The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are now enrolling for the ‘Archaeology of the Highlands & Islands’ evening class starting in September 2018.
Venue: Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, East Road, Kirkwall, Room G4.02
Course length: 10 weeks (2 hour sessions)
Commences: 26th September 2018
Finishes: 12th December 2018
Time: 7-9 pm on Wednesday evenings at Orkney College.
Classes will be lecture based with case studies and some workshops
Course fee: £100
This 10 week course will take students on a tour of the spectacular archaeological remains of the Highlands & Islands region, exploring the sites and landscapes of the past from the Neolithic to post-medieval periods. Additionally, the course introduces the techniques, methods and concepts that archaeologists use to make sense of this rich past, including environmental archaeology.
The teaching involves several members of the UHI Archaeology Institute staff on a weekly basis to afford students the opportunity to hear from specialist expert researchers on the topics covered by each themed-session.
Week 1 (Wed 26th Sept) Getting started
Introduction to the course – Martin Carruthers
An introduction to archaeology – Martin Carruthers
Week 2 (Wed 3rd Oct) The Environment of the Highlands and Islands in the past
Investigating Landscapes of the Past – Scott Timpany
Case Study: Holocene Vegetation of Orkney – Scott Timpany
Week 3 (Wed 10th Oct) Ceremony and Ritual in the Neolithic
Living and dying in the Neolithic of Orkney and Scotland – Antonia Thomas
Case study: Art and architecture in Neolithic Orkney – Antonia Thomas
17th & 24th Oct – no class due to holidays
Week 4 (Wed 31st Oct) Understanding the Archaeological Record
Formation processes and the methods of archaeological investigation – Martin Carruthers
Week 5 (Wed 7th Nov) The Bronze Age
The Bronze Age in the Highlands and Islands – Jane Downes
Case study: Bronze Age Orkney – Jane Downes
Week 6 (Wed 14th Nov) Environmental Archaeology
Environmental Archaeology – a hands–on introduction to principles and methods – Ingrid Mainland Zooarchaeology workshop – Ingrid Mainland
Week 7 (Wed 21st Nov) The Iron Age
The Iron Age in the Highlands and Islands – James Moore
Week 8 (Wed 28th Nov) Viking and Norse
Viking and Norse in the Highlands and Islands – Siobhan Cooke
Case study: Mapping Magnus: exploring saintly veneration in Orkney – Sarah Jane Gibbon
Week 9 (Wed 5th Dec) Landscape Archaeology
Studying Archaeological and Historical Landscapes – James Moore
Case Study: Geophysics in the World Heritage Area, Heart of Neolithic Orkney – Amanda Brend and James Moore
Week 10 (Wed 12th Dec) Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology
Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology in the Highlands and Islands – Julie Gibson. Case study: Harbours – Julie Gibson
Edwards, K. and Ralston, I. 2003. Scotland After the Ice Age: Environment, Archaeology and History 8000 BC – AD 1000. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. 2008. Archaeology: Theory, Methods and Practice. Thames & Hudson: London.
Ashmore, P. J. 1996. Neolithic and Bronze Ag Scotland. Batsford: London.
Aston, M. 1985. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History London: Routledge
Barclay, G.J 1998. Farmers, Temples and Tombs: Scotland in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (The Making of Scotland Series). Cannongate Books / Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.
Batey, C. E. and Graham Campbell, J. 1998. Vikings in Scotland. An Archaeological Survey. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh.
Hingley, R. 1998. Settlement and Sacrifice: The Later Prehistoric People of Scotland. Canongate/Historic Scotland: Edinburgh
Thompson, W. 2000. The Little General and the Rousay Crofters. John Donald: Edinburgh.
Ritchie, A. 1995 Prehistoric Orkney. Batsford: London.
Wilkinson, K. and Steven, C. 2003. Environmental Archaeology. Approaches, Techniques and Applications. Tempus: Stroud.
