In this blog Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, Orkney College UHI , talks about the attraction of the theme…..Ruination & Decay. This article originally appeared on the HARC Ruination & Decay blog. Click through to catch the latest!
“Ruined buildings and decaying remnants of human activity have a strange attractiveness and bewitching aesthetics to them. When ruination and decay was taken up by the Humanities and Arts Research Cluster (HARC), University of the Highlands and Islands, as the first of its annual research themes, I was immediately excited by the topic. Why should this be so? Why was I not repulsed?
Firstly, there is the detective aspect, of course. As I child, I always wanted to be an archaeologist, because it combined the professions of detective and adventurer. True enough, I had a somewhat skewed image of what an archaeologist does, influenced by Indiana Jones and Thor Heyerdahl. However, even now with a more mature understanding of the profession, I am still attracted to its puzzle solving aspect. It is like finding fourteen pieces of a thousand-piece jigsaw and from there trying to gain some sort of understanding of the picture. This attracts me to ruined buildings, too. From what is left now, can we form a picture of what it was like before and about its story over time?
Another thing I like about ruins and decay is the effect of getting a little glimpse, as if looking briefly into a single shard of a broken mirror. A wartime hut at the old naval base of Lyness in Orkney: Reduced to a pile of rotting wood like a match-stick house after a storm. But on the one wall that is still standing: Miraculously, a little mirror is still hanging up! Allowing us for a short second to have a look into the past and at the person who last used it to shave before going out into another day of war.
There was an underwater archaeological survey done recently here in Orkney, looking at the naval wrecks of Scapa Flow. The most amazing images came out. What touched me to the core was not the ships in themselves, or their gun turrets, but the little everyday things that were spread on the seabed around the wrecks. A tuba. A fork and a saucer with the ship’s name on the porcelain. Shoes. Lots of shoes, which once contained feet.
I am mesmerised by looking at photographs of decaying structures from the relatively recent past. A well-known example is the Mark Twain Public Library in Detroit, which closed down due to budget cuts and lies abandoned with books and furniture still in it. There are Pinterest collections out there dedicated to urban decay, showing abandoned and decaying schools, factories, swimming pools and sports centres, mansions and churches, lecture halls and theatres. I have spent hours on Google Earth, looking at the town of Chernobyl, where trees and grass have taken over the apartment blocks and the Ferris wheel in the amusement park has become no more than a trellis for the returning plant life. My fascination with urban decay stems, I think, from the clashes between the familiar and the strange and between the temporal moment and vastness of time. It shows so clearly and unrelentingly that human structures are no more than temporary surface alterations and that however familiar we are with the music hall it is but a brief and temporary assemblage of materials which one day will be claimed back by Planet Earth. A mirage of civilisation and illusion of governance over nature.
We have such places here in Orkney where I live, too. Little stone cottages, abandoned as farms grew bigger. In the island of Sanday, there is an entire abandoned village. Little remnants of past community life are still there: Rhubarb is still growing, a tea pot is left on a windowsill, a sewing machine stands abandoned behind a little stone window. We even have abandoned islands. The last inhabitants of the island of Swona – a brother and sister by the name of Rosie – thought they were only leaving for a few days, but never returned. Rose Cottage stands lonely with food in the cupboards, a tea towel hanging on the range in the kitchen, but with cattle and birds as the only inhabitants of the island. The human time-line which started in Swona five millennia ago with a Neolithic chambered cairn stopped in its tracks in 1974. But the time of the cattle and the wildlife still goes on.
Regarding sunsets, I have noticed a strange effect. Sunsets are sometimes better enjoyed when not looking at them directly. I was thinking of this latterly as I was walking home from work one late February afternoon. My path took me along an old stone wall, rather tall, which I could not see over. Behind it, a glorious, golden sunset was in progress. The sky above looked like Soria Moria, the fabled golden castle in the clouds from Norwegian fairy tales. But when I got to the end of the wall, and I could finally look directly at the sun, it was no more than an ordinary sunset.
Perhaps part of the attraction to ruins, too, is that it allows you to look at human life without staring at it directly. Just like the attraction of a traditional Geisha is how she hides behind fans and draperies and layers of silk, allowing only glimpses into a secret world (paraphrasing Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha). Or the way that a horror film is much scarier when you don’t see the monster, only its shadow. There is something about that step of removal, that distance, which makes ruins and abandoned places attractive. Not too far, but not too close. Layering and glimpses of a hidden world.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, when ruins were at the height of fashion, intellectuals had this idea that their own modern times were characterised by the loss and corruption of an older, truer culture, belonging to our forefathers. They carried around copies of the Poems of Ossian, they dug out prehistoric tombs and monuments, looking for the Celtic Twilight and the Old North. They thought of archaeology and folklore as these scattered jigsaw pieces, or shards and glimpses of a hidden world which was purer and truer than their own.
I remember visiting Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire some years ago. Although the abbey itself has an interesting history, I was also fascinated by what the tour guide said about its use as a ruin. A beautiful Georgian garden had been designed around it, with the ruined abbey as its centrepiece. The land had been landscaped, the stream had been deliberately directed to create an artificial Arcadia. In this Georgian version of augmented reality, the ruined abbey was the jewel in the crown.
At this point, I suddenly felt that the abbey lost its magic and became no more than a garden folly. A special effect in a theatre. It had lost its mystery. It had been tamed. Georgian landscape gardeners would even build fake ruins. But these have no mystery. Built ruins are not alive.
In his seminar on “Decaying flesh and the instability of substances” 28/2/19, Colin Richards spoke about the blurring of the categories ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’. That the type of Neolithic building which we call a ‘tomb’ may in fact not be a static disposal unit for dead bodies, but rather the opposite: A living transformation. “The monument itself becomes a living thing,” he said. “It is all a process of becoming.” It has been deliberately built with layers of stone ‘skin’. The stones of the inner walls have been carefully split to create an ‘open’ face inwards, ready to absorb the persons who are put inside. Through this process, the entire building and bodies together become something new. We don’t know what they called it, but we can think of it as something along the lines of an ancestor.
This made complete sense to me, both in terms of my own personal response to ruins, and as a researcher who is interested in Viking Age, medieval and early modern folklore and beliefs. In the Orkney archive, there are accounts from as late as the 1920s telling us how people saw ancient burial mounds as alive. Opening or destroying it meant bad luck. The inhabitant of the mound was called a “hogboy” or “hogboon” (from ‘mound dweller’ in Old Norse) and he could be dangerous if his mound were to be disturbed. You could tell that the mound was alive by observing the strange fire that would burn above it on certain nights. The fire is like the beating heart of the burial mound, just as the peat fire in the hearth was the heart of a croft-house.
Both for ancient ruins and more modern ruins, the following holds true: When human life in it, or human use of it has come to an end, the building nonetheless still has its own life. It continues to live and interact with nature and the world around it. Abandonment, ruination and decay is not about stopping time, but about transforming into something else. As Colin Richards put it: Decay is a generative process. Perhaps the root of my fascination lies here, in the notion of a ruin being alive. And perhaps this is why once the ruin is consolidated, made secure by Historic Environment Scotland and opened up to ticket-buying visitors, it loses some of its appeal to me?”
Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Orkney Archaeology Society for an exciting community archaeology project centred on the 870 year old St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.
The project will involve the local community who will investigate, record and analyse the graffiti and mark making which is present on the walls both inside and outside the building.
St Magnus Cathedral occupies a special place in the history and identity of Orkney. Built from red and yellow sandstone in the 12th century by the same masons as Durham Cathedral, it is one of the most iconic buildings in Scotland. It serves as a parish church, a venue for a range of events and performances, and is one of the most popular heritage attractions for visitors to the islands. A wide range of markings from the last 870 years survive on both the internal and external stonework, and the cathedral contains one of the most significant graffiti assemblages in Scotland. These include masons’ marks relating to primary construction and rebuild, enigmatic symbolic designs such as hexafoils, and a wide range of both pencilled and inscribed ‘name-and-date’ graffiti. Only very limited attention has ever been afforded to these, but such inscriptions are increasingly recognised as an important part of the historical record.
Several hundred marks have been informally identified, and these are a highlight of the Cathedral tours. But despite the great interest in, and research importance of, this assemblage, it has never been the focus of a systematic, detailed study. It is likely that many more marks remain to be discovered. In addition, the soft sandstone is vulnerable to erosion and restoration of the building’s stonework continues. Many of the more lightly inscribed carvings, and the delicate pencil graffiti, are in danger of disappearance before they are fully recorded. These factors, in combination with the growing awareness of the significance of this resource, make this project timely and essential.
