Cata Sand Dig now Underway in Sanday Following Online Appeal

One of the Neolithic houses at Cata Sand from the dunes

The archaeology dig at the Neolithic houses found on the beach at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney is now underway.

Teams from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire arrived on the island last weekend to uncover the site and begin a series of excavations centred on the sites at Cata Sand settlement and Tresness tomb.

This is the third year of the excavation and could not have taken place this year without the support of donations that flooded in following an online appeal. Sufficient funds to commence the dig and to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains were raised and the team would like to express their gratitude for the donations from people all over the world.

Professor Jane Downes said, “During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses, but progress was slow due to the never ending blowing sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.”

She continued, “We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but had not been able to secure funding to enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. These donations now allow us to complete sampling of the floor deposits which in turn will help to give a full picture of how these earliest farmers lived inside the houses.”

Hearth emerging from the sand at Cata Sand

The archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday was discovered by four archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December day in 2015 on their way to inspect the tomb at Tresness.

The team had been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune around which clustered an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped into pits cut through the Neolithic house.

When the team first discovered the archaeological remains, they saw they were in a vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that the site had been exposed only fairly recently. The team also knew therefore that they had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community to obtain a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.

Excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths.

The exposed site at Cata Sand showing the Neolithic houses uncovered on the beach.

This was a first for Sanday and although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment. Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.

Photographing the Neolithic houses at Cata Sand

The team encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug in more recent times through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried.

The funding page is still open by clicking here if you would like to donate towards the post-excavation at the site. The 2019 excavation is supported by public donations raised via the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust.

Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).

ORCA Archaeology Secure Funding for an Important New Project

Newark Bay

ORCA Archaeology is pleased to announce that they have been awarded a grant of £202,000 by Historic Environment Scotland to complete an important archaeology research project centred on Newark Bay, Deerness, Orkney.

Newark is the site of an early medieval chapel and extensive cemetery and was the focus of rescue excavations by the late Professor Brothwell between 1968 and 1972. Due to various circumstances, the work never came to publication and part of this new ORCA Archaeology project will be to address this. 

Like so many sites in Orkney, coastal erosion is a significant problem and has caused structural and human remains to have been lost over the years since Professor Brothwell’s original excavation.

Some 250 burials were recovered, making it one of the largest medieval cemeteries in Scotland. It was also the location of a post-medieval mansion house, partly revealed during excavation. Subsequent work at Newark includes recovery of a Class II Pictish Carved Stone, the second almost complete example of its type from Orkney. 

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Pictish Carved Stone discovered at Newark Bay

ORCA staff examining the newly excavated Pictish Carved Stone. Note how close the beach is to the find site.Professor Brothwell’s archive is not publicly available, and with his excavation findings remaining unpublished, the potential for further analysis of the skeletal assemblage has yet to be fully exploited. This project therefore aims  to address these issues and aims to:

  • Bring the site to publication;
  • Disseminate the archive
  • Complete comprehensive skeletal analysis of the human remains
  • Create an ancient DNA project
  • Include the wider community through the use of outreach workshops, social media and other digital platforms
  • Train volunteers in basic archaeological recording techniques

The project will be rolled out over three years starting in April 2019……..

Year One
Publication: bringing together all work at the site from Professor Brothwell onwards, providing a current statement of knowledge and understanding, and setting out recommendations for future research.

Archive: bringing the Newark archive within the public domain via a digital repository. Includes cataloguing all skeletal material and digitising the archive.

Year Two 
Analysis of the skeletal remains, including full recording, C14 dating and isotopic analysis of a percentage of the assemblage. A full report will be published of findings.

Year Three
Creation of a collaborative ancient DNA project. Creation of mobile exhibition about the site to be held at Orkney Museum and local community hall(s).

Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager, ORCA Archaeology said, “We are very excited to have secured this funding for work at such an important site that is continually under attack from coastal erosion. We are looking forward to involving the community in the process through outreach training and workshops and, over the next three years, this project will provide vital information for the record which in turn will help us understand more fully the society that these people created in Orkney during the medieval period. The site includes finds from the Pictish through to the Viking period.”

The community are integral to the project. They have a long-term investment in the site at Newark and want to see previous work brought to publication and the archive disseminated. This project provides opportunities for their involvement throughout.

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Field Archaeology Short Course @ The Cairns, Orkney

The stunning location of The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are now enrolling for the popular short course in Field Archaeology to be held at The Cairns Broch excavation – one of Orkney’s leading excavations.

  • When? 19 – 21 June 2019 (3 full days 9:30 – 16:30)
  • What does it cost? £220.00 per person
  • How do I book? Use the form below

This short course in Field Archaeology from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute, run by a team from our commercial unit Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, aims to provide participants with basic training and understanding of the practices and processes in Field Archaeology. Check out last years site diary to give you a flavour of the exciting discoveries, including a wooden bowl and human hair in the well!

Site Director Martin Carruthers talks about The Cairns Well, excavated in 2018

Located at the on-going excavations at The Cairns broch, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, training will cover:

  • Excavation techniques
  • Finds identification
  • The principles of stratigraphy
  • Basic site survey and
  • Archaeological recording (drawn, written and photographic record).
3Recording in the broch

Recommended equipment: Steel toe boots/wellies, full waterproofs, packed lunch and flask. Please note: Toilet facilities are provided. Participants are to meet at the excavation site each day at 9:30. Accommodation, travel and lunch are not included.

Places are limited (15 max.) so book now by contacting Mary using the form below…..

UHI Ross Drummond and the Dunyvaig Castle Dig

The picturesque location of Dunyvaig Castle and excavation site 

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Dunyvaig Castle excavation.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again, reporting about Part Five of my ‘Summer of Digging’; excavations at Dunyvaig Castle as part of the Islay Heritage Project. This edition is an extra bonus blog, as my Placement with the university only involved 8 weeks of work & excavations; so the extra two weeks experience in Islay rounded off my participation in and interaction with over 5,000 years of Scottish archaeology over the summer.

The three week excavation work at Dunyvaig Castle is part of a much larger and wider project (the Islay Heritage Project), which will involve further excavation work in addition to desk-based and other research methods over the next 10 years; to further investigate Islay’s past and enhance our understanding of it. The director of the Dunyvaig Project is Steven Mithen, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading and also the Chair of Islay Heritage; with Darko Maricevic being the director of the Dunyvaig excavation & the Director of Archaeology for Islay Heritage as a whole.

Dunyvaig Castle, located at Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of the Isle of Islay, was once the naval fortress of the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of Clan MacDonald and the greatest Gaelic Lordship of late Medieval Scotland.

Dunyvaig Castle: a wilder day on site serving as a reminder of the stormy past that the castle has lived through

The Dunyvaig Project will provide a comprehensive study of the castle, its hinterland and role in the economic, social and political history of the Western Atlantic Seaboard. It will transform Dunyvaig into a vibrant heritage centre for the residents and visitors to Islay while maintaining its rugged and romantic appeal.

The main aims of the project were to use the geophysical surveys from 2017 to assist in putting trenches over areas of the highest archaeological potential. Although the castle would be the focal point of the project’s investigation, it didn’t operate on its own; as it was important to get an idea and see evidence of what happened outside the castle walls as well. Resistance surveys were carried out to detect walls and structures, with areas and anomalies darker in colour indicating higher resistance; and more likely to have archaeological remains.

While I was still up in Orkney at the Ness of Brodgar finding those mysterious miniature pots, the team in Islay were working hard opening up this year’s trenches; so by the time I arrived at the start of the second week of the excavation, proceedings were well under way and the three main trenches for this year had been fully exposed.