The course is not available online and is based at Orkney College in Kirkwall, Orkney. There are 15 places available.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute works with a number of other universities across the world on collaborative research projects and student exchanges.
Last month we welcomed Justine Ayres, Masters student from Sheffield University, who joined us to work on the Smart Fauna Structure 10 project at the Ness of Brodgar with Dr Ingrid Mainland from the UHI Archaeology Institute.
As usual I was intrigued by the motivation of Justin to visit and work in Orkney and asked him about his journey to study archaeology in general and how he arrived in Orkney in particular.
Justin replied, ” I have been interested in archaeology from around the age of fifteen or sixteen, but went into engineering. When I returned to Derbyshire to work in the family green grocers business I spent my free time wondering around the Peak District looking at Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. I started life-long learning modules in archaeology and then an undergraduate degree at Sheffield University. At a dig in Wales I met Professor Colin Richards and this led to an opportunity to dig at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Cata Sand archaeology excavation last year, where I met Dr Ingrid Mainland.
“I e-mailed Ingrid earlier this year in regard to analysing the faunal remains from Cata Sand, but it had already been completed, so she offered me the opportunity to undertake research with material from the Ness of Brodgar excavation for my dissertation. So here I am working on this incredible site collecting data for my Masters dissertation and collaborating on an important research project….in such a beautiful part of the world. ”
Next steps?……” I am now undertaking a Masters degree and wish to pursue a career in zooarchaeology. I will just keep learning and see what other opportunities present themselves in archaeology. I don’t think I would have thought ten years ago that I would be working on such a research project, so we will see how things go over the next few years.”
The Ness of Brodgar is one of the largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Northern Europe.
The dig is continuing to reveal an increasingly large complex of monumental Neolithic structures together with ‘artwork’, over 30,000 pieces of pottery, large assemblages of bones and stone tools – including over 30 unique stone axes.
Last week archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the Ness of Brodgar Trust unearthed two polished stone axes in quick succession – items that give us a glimpse into the lives of the people who constructed this stone complex 5000 years ago.
The first axe was discovered in the closing moments of Thursday in the new trench on the shore of Loch of Stenness. The expertly worked and polished object was the largest axe so far discovered on site and had been heavily used and damaged at the cutting edge.
Nick Card, Site Director, said, “It is nice to find pristine examples of stone axes, but the damage on this one tells us a little bit more about the history of this particular axe. The fact that the cutting edge had been heavily damaged suggests that it was a working tool rather than a ceremonial object. We know that the buildings in the complex were roofed by stone slabs so this axe was perhaps used to cut and fashion the timber joists that held up the heavy roof.”
The second axe was discovered by one of our students, Therese McCormick, from Australia who’s volunteered at the Ness of Brodgar. This stone axe astonished the archaeologists on site through its sheer quality of workmanship. The Gneiss stone had been chosen so that the natural coloured banding was reflected in the shape of the item and then expertly worked and polished to create an object of beauty.
Nick Card continues, “This axe again tells us a little more about the life of the Neolithic people who built this place. There is, in common with the large axe discovered earlier, a great deal of edge damage suggesting that this axe was used extensively as a working tool, but interestingly one of the edges has been re-worked to create a new edge and also both sides are covered in peck marks suggesting that it was also re-used perhaps as a mini anvil. This axe, in common with many of the axes found on site, was also placed in a special position within one of the structures opposite the entrance that was aligned east-west to catch the equinox sunrise and in line with Maeshowe. These polished stone axes unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar were clearly multi-functional tools that were not only ‘tools of the trade’ but were also perhaps symbols of power.”
The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological excavation covering an area of 2.5 hectares in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, in Scotland. It has revealed a well-preserved and sophisticated complex of monumental stone buildings, enclosed by walls up to six metres thick. Built and occupied by people over 5,000 years ago, the Ness has produced decorated and painted stonework unlike any other site in the UK. Its architecture is unique and it has given us evidence for stone-tiled roofing as never previously seen.