The aims of the project are to….
train a team of community archaeologists who will be sufficiently skilled and confident to undertake, under supervision, detailed building surveys
create a publication which outlines the key findings, places the graffiti in the cathedral within its historical context and adds to the knowledge of this unique building and the people who have used it
create an online resource which will be freely available to all, showing the photographs and the records of the project
The volunteers will be trained by archaeologists from the UHI Archaeology Institute to recognise and record the marks and enter them into the record – the first time that these important social marks have been recorded officially.
The project will be officially launched on Tuesday 22nd January 2019 at 7.00pm in the St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall when the team will discuss the background to the project and how to get involved as a volunteer.
The initial training dates for volunteers are to be held in late January and early February and to take part in the project, participants must attend one of the four hour sessions. Interest in the workshops has been very high, and as a result there are now very few slots available on the first three training workshops. Organisers are looking to set a date for a fourth training workshop, and this will be confirmed at the launch on the 22nd Jan.
Workshop One: Saturday 26th Jan. 1pm-5pm, St Magnus Cathedral
Workshop Two: Tuesday 5th Feb. 1pm – 5pm, St Magnus Cathedral
Workshop Three: Saturday 9th Feb. 1pm-5pm, St Magnus Cathedral
UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer and project coordinator, Dr Antonia Thomas, commented that, “over more than 870 years, St Magnus Cathedral has played host to countless masons, pilgrims and tourists, many of whom have left their mark in graffiti and other carvings. This exciting project gives us the opportunity to examine several centuries of mark-making, and find out more about the social history of this special building “
Martin Carruthers, Orkney Archaeology Society Chairman said,” This is a really exciting project and one that we are delighted to be running. St Magnus Cathedral is such an important building for Orkney folk, and we are looking forward to working with the community to learn more about the people who have made their marks here since it was founded in 1137.”
The project is supported by a grant of £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
This is the second in a series of blog posts looking at the main findings from the excavations undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute during the summer of 2018.
This time we examine the fascinating excavations on Sanday – one of the northern most islands in Orkney.
Professor Colin Richards continues…..Cata Sand, Tresness Chambered Tomb & Loth Road Bronze Age House, Sanday. Fieldwork on Sanday this summer was arguably undertaken at some of the most beautiful places in Orkney! Also, in the most glorious weather.
In all, three archaeological sites were investigated relating to two different research projects.
First, a new project entitled ‘Northern Exposure’ began by excavating an Early Bronze Age settlement at Loth Road. The research project is examining the period c 2400 – 1800 BC, which marks the transition from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age. As an ‘in between’ period, these centuries have tended to be neglected as researchers tend to work on the Neolithic (3700 – 2400 BC) or the Bronze Age (c. 2000 – 800 BC). In fact it is a fascinating period of time beginning with the abandonment of the late Neolithic ‘villages’ such as Skara Brae, Ness of Brodgar, and on Sanday, Pool. Around c. 2400 BC, communities appear to fragment and people live dispersed across the landscape in paired or ‘double’ houses.
There seems to be a change in climate around this time, and across mainland Scotland we see the possible influx of new groups of people from the continent. These people are metalworkers and the first metal (copper) objects come into circulation and use. It does not look as if these immigrants get as far as Orkney, although they are present in Caithness. Nonetheless, judging from the abandonment of the villages, society appears to be disrupted from about 2400 BC in the Northern Isles.
However, it is precisely at this time that for the first time links become apparent between Orkney and Shetland, with materials being exchanged and similar house architecture occurring in both areas (also present on Fair Isle). So the big questions revolve around why were the villages abandoned, what effect did climate change have on their lives and why did the folk on Orkney begin to engage with communities in Shetland? Equally, what effect did the new populations moving through Britain (with ancestry reaching back across the north European plain to the Steppes) have on late Neolithic Orcadian society?
As one of the northern isles, Sanday is a good location to explore the beginnings of links between Orkney and Shetland, the Loth Road Early Bronze Age settlement comprises a double house (and possibly more structures) overlooking the Bay of Stove where a massive late Neolithic village is present several hundred metres away.
Excavations uncovered some well-preserved houses, which had been decorated with cup-marks. These are small depressions normally found on rock outcrops or burial cists or mounds. This is exciting as it is the first example of such decoration in an Early Bronze Age domestic context, and more importantly shows links to Shetland where they are present on rock outcrops on Unst and Whalsay. Excavations will continue next year where it is hoped more material from Shetland will be discovered.
The second research project involved excavating the chambered cairn at Tresness, together with a contemporary early Neolithic house at Cata Sand. This fieldwork continues a project investigating the early Neolithic of Orkney and Shetland and includes house sites excavated in both places.
The Sanday early Neolithic house site of Cata Sand is situated on a low rock spit projecting into the bay. This is a very dynamic environment which changed dramatically before and after the settlement was inhabited (c. 3300BC). Indeed, the landscape is changing today and one of the reasons this site was discovered was because an eroding sand dune revealed masonry and hearths. Investigations have uncovered at least two, and probably more, substantial houses – obviously these have been eroded by the sea (the site can be covered at high tide), but enough remains to enable us to examine house floors and hearths.
The site became well known last year due to the unexpected discovery of large numbers of whales that had been buried in large pits just a few hundred years ago. The Neolithic houses are interesting because of their low lying coastal position. Investigations on Mainland over recent years at Stonehall, Smerquoy, Knowes of Trotty and Wideford Hill have found similar early Neolithic houses much further inland at the base of rising ground and clearly sited with regard to water sources. It will be interesting seeing if the inhabitants of the Cata Sand houses had a higher engagement with the sea.
The final site examined is the chambered cairn of Tresness, which is roughly contemporary with the Cata Sand houses (c. 3500-3300BC). Again, coastal erosion is destroying this site and an excavation was mounted to explore the mound composition and burial chamber. After removing the flagstones over the chamber, it was found that a later wall had been built across the chamber. The wall is probably of later date and suggests the cairn was dug into in the Iron Age. This is a common occurrence in Orkney where Iron Age communities (c. 800BC – AD800), seem to target Neolithic tombs to enter and either build structures on top or nearby. This is unfortunate for archaeologists interested in Neolithic burial remains and practices! Hopefully, the later disturbance will be restricted to the entrance area and untouched Neolithic burial remains discovered next year.
It has been interesting and exciting work on Sanday because our initial findings show us how different the islands were through prehistory. Furthermore the archaeology on Sanday for the period 2400 – 1800BC may well provide us with important information about why people stopped living in the big villages, and why they not only altered their domestic arrangements, but also began to turn and look northwards and to forge closer links with communities on Fair Isle and Shetland.
At each site the landowners were very enthusiastic and helpful and we would like to thank Adam and Jimmy Towrie and Colin and Heather Headworth. A great many local people visited the sites and kindly helped the team in various ways, and are very much looking forward to returning next year, and expecting equally fine weather….The excavation is a joint project between the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire.
Brochtoberfest is an annual celebration of all things related to brochs and the Scottish Iron Age more generally.
Day One: Lectures and Exhibition
Date: 20th October 2018
Time: Midday to 16.30
Venue: St Magnus Centre, Palace Road, Kirkwall KW15 1PA
Host: Orkney Archaeology Society
Day Two: Field-trip to Broch of Gurness
Date: 21st October 2018
Time: 11.00 -13.00
Meet: Will be arranged on Day One
It’s a concept originally devised by Orkney Archaeology Society and this year will be the third annual event in the series, and sees the return of the event to Orkney shores after a very successful meeting in Caithness last year, hosted by Caithness Broch Project.
There will be stalls such as Young Archaeology Club, OAS, Iron Age Spinning, 3D images of the Cairns Broch and finds from the Broch. On the Sunday there will be a field trip to the Broch of Gurness which will be led by Historic Scotland’s Andrew Burnet, along with UHI Archaeology Institute Martin Carruthers.
Martin Carruthers, Chair of Orkney Archaeology Society, Site Director of The Cairns Broch excavation and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute continues………
“The event is to be held in October, as its name suggests, on the 20th and the 21st of the Month, and we intend to broaden the event, and its appeal by including more space for stalls, exhibitions, posters, field outings as well as presentations from professionals, academics, students, and community groups currently, or recently, involved in broch-related projects. There will therefore be opportunities to show-case ongoing projects, initiatives and research.
I wanted to use this opportunity to invite initial interest in any or all of these types of activity. As you’ll appreciate time is marching onwards so please feel free to pass this message on directly to anyone who you feel might have an appropriate interest, and especially to anyone (students, community groups, professionals, academics, living-heritage professionals, experimental archaeologists) that you feel could be productive contributors to the vibrancy of the festival, whether through presentation, exhibition, demonstration, or other means.
We would, for instance love to have representation from all of the major Northern Scottish Iron Age projects currently under way as well as from collaborators and partners such as Caithness Broch Project, Yarrows Heritage Trust, etc.
The festival organisers would also very much like to hear of anyone who might be interested in representing other archaeological projects from adjacent periods and regions, so those pursuing Later Bronze Age, Late Iron Age and Early Historic themes would also be very much welcome. Our aim is to be broad and expansive in our definition of what is relevant to brochs.”
Please do get in touch with any queries and especially if you feel that you, or your organisation, would like to be involved by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the fourth episode of his story detailing his experience of studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands, MSc student Ross Drummond tells us about his time at the world renowned Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney.
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 4 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time I was taking on the absolute monster which is The Ness of Brodgar; Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer.
A lot of you may already know about The Ness of Brodgar already through the amount of media attention it has received in recent years, featuring heavily in a 2017 3-part BBC Documentary series ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’; which attracted the attention of a remarkable 2.1 million viewers for the first episode.
For those of you not familiar with The Ness of Brodgar I shall provide a brief summary, but for more detailed info check out the website (http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/ ). The first work on the Ness involved a geophysical survey in 2002, with revealed a huge complex of anomalies, and had high archaeological potential. The following year a large notched stone was ploughed up in the field between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, which looked like it could have been part of a Bronze Age cist, with the possibility of human remains. A small trench was opened and a large rectangular wall was found, this was the revealing of structure One. In 2004 8 test-trenches were opened up uncovering more structures and Neolithic materials, and the rest they say is history… With excavation work taking place for several weeks every summer since.
The earliest evidence onsite dates as far back as 3500 BC with activity at stopping around 2300BC, and although there is a large number of buildings present, the site is not simply domestic. It is thought that The Ness was a gathering place where Neolithic people from Orkney and further afield would come together for feasting, trading and celebration of important political and celestial events.
Since Structure One first appeared in 2003, over 30 additional structures have been found since. The largest structure onsite is Structure Ten, measuring some 25m long, 19m across and has 4m thick walls. It is absolutely massive and is the last structure in use on the site, with its ‘closing’ around 2450 BC. However, the structure was not just abandoned, its ‘death’ was marked by a huge feast and large numbers of animals were slaughtered. When uncovered in 2008, the bones of around 400 cattle were found placed in the passageway surrounding the structure.
Similar to my first excavation of the summer at The Cairns, The Ness of Brodgar also accommodated some of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) archaeological students completing the ‘Excavation’ module as part of the degrees. This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. In addition to students from the various UHI campuses, The Ness of Brodgar was also home to students from Willamette University, Oregon who spent a total of 5 weeks on-site; taking part in the excavations and learning a large set of archaeological processes and techniques as part of their academic curriculum.
The Excavation module was again overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over their time at The Ness, which were explained and demonstrated by Rick and other trench supervisors first; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one-to-one training whenever the students themselves felt they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone.
Due to my Placement with the university, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being able to take part in both The Cairns and The Ness of Brodgar excavations. They are both absolutely fantastic excavations to be a part of and no matter if it’s your very first time digging on an archaeological site or if it’s another place to add to the CV, both sites are invaluable in experience gained. The skills and training received is also something that will stand to students as they pursue a career in archaeology; and the UHI Archaeology Institute pride themselves on providing students with the best practical in-the-field training possible.
Students are exposed to a whole range of different techniques and skills which are used on sites in commercial archaeology. One of the main aims for the university is for students to be able to walk into a commercial job upon completing their degrees, with broad excavation experience behind them; and have the confidence and competency to fit right into any team. There are a large amount of techniques worked on during UHI fieldschools such as environmental sampling, artefacts processing, archaeological recording (i.e. the written record – contexts sheets, finds deposit sheets), archaeological photography skills, archaeological surveying and the drawn record (including planning and section drawing).
Most of the techniques conducted are helped by the presence of specialists in each area who guide students through the process and all supervisors are well equipped and knowledgeable in helping out with most techniques as well. The staff and volunteers at both The Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns are also very welcoming and supportive of past former students who return to help out with the excavations each summer. The UHI also highly encourage promotion from within as several of the supervisors from both sites are former Master’s students with the college themselves (as exemplified by my supervisor Andy, who completed her MSc with the UHI a few years back).
I think all students who took part in the fieldschool would testify to how great an experience it was, especially in a place like Orkney where the archaeological landscape is so rich and sites are present in abundance; it’s great to be added to the history and story of these sites (no matter how small/brief your presence on them is). I myself am probably going to have a tough time sorting out my CV once the master’s is done, after all the experience I’ve gained over the summer!
On arrival to the site, the new recruits and I were given a run through procedure and Health & Safety, followed by a tour and explanation of the site by site director Nick Card. This was followed on by a talk about finds and what to look out for while excavating by Anne Mitchell. After the morning briefing the new diggers were split up and sent to various different trenches around site. Kacey, fellow UHI student Hannah and I made our way over to Structure One, which was being excavated under the wonderful guidance of Andy (who was a former MSc graduate with the UHI Archaeology Institute herself). Also part of the Structure One team were my classmates from the Neolithic module in semester two, Fabrizio and Allessandro; as well as Giles and Marc. So we had a solid little team, with a good representation from the Institute as well which was nice.
I spent most of my time working in the midden area between Structures One and Twenty One with Hannah. The midden area was very artefact rich, containing animal bone and more pieces of prehistoric pottery than I can count. It was a constant process of cleaning and taking down the ground level in spits, as midden deposits are very rich in information; so it’s important to keep an eye out for any changes in soil or any possible finds of high importance, which could be missed if the process was just rushed through. Towards the end of the first week, our patience paid off as Hannah discovered a large vessel within the midden area. Exciting as the find was she then had the arduous and difficult task of lifting the vessel, which she did expertly and the pottery survived intact.
My own time to shine came the following week, when on my second last day on The Ness I brought the ‘Luck of the Irish’ in full force with me to site. Having only seen and heard about miniature pots found at The Ness off Anne the previous day while I was discussing finds with the ‘Digging up the Past’ workshop; I was fortunate enough to find two of these little pots in the one day!
While trowelling back in the midden area just near the exterior wall of Structure Twenty One I came across an oddly shaped piece of pot. Had there not been the discussion with Anne the previous day, the odd shape of the pot when the first glimpse of it was revealed from the ground, may not have stood out so much. I called Andy over and her excitement about the find made me realise it was fairly significant. Unfortunately the pot wasn’t fully intact when found, with the top missing. There were a few incisions on the exterior of the pot but it is difficult to judge whether these were deliberate or just random. There have been a few of these thumb pots found over the years, but as of yet their exact use and function remains a mystery. My own favourite theory about the pots is that they could be prehistoric shot glasses, although given the size of the pots, the Neolithic people would have had to be drinking some fairly strong concoctions!
One pot would have been regarded a great day anyway, but I wasn’t finished yet. As the clouds began to darken and approach, the rain began to fall, and the team began preparations for covering up the site until the morning. I was just finishing cleaning up the loose soil when I noticed the base of something sticking out of the ground around the same area where the first pot was found. This time I knew exactly what it was! With pack up for the day looming and the weather worsening, I decided to save the pot from possible damage from being left out in the elements overnight. Upon safely removing it from the ground I knew I made the right choice as this pot was in a lot better condition than the first one and possessed clear incisions. Andy couldn’t believe it when I popped up with another pot, and Nick and Anne were delighted; this time more so as there was still soil contained within it.
Onsite pottery specialist Roy Towers judged the second pot to be different than the previous thumb pot, his thinking is that this was an imitation pot and would have mimicked a large vessel. The material that fills it will have to be examined carefully and possibly analysed for pot residue, but the expectation is that the base of the imitation pot will be flat on the interior, just like a full-size pot and in contrast with the often-rounded base interior of thumb pots.
When the second pot was found Roy was in the middle of a tour and in astonishment had to pause briefly while examining the pot. I ended up getting a round of applause off the 50 strong tour group, so it was an unexpected and added bonus to go with the finds I guess haha. I even got the blog for the day called after me ‘Luck of the Irish’ and as fate would have it, it would have to be Day 33 and all! Rick thought it was hilarious due to the ‘th’ coupled with the ‘r’ sound, which has already been discussed in my previous blog about the Skaill excavations (see blog at archaeologyorkney.com for inside on joke); but Rick is probably just jealous it wasn’t him who found the pots.
The following evening was the end of site party, and marked the departure of many of the Ness of Brodgar team who had been working on the site over the summer. Nick graciously had the whole team over to his house, and everyone celebrated the season’s great work and progress made over the few weeks. As we all sat around the fire pit Nick thanked all the team for their hard work over the summer, and reiterated how The Ness was like a family, and how great it was to see faces again who had been there previous summers. Everyone had a great time, with a fire spinning show (provided by Andy), singalongs, laughter, fake tattoos and maybe a beverage or two consumed; but it was a lovely way to bring official excavation proceedings to an end, and a good note to mark my end of involvement with the excavations.
My final day of involvement with The Ness would be at the Open Day. As the majority of the lecturers from the Skaill excavation were away at the time and on Anne’s suggestion; I was given the task of running a stall and communicating some of our findings from the season to the public. Having played such a major role in the Skaill excavations myself and having only recently completed the blog post on the experience this was a great opportunity and the day went off really successfully. I discussed the history of the site, the team’s findings from the season and even had a few finds with me to show visitors on the day. The Stenness Hall had a constant flow of visitors throughout the day, who came for a look having already been to see the magnificence of the Ness of Brodgar in the flesh. On site however, The Ness proved its importance and wide appeal yet again with over 1,100 people visiting the site on the Open Day.
As part of my Work Placement focusing on outreach and social media use in archaeology, I also had the pleasure of taking part lending a hand with two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops as well as helping out my supervisor and Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee in hosting a group from Connect. These were fantastic opportunities to be a part of and it was great to introduce archaeology to people who have never dug before. As well as getting tours of the site and talks about finds, participants were able to get an insight into the archaeological process as a whole and having a go at specialist workshops with Chris Gee (stone working) and Dr Ingrid Mainland (animal bones). It was also particularly great to see the joy and excitement on the faces of the participants when they uncovered finds from the ground (all of which were added to the site’s find collection as a whole). I even surprised myself in how much I had learned about The Ness in a week, when I was conducting the site tours for ‘Digging up the Past’ in Dan’s absence the second week.
My experience at The Ness is one I won’t forget quickly. Besides my luck with finding the two miniature pots, it was great to meet up with people again who I had been working with at The Cairns such as Rick and Gary (A Team for life!). It was a very worthwhile and enriching experience also to be a part of the two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops while on site, and great to see the fantastic work HES Rangers and UHI staff conduct as part of those activities. It was also a brilliant experience just to be a part of an excavation on that scale, having been on smaller projects the previous weeks on Rousay and Sanday; the first few days were a bit of an adjustment, but it was a great comparison and shows the potential that archaeological sites have up here in Orkney to capture the public’s attention.
I would like to express my thanks to site director Nick Card, for not only allowing me the chance to take part in the excavations on The Ness of Brodgar, but who also kindly offered some time out of his ridiculously busy schedule on-site to sit down with me and talk about how The Ness has developed and expanded over time; not only in a physical sense with the trenches but also in terms of outreach and media attention. It was a great insight into the excavation itself and also very helpful in relation to my own placement aims with the institute.
I would also like to thank Anne Mitchell, who was very helpful onsite and also instrumental in pinning down my role in The Ness Open Day. Anne’s role in the excavations in general is absolutely crucial and Nick described her as an ‘indispensable’ part of the team, especially behind the scenes. I also want to thank Sigurd Towrie who I liaised with every day, discussing social media agendas and was very helpful in finding a role for myself in using material for the UHI social media accounts.
Also a massive shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! I was only onsite for 2 weeks myself due to my involvement in other excavations, but some of the team members were working at The Ness from start to finish all summer; so a massive admiration and appreciation must go their way, which was reiterated by Nick at the end of site party. A large amount of gratitude also goes to all those who work behind the scenes not only during the excavation period, but throughout the year cataloguing finds, etc. There’s too many people to name but Nick holds you all in the highest regards and The Ness ‘machine’ would not be able to run without your continued hard work and effort.
As massive and globally known as The Ness of Brodgar is, only 10% of the site has been uncovered so far, and unfortunately there is no real constant source of funding coming into the site. The only way the site keeps going and excavations continue each summer is from the kind donations given by the public. If this has peaked your interest in the site or if you have already been, and want to keep The Ness of Brodgar going for not only future generations to enjoy, but for the team to come back again next summer, donations big and small are very welcome, information can be found on the website. Your continued support and interest in the site is very much appreciated by all!
Also can’t sign off without giving another shout out to Kirkwall Accies (last time I promise). I may have turned up to The Ness Open Day with a slight sporting injury from a football final the day before, but as they say ‘No pain, no gain, we won the final and completed the Double! Hon Accies!
Well this blog officially brings an end to my Placement with the institute this summer. I will have one more blog to come out in the near future about my experience at the newly formed Islay Heritage Project, run by the University of Reading and UHI, but for the next few weeks I’ll be putting the head in the books and attempt to transfer my crazy summer of digging into an academic paper. Thanks for all the support and interest shown in my blogs and social media posts over the summer! I’ll see ye all on the other side (hopefully)!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill, Ross Drummond. UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 email@example.com
Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) writes about the latest developments at Swartigill….
We are into the last week of the excavations at the Burn of Swartigill in Caithness, and we have achieved all our key objectives for this season.
We now know that the structures that were originally seen in the erosion of the burn edge pre-date the construction of the passage structure. The deposits overlaying the walls of these earlier structure have been cut into to accommodate the northern revetment wall of the passage. This is important chronological information about the development of the buildings, and ties in with our understanding of the chronology of the site from the C14 dates.
We have also, mostly, defined the extent of the main structure in the trench, which appears to be a sub-oval shape, rather than round or rectangular, with an entrance on the east side. This slightly squashed aspect could be due to the fact that this structure is respecting existing features and buildings around it, using the space that’s available.
The passageway on the north side of the main structure follows the curving alignment of the wall around to the east, and seems to be dropping down in elevation as it goes. Did I hear someone say Souterrain? Well, it’s a possibility, but there is still work to be done here to fully define this feature, as it continues out of our current excavation area to the east.
There are tantalising glimpses of some well-preserved patches of occupation deposits within the main structure. Protected and preserved under a layer of peaty soil, bright red areas of ashy deposit and very compacted surfaces with lots of charcoal are beginning to show through. We will be taking some samples from small amounts of these deposits this year, to further examine their potential in post-excavation. We will hopefully get some datable material from them too.
This year we extended the trench to the south to investigate a second geophysical anomaly on the earth resistance survey, and it’s looking more and more likely that we have second large structure on the site. We have seen some interesting upright set stone in this area, which look like they have been incorporated into an interior wall face. We are also starting to see a curving alignment of rubble to the south of this, which could be overlaying a structural wall in this direction.
Thanks to the P7-9 classes from Watten and Thrumster primary schools for their hard work helping to uncover this tantalising addition to the site on Monday.
We have only a few days left of this season, Friday the 7th is our last day on site. There is still plenty to do, so if you would like to get involved, come along and see us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ross with his coin find
George III 1806 halfpenny
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Sam working in Trench 4 with possible Norse wall in the background
One of the pieces of slag found in Trench 4
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.
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 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,
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.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute invites you to be an archaeologist for a day.
Join the team uncovering the story of this exciting site at our Open Day at Skaill Farm on the island of Rousay, Orkney.
The site is open from 10am to 4pm on both days, so come across to the island of Rousay and make a day of it…bring the children and they can join in too, finding out about our Viking and more recent past. There are tours and displays for those who don’t want to join the team in the trenches.
The site is located next to the beach and the Midhowe Broch and is also an ideal place for a picnic.
The ferry departs from Tingwall regularly throughout the day. The timetable can be viewed here.
We look forward to seeing you there. See the interactive map below for location of Skaill Farm.