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The results of the REF2021 nationwide assessment of university based research placed the UHI Archaeology Institute 14th in the UK archaeology rankings, and second in Scotland.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) assesses the quality of research in higher education institutions.

Published on May 12, 2022, the REF results saw the institute move into the UK’s top 15 archaeology units, with over 80 per cent of its published research achieving the two highest classifications of “world-leading” and “internationally excellent”.

The assessment result was one of the best in the UHI network and sees the Archaeology Institute sit just behind the University of Glasgow in the Scottish rankings.

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Research by the UHI Archaeology Institute at the Ness of Brodgar has encouraged more community engagement with heritage and archaeology. (Jo Bourne)

The largest proportion of the Archaeology Institute’s REF submission was an assessment of staff publications. Of these academic books and journal papers, 84 per cent were classed as either “world leading” or “internationally excellent” for reach and significance.

This placed the institute tenth in the UK for the percentage of top-ranked research publications, sitting between the universities of Cambridge and Durham.

Professor Colin Richards co-ordinated the institute’s submission and was delighted with the result.

“This is a stunning result for the UHI Archaeology Institute, which was only formed in 2015, and everyone should feel extremely proud of their research and this achievement,” he said.

“It has also been a good result for the UHI, which saw a substantial increase in ‘world-leading’ research across the board.”

Case studies detailing research impact are part of the REF assessment. One of these highlighted how work investigating Neolithic Orkney – particularly the ongoing Ness of Brodgar excavation – continues to enhance economic growth in the county

Research by institute staff was instrumental in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site designation in 1999. The resultant research strategy led to the discovery and excavation of the Ness of Brodgar complex and fieldwork around Skara Brae, Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness.

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Excavating the ditch at the Ring of Brodgar. (Colin Richards)

Outwith the World Heritage Site, a substantial number of sites were investigated. This not only transformed our understanding of Neolithic Orkney but raised the global profile of Orcadian archaeology and had a substantial impact on the islands’ economy.

As awareness grew internationally so did visitor numbers – from 142,816 in 2014 to 174,273 in 2017 – and with this an increase in tourist revenue from £31m to £50m.

By 2017 more than half (62 per cent) of visitors to Orkney were “heritage tourists”, with 40 per cent citing archaeology as the main reason for their visit. At Skara Brae numbers increased from 85,894 to 111,921 between 2015 and 2018, while between 2014 and 2020, more than 700,000 people visited the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

Visitors-watch excavation at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney (Jim Richardson)
Ness of Brodgar visitors watch the excavation in progress. Our research into Neolithic Orkney has brought more visitors to the islands helping boost the local economy. (Jim Richardson)

A 2019 visitor survey at the Ness of Brodgar showed that 64 per cent of visitors were aware of the excavation before arriving in Orkney while 63 per cent said the ongoing excavation played a major role in their decision to visit the county. Around 83 per cent of those surveyed stated that the experience had increased their interest in archaeology, while 82 per cent said they were more likely to visit further archaeological sites in Orkney.

More than 18,500 people visited the Ness of Brodgar site over the eight-week 2019 fieldwork season and the two open days recorded over 1,000 visitors each day.

Based at Orkney College UHI, in Kirkwall, the UHI Archaeology Institute has staff in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. Although well-known for its research in Orkney and northern Scotland, the institute also has major projects as far afield as Polynesia and Africa.