Upon arrival I was informed I would be working in Trench 1 for the duration of the project under the enthusiastic and experienced guidance of Amanda Clarke. Amanda is an associate professor with the University of Reading and has a wealth of excavation experience and knowledge behind her. She plays a big hand in the running and teaching of a fieldschool involving the University of Reading, having spent many years as director of the Silchester field school in England.

Trench One is located in the castle courtyard and was only previously surveyed by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland (RCAHMS) in the 1970s. Trench One looked to investigate buildings at the either side of the entrance into the courtyard, the entrance area itself, the relationships with the outer walls, possible battlements stairs, evidence for a possible gatehouse and the approach to the main gate. Together with its extension, Trench 1 looked to generate the evidence for the bombardments and the repairs to the outer wall, and investigate one of the outer buttresses postulated by the RCAHMS’ survey.

It was theorised that the castle wall had a ‘double skin’ or two layers of walling, and it was thought that there may be the presence of a staircase in between these two walls. This part of the castle had been bombarded and badly damaged following three major attacks between the 16th and 17th centuries. On the very right of the trench inside the courtyard wall what was known as ‘the well’ but could have been a water system or water latrine. This was poor enough condition upon arrival at the site as farming equipment and metal materials from more recent times had built up inside. Great effort was made to clear ‘the well’ but unfortunately time wasn’t on the team’s side to give a full investigation; so this feature will have to wait until next year to be looked at in-depth. However, ‘the well’ again highlighted the castle as a ‘living monument’; being used for different purposes at different times through its history.

Building B – the latest structure to emerge from Trench One

On the left side of the internal wall of Trench 1 was Building B. This was a late insertion and was propped right up against the courtyard wall, which dates to the 16th century with a later add-on from the 17th century following demolition in the bombardments. The earlier layers were made up of clay and the later layers made up of mortar, with the clay bonded walls being a rare find in construction dating to this time period. The external area of Trench One at the back of the courtyard wall (on outside) showed the make-up of the wall and indicated several layers. The presence of turf in this area was built on top of earlier wall material and is thought to have plugged the gap and been a quick-fix following attacks on the castle.

Trench Two looked to target the sea gate to establish what activities were undertaken in this area and how the sea gate itself was used at different times. An electrical resistance survey carried out months prior to the excavation did not identify any further substantial structures in this area, which suggests that the direct access to the sea may have been important throughout the history of the castle. There were three main phases in Trench Two. The first phase involved the ramp, which provided access in & out of the Seagate. Initial thoughts are that this seems to be a probable structural slipway, but further excavation next year will give us a better insight. The trench had evidence for structural collapse or dumping, found in the presence of rubble; which was covered by the turf blocking of the Seagate.

There was a seal horizon of clay which appeared to level the ground; with this turf wall blocking off the sea gate and bringing its use to an end at some point in time. The second phase was indicated by the presence of a few walls. Signs of a possible double wall which was mainly built of rubble and turf but not much mortar; and all walls appeared to exist together at some point in time. The third phase was indicated by an intense period of burning.

Wall in Trench 2 along with some areas of intense burning

Trench Three was made up of a series of smaller trenches, located several hundred yards outside the castle walls; which looked to investigate the wider landscape of the settlement outside of the castles interior. Visitors to the site would have noticed ridge and furrows and other earthworks above ground level which indicted the presence of buildings or other archaeological related material beneath the overgrowth; so the nature of some of these were also examined. Trench Three revealed the remains of a rectangular T-shaped building, with burning in the trench also possibly suggesting evidence for an oven or a kiln. It appears that the building had burned down at some stage, with a red material laying on top of the building surface. However, whether this was deliberate or accidental is currently difficult to tell. There was evidence for a house which went out of use in the 17th century. There were also finds of pottery but none of the pieces discovered dated after the 17th century. The finds of pottery suggest people may have been supportive of the castle and that the pottery indicates the castle as a trading place.

