dimly, a shadow of practices and behaviours that are beyond what was strictly necessary just for the practical subsistence of life. We could argue about the whys and wherefores of the place of concepts like ‘ritual’ in this, but it certainly seems that these caches are a form of symbolic communication that would have been recognisable and understood by the community in a more detailed and specific fashion than we shall probably ever glean. Nevertheless, as the excavation progresses, and we find more and more of these sorts of caches, you never know, over time, their distribution patterning, contents and arrangements might just begin to allow us a more detailed glimpse of Iron Age mindsets and meanings!
Ok now on to other matters, and the aims of the excavation this season: One of the more obvious aims of the project, perhaps, is to excavate a broch! To put it in more formal terms: we want to “investigate the circumstances of the construction, multi-phase use, and abandonment of a major Iron Age broch/Atlantic roundhouse and its associated complex of buildings and feature areas”.
In terms of how this plays out for this season, we are going to continue to carefully and methodically excavate the floors and occupation deposits of the interior of the broch. This is a rather slow process loaded up with a requirement to produce huge amounts of records, however, it is also a very rewarding one, for example just today a stone lamp was recovered from the broch floor excavation. The really substantive reward, however, comes in the understanding the lives of the broch inhabitants through the less obvious, often tiny, sometimes microscopic, materials they left behind, trapped in the floor deposits. The full battery of our scientific techniques and perception will be levelled at the broch interior to try to map out ancient activities, tasks and practices inside in a manner seldom previously accomplished.
A second grand aim of the project is: “To understand the relationship between the site of The Cairns and its landscape at a variety of levels, and the relationship between the site and the other ancient built places within that landscape”. Well, just one example could suffice here: every day on site we discover items such as animal bones or carbonised cereal grains that will ultimately tell us a great deal about the way that the community inhabited and manipulated the wider landscape around the settlement. In many ways the buildings and features of the site acts like traps for information about the landscape and we only have to think about what was involved in cultivating these resources by the community to understand how they were responsible for changing the environment.
The third main aim of the excavation is: “To investigate later prehistoric subterranean structures to obtain fresh evidence for how and why these structures were built and used”. This year should see us finally complete the excavation of our souterrain ‘Structure F’, a remarkable underground structure that has already yielded some intriguing clues as to how special and important these structures were. We’ll be commencing that excavation in earnest tomorrow and you can see what we find there over the next weeks.
Of course, last year we excavated a slightly different subterranean structure, the ‘well’, underneath the floor of the broch. It turned out to be very dramatic with its anaerobic preservation and water-logged contents that included a wooden bowl and even human hair! I doubt we shall be this lucky when excavating the souterrain, but we may find something either in the detailed study of the floor deposits or in the objects that we find in the souterrain that gives some clues as to what actually went on inside. Please stay tuned to find out!
Finally, I thought I’d leave you with the site plan of the major structures and areas of the excavation to help you orientate yourself with our diaries over the next few weeks! Martin Carruthers, Site Director.
Today is the turn of University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student Alana to write the daily blog from The Cairns…..
The weather on The Cairns today has been good, a little windy at times but mainly very sunny. While working on a southern section of the broch outer wall (adjacent to Later Iron Age building E), I had quite a few finds, mainly shards of animal bones and a cattle tooth. A significant part of the work in this area is intended to reveal more of the outer wall face of the broch.
In this area of the broch we think that the builders of the late Iron Age building had pulled away much of the broch masonry, filled the gap in with rubble and paved it over, however, before today we were unsure as to exactly where this truncation had occurred.
Towards the end of yesterday and more fully throughout today we have uncovered the clear view of exactly how and where the broch was dismantled. Happily, however, the lower part of the broch wall seems to remain intact and it will require further excavation to establish how far round the broch wall the late Iron Age/Pictish disturbance extends.
We used mattocks to remove the silty layer of rubble and allow a clearer look at the wall, revealing more settled layers of soil beneath. In the material against the broch, small voids appeared giving an indication that loose rubble was hurriedly banked against the outside of broch. The clear evidence of later people tampering with the outside of the broch wall, is really interesting to observe and made me wonder why they dismantled this part of the wall before filling it in and paving over the top of it!
To the south of the broch there are different parts being excavated. One group is working to uncover whether a formation of rocks could possibly be the foundations of another wall of a possible building. In the southeast corner of the trench another group are working to excavate the enclosure ditch revealing part of the natural glacial clay that the ditch was originally cut through.
A significant number of small-finds, mostly consisting of animal bones, burnt stone and charcoal have been uncovered alongside pieces of pottery and a lovely piece of worked antler. This latter object has been pared down to make an amazingly regular square section. Towards the north, north east end of the broch a group has been photo cleaning rubble filling Structure Q, one of the big buildings outside the front of the broch. In so doing they are attempting to establish how far the known walls of this building extends.
Another group of diggers in Structure O have been taking soil samples of charcoal from the lovely soft soil infill of the building. Amongst the riot of walls in the northern slope of the site they are attempting to establish if one of the walls is part of an existing structure or the start of another structure entirely. While this has been going on all the many small-finds found today have been surveyed in using a total-station.
Thanks to Alana S A Smith, Year 1 Archaeology student, Moray College UHI.
Throughout the summer, if you are aged between 12 and 16, you could be part of the dig team for one morning at the world famous Ness of Brodgar archaeology dig.
The dates are as follows:
9th July 2019
16th July 2019
6th August 2019
Each session starts at 9.30am and ends at 12.30pm.
You will be involved in workshops on archaeological techniques and finds….. and you will have the opportunity to dig at the world renowned Ness of Brodgar dig. This is your chance to get hands on and learn some new stuff about archaeology!
We advise that you wear stout boots, warm clothes, bring a water bottle or drink and waterproofs – just in case there is a passing rain shower. Lunch is not provided, so bring along a snack too. All sessions will be under the supervision of Historic Environment Scotland rangers and archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
There is no charge for the sessions.
These ‘Digging up the Past’ sessions are very popular so booking is essential. If you want to take part then please contact the rangers on 01856 841732 or e-mail email@example.com
Day Two at The Cairns dawns bright with a blue sky and today it is University of the Highlands and Islands student Sara Marioni turn to write the dig diary.….
A pretty awesome second day of excavation at The Cairns! After yesterday’s unpredictable weather and this morning’s freezing cold wind, we’ve been blessed with a drier and warmer afternoon, which also brought quite a few visitors to the site.
The day started with a tour of the various trenches, which included a brief summary of the main aims and areas of interest for this year’s excavation. Later, we organised ourselves in two groups, each assigned to a different area of the excavation.
I was working with Vicky, Aimedaphi and Mika in trench Q of the extramural settlement, trowelling a midden deposit rich in bone fragments and charcoal. Our main objective was to obtain a clearer view of the walls of one of the Iron Age buildings, so that the features and their relation to one another could be studied.
I believe my team had a great first day of digging, as only half an hour into the job a pottery rim emerged from the soil we were removing, followed, later this afternoon, by a modified animal tooth with tool marks on its surface. In addition to trowelling and learning how to record small finds, we also took a soil sample of the context we were working on.
Meanwhile, the second group of diggers was focusing on the area south-west of the broch, removing deposits to try and identify the edges of the ditch and where the broch terrace was cut into the hill-slope. While most people where working outside Structure A (the broch), Therese was on the inside of the broch re-establishing the sampling grid-lines and Paul was just a few metres away from the site building a furnace and lining it with clay for his experimental archaeology project.
Thanks to Sara Marinoni, First Year Archaeology student, UHI.
The research is part of a large project which is investigating the use of whale bone in Western Atlantic society over the last 1000 years. Both Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney during February 2018 where they examined the whales found at Cata Sand and other whalebone artefacts from Orkney Museum.
During this visit, they are working with Ingrid to extract DNA and collagen data from the many whalebone items found at The Cairns to add to the literature and environmental research already completed.
The samples taken will enable the team to determine the species of the animals present, the species diversity present in the Western Atlantic region over the last 1000 years, the use to which the animal bone was put in society and even identify individual animals across the collections.
Vicki said, ” The Cairns is a unique site and is the reason we came over. It has the largest prehistoric whalebone assemblage in our region of study and we are confident that the collection will add greatly to our research.”