The site is run through the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the UHI Archaeology Institute.
Join the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to research and study the amazing Ness of Brodgar as part of your studies. See the UHI website or drop us a line at email@example.com for a chat on your options.
The team from the University of the Highlands and Islands and UCLan are progressing well with the excavations in Sanday – one of the northern isles of Orkney – and have unearthed a few surprises.
Professor Colin Richards takes up the story of the enigma that is the Loth Road site……
The excavations at Loth Road began two weeks ago when we began work on what was hoped to be a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age ‘double’ house. This forms part of a new project (Northern Exposure) looking at the transition from the Neolithic into the Early Bronze Age periods. The site was previously identified as a possible Bronze Age house when the area was surveyed in advance of a new road to the ferry terminal. So this made it a good candidate to begin the project.
However, sometimes things do not turn out as expected. Rather than being a domestic building a very unusual structure of probable Early Bronze Age date is being unearthed. Indeed, it resembles a ring-cairn in many ways in having a substantial curb formed by upright stones and an inner facing of thinner uprights. The outer curb incorporates beautiful red sandstone uprights. Cup-marked stones (both structural and on smaller stones) are also present at the site, which is unique for an Orcadian Early Bronze Age site.
We are currently still high in the mound/building which unfortunately seems quite damaged on its eastern side. There are also several confusing elements to the site, first, two ‘standing stones are set within the structure. Second, a pair of upright stones (orthostats) resemble the ‘stalled’ architecture of Early Neolithic buildings and third, we have found a number of flints including scrapers and knives. Hammerstones, and cobble tools are numerous. Could it be that an Early Neolithic building (house or chambered cairn) has been modified at a later date into a burial monument?
There has been much excitement over the discovery of so many cup-marked stones. Apart from those present at the Ness of Brodgar this is a scarce form of prehistoric rock art in Orkney, although panels are known from Shetland. Since Sanday is a northern isle in the Orkney archipelago could it be that in the second millennium BC we are seeing a convergence between the two island groups?
Another similar monument appears to be positioned alongside the ‘ring cairn’. Inside this a number of large stone boxes have been unearthed and much discussion surrounds their identification as burial cists.
Within the next few days we will be examining these and the question will be resolved. Very rarely have we encountered such confusing buildings and the architecture of the initial ‘ring cairn’ is very curious. Undoubtedly, over the next couple of weeks all will be revealed but at present, as the students working on the site find amusing, our interpretations change from day to day!
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his time at The Cairns dig…..and, for those that follow the conversation on Twitter, his created hashtag #absolutecairnage
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Before you ask no, this isn’t a late entry for The Cairns Dig Diary 2018 series; you’ll just have to wait until next year for that. Anyway this will be the first of several pieces I’ll be writing over the summer in relation to my Placement with the university. So I guess you can just look at it as my ‘Summer Of Digging: Pt.1’.
For my Placement with the University of Highlands and Islands as part of my MSc Masters course I plan to try engage the wider world with archaeology (both locally here in Orkney and further afield), mainly through the use of social media and getting involved with outreach activities on each of the excavations I’ll be participating in. I’m fortunate enough to be spending a few weeks at each of the excavations being run by the UHI Archaeology Institute up here in Orkney over the summer: The Cairns (South Ronaldsay), Skaill (Rousay), Cata Sands (Sanday) and The Ness (Stenness, Mainland). I’m also lucky enough to be one of a select few archaeology students within the UHI Archaeology Institute to be chosen to take part in the first year of the Dunyvaig Field School in Islay, which will be running in August in collaboration with the University of Reading.
Anyway enough of an introduction, back to the focus of this piece. This first piece will focus on the recently finished excavation season at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, an excavation I had the pleasure of spending a whole three weeks digging. I’m sure plenty of you have heard about the site and possibly have visited it previously or even over this past season; however if not, make sure to catch up on all the news and discoveries of this season’s activities (including my Dig Diary entry) right here on this blog, under ‘The Cairns Dig Diary 2018’.