One of the buildings in Trench Three along with the possible oven/kiln in the foreground

However, the site wasn’t without some prehistoric evidence as Trench Three also provided the find of a prehistoric blade. This find highlights the attractiveness of the location in the wider environment and shows the site was an area of settlement long before the castle was built. Geophysics carried out in the area also suggested a possible road and a number of structures and possible enclosures.

A major aspect of the Dunyvaig Project as a whole was the involvement of an archaeological field school. Similar to archaeological excavation projects run by UHI Archaeology during the summer up in Orkney, the Islay Heritage Project was run by the University of Reading (UOR) who also have a field school running in Silchester, in England. The field school provided participants the opportunity to acquire archaeological field skills and also involved the use of the Archaeology Skills Passport, which students can use to record and keep track of their progress in archaeological fieldwork; and build up their skills over time. Also similar to the UHI excavations up in Orkney, the Dunyvaig Project (for the majority of participants); gave students their first real taste and experience of an archaeological excavation. This seemed fitting given it was the first year of the Dunyvaig Project, so it gave an entirely new and fresh feel to all involved in the excavation.

As well as general excavation and fieldwork techniques, students were also trained in other various aspects of the archaeological process. This included geophysical surveying, palaeoenvironmental surveying, finds processing and environmental sampling; all of which gave students a fuller experience and appreciation for the wide world which archaeology entails.

Another large part of the Islay Heritage Project was the involvement of the local community. Local inhabitants of Islay were encouraged to get involved in the excavations as volunteers and were a welcome addition to the on-site workforce. As well as the excavations at Dunyvaig Castle being open to the public for guided tours on a daily basis, locals were also included in the excavation with special dedicated days and associated activities such as the ‘Dunyvaig Bake-Off’ and an ‘Artist’s Day’ with Dietmar Finger.

The involvement of local school visits were also an especially beneficial aspect to the excavation. It was great to see the joy and fascination which took over the children when digging and finding their very own artefacts; while also learning all about the history of the site and their local area in general. There were 130 school children who visited the site and took part in activities, with the involvement of six primary schools and one secondary school. In total over the 3 week excavation period there were over 400 visitors who came to the site; all of whom were given guided tours of each trench by the students themselves.

The Seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, dating to 1593 (Image: Islay Heritage Facebook Page)

During the third and final week of this year’s excavations, a remarkable find was discovered. Zoe a first year University of Reading student, used her ‘archaeological eye’ to notice what turned out to be the find of the season. The object found was none other than the Seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor; who took ownership of Islay in 1615. The seal dates to 1593 and originally would have been attached to a wooden, antler or lead handle. The castle was eventually abandoned by the Campbell’s of Cawdor in 1677 following continuous sieges and bombardments; so the fact this seal was found suggest it may have been either hidden or forgotten and lost in the chaos of attack.

The seal was among several artefacts and finds on show at the Public talk on the excavation which took place on the second last night of the project. There was a massive turnout at Ramsey Hall, in Port Ellen, for the talk in which the supervisors from the project discussed the findings of the Dunyvaig Project and plans for future work. Zoe even got a round of applause from the public when the seal was discussed. The great turnout by the people of Islay for the public talk was a great way to bring the successful excavation project to an end. Having come straight from site to the talk, it’s safe to say the excavation team absolutely devoured the pizzas that Steve had kindly arranged to be delivered to the hall following the end of the talk.

A packed Ramsey Hall in Port Ellen for the public talk on the Dunyvaig Project

For many participants the dig was their first ever time on an archaeological excavation and we can say that it was an extremely successful three weeks. The find of the seal was just the icing on the cake of an already prosperous first year and indicates great things for the future of the project.

Members of the excavation team working together to back fill the site on the final day

I speak on behalf of all UHI students who took part in the excavation when I say that it was an absolutely great project to be a part of, and one that will hopefully see more UHI students return over the coming years and add to our understanding of Islay. Also a shout out to all staff and students from the University of Reading for making myself and all other UHI students feel very welcome and valued members of the team. It was also great that several of the lecturers and teaching staff from UHI Archaeology (including the Director of the UHI Archaeology Institute Professor Jane Downes, Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Jen Harland) came to visit the excavation and catch up with the UHI students about how the project was going along. The collaboration of the two universities ran very smoothly and I think benefited both greatly; so hopefully this joint venture will continue for many years to come.

UHI Archaeology Institute students on the Dunyvaig Project dig. From L to R….Mairead, Ross, Darroch, Angus, William and Duncan

I think I also speak on behalf of the whole student contingent (both UOR and UHI) when I say a massive thanks to Steven, Darko, Amanda and all the other supervisors; for allowing all students to learn and enhance their archaeological skill sets & understanding in such a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

A big acknowledgement of gratitude also goes out to staff at the Port Charlotte Youth Hostel for basically letting us take over the place for the three week duration of the project.

Well, this blog officially marks the final chapter of my Archaeological Adventures and Summer of Digging for 2018 with UHI Archaeology Institute. It’s safe to say it’s been a hectic old few months but it’s been an absolutely fantastic experience, and one not many people will have the fortune to experience.

Thank you to all the readers of my blogs and those who have interacted with and followed my Archaeology Adventures over the summer through UHI Archaeology’s various social media accounts. I hope I’ve managed to convey the story of each excavation in a clear and interesting manner; and maybe one or two of ye learned something new along the way as well.

All the best,

Ross Drummond, MSc, UHI Archaeology Institute 

For any further info on the Dunyvaig excavations and the Islay Heritage Project as a whole, make sure to check out their website.

Summer of Digging – Sanday update by UHI student Ross

The landscape of Sanday
The Landscape of Sanday

From the far flung island of Sanday in Orkney, our intrepid and probably exhausted University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology MSc student Ross Drummond, reports on the digs on the island.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 3 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time focusing on several different sites on Sanday.

So not even 24 hours after I had finished my previous excavation at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay, I was on the move again. This excavation involved a longer ferry journey (three times the duration of the Rousay crossing) and was my most northern trip of my Orkney adventure. So after a night spent back on the mainland, a football match and a quick clothes wash my bags were packed again, and off I set North to join up with the excavation team.

Sanday. Gateway to the past
Sanday….Gateway to the past!

The team was a mix of both University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire staff and students. The UHI team was led by Prof Jane Downes and Prof Colin Richards, along with Chris Gee, while the majority of other students partaking in the dig came from UCLan led by Dr. Vicki Cummings; with a few students from the University of Sheffield also taking part of the dig, as well as team members from Galicia, Spain.

I spent a bit of time jumping between all three sites so the easiest way to talk about the activities on Sanday is probably just to talk site by site. Unfortunately excavation work stopped at the Tresness site by the time I had arrived on Sanday so will leave that to the end.

The first site I visited was the excavation at Loth Road. This site is being looked at as part of the Northern Exposure Project. The Northern Exposure Project which began last year, forms the first stage of a broader 5 year project examining the end/collapse of the Neolithic and beginning of Bronze Age in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and the plan involves examining sites on Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle. The overall project will also record the condition of an eroding stalled cairn on Tresness. This study forms part of The Tombs of the North Project.

Unlike the other two sites on Sanday, Loth Road was not threatened, i.e. it wasn’t coastally eroding. Two standing stones upright in a field alerted Colin & Chris to the fact there could possibly be a double house – one stone part of one door, the other stone part of another. As some of you may have already read from the blog post a few weeks ago, initial thoughts about the Loth Road site were that it could have been a kerb cairn, however this turned out not to be the case.

Solid start to the day
A good solid start to the day

My first day on site, couldn’t have started off better! It seemed like I arrived on Sanday at a good time because only just before my arrival, the Loth Road team had begun a tradition that would continue until the end of activities on Sanday, involving a fry-up breakfast and a breakfast roll. To be honest I think this should be a tradition that should be carried on and adopted by all research excavations; definitely builds up a good team morale and great way to start off the day ahead of a few hours of excavation.

As mentioned previously the first blog post about the possible kerb cairn was only released a day or two before my arrival, but probably to the annoyance of Sean (no worries Ross. Exciting developments! – Sean), it seemed like I had brought some of the Luck of the Irish I had with me on Skaill, Rousay. Because by the end of day 1 on Sanday, I had changed Colin’s original theory about Loth Road.

Colin decided I would have the honour of using the mattock that day, so after a few hours of removal, the archaeology hidden beneath the ground started to take shape. What had started out as a pile of rubble in-fill only a few hours previous, had turned into a passage with an entrance. The entrance goes with the house as they are on the same surface, and it now looks as though we have two opposed houses, instead of a kerb cairn or double-house. Within the wall of the house there are radial subdivisions just like the spokes of a wheel; so we now have established a circular house with radial subdivisions.

Loth Road The passage starting to emerge at the end of Day One
Loth Road – The passage starting to emerge at the end of Day One

The structures at the Loth Road site are thought to date to the Bronze Age to around 2000 BC. As well as the Bronze Age houses there appears to be an earlier settlement at Loth Road also, with the presence of a rectangular wall underlying the houses possibly dating back to the Early Neolithic. There were also a large amount of cup marked stones found at Loth Road which apart from the Ness of Brodgar, is a scarce form of prehistoric rock art in Orkney. There are a few examples from Shetland such as Unst and since Sanday is a northern isle in the Orkney archipelago it could indicate a possible coming together between the two island groups at this time. Prof Colin Richards described Loth Road as being the most perplexing site he has worked on, with the interpretations of the site being fluid as each day passed. Loth Road wasn’t a double house as first thought, the stones were set in a circular structure and now appears to be a circular house.

The two stones originally the only visible part of the strcuture before excavation. Also visible is one of the Bronze Age houses
The two stones shown in the centre of the photograph were the only visible parts of the structure before excavation work started. Also visible is one of the Bronze Age houses.

Colin, Jane, Chris and Vicki discovered the site on a wild winter day in 2015 and was covered in this blog back in December of that year (see link here) An evaluation of the site was undertaken in March 2016.

Loth Road. The passage fully exposed on the last day of excavation
The passage fully exposed on the last day of excavations

In 2017 a few weeks of excavation work summer took place; which revealed more walls and hearths, leading to thoughts it was an Early Neolithic site like the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray, as they have a very similar layout – a longhouse with a rectangular hearth. There was also the discovery of several whale pits dating to the 19th century relating to a whale drive in 1875, the whales were culled and buried without heads to get rid of the smell. Although this is interesting and gives us some information about the more recent history of Sanday, the pits unfortunately take away from the archaeology and have left a hearth and one side of the house fairly damaged.

The Cata Sand site showing its proximity to the sea
The Cata Sand site showing the close proximity to the sea

That brings us on to this year’s activities and discoveries, where the team looked to build on information and the work done in the previous year. There are 3 hearths at Cata Sand, the central hearth survives, is made of stone and was re-modelled after starting out as a scoop hearth. The midden at the site contained animal remains and shell. The biggest discovery of this year was aided by the sea in revealing the presence of an orthostat in the newly discovered hearth. The newly uncovered hearth was orientated N-S, whereas the other two hearths were orientated E-W. This may suggest that the house originally started out with an N-S orientation (more common of earlier settlement pattern), before switching to an E-W orientation.

