UHI Student Ross Drummond and the #Skaillsaga

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Skaill Farmstead, Rousay

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Skaill Farmstead dig, Rousay, Orkney.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! This time reporting about Pt. 2 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay. The project at Skaill has been running since 2015, with this season’s activities (July 9th-24th) being the fourth year on site.

The main basis for the project when it was begun was to explore the Viking, Norse and post-medieval archaeology on the Westness Estate. The present farm on the site dates to the 18-19th centuries and was involved in the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga as the home of the Powerful Earl Sigurd, so there is a high possibility of a Viking site on Rousay somewhere along the coastline and Skaill may possibly be it; which was right up my street as the Viking-Norse period is my preferred time period in terms of archaeology.

Midden Galore
Midden galore found on Day One

The main aims for this year’s project were: to excavate the test pit transects, investigate and put trenches over the earthworks, investigate the farm mound, locate post-medieval midden and characterise the Norse horizon. SPOILER ALERT!!! We were pretty successful in accomplishing all these aims!

The team consisted of four site co-ordinators: Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons (all lectures at UHI Archaeology Institute Orkney), ORCA Project Officer Sean Bell (for week one, Bobby Friel took over for second half of project), students from various years of UHI Archaeology and local volunteers (Anthony, Chrissie and Ewan). Not to mention a solid young archaeological workforce in the form of some of the lecturer’s kids, who were very proactive in getting involved over the course of the two and a half week excavation.

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The team at lunch on the beach below the site

Arrival on the first day started off with a tour of the site and a discussion of the plans for the upcoming excavation season by UHI Lifelong Learning and Outreach Officer Dan Lee. Following the introduction we got our hands dirty straight away and began working on opening up three of the main trenches for this seasons activities: Trench 19 (outside farmhouse in courtyard), Trench 4 (at back of house extending on a previous year’s trench) and Trench 23 (side of the farmstead). These were chosen based on previous geophysics and earthworks surveys which showed these as locations with high archaeological potential.

The first day ended in success as one of the project’s main aims for the season was accomplished early on in Trench 19, with post-medieval midden being found in abundance (pretty much as soon as I used a mattock to loosen up the soil after de-turfing). This was collected as bulk samples for later analysis, however, by day three the initial excitement would fade as midden material would end up in the spoil heap – there was just that much of it!

My role for this excavation would take up a slightly more hands on approach in dealing with outreach and social media as I was given several tasks. As well as being responsible for the social media activities for the site on various media platforms (#SkaillSaga), I also was given more outreach experience in giving site tours to any visitors to the site over the excavation period.

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The Digging for Britain camera crew being ‘helped’ by Ross

This season at Skaill also saw a wider interest in the site, as Digging For Britain sent a camcorder to site for a possible feature in the upcoming series of the show due to air later this year (so stay tuned for that). So Dan and I took turns filming footage of the excavation over the course of the two weeks.

Dan ‘very kindly’ gave me the ‘special honour’ of taking responsibility of activities in Trench 22, which involved possibly one of the worst de-turfings I have ever done; the ground was rock hard with stones and roots all over the place, the spade would barely even make a dint in the ground. However, I’d have the last laugh as Trench 22 would turn up trumps in the end; just had to endure a lot of struggle the first few days.I was joined in trench 22 by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons and Jen’s son Callum (who would become my little protégé and remain by my side in the trench for the remainder of the project).

Following the first few days in the trench early theories were that the area where Trench 22 was located was used as a dump of structural materials as buildings were knocked down and re-used over time on the site (due to a large amount of lime mortar, stone with attached mortar and red sandstone). However, fortunes changed towards the end of the week as it seemed the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was on our side with my presence, as I found a coin in the SE corner of the trench just before pack up.