Following an in depth discussion and tour of the site, and a run through health & safety procedures for the site by site director Martin Carruthers; it was time to get down to business. The first day on site focused on getting the site ready and uncovered for the new season of excavation. This involved a major group effort from staff, supervisors, students and volunteers in removing the tarp and tyres that had so effectively kept the site safe and protected over the harsh long months that the Orkney winter threw at it. A future warning to all those involved in re-opening an archaeological site for excavation: waterproofs are a must (even if it’s not raining) as you will get destroyed! Also tyre and tarp build-up are a real thing and you’ll probably get a few instances of muddy water splashing you in the face when the wind picks up and blows the tarp all over the place (not a graceful moment at all). So the odd face/baby wipe wouldn’t go amiss either. Once the site was uncovered the real activities begun and we could start to get our hands dirty!
My first two weeks at The Cairns were completed as part of the ‘Excavation’ module run by the UHI Archaeology Institute for various archaeology courses and years in the UHI curriculum. This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. This is a very helpful and important module (in my opinion anyway) because fieldwork is an essential part of being an archaeologist, even for more desk-based academics.
Besides given the choice between being outdoors and conducting college work or being inside writing an essay; I’m sure college students everywhere (no matter what their study subject) would jump at the opportunity of outdoor learning as well. I already had a decent bit of experience in the field before taking part in this module but it was great to get a refresher and go over fieldwork procedures again, especially given the fact I’ll be going all out with excavations until early September. So I’m hoping all the advice and skills I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, will be put to good use over the next few months.
The Excavation module was overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for ORCA. Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over the two week field school that were explained and demonstrated first by Rick himself; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one to one training whenever the students themselves felt like they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone who heeded their attention.
The site director and brains behind the whole operation is Martin Carruthers. As the Programme Leader for the MSc Archaeological Practice, I have been fortunate to have worked and dealt with Martin on a regular basis over the academic year through various different modules; but it was something else to be working in the field with someone of his experience. The enthusiasm and joy he shows in discovering more about his project (The Cairns site) is a great sight to behold; and the pleasure he takes in working on his site is probably only equalled to by the pleasure he takes in eating his beloved Tunnock’s Teacakes.
For the whole period of my time spent on site I had the honour of conducting activities within the broch. The broch is the main structure at The Cairns and seems to have been the focus of activities and settlement for the whole site. Dubbed the ‘A Team’ by Rick himself; Therese, Gary, Kath and myself had the honour of being the first of this season’s team to enter the broch, where we each remained for the duration of our time on site. Many others followed suit over the following few weeks, but we were the OG’s of the broch (apologies to the rest of ye)!
The first few days spent inside the broch interior involved the trowelling and cleaning of the whole floor surface, as being covered up over the winter months had made some areas a bit smudgy and unclear. Once the initial cleaning was completed, the team targeted certain areas inside the broch under the guidance of Rick. After helping Therese take geochem and bulk samples in the West quadrant of the broch interior for a day or two, I was given the responsibility of taking over my own area in the broch; as the NE quadrant of the broch was re-opened for the new season.
My first job was the arduous and bothersome task of re-stringing the quadrant in a grid of 50cm per section. This was the first time the area was open for excavation since 2015 so what remained of the grid on the ground from previous work, looked nothing at all like what the records from the drawings and context sheets represented. So after a bit of tussling with some of the old string and the grateful discovery of new string, I managed to re-string the grid fairly accurately. Although the non-compliance of some parts of the ground coupled with several instances of nails being knocked out of place (wasn’t always just myself), led to a few readjustments over the weeks; but sure it seemed to provide my broch compatriots with a few laughs and smiles at times, so at least it kept morale up.
