A New Mexican in Orkney – MLitt student Don Helfrich

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The Cairns Broch ditch area

The MLitt Archaeological Studies course at the University of the Highlands and Islands can be undertaken from anywhere in the world – as long as you have internet access and a computer.

For the next few weeks we have the pleasure of working with Don Helfrich – one of our MLitt Archaeological Studies students, from New Mexico in the USA – in Orkney.

Don usually completes the course remotely from his home, but for the next few weeks, he is experiencing the slightly different climate of Orkney to continue his research at The Cairns excavation. I caught up with him working with Martin Carruthers and the team in the broch ditch……

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Don Helfrich at work

“This is something different for me. Although the sun is shining, the temperature is not in the high 100’s. I live in the desert of New Mexico and the landscape of Orkney is just so captivating to me. I teach Geography and Cartography part-time at Central New Mexico Community College and work part-time as a GIS/GPS Specialist at American Southwest Ichthyological Researchers. ”

Being a geographer myself, I asked Don how he arrived at Archaeology? He continued, ” This is my third time in Orkney and I have always been interested in prehistory, but after my first visit to Orkney, it became a fascination. In due course I was accepted to study the MLitt in Archaeological Studies at the UHI Archaeology Institute. ”

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Don at work at The Cairns excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

What happened next, I asked and Don continued…..”The course has offered me the most rewarding way to study prehistory. I began with an interest in the Iron Age of Britain and Ireland, but my first visit to the region in 2006 opened my eyes to the Neolithic. Although I have to say that I am now back in love with the Iron Age having been here at the dig at The Cairns. You couldn’t ask for a more immersive experience than to work in such a richly informative site as the Cairns, there’s so much coming to life about this impressive structure occupied at a pivotal time of world history. Realising the effort behind an excavation report, I was still struck by the complexity of this process, giving me a lot to think about regarding the skills I hope to bring to the field of Archaeology. ”

Next steps, Don?

“Well, I will be able to extend my teaching in The States from this experience and the course as I lecture on geography and cartography. This now gives me first hand experience of excavating and researching animal remains from two thousand years ago.”

Oh and what are your perceptions of Orkney?

“This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I am used to long vistas and so the wide horizons of Orkney are to my liking. But it’s also the way of life too. Even the cattle seem happy with their lot!”


If you would like to learn more about studying the MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, see our website or drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk to find out more.

The Cairns Day Seven – 2018

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Kath Page, third year UHI Archaeology Institute student continues the story of the dig at The Cairns….

Today was a beautiful sunny day at the Cairns and the sunshine brought lots of visitors to the site, including Fiona from the Orkney News to report on how the excavations are progressing.

After several days of carefully removing shillet to a depth of almost 4ft, Colin, Anthea and Deryck have uncovered a cell beneath the rubble on the North West side of the outer broch wall. The rubble, though to be wall collapse, was lying beneath a layer of temporary paving, this discovery adds another dimension to the story of the Cairns broch and future sampling of the floor deposits may be able to tell us the purpose of this feature.

Inside the broch, students from UHI Archaeology Institute and Therese are continuing to retrieve geochemical samples. Therese and I are collecting 100% of the floor deposits around the hearth in the North West part of the broch interior, once retrieved, the area will be planned and eventually the flags will be lifted, hopefully revealing some more amazing finds. In the North West quadrant, Ross is collecting geochemical samples, and excavating a post hole setting and in the South West quadrant, Sue and Kathryn have begun the process of gridding out to enable them to collect geochemical samples from this area also. Gary has continued to clear rubble to further define the pit boundary in the North East quadrant of the broch and stabilise the stone work around the corbelled cell.

Work continues apace in the broch interior by Sue, Kathryn, Gary and Ross
Work continues apace in the broch interior. Pictured are Sue, Kathryn and Gary

In the South West extension, UHI Archaeology students Angus and Paul have discovered a possible wall feature and uncovered an up turned saddle quern today. Elsewhere in this large trench, work has continued to define the edge of the ditch running around the broch and Don has removed the animal bone deposit he discovered earlier this week.

Upturned saddle quern from the SW Extension trench
Upturned saddle quern from the SW Extension trench

Sorcha, Marianne and Michael have discovered an unusual feature in Area Q. Two upright orthostats are protruding from the trench and they have discovered some deer antler, fire cracked stone, cramp and a sharpening stone. Further investigation in the coming weeks will help us to understand exactly what this feature is. In Trench M, a wall area has been defined and stone tools discovered close by, further along, in Henrik and Vicky’s section, some large flat flag stones have been uncovered. Continued excavation of the trench should be able to tell us how these features relate to each other.

Area Q Feature
Area Q Feature

The Cairns is an important placement for both undergraduate and post graduate students from the University of the Highlands and Islands and as well as universities further afield such as Stirling, Oxford and Trondheim! Today Rick gave a tool box talk to students on how to plan a feature and MLitt students George and Amber had the opportunity to plan a section of the hearth situated on top of the North East section of broch wall. Rick also gave tuition on the use of the EDM Total station to record small finds across the site – all important skills that will be required for any budding field archaeologist.

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Ross in the broch interior

The weather forecast tomorrow is for more sunny weather, I may regret saying this, but I hope there is a breeze too as the broch interior is somewhat of a suntrap!

Kath Page 3rd year UHI Archaeology Student

Trondheim to Orkney – the adventure of a lifetime

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Standing stones at Stenness

21 year old Erasmus exchange student Martine Kaspersen has just completed her placement at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in Orkney.

She kindly volunteered to write about her experiences in Orkney…….

“Archaeology and history has always been a big part of my life. As a child, my parents, sibling and I traveled to local museums and historic places regularly and since then, I’ve always found prehistory extremely fascinating. My parents were always supportive of my decision to take an academic education within the field of archaeology and my adventures started there!

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Martine in a seminar in the lab

I started the Bachelors programme in archaeology in Trondhiem in 2016. The course was great, we traveled basically around all of Trøndelag (Which is approximately situated in central Norway). We saw different sites and experienced hands on archaeology. This made us able to spot the difference between a Bronze Age materials and Iron Age materials – just by looking at the artefact.

Even before I started NTNU (Norwegian School of Science and Technology), I knew I wanted to go abroad during the degree programme. The hard part, was deciding exactly where I wanted to go. I had a hard time deciding on this, as I am used to city life and wanted to do something new. In the end, after a lot of thought and consideration, a friend suggested Orkney. One would think that a place with so many connections to Norway and Trondheim, a Norwegian born and raised in Trondheim should know about Orkney. The thing was, I didn’t! Orkney – for some odd reason – is not discussed in any history lessons in school, or at my archaeology course.

I found Orkney very interesting, and the nature and climate was something I already was familiar with (except the lack of hills, mountains and woodland), so the adaption to the place wasn’t too great for me. I fell in love with the history, monuments and how isolated the island can seem for a person who has spent most of her life in a city.

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The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Orkney, accompanied by my older sister and mother. January was cold, windy with a lot of rainy days. The people at the course was so amazingly welcoming and I found friends for life, right away. The courses were extremely interesting, and I put heart and soul into essays and presentations – which payed off pretty well. I also attended the Easter field trip to Bute, which was magnificent. I loved every part of it.

After a trip back to Trondheim during Easter, it was right back to writing essays, presentations and preparing for the exam. Everything went well in the end, and before I knew it, I had been in Orkney for almost four months. I loved every single minute of it, and am very thankful for all the help, support and great adventures both the staff at the college and my friends have made possible.

Thank you for having me here, and bearing with me. I will now be heading back to Trondheim to finish my bachelor, and then straight to a Masters degree – and hopefully even a PHD.”


If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

Archaeology in a Day – Open Day @UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney

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Students studying the site at Barnhouse

Join us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Open Day on the 28th March 2018.

  • Venue: The Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI, East Road, Kirkwall KW15 1LX
  • Date: Wednesday 28th March 2018
  • Time: 10am to 4.30pm

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is located in one of the most exciting archaeology areas in the world – Orkney in Northern Scotland. Surrounded by thousands of archaeology sites ranging from the Neolithic to World War II, the Archaeology Institute is well placed as a world-class teaching and research organisation to advance our understanding of the historic environment.

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Students on a fieldtrip to the Outer Hebrides

So, come along and experience hands on archaeology, talk to staff and students and discover what studying Archaeology at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has to offer. You will also have the opportunity to take part in workshops on aspects of practical archaeology, including:

  • using microscopes to analyse pollen and charcoal unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar
  • examining finds from The Cairns excavation
  • exploring 4000 year old ceramics
  • examining the whale bones unearthed at Cata Sands
  • creating a 3D image from a laser scanner
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Students at Skara Brae

You will also see how we use the unique archaeological landscape of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to further your studies. The event is open to anyone who is considering studying Archaeology at undergraduate or post graduate level in addition to anyone who is considering one of our short courses.

Check out our website for all our archaeology courses.

If you wish to attend then please contact Mary on 01856 569225, send us a message on our Facebook page , send us a message through Twitter @UHIArachaeology or e-mail Mary at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Archaeology Evening Class 2018 – Introduction to Archaeology

DSCN0333The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are now enrolling students for the ‘Introduction to Archaeology’ Evening Class to be held at Orkney College, Kirkwall, Orkney in February 2018.

  • Venue: Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, East Road, Kirkwall.
  • Course length: 10 weeks (2 hour sessions)
  • Commences: 21 February 2018
  • Time: 7-9pm on Wednesday evenings at Orkney College (fieldtrips 6-8pm). The archive session is on a Thursday 5-7pm to make use of late opening at Orkney Library & Archive.
  • Course fee: £100

This new course, taught by leading practitioners and lecturers at the UHI Archaeology Institute, introduces the basic theory, methods and practice used in Archaeology.

Key areas covered include an introductory overview, basic research, chronology, environmental archaeology, landscape archaeology, finds, geophysics and excavation.

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The aim is to provide an over-view of archaeology and archaeological practice for general knowledge and volunteering. The classes are workshop-based, hands-on and thematic, delivered in a relaxed and friendly environment.

Class details:

  • 21 February: Introduction to Archaeology (Martin Carruthers)
  • 28 February: Animal bones (Dr Ingrid Mainland)
  • 8 March: Archives and archive research. Meet at Orkney Library & Archive, Archives room. (Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon) (5-7pm)
  • 14 March: Landscape archaeology, geophysics & aerial photographs (Dr James Moore & Amanda Brend)
  • 21 March: Research: Orkney Sites and Monuments Record Office and National Monument Record of Scotland (Julie Gibson & Dan Lee)
  • 28 March: Environmental Archaeology (Dr Scott Timpany)

EASTER HOLIDAY – no classes (college holidays 2 – 13 April inclusive)

  • 18 April: Digital Heritage (Dr Jen Harland & Crane Begg)
  • 25 April: Artefacts and drawing (Martin Carruthers & Crane Begg)
  • 2 May: Fieldtrip 1 (Landscape and Orkney World Heritage Site) (6-8pm)
  • 9 May: Fieldtrip 2 (Buildings & wartime) (6-8pm)

The timetable may be subject to change.

This course is not networked or available online as it is workshop based. 


If you are interested in attending please contact Tina Brown Tina.Brown@uhi.ac.uk or Telephone Tina directly on 01856 569206 or through the Orkney College switchboard on 01856 569000.

3 Day Archaeology Short Course – The Cairns, Orkney, Summer 2018

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce that the popular hands-on field-based short course is being offered once again during the summer of 2018.

Located at one of Orkney’s leading excavations, The Cairns broch, this three day short course aims to provide participants with basic training and understanding of the practices and processes in Field Archaeology.

  • Date: 20-22 June 2018 (3 full days 9:30 – 16:30)
  • Venue: The Cairns Broch excavations, South Ronaldsay, Orkney
  • Cost: £200.00 per person
  • Booking: contact Mary Connolly at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Training will cover:

  • excavation techniques
  • finds identification
  • the principles of stratigraphy
  • basic site survey and archaeological recording (drawn, written and photographic record).

Participants will be trained by professional archaeologists from the UHI Archaeology Institute and will form part of the large team at the excavation site. If you read this blog,  then you will know that The Cairns is a friendly dig situated in a breath-taking location overlooking the sea.

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The course aims to equip participants with the skills and confidence to engage with other archaeological field projects or lead onto further studies in the discipline.

We recommend that you bring steel toe boots/wellies, full waterproofs, packed lunch and flask. Toilet facilities are provided. Participants are to meet at the excavation site each day at 9:00. Accommodation, travel and lunch are not included. See the Visit Orkney website to book accommodation.

Places are limited (12 max.) so book now!


For more information about the UHI Archaeology Institute visit our website and blog.

Art & Archaeology Masters Module 2017 – Enrolling now

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ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY

Contemporary Theory and Practice

Module Code: UV411013

The University of the Highlands and Islands is pleased to announce that this innovative interdisciplinary masters module is now enrolling students for 2018.

The course, that was so successful last year, can be studied either as a stand alone module or for Continuing Professional Development in the museums and galleries, community archaeology and the Creative Industries.

Designed and led by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the Department of Art and Design at Orkney College UHI, this exciting course is a distance learning course and incorporates a four day residential workshop held in the unique location of Orkney, Scotland. It is a 20 credit SCQF Level 11 module which will appeal to those who have studied archaeology, art history, fine art or related subjects at undergraduate level.

  • The course can be taken as an optional elective module for students studying the Fine Art MA and the Archaeological Studies Mlitt / Archaeological Practice MSc programmes as well as other related programmes such as Music and the Environment, History, Cultural or Nordic Studies
  • Individuals may also enrol for this as a ‘stand-alone’ module, eg. as part of continuing professional development. It will be of interest to anyone based in Museums & Galleries, Community Archaeology and the Creative Industries
  • The module runs during Semester 2 – starting on February 2nd 2018 – May 2018. The schedule includes weekly lectures and seminars delivered by Video Conference and online learning – these will run on Friday morning over a 12-week period.
  • There is also an optional Residential Workshop (mid-February 2018) based in Orkney, which will involve fieldwork and practical workshops exploring art and archaeological practice.
  • The aim of the module is to research and explore the subject with an experimental approach, by looking at contemporary and historical contexts and case studies, through discussion and work with the group we hope to develop new thinking and understanding  in this exciting area.

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Outline of content:

  • Introduction to Art and Archaeology
  • Virtual Fieldtrip
  • Practical residential fieldwork & workshops in Orkney
  • Seeing, Engaging and Recording in Archaeology
  • Taking Art and Archaeology into the Landscape
  • Contemporary Art and Archaeology
  • Artefacts & Objects
  • Looking at Prehistoric