The coin was identified as a George III half-penny dating to 1806! I was delighted as it made the struggle during the original de-turfing of the trench worth it. But this find came at a cost… Despite the obvious associations of possibly being a Leprechaun (those of you familiar with American Gods can just call me Mad Sweeney), Irish readers will be able to relate to the fact that ‘th’ words provide a difficulty in our pronunciation of certain words, especially in addition to an ‘r’ in third. You can see where I’m going with this…. So basically if Skaill does manage to make it onto Digging For Britain in the future remember I’m saying ‘George the Third’ and I am not talking about poo hahaha. This has since provided many with a laugh including myself, and probably will for some time to come (it’s not my fault I’m Irish!!!).

Following my find and pose with the coin Dan jokingly referred to me as the ‘Poster Boy for UHI Archaeology’ on film for Digging For Britain and after that the name kinda stuck around site (could be worse nicknames I guess).

On our return to site in the second week Trench 22 began to turn up some more surprises as we took the level down bit by bit, with an assemblage of medieval pottery being found near the same corner as the coin. Unfortunately the pottery was in pretty poor condition and was not able to be lifted as one piece, but several pieces were scattered all over the one area. These were excavated carefully and collected by myself and Callum and by the end of it we had the remains of the biggest collection of medieval pottery belonging to a single vessel found at the site thus far.

Following the removal of medieval pottery we noticed a pig’s jaw beneath where the majority of pieces had been collected, and meticulously began investigating the area further. After a day or so of careful excavation, our patience and attentiveness paid off as the ‘Luck of the Irish’ struck again. A finds deposit of medieval pottery, a pot lid and a piece of garnet mica schist were found around the pig skull.

Pig skull, pot lid and garnet mica schist
Pig skull, pot lid and garnet mica schist in situ

The garnet mica schist was part of a rotary quern and is of high significance as although it can be found in parts of Western Scotland, it is a common find from Shetland and possibly even Norway and usually associated with Norse activity. The garnet mica schist was a great find because it’s dating to Norse time suggests that the other finds within the deposits may also date to that period, and it tied in with other Norse materials and structures found at other parts of the site.

Close up of garnet mica schist
Close up of the garnet mica schist – part of a rotary quern

The lifting of the pig skull was also a success as I managed to lift it in one piece under the watchful eye of Callum (it was a team effort).

Ross Drummond with the pig skull following lifting
Ross with the pig skull intact following lifting

The Open Weekend was also a great success with steady number of visitors over both days despite varying weather conditions. I missed the Open Day on the Saturday myself (had a football final with Kirkwall Accies, we lost, less said about it the better; but we’ll get the last laugh!). I returned to site on Sunday morning in high spirits until Dan came to ‘commiserate’ with the loss (reminding of me his own past triumph’s in football and vandalizing one of the site open day posters I had made dedicating a special shout out to myself). But the rest of the day went off really well, in between doing several site tours I managed to catch up on all the paperwork for Trench 22 with the end of the excavation fast approaching.

My final day on site involved working with UHI photographer Tim Winterburn who took some portraits of the students and lecturers involved on the dig for college profiles. I also managed to draw a plan of Trench 22 before catching the afternoon ferry back to Mainland in preparation for my travel to Sanday the following day for my next excavation.

The two structures in Trench 19
The two structures in Trench 19

Successful results were also achieved in the other trenches over the two week season. In Trench 23, Ingrid and Steve’s work revealed two structures (walls extending N-S) which seemed similar to Trench 19 just over the wall. These structures were joined by another structure, possibly a temporary wall; with a further feature in the NW corner – function at present unclear but may possibly have been an animal pen. Finds were mostly post-medieval in date such as thin plate and thick glass which would be post 1700s, as well as some animal bone in the SW corner.


Trench 4 was worked on by the team of Jen, Sam and Chrissie and findings this season will prompt a return to this trench again next year. A substantial wall was found running E-W which has a high possibility of dating to the Norse period and could form part of a Norse longhouse. In the south area of the trench a secondary lower wall was exposed, which looks like an early feature (possibly Norse or Viking), and will be investigated further next year.

Finds included post medieval pottery and glass, metal objects, unglazed pottery, whetstones; and also a large quantity of slag. Gerry McDonnell archaeometallurgist at the nearby Swandro dig examined some of the slag and suggested they showed evidence for the smelting of bog iron as well as smithing. These pieces of slag may possibly be the earliest evidence of smelting in Viking Age Orkney, could mean there is a possibility of a nearby smithy building, which could be hidden somewhere on the Skaill site awaiting to be discovered in the future.

The substantial wall in Trench 20
The substantial wall in Trench 20

Trench 20 was worked on by Dan and Conal, and originally started out as a 1 × 1m trench, but was extended upon the discovery of a very substantial wall (1m long by 80cm high) at the back of the farm buildings; and probably has a post-medieval date. Buried substantial buildings across the site like this one explain the ground level rise, answering more questions we had before excavating but still leaving a very complex story to unpick.

Trench 19 showing earlier building
Trench 19 showing earlier building

Trench 19 worked on by Bobby, Sean, Anthony, Jan and Sue showed that the most recent farmhouse building was built on an earlier one (similar to Trench 1 2 years ago). It is post medieval, possibly dating to late medieval in date, with the gable end having a 1m wall, similar to that found in Trench 20. There was also a blocked doorway found and it looks as though the structure may have extended south at some stage. The floor surface was covered in post-medieval midden, and there are plans to extend the trench next year to find out more on the diet and farming habits of the people who lived on the site.

It was a great dig to be a part of, very different to The Cairns in both time period and set up. The involvement of members of the local community as well as some of the lecturer’s children made it a really family friendly and relaxed environment. Little things like lunch breaks spent on the beach were an added bonus with great coastal views on clear days. Can’t leave without giving a shout out to my boy Callum, or claim that the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was the reason purely on the great results from Trench 22, it also involved teamwork from the Dream Team! There are talks of the Dream Team being re-united in late August at Islay so we’ll see what possible finds that excavations turns up. Only downside to the dig was the annoying presence of klegs and horsefly’s on site, so my admiration to the Rousay natives who probably deal with this problem on a regular basis (managed to survive without any bad bites or marks though thankfully!).

Next you’ll hear from myself will be from Sanday, where it’ll be an exploration of prehistoric and coastal erosion sites.
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross

P.S. Again keep in mind the ‘th’ problem for us Irish if those clips of me with the coin ever make it to air on BBC, and please do not ask me to say ‘George the Third’ for your own amusement, everyone will just end up laughing! Hopefully it won’t come back to haunt me in any future archaeological career I might have.

For any further info on Skaill and to follow my own archaeological adventures over the summer, make sure to check out our social media.


If you want to join the research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete a postgraduate qualification in archaeology then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our student section on this blog.

MSc Student contributes to research at The Ness of Brodgar

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Justin working in the lab at The University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute at Orkney College UHI

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.

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Archaeologists working on a section of the main trench at the Ness of Brodgar

“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.”


If you want to join the research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete a postgraduate qualification in archaeology then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our student section on this blog.

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Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar

The Cairns Day Eighteen – 2018

Excavating in the western zone of the broch today
Excavating in the western zone of the broch in the gathering mist

The digging season at The Cairns is nearly over and Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, talks us through the penultimate day at the excavation.

Today we started the process of placing the covers over parts of the site. We began in the Area Q/M in the North of the site weighing down tarpaulins with tyres. Nevertheless, we remain in an active digging mode in other parts of the site.

Inside the broch the team have resumed excavating the western area on a sample grid. They are now working on floor/occupation deposits beneath the level of the two successive hearths that have been excavated and lifted. Tomorrow will be the last day when excavation occurs here, so will they find lots of lovely environmental information? And will they encounter any nice artefacts to rival the previous finds such as the Iron Age glass bead and the Roman vessel glass in this area? We’ll let you know…

The slightly wetter conditions overnight (in fact it was misty early on today!) have served to very nicely show the soil colours on the site so in the south extension we have been cleaning this area for final photography. Low and behold more animal bone has been appearing in this area, which has previously been so rich in it. Once the excavation is complete for the season, it will be interesting to take a look at all the animal bone that has been generated by the work in the ditch to try to get some idea of the nature of the processes that this bone has been involved in.

One of many trays of animal bone from site
One of the many trays of animal bone from site

Certainly, we have observed butchery marks on some of the bone but by and large the bone is present in large fragments with minimal processing and it therefore looks rather wasteful in terms of the additional calorific content that has not been exacted from these joints of meat. This has often been read off as an index of relative wealth, as poorer communities are expected to be less wasteful. However, we have also observed large parts of articulated carcasses amongst the animal bone suggesting that there may be other processes at work giving rise to at least some of this bone such as structured, or votive, deposition. The post-excavation work of looking in detail at all this bone will be very interesting, indeed.

Tomorrow will be the last day when any excavation occurs anywhere on site, and most of the site will be covered up by the end of the day, we’ll keep you posted on any last minute surprises (almost guaranteed on archaeological sites!).

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at UHI Archaeology Institute

 

The Cairns Day Sixteen – 2018

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Looking across the broch with the Pentland Firth in the background

Dr Jo McKenzie has kindly volunteered to write the blog today………….Hello from the beginning of the end – the last week of the Cairns 2018 field season! (and sadly, my last day on site).

Time seems to have gone very quickly, and it doesn’t seem a year since I was last at Cairns sampling the amazing sequence of floor deposits preserved within, especially, the north-eastern quadrant of the broch.

You’ll have seen some of the images of these floors in several of Martin’s posts – beautiful, intricate lenses of material, each tiny layer representing a different episode of activity and deposition by those who were the last before us to spend their days ‘doing stuff’ in the Cairns broch.

I use a technique called soil micromorphology to take small ‘block’ samples which are then used to make microscope slides, allowing us to analyse complex deposit sequences like the broch floors in enormous detail – as outlined in my blog from last year (LINK). Here’s a shot of one of those samples being taken. This tin is just 5×7 cm, but that’s plenty big enough to give us a fantastic sample through the many deposits in this small section through lenses of probable charcoal, burnt peat, burnt stone, bone and much more.

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A micromorphology ‘Kubiena tin’ through the floor deposits of the north-east quadrant.

We now have a great sequence of samples through these complex deposits, traversing the north-east quadrant and nicely aligned within our 50cm grid (affectionately known as Terence for no good reason, except I suppose that it helps to be able to make a personal apology when you’ve kicked yet another of Terence’s nails out for the umpteenth time that day – as fellow north-east quadrant-ers Ole, Ross and Mike can testify!)

We’ve also been lucky enough to get enough depth of deposit to take a sample close to the large hearth setting in the north-west area of the broch, which is really good news as the closely-packed layers of paving in this area make getting good samples a challenge. Here’s today’s sample extracted, and turned carefully over for the excess material to be carefully shaved off the back of the tin so that the sample can be sealed. A lovely sample of dark, dense carbonised material representing activity around the cracked hearth surface.

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Extracting a sample from the north-west quadrant hearth

It’s intriguing to spot tiny features within the tin samples which I know will be so interesting to examine in detail under the microscope – fine laminations of material, or inclusions such as charcoal or bone. Here’s an example of what must be pretty much the tiniest bones we find on site – a fish vertebrae, seen adjacent to the tin taken next to the north-west hearth setting, seen here magnified under my small geological viewer.

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A tiny fish vertebra

It’s also been great to see the site making such amazing progress – so many new structures being uncovered outside of the broch with Bobby’s team, and spending these last few days working right alongside the fantastic discoveries still being made inside the well. Above all, it’s been brilliant to get the chance once again to work with the great Cairns team – students, volunteers and old hands alike. I think today must have been the busiest I’ve ever seen the broch interior – and needless to say, there was plenty of archaeology for every pair of hands to tackle!

Roll on next year.