Once the grid was set up I started to take soil samples which will be used for environmental sampling over coming months, so we can learn more about the presence of materials in the floor deposits. The purpose of setting up the grid was to maintain control over the sampling of these floors so that when we get results of wet sieving and various soil analysis we can see spatial patterning of activities and inputs across the floors. This was done through collecting a geochem sample (small bag, holding soil samples <1 litre) and a bulk sample (larger bag, holding soil samples <5 litres). Each square in the grid was done one by one, until the end of this season’s activities when nearly all squares in the grid had relevant samples (some squares were just overlain by large slabs, so these were left as they were for possible future work in coming seasons if needs be).
The start of the second week began with a day off-site as Duncan and I were chosen to spend the day doing environmental sampling at Orkney College UHI with Cecily Webster, (also I may have had a top of the table football match that night in Kirkwall so the closer to the home that day the better – but we won so still top of the league Mon Accies!!!). But anyway…
The environmental sampling involved the wet sieving and examination of previous season’s soil samples taken at The Cairns. The samples were immersed in a tank lined with gauze and the silt massaged away by hand. This allows matter such as seeds, and charcoal to float to the top where it is separated into a sieve then placed on a tray to dry. The remaining small stones and detritus is also placed on a tray to dry, after which it is sorted through to find miniscule pieces of flint, bone, cramp (ashy slag residue from cooking or cremation) or other similar tiny pieces of archaeological material.
I returned to site the next day to carry on retrieving samples from the gird and bit by bit trowelling down through the layers of the broch’s floor surfaces. Upon my return to site I had discovered that Rick had nicknamed the NE quadrant ‘Terrence’ apparently for no good reason (to this day I think even Rick himself has said that the origin of the nickname remains an enigma). My work in the area continued up until my departure from the site following the Open Day on the Friday of the third week. It was great seeing the layers in the different grids of the quadrant come out in such vibrant colours, and hopefully the samples taken from these will allow us to discover more of the story of this particular area in the broch. There were also one or two possible post-setting like features that were excavated in the process of trowelling down through the soil, so hopefully the samples from these particular squares may shed some light on these possible features.
Although my third and final week on-site was a bit different to the previous two (as I had completed the excavation module) and involved less excavation and more of a focus on outreach & social media side of things; it was great to work alongside Dr Jo McKenzie for a day or two and see her expertise in action. Jo is a soil micro-morphologist – so the knowledge and techniques she used and provided while further sampling parts of the NE quadrant, should reveal even more information in identifying some of the activities which took place within the broch.
My final few days at The Cairns were geared up towards the Open Day and running outreach activities on the day. My Placement supervisor Dan Lee, came up with the brilliant idea to run a workshop on site creating clay models of the Cairns Character, which was found on-site a few years previous. Dan got in contact with Andrew Appleby (The Harray Potter) who graciously offered a bag of terracotta clay to use to create the figures. I even had the pleasure to take a run through session with Andrew himself at his pottery a few days before the Open Day, which was much appreciated as the Friday could have been a complete disaster having never really used clay before myself….
Creating the Cairns Character
Also in the lead up to the Open Day I attempted to try gain the site more attention online and in the local media, by attempting to spread posters and hashtags around as part of Social Media Storm Day. I had access and have been running the @thecairnsbroch account on Twitter for this season’s activities, as well as posting various material on the official UHI Archaeology Institute accounts on both Facebook and Instagram.
I’m proud to claim the hashtag #AbsoluteCairnage as my own brainchild, although it’s a bit of a catch 22; as trying to follow up on the catchiness of that hashtag for future excavations over the summer may strain my creative muscles…
The Open Day itself was a huge success, with visitors making the trip down to South Ronaldsay and arriving in numbers early as 10:30 that morning. The clay workshop was also a hit and really added another dimension to activities on the day. Parents & adults got all the information and saw the amazing finds which had been discovered during the excavation season, while the ‘Create Your Own Cairn’s Character’ provided an outlet and activity for children to get involved in archaeology and the site, without having to just sit through a tour and a load of talking.
The best part was all those who made a Cairns Character, were able to bring it home themselves after; as a memento from the day. It wasn’t only the children who got their hands dirty either, as many older visitors (older as in not a child – before any offence is caused) had a go at making their own clay model. The workshop provided a good laugh to everyone who got involved and who stopped by the make-shift stall, with a lot of positive feedback saying it was a great idea; and I had a lot of fun myself running the activities.
After all the visitors had left it was time to pack up the site for the day. Following the few hours of hustle and bustle it was nice to have a moment to take in the broch and catch a glimpse of ‘Terrence’ once last time before being covered over again. Hopefully I’ll return at some stage to walk the steps as the ancestors did and possibly work on further examination & analysis of the NE quadrant again, but who knows what the future will bring; so for now all that’s left to say is ‘Bye Bye Broch’!
As for a personal highlight of my time at The Cairns, it would have be when Martin discovered the wooden and organic objects in ‘The Well’. Many of you may have already read or heard about these discoveries in the media recently; if not make sure you check out this blog and the UHI Archaeology Facebook page for more details. But with the NE quadrant being right beside ‘The Well’ I was one of the first ones to hear the screams of absolute joy coming from down there when Martin emerged with the objects in hand, which saw the light of day for the first time in around 2,000 years!! The pure look of glee and the smile beaming across his face was great to see, that with all the years of experience and excavations behind him, Martin still gets excited over finding new artefacts & materials (although to be fair these objects in particular are highly significant for Scottish archaeology as a whole)!!!
Either that or the time when making my way to the beach for a lunch-time dip in the sea, I came across this sight… Could not have planned the photo better myself, and just about managed to take a decent photo before bursting into a fit of laughter… Good ol Dig Dog!
Anyway that’s probably enough of me yapping, you’re probably sick of me by now (if you’ve managed to stay reading). Hopefully this has been interesting an insightful into a first-hand experience of being in the frontline of the trenches (pun intended). Thanks for reading and look forward to updating ye all in my next instalment of my ‘Summer of Digging’ in upcoming weeks. I would apologise for any bad archaeology jokes and puns included in this post, but I thought they were funny so guess you’ll just have to dig my awful sense of humour if you plan on following my archaeological adventures over the summer (please do, I’ll try improve the jokes…..maybe).
Before leaving at this stage I feel it would be poor form if I didn’t acknowledge and give a shout out to all those who kept the gears of The Cairns machine running and advancing over the four weeks of activities. I think I speak for all students and volunteers in giving a massive thank you to Martin Carruthers (site director), for giving us the opportunity and privilege to take part in excavations on his project. Also a big thanks to all the supervisors over the four weeks: Rick Barton, Bobby Friel, Colin Mitchell, Linda Somerville, Kevin Kerr and Dr Jo McKenzie; for their guidance and advice on various topics and tasks.
Also a mention of thanks for Ole, who saved most of our voices by taking responsibility for conducting the majority of tours for visitors over the duration of the four weeks. Shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! Also a big thanks and much appreciation to all of you who visited the site and followed the story and updates & used the hashtags on the various social media platforms, your support and interest means a lot!
Next stop for myself is Skaill on Rousay, make sure to keep tabs on social media outlets for info and updates on progress there in the near future!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill, Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute invites you to be an archaeologist for a day.
Join the team uncovering the story of this exciting site at our Open Day at Skaill Farm on the island of Rousay, Orkney.
The site is open from 10am to 4pm on both days, so come across to the island of Rousay and make a day of it…bring the children and they can join in too, finding out about our Viking and more recent past. There are tours and displays for those who don’t want to join the team in the trenches.
The site is located next to the beach and the Midhowe Broch and is also an ideal place for a picnic.
The ferry departs from Tingwall regularly throughout the day. The timetable can be viewed here.
We look forward to seeing you there. See the interactive map below for location of Skaill Farm.
Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were astonished last week when they unearthed a two thousand year old wooden bowl from an underground chamber beneath The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay in Orkney.
The vessel itself is the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney and will give the team from the UHI Archaeology Institute a unique insight into life in an Iron Age broch in Northern Scotland.
The beautifully preserved object is a complete, wood-turned bowl around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and rounded base. Although the object has split at some point in the past, it is complete and was being held together and protected by the muddy silts of the excavation.
The bowl has been confirmed to be made from alder and the dating is known from the location within the subterranean chamber which the archaeologists on site have termed, ‘The Well’.
This amazing underground feature, consists of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. It is assumed that the bowl dates from this period also, however, radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could be even earlier than this time. At any rate it will be Orkney’s oldest preserved complete wooden vessel.
In addition to the bowl, there are preserved plant fibres, some of which appear to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seem to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs.
Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, are also present. There appears to be more waterlogged objects waiting to be lifted from the silt. Ancient insect remains and probably a host of other tiny items, perhaps including parasite eggs and coprolites (fossilised faeces), may even be found.
Site Director, Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said: ‘It’s miraculous that we’ve got this wooden vessel. It’s really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at The Cairns! In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink. Its round base makes you think that it would have been required to be constantly held when full, and perhaps used socially, passed around from hand to hand, person to person. It’s already been nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. “
Martin continued, “I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of ‘The Well’. For one thing it’s not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water, but if it were used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket or, dare I say it, poured as a libation, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps”.
There is still much work to do in The Well, and there are other amazing remains to be recovered from the silts there, as well as across the site. The excavations are on-going and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time. The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects. It is hoped that funds can be raised as soon as possible to pay for specialist conservation.
*In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and passed around to celebrate the marriage.
Iron Age Settlement
Excavations have been taking place at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, since 2006 under the auspices of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The site is a substantial Iron Age period village settlement with a broch (tower-like monumental house) lying at its heart. The ancient buildings on the site are very substantial and rich in finds. The broch itself and the village buildings are very well-preserved and already this season there have been many artefacts recovered including a bronze ring and a glass bead.
Three years ago an opening into an underground chamber was discovered under the floor of the broch, but only this year has the excavation project turned its attention to fully excavating the well. The subterranean structure is preserved intact with its stone roof still in place and it has been sealed since the Iron Age. Steps lead down into the partly rock-cut cavity that dates back to the time of the construction of the broch.
Iron Age ‘Wells’ and Waterlogged Remains
Traditionally, these structures have been termed wells by generations of archaeologists, however, there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, with constricted entrances and the steepness of their staircases, have raised doubts about their function in recent years, and the volume of water found in the structures is seldom sufficient to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.
Additionally, previously excavated examples have contained an unusually high amount of wild animal bones, such as red deer and fox, in their in-fills, suggesting the wells had some special significance. Famously, a massive ‘well’-type structure was discovered at Mine Howe, East Mainland, Orkney, and also excavated by archaeologists from UHI in the early 2000s. Although the subterranean chamber at Mine Howe had previously been informally excavated in the 1940s and its contents emptied, the archaeologists found that it lay at the heart of a high status metalworking complex that was also apparently the scene of ritual practices and the deposition of the human dead.
About 20 such structures have been found beneath brochs in previous excavations, but many of these investigations were undertaken by antiquaries in the 19th Century, and fairly few of these structures have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still, have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns. It would seem that the basal silts within the ‘well’ have been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen). This means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items and, therefore, there is incredible preservation of organic items, usually only seen in the rarefied conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron age wooden bowl earlier this summer.
At The Cairns there has been little previous reason to suspect that such preservation conditions existed. However, the depth of the well at over two metres under the floor of the broch, and a further two metres beneath the modern ground surface, has meant that the base of the well remained damp since the Iron Age and allowed for the protection of the wood and organic items.
The excavations ran until the 13th of July and visitors were encouraged to see the work at the site for themselves, throughout the excavation period.
Media contact: Sean Page, Marketing Officer, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. Sean.firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 01856 569229 High Resolution images are available.