Swartigill Friday

Day Five 2The Swartigill dig is a community dig. This means that local people are involved at all stages of the process and local volunteers receive basic training in archaeological methods and help with the actual dig.

Today, local school children joined us in the field. As part of a wider school project, they were shown the features that had been discovered so far and then helped with the dig itself…discovering a little about the people who worked and lived on the site nearly two thousand years ago.

Rick Barton takes up the story….

“Yesterday (Thursday), we made a great deal of progress. The weather was kind and the sun even came out for a few hours. We have started removing rubble infill from the structure at the north end of the trench (which I’ve started calling Structure A).

Day FiveThe shape is starting to appear with the revetment wall on the north-west side continuing to curve slightly to the south to meet up with the big boulders that we saw just after stripping. Bobby recovered a single fragment of pottery, a rim shed, from that rubble deposit.

Volunteers are taking down the mineralised soil overlaying the rubble to the south of Structure A and it seems to be fairly sterile. Starting to reveal more wall lines or possible revetments within the centre of the trench, running on an east-west alignment.

Meanwhile, in the south-east corner, we have boxed out a sondage to investigate the stonework poking through the subsoil, where it appears to match the anomaly on the geophysics. This stonework is well built from substantial blocks, forming a wall on a roughly north-south alignment with rubble spread to the east in the trench.

There is a very black layer forming between some of the rubble, but it doesn’t seem to be organic. Looks like either very degraded stone (that black material that seems to turn to dust) or a scene of manganese panning (though I’ve never seen it so consistent).”

Dr Scott Timpany is arriving tonight and will be taking peat and soil samples from around the site to help determine the form of the local landscape in the Iron Age period.

The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Written by Rick Barton 2017. Photographs by Robert Friel.

Swartigill Update


Following brief interruptions due to the weather, the Swartigill community dig is now progressing well.

Project Officer, Rick Barton, is managing the site on day to day basis and takes up the story so far….

“Monday was a bit disrupted by the snow, but we got a good afternoon’s work in and made some good progress defining the rest of the rubble and possible structural features in the north end of the trench. As you can see in the photo, there are numerous possible wall lines and linear features showing through. These could be revetment walls, secondary structural features or just very well organised rubble at this stage, but I think you’ll agree that it’s looking more and more complex all the time.

image00015Tuesday we opened up the slit trench to the east of the site from 2015 and continued excavating a sondage to the south of the main conglomeration of features. Interestingly we are starting to get some structural features coming through in there too. The bit of wall-like structure that you saw in the north end of the slit trench in 2015 looks like it is in a rough alignment of stonework heading toward the northeast and seems to match up very well with the resistance survey in this area. This is

Day Four aThe wall-like structure that you saw in the north end of the slit trench in 2015 looks like it is in a rough alignment of stonework heading toward the northeast and seems to match up very well with the resistance survey in this area. This is interesting since it suggests that potentially, the geophysics is right and we may have a large sub-circular feature appearing in that area.

We spent most of Wednesday cleaning the site for photographs, and I placed geo-ref points around the trench so we can use aerial shots for planning the rubble in the centre of that jumble of features.

Day Four b

So, the plan for today (Thursday) is to start removing the rubble and really examine the mineralised soil and underlying colluvium/alluvium that seems to be covering everything, so we can really start to see what’s happening to the south and south-east areas of the trench.”

Written by Rick Barton 2017. Photographs by Robert Friel.

The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Swartigill Day Two & Three

Day Two

Working in the Highlands and Islands of  Scotland, you soon develop a healthy respect for the weather. It has the habit of reversing a trend pretty rapidly and frustrating all your best-laid plans. One day may be bright and sunny and the next, driving snow.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, it was obvious by around 9.00am on Day Two that the dig could not continue. The whole area took on the characteristics of a well-shaken snow globe as the cold combined with the snow to make conditions impossible. Health and safety issues became paramount so the team decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retreated back to a snug cottage to analyse the results from Day One.

Day three, however, dawned cold and only slightly cloudy allowing the team to progress well with the dig. Community volunteers arrived and soon the plan for the day was in place.

A few people have asked, “How do we know where to dig?” It’s a good question. In the past archaeologists had to trust to luck to a certain extent, but nowadays we have technology on our side in the shape of geophysics. This technology gives us a map of ‘anomalies’ which with an experienced eye can be interpreted to give an indication where to place a trench.

Martin explains the geophysics in this short video….

The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Swartigill Day One


Sunday 23rd April dawned with an early ferry crossing as the team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute bounced over the Pentland Firth en-route to Caithness and the Swartigill archaeological excavation.

The crossing itself was followed by a short overland trip through Wick to a section of road which seemed to be surrounded by bog, heather, a small forest of pine trees and little else. Martin Carruthers, Site Director, pointed over a small hill to the site and suggested that I clothe myself from head to foot in wet weather gear…despite the fact it wasn’t raining.

The reason for this soon hit me as a trudged through long grass interspersed with the occasional stretches of bog in which my boots momentarily and rather alarmingly disappeared for a few moments. After about five minutes we were looking down into a shallow valley of Swartigill Burn.


Within a few more minutes the equipment was unloaded from our backs and we were joined by an excavator. There was no trace of last year’s test pits, but with the help of GPS and under the expert direction of Rick Barton (Project Officer), the machine soon cleared the top soil for our new extended trench. This paved the way for the rest of the team, including local volunteers, to start working.


Within a few hours, a linear stone feature emerged from the soil together with a fragment of Iron Age degraded ceramic pottery. The latter was discovered by one of the volunteers who was more than pleased with her find.


The work carried on relentlessly as the wind increasingly buffeted the team. Jammy doughnuts and sandwiches provided by Yarrows Heritage Trust gave us extra energy to address the feature located in the test pit during 2015 – a possible drain feature. The capping stone was removed in 2015 to reveal this enigmatic tunnel which seemed to extend to the watercourse.

This feature will be the focus of our work over the next week.

Sean Page

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The Swartigill excavation is a joint community venture between the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Celebrating World Heritage Day in Orkney

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney “Glowed in the ArchaeoDark” to celebrate World Heritage Day with storytelling, music and face painting.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute teamed up with DigIt2017 for the World Heritage Day event in Orkney as part of the ‘Scotland in Six’ celebrations.

Workshops were initially organised in the week prior to the event with The Orkney Youth Cafe. Everyone made the light staffs, learnt about Neolithic Orkney and face painting based on the Neolithic art from the Ness of Brodgar Site. The group also devised a dance led by Vicky Green which was enacted as a finale to the event.

DSCN0606The night was clear with just a slight threat of rain as a host of young people congregated at Skara Brae to hear traditional Orkney tales in the replica Neolithic house, paint their face (which progressed to arm painting at one point!), rehearse and enjoy refreshments in the visitor centre.

DSC_4406As the night closed in, everyone boarded the coach and set off for the Ring of Brodgar, where the participants were adorned with glow strings and asked to line up on the boardwalk leading to the stones. The torches were switched on and the long column of young people was joined by drummers to add drama to the occasion.

It looked and sounded spectacular as the dark night of the Ring of Brodgar rang with the laughter of people celebrating the day. Within a short time, a crowd had gathered, including a family who had travelled from Yorkshire to holiday in Orkney and had heard about the event from the local newspaper.

Slowly, the procession wound its way around the stones and as a finale performed a carefully choreographed performance at the entrance to the stones.

Everyone agreed that it was a magical evening in a magical location and an excellent way to celebrate World Heritage Day.

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Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology

HHA2017 Logo2017 is the year to delve into the past and discover Scotland’s fascinating stories and unique experiences. Scotland’s rich heritage, captivating history and world-renowned archaeology will come to life through a range of new and exciting experiences and events aimed at locals and visitors alike.

From World Heritage sites to ancient monuments, world-class visitor attractions and cultural traditions, Scotland offers iconic experiences and hidden gems to visitors, all year round.

Scotland’s vast history, heritage and archaeology have a fascinating story to tell and there are countless secrets to uncover at ruins, ancient monuments and remarkable archaeological sites, as well as museums and galleries across Scotland.

Each area of Scotland has its own distinctive heritage and traditions that shape its environment, as well as the lifestyle and humour of its people today. Visitors can discover this for themselves through unique events and attractions in 2017.

We are connected not just by genetics, but by our traits, our beliefs and our spirit. You will find something of yourself in Scotland, as well as a warm and welcoming people.

Visit Scotland has announced a unique event line-up for 2017 themed year: Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

For more information on the Scotland in Six events see our previous blog page and the DigIt2017 webpage.


Repair Work Starts at the Skibageo Hoose

DSC_0040Work has started on the repair project at the Skibageo Hoose – a boat house situated high on a cliff near the Brough of Birsay on the exposed north coast of Mainland Orkney.

The project is a continuation of the archaeological building recording completed in partnership with Birsay  Heritage Trust during 2016. This phase involves Orkney College construction students who will, as part of their building course, repair the damage caused by years of storms.

The building was constructed probably during the early twentieth century by fishermen DSC_0038from Birsay. It is not recorded on the 1900 revised O.S. sheet and was used up to the late nineteen sixties when commercial fishing ceased in the geo.

After falling into disrepair, a project by the local school in 1989 restored the building to a functional state enabling its use as a shelter, a place to rest and a point of interest. The present description “Fishermans Hut” was never used locally to describe this building in the past and only appeared after the upgrading by the school. It was always known as the Skibageo Hoose or the Hoose at the Geo.

DSC_10035Dry built random rubble walls consisting of land stone and beach stone on top of an excavation into clay and rock of probably an old boat house (noust). The east end is built almost entirely of stone and incorporates the doorway. The west end consists of little more than a gable with a small opening in the stonework to allow spars, rods, etc., to be stored in the roof space. A stone facing extends almost to floor level internally.  The roof on the north side is supported off the stonework whilst the south side is supported on a heavy wall plate on vertical wooden props. Seven timber couples with purlins incorporating some driftwood, support the roof covering of flagstone and turf. The floor is of beaten clay and of an internal size of approximately 4.4m x 2.5m. The building is sited approximately in a north-south direction, the doorway being on the east elevation.

Archaeological building recording and measured survey of the neighbouring nousts was undertaken during 2016 by a team from the Archaeology Institute and local volunteers. This produced a drawn, written and photographic record of the Hoose prior to the proposed renovations. This formed part of a wider programme of building survey in the Palace village area and making a 3D model of the Birsay whale bone.

The current repair work involved is considerable and includes the following:

  • Strip back turf and flagstone to both gables to allow access to stonework as required.
  • Take down West gable to ground level and set aside for reuse.
  • Take down East gable to below the level of the door lintel at the South side of the doorway and set aside for reuse.
  • Build in area of missing stone to lower South side of doorway to match existing
  • Consolidate or replace loose or missing stones to inside walling as required.
  • Rebuild both gables using existing stone, to profile as before.
  • West gable opening to be retained.
  • West gable may require the formation of a suitable foundation.
  • Build in stone lintel over the doorway.
  • Core of stonework to be reinforced with clean beach sand/cement mix.
  • Top stones of gables to be solidly bedded with bedding kept well back.
  • Replace flagstone and turf to roof making good to gables and existing roofing

When complete, the Hoose will provide a safe and secure haven for walkers who find themselves caught in one of the squalls that frequent this coast.

Investigating Iron Age Social Change in Caithness

DSC_0016The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Yarrows Heritage Trust to commence excavation at the Burn of Swartigill on 24th April.

Located in Caithness, the site was excavated on a small scale in 2015 where the aims were to explore anomalies from a geophysical survey undertaken by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

This survey had pointed to the possible presence of a substantial rectangular building, perhaps a post-broch Iron Age period ‘Wag’ – a form of building well-known in Caithness and Sutherland. A second objective aimed to establish the character of archaeological remains discovered eroding from the side of the Burn of Swartigill.

During the 2015 fieldwork, a substantial mass of stonework and well-preserved archaeological features were unearthed and it was suggested that the linear wall lines picked up in the geophysics survey may reflect a long building with its long axis at right-angles to the stream.  A possible drain feature was also identified indicating an element of water management over and above that required for a purely domestic use. Samples taken from the site may even be able to shed light on the role and function of the site.

untitled-8It was also established that previously recorded massive blocks of stone that were eroding out of the stream bank were also parts of wall lines and wall faces. Well-made and decorated Iron Age pottery was also recovered in addition to a quern rubber and hammer stone – the latter from the drain feature.

However the most surprising find was a copper alloy triangular fragment with a possible setting for an enamel or glass paste inlay. This would appear to have been a relatively valuable item from something like a brooch and perhaps hints that a certain social status was accorded to the Swartigill site during the Iron Age.

Interestingly, radiocarbon dates suggest that the site also was occupied in the period when brochs were evolving in the Northern Scottish Iron Age. It can be tentatively suggested that Swartigill represents an early Iron Age site, occupied before and during the establishment of brochs in the wider landscape.

DSC_0113The unusual mix of well-built stone features may imply that the site had some function connected to hydrology, perhaps in an industrial/craft capacity and the site may ultimately allow us to reflect on a wide range of types of place and activity associated with the Caithness Iron Age.

The 2017 excavation will give us the opportunity to further explore the social and historical conditions that were present at an important moment of change during the Iron Age period in Caithness.

If you want to be involved in this community dig then call 01955 651387. No experience required!


If you are interested in our research work, then check out our conference………..

Our Islands, Our Past Conference

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to: archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.