Aerial view of Cata Sand excavation
An aerial view of the Cata Sand site

There were also evidence for pits & postholes, possibly indicating the earliest structure was a timber building; with stone later replacing the timber structures. This could be a very significant finding as it may give us an insight into the past environment of the area, with the possibility of wood being available to the people at the time. The Cata Sand site is very complex, with so much rebuilding and remodelling of houses. The main puzzle is to try identify and understand the restructuring, which will involve the team returning to site again next year. Some soil samples which were charcoal rich need a radiocarbon date, and hopefully will be obtained before the start of next season. Hugo Anderson-Whymark also did some did some photogrammetry and will be creating 3D models of the site. The New York Times also paid a visit to the site for an upcoming article about coastally eroding archaeological sites in Orkney, which also includes Skara Brae and Swandro, Rousay so it was great that a site as small as Cata Sand is getting major media attention and coverage. So that is something to look out for over the coming months for sure!

The Cata Sand site showing the wall of the house on teh right and one of the hearths in the centre
The Cata Sand site showing the wall of the house on the right and one of the hearths (centre)

My own experience of the site was great, if you haven’t been to Cata Sand before I would definitely recommend it! As well as having great archaeology, the scenery is absolutely stunning! It was like somewhere out of the Caribbean and is probably the most beautifully located archaeological site I have worked at to date. Of course I went for a daily dip at lunchtime every day I was on the Cata Sand site, mostly to the disbelief of many of my fellow team members who thought I was mental. As I always say though, “I’m not crazy, I’m just Irish”. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 I suppose, although the setting is stunning it is also damaging the archaeology as the constant battle against the rising tide is one we cannot win. That’s why this site is so important in trying to understand the lives of past societies at this time as sometime in the future the archaeology will be washed away for good, and future generations will only have our records and findings to go on to understand the story of Cata Sand.

The ocean beckons
The ocean beckons

The Tresness site is located on the southern tip of the Tresness peninsula, Sanday. The site has only been worked on the past two years in 2017 and then again this year; and the main component of the site is a chambered tomb. Tresness is part of a wider project to look at early Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney, which looks to build on Audrey Henshall’s work on chambered cairns of Orkney in the 1960s. The tomb is well preserved even though there is the significant threat of coastal erosion.

2017 involved the opening of a small trench, for a preliminary investigation. The side eroding into the sea had walling which looked to be early Neolithic and also had the presence of protruding orthostats, again suggesting an early Neolithic date. There was also a second stall on other side of the tomb.

2018 saw the opening of a larger trench to try find out more about the tomb. However, as the site is a scheduled monument the team had to negotiate with Historic Environment Scotland what could be dug and what couldn’t. Again Hugo did some photogrammetry and will be creating 3D models of the site. There was also a chamber area present at the side of the tomb. The team were given permission to enter the chamber and discovered that it was well preserved, with the presence of stalls (vertical upright stones) and a back slab. Towards the seaward side the walls stop. The wall runs E-W with the monument altered later on with what looks to be a possible Iron Age souterrain. The Tresness site is similar to Knowe of Rowiegar and there is also a broch close to Tresness. In summary the Tresness site is half chambered tomb, half Iron Age souterrain at the front, with the two best parallels for the site being the Holm of Papa Westray North and the Calf of Eday.

The souterrain at Tresness, also showing the stalls.
The souterrain at Tresness. Also showing the stalls.

Although my time spent at the Tresness site was for two days of backfilling, it didn’t mean my keen archaeological eye wouldn’t find something interesting on site. One day while checking out the coastal cliffs for easy access to the sea for a lunchtime dip only two minutes away from the Tresness site, myself and Connor (UCLan student) came across a few holes in the ground. On closer inspection it turned out these were not just random holes in the ground, but look like they could possibly be cists. At present it is hard to know if the cists are associated with the Tresness monument but they are something that may be looked at on return to site next season. So it just goes to show that you don’t need to be researching for hours on end in an office to make an archaeological discovery, sometimes you just need someone who is a bit crazy enough to go for a swim! Also if you are to go swimming on Sanday, I probably wouldn’t recommend going in at Tressness, it’s a fairly wild and exposed part of the coastline. So for safety’s sake wouldn’t recommend it to others, but I had a laugh and survived it so c’est la vie.

One of the possible cists close to the Tresness site
One of the possible cists – just two minutes from the Tresness site

Following a few days of hard and tiring work completing the backfill and returfing, the team celebrated the great excavation season by having a BBQ at the Ayre’s Rock Hostel, followed by a gathering around a fire at the nearby beach. It was a great way to end everyone’s time on Sanday with the whole group singing sea shanties and just having a communal sense of celebration and accomplishment.

To sum up the Sanday excavations……the landscape of Sanday as well as the rest of Orkney is completely different in the present day to what it was in the Neolithic. Cata  Sand would have been on a little finger of land pointing out into the sea and there would have been no sand dunes at the time. There is a possibility that both Tresness and Cata Sand could be contemporary, leading to theories that Tresness could possibly be a burial place for those living at Cata Sand. But it will take more work during next year’s season to investigate these ideas further. The complexity of the Loth Road site made it a very interesting site to be a part of, and no doubt Colin will already be counting down the days until next year when he can start trying to unravel the confusing conundrum thrown up during this year’s work. Also the sites at Cata Sand and Tresness gave me an insight into just how vulnerable archaeological sites in coastal areas are (especially up here in Orkney) and that we must do as much as we can to record and gain any information we can from the sites before the sites are inevitably lost to the sea forever.

End of dig celebrations
End of dig celebrations

It was also great to see so many people interested in the work we were doing on Sanday. Over 10% of the island’s 500 count population both visited our sites for the Open Day and attended the Public Talk on our findings. It might not sound like much but 10% of a whole island’s population just to see and hear about archaeology was really gratifying for all the team and it was great to get our findings ‘out there’ into the public.

Just a few comments on my own experience…….it was an absolutely fantastic excavation to be a part of. It was a great team of students who made me feel welcome from the start even though I was a late arrival, and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed their experience. It was also great to work with experts in prehistory and the Neolithic periods such as Colin, Jane and Vicki, and really interesting to see how their archaeological minds worked as each site developed and changed over the few weeks. Having been lectured by Colin for two modules over the previous semesters it was great to see that the enthusiasm and wonder he delivers in his lectures within the classroom is carried with him out into the field as well; he’d probably still be digging at Loth Road if he had his way.

It was also good to catch up and work alongside my classmate Katie again, who played a major role at the Loth Road site for the duration of the 4 week excavations, and I’m sure will have a long and successful career in archaeology in the future. Also a shout out to the other students who eventually joined me for a swim at the beach at Cata, may have taken until the last day but eventually convinced them!

Just want to say a massive thanks to Paul and Julie at the Ayre’s Rock Hostel for being so accommodating and basically putting up with us taking over the hostel for the few weeks. Also to all the inhabitants of Sanday….thank you for showing such an interest in our work. It was great to see the numbers and turnout at both the Open Day and the Public Talk, just to see and hear about archaeology; so it means a lot to the whole team that the work we were doing captivated so much of yer attentions. Also to those of you living on Sanday I am extremely jealous of your surroundings! I probably arrived on the island for the best two weeks of the summer weather-wise and it was great to be able to explore and experience your island in such fantastic weather. The setting of Cata Sand was absolutely stunning and the memories and pictures are one’s I will keep with me to get me through the cold and dark winter months that are slowly encroaching upon us.

Views of the beach from the dunes...only 2 minutes stroll from the Cata Sand excavation
Cata Sand

Also I can’t sign off without giving a mention to Kirkwall Accies Football Club. I went back to the mainland briefly overnight at the end of the first week before returning back to Sanday the following day, as we had a top of the table clash. We won the match ending the season with a 100% winning record and it is the club’s first promotion in over 12 years. So A-League Here We Come! Hon Accies!

Sanday Sunset
Sanday Sunset

Anyway I’ll leave it there for Sanday excavations. Next you’ll hear from myself will be taking on the monster which is the Ness of Brodgar, so make sure to keep an eye out for how I got on with Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer!

Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeology student


If you would like to join us to study archaeology at any of the 13 colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk