A Summer of Archaeology in Rousay

20170714_133753 LowRes

Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present.

Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute together with a team of local volunteers and school children embarked on a programme of archaeology in Rousay, Orkney over the summer 2017.

Rousay’s Summer of Archaeology culminated in a host of activities along the west shore during July. Excavations were carried out at the coastally eroding site at Swandro (by a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute & University of Bradford) and at Skaill farmstead.

Together, the work at these sites aims to explore the remarkable deep time represented along the west shore; from the Neolithic, Iron Age, Pictish, Viking and Norse periods to the 19th century clearances. Work at these sites framed a series of community activities and workshops including test pit excavation at Skaill, training placements for Rousay residents, metalworking workshop, bones and environmental workshop, experimental archaeology, and open days at the two excavations. Over the month, the sites received hundreds of visitors, from Rousay and all over the world.

Chrissie and her test pit containing Norse midden

Excavations at Skaill farmstead were undertaken within the middle two weeks of July. The results of the geophysical survey in 2015 showed potential earlier features below the present 18/19th century farmstead. Subsequent test pits in 2016 identified several earlier structural phases below the farmhouse, including a wall with two outer stone faces and midden core, which is likely to date to the Norse period. The site represents a small ‘farm mound’ where successive phases of building, levelling and rebuilding give rise to a low mound.

The aim this season was to establish the extent and character of the farm mound, and the depth, quality and date of any deposits and structures in order to better understand the site for more detailed investigation. A line of 1m by 1m test pits at 10m intervals were excavated in two transects across the mound. The natural underlying glacial till was located at the northern, western and southern edges of the mound helping us to define the extent of surviving archaeology.

Ornate moulded red sandstone

In the centre of the mound, deep stratified deposits were found. These are likely to be over 2m in depth. Post-medieval deposits were found to overlay a distinctive Norse horizon. Norse pottery, fish bone, shell midden and elaborate red sandstone mouldings were found in the earlier horizons. The moulded red sandstone is significant, indicating high status buildings in the area during the late medieval period, and may help provide insights into the ornate red sandstone fragments nearby at The Wirk and on Eynhallow. Evidence for metal working, in the form of iron slag, has also been recovered from Skaill. Significant assemblages of animal bone, fish bone and pottery from the 17-19th centuries were also recovered. These will help us understand farming and fishing practices during the last few hundred years.

Planning the remains of the barn in Trench 2

To the north of the farmhouse, a small trench across a former 19th century barn was reopened and extended, showing the external wall footings and internal flagged floor. The building was demolished between 1840 and 1882 during a time when the farmstead was cleared and ceased to operate. In addition, a small evaluation trench across a suspected field boundary to the south of the barn was reopened from last season and completed. This contained a stone-lined drain and midden enhanced soil, indicating that earlier buried structures could be widespread at the site. Indeed, all of the earthworks that fell within one of the test pits contained structural remains such as walls.


Over the two weeks, Skaill received nearly 150 visitors, with 70 visitors over the test pit weekend. Several local children helping dig the test pits. Overall the season was a great success; helping raise the profile of the island, opening up the site to so many folk and increasing our understanding of the Skaill and Westness story.

The project has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant and additional funding form the OIC Archaeology Fund.



Mapping Magnus dates for the diary 1

Upcoming activities in the Palace village area of Birsay for August and September 2017.

Be a part of this exciting archaeology project commemorating the Magnus 900 year! More activities will be announced soon. Places for local residents and volunteers from Orkney available now.

Book your place now (limited places available): studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Phone 01856 569225

Boat noust survey. 15 & 16 August

What? Record and survey the historic boat Nousts / Boat houses at Skipi Geo and Point of Buckquoy. Learn survey techniques with Dan Lee.

Where? Meet at Skipi Geo, Northside, Birsay (15th), Point of Buckquoy car park (16th).

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Village survey. 25 & 26 August

What? Record and survey the upstanding archaeology in and around Palace Village, Birsay. Learn survey techniques with Dan Lee.

Where? Meet at Palace village car park opposite kirk.

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Archive research training. 1 & 2 Sept

What? Research the history & archaeology of Birsay with Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon in the Orkney Library and Archive. Contribute original research to the project.

Where? Meet at Orkney Archives Room (upstairs), Kirkwall Library

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Coastal Survey. 6, 7 & 8 Sept

What? Record the coastally eroding sites from Palace village to the point of Buckquoy area with archaeologist Dave Reay.

Where? Meet at Point of Buckquoy

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Village excavations. 25 Sept – 6 Oct (2 weeks)

What? Help the Archaeology Institute team dig test pits in Palace Village around the medieval site of the Bishops Palace. Join in for a day or whatever you can manage.

Where? Meet at Palace village car park opposite kirk. Booking essential.

When? 10am – 4pm each day

Please note: Booking is essential for all activities.

Caithness Broch Festival 2017 Underway

Bruan Broch, Caithness

A Celebration of Archaeology in Caithness

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Caithness Broch Project have teamed up to begin the first phase of the exciting Caithness Broch Festival.

The Caithness Broch Festival is a year-long programme of heritage and archaeology projects for 2017-2018, focusing on exploring the broch sites of Caithness.

There are more broch sites in Caithness than anywhere else in Scotland and yet there have been few recent explorations of these massive, tower like Iron Age structures.

The community archaeology project will begin with surveys of Bruan Broch, near Lybster, on the 15th & 16th August 2017 and Thing’s Va Broch, near Thurso, on the 17th & 18th August 2017. The local community and visitors to the area are invited to see how archaeologists undertake Magnetic and Earth Resistance surveys at these two important Iron Age structures. The sites will be open from 10am to 3pm each day of the survey. See map below…

The overall project aims to involve the community and provide hands-on training in basic archaeological techniques and establish through geophysics, fieldwalking, trial-trenching and work with local school groups the following:

  • the extent and depth of the buried structures
  • the date of the sites and evidence of activity over a longer period (for example, Norse activity at Thing’s Va).
  • the location of the broch entrances
  • the character and building phases of Iron Age houses
  • a platform for future research

Situated in a stunning coastal location, Bruan Broch is an outstanding example of an Iron Age Broch settlement that has possible outbuildings associated with the main structure.

Thing’s Va Broch, Caithness

Thing’s Va broch is also a well-preserved example of an Iron Age broch settlement, which has surviving elements of the interior including a cell within the outer wall. Interestingly, the site name suggests that it was used in the Norse period as a meeting place and other accounts suggest that there are earlier Neolithic or Bronze Age structures on the site. The overall project hopes to shed light on the existence of these activities.

The Caithness Broch Project is a community led archaeological organisation which aims to promote the existence of broch sites, undertake community archaeology projects in Caithness and eventually create a replica broch as it would have appeared 2000 years ago.

The Caithness Broch Festival will provide opportunities for local people and visitors to the area to engage with local archaeology – for many, their first opportunity to do so – whilst conducting significant archaeological research.

The overall aim is for these activities to develop a skilled and engaged group that can develop and sustain archaeological projects within the county. Participants will also contribute to the wider understanding of broch sites in Caithness and their landscapes and present the results in a temporary exhibition at Caithness Horizons Museum.

Bruan Broch & Things Va Geophysics V5lowres

Photographs: Thanks to Chris Sinclair.

Notes on Geophysical Survey & Archaeology

Geophysical survey in archaeology uses a wide range of non-intrusive techniques to reveal buried archaeological features, sites and landscapes.

Geophysical survey is a rapid and cost-effective means of exploring large areas and is used widely in commercial and research archaeology. It is quite often one of the first techniques to be employed on a site, prior to ground-breaking, and the results can be used to determine the location of any trenches.

Some techniques complement each other, such as magnetic survey and earth resistance survey, which will be used in this project.

Magnetic Survey

Magnetic survey measures localized variations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by features in the top metre or so of the ground. The technique is especially suited to locating ditches, pits, pottery and tile kilns, hearths and ovens, ferrous debris, and burnt material.

Users need to be free of magnetic material, such as zips on clothing, when carrying out the survey.

Earth Resistance Survey

Earth resistance survey involves electrical currents being fed into the ground and the measurement of any resistance to the flow of these currents. Where the current meets buried walls, it will record high resistance readings. Where the current meets an infilled ditch, low resistance readings will result.

The method, then, is particularly suited to locating walls and rubble spreads, made surfaces such as roads or yards, and stone coffins or cists. The technique can also be used to locate ditches and pits in areas where magnetic survey is not suitable, for example due to the nature of the soils or the presence of large amounts of ferrous material on or beneath the surface.

Resistance survey is a slower method than gradiometer survey and, as such, will be used to target specific areas of interest identified in the magnetic survey.

The community archaeology project is funded from the Tannach & District Wind Farm Charitable Trust Fund supported by Foundation Scotland, Bailie Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund and the Caithness and North Sutherland Fund.

Mapping Magnus Geophysics to Commence

Mapping Magnus Gen poster V1 070717

The first phase of the exciting community archaeology and training project, Mapping Magnus, begins on the 25th and 26th July.

Volunteer archaeologists together with a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be involved in the initial geophysics survey in and around the gardens of Palace Village, Birsay.

Geophysical survey will be used as a prospective tool to investigate key areas within Palace village, providing targets for subsequent excavations, and opportunities for community training and engagement. 3-4 areas will be investigated using magnetometry and earth resistance survey:

  • Magnetometry / Gradiometry measures localized variations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by features in the top metre or so of the ground. The technique is especially suited to locating ditches, pits, pottery and tile kilns, hearths and ovens, ferrous debris, and burnt material.
  • Resistance survey effectively measures the moisture content in the top 0.75m or so of the earth’s surface. It is particularly suited to locating walls and rubble spreads, made surfaces such as yards, and stone coffins or cists. The technique can also be used to locate ditches and pits in areas where gradiometry is not suitable, for example due to the nature of the soils or the presence of large amounts of ferrous material on or beneath the surface.


Further opportunities for community involvement and training in archaeological archive research and desk based assessment is also planned for the first phase of this project. School pupils will also be involved in discovering the exciting history of Birsay when the schools return after their summer holidays.

If you want to get involved contact  Dan Lee at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk



Project Update: Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre, Land and Sea

20170613_164533_LRWork at Skaill farmstead, Westness, Rousay, got underway last week with some building survey, walkover survey and a workshop with the Rousay Community School.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were joined by the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) survey team to record the remains of the buildings at Skaill farmstead and The Wirk (Norse tower). This is the first phase of the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present project – a summer of activities and reaearch.

20170613_162201_LRThe HES team produced accurate scaled drawings of the buildings (plans and sections) using a plane table and alidade – a basic but very effective survey method which results in highly accurate scale drawings. At Skaill farmstead, these included features such as the fireplaces, doorways, blocking, alcoves and shelves allowing the different phases of construction to be identified. The house was extended four times to the north as the farm expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the barn, the beautiful corn drying kiln was recorded along with a flue, a grain store, winnowing doors and vents. A dairy was identified at the northern end of the house.

Walkover survey was started around the farmstead with the help of volunteers. Features such as the stone walled enclosures, and earthworks such as banks and terraces were recorded. These sites were mapped with a handheld GPS and help to place the farm buildings into a wider context. An earlier phase of enclosure, perhaps and early hill dyke, was walked on the steep slope above the road.

Ten pupils from the Rousay Community School had a day of activities during the week. This started with a class-based workshop about what archaeologists do, how we know where to look, what we find and what this can tell us. They looked at finds and thought about what you might expect to find below the ground, especially in a farm mound such as that at Skaill, and above the ground in terms of built heritage.


The class then visited Skaill farmstead and after a picnic lunch found out about building recording and photography from the HES team. Pupils traced from the geophysics plot of the farm and we looked at what we could see on the ground. They finished by drawing their own plans of the farm buildings. The weather was kind and a good day was had by all.

We look forward to starting the excavations at Skaill and Swandro next month!

The project has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant and additional funding from the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund.


Dates for the diary:

  • 10-23 July: Excavations at Skaill farm. Test pit weekend/open days 22-23 July. Volunteers and visitors welcome.
  • 3-28 July: Excavations at Swandro coastally eroding site. details available soon.

Volunteers welcome! Please get in touch if you want to take part in the fieldwork at Skaill.

Contact The Archaeology Institute for details on how to take part: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk tel: 01856 569225


The Cairns Day Five 2017

Woody working in the broch

In contrast to yesterday the weather has been kind. Happily, and despite some reduced numbers on the team today, significant progress has been made.

In the north-east quarter of trench Q the furnace structure has revealed ever more detail of its construction and use and further articulated remains of a young sheep (or goat) have been lifted from the teardrop shaped construction in front of the furnace along with a variety of animal bone including a jawbone probably from an older animal. Some of the collapsed stone behind the furnace has also been shown to be contemporary with its construction, so Dave has told me.

Meanwhile, back in the Broch itself the hard-working crew led by Woody (who probably has a real name, but nobody knows) has managed to complete the herculean task of emptying several tonnes of rubble from the interior, lifted over the standing structure and across difficult terrain to finally reveal the remaining standing construction  inside the structure

For myself and the others, working in the new extension of the trench (currently known simply as “South West Extension”)  further sessions of heavy trowelling have successfully revealed a layer of large stones that may, or may not, be “a something”.

We have also convinced ourselves that we have one or two possible edges of a ditch (or the remains of ridge and furrow) that are revealed at this early stage. Time and trowel will tell as they say…

Work continuing in the South West Extension
As an older volunteer, I can recommend The Cairns as a friendly environment in which to work, but in hindsight I would have done more to increase my fitness and stamina before the start of the dig. The first week ends with very few of my leg muscles being in good condition. You live and learn! ‘
Peter Shackleton, volunteer excavator


Exciting New Mapping Magnus Project Launched

image4144The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are pleased to announce the launch of a major new community archaeology research and training project in Orkney.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has been commissioned by Orkney Islands Council to deliver a programme of community archaeology activities and events that will explore the story of St Magnus and medieval Orkney.

The Mapping Magnus project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of Magnus 900, commemorating the 900th anniversary year of the death of St Magnus during 2017.

Based around the central themes of the Mapping Magnus project – Movement & Pilgrimage, Religion & Power, Stones & Bones – activities will include archive research, storytelling and collecting, geophysical survey, walkover survey, excavation, coastal survey, a noust survey and community and schools workshops. Fieldwork activities will be focussed in Palace village and the surrounding area of Birsay. Other key places within the story, such as the site of Magnus’ Martyrdom on Egilsay and the Mansie Stane sites where his body was rested during transit will be included. All activities will involve training and hands-on experiences for the local community and schools, and local volunteers are encouraged to get involved.

Dates for the diary: Excavations in Palace village: 25 Sept – 6th October 2017


There will be an emphasis upon hands-on archaeological research, fieldwork and experiences providing members of the community with an opportunity to explore the Magnus Story in exciting new ways. The project events include archive research and training with Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon, an exploration of the journey of St Magnus through a walkover survey at the martyr site on Egilsay, a survey of the route taken to Birsay and sharing of oral histories through music and storytelling workshops.

Archaeological fieldwork will be concentrated in Birsay, with an emphasis on Palace village and the sites of the medieval Christ’s Kirk and the Bishops Palace – key places in the story of Magnus. The project aims to characterise the medieval settlement at Palace and contribute something new to our understanding of life at the time of Magnus. Activities will complement and draw together previous archaeological work in Birsay Bay. Key sites and finds from the project will be brought to life using the latest 3D modelling. The project will work with local schools to provide hands-on learning experiences in the class and field.

The Mapping Magnus project will contribute to other Magnus related projects during 2017 including the St Magnus Way Pilgrimage route and wider Magnus 900 activities.

Antony Mottershead, Orkney Island’s Council Arts Officer, said, “We are very happy to be working with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute through the Mapping Magnus project. The knowledge and expertise within their team will enable them to quickly focus in on areas of interest and, we hope, add significantly to our understanding of Orkney during the lifetime of Magnus”.

20170527_134758Dan Lee, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, said, “We are really excited to be able to run such a wide and varied programme of community focused archaeology events focused on the story of St Magnus in this important commemorative year. We hope that together we can learn something new about the world of Magnus, and the life and death of one of the most significant historical figures in Orkney”.

For more information or if you want to take part please contact the UHI Archaeology Institute. Contact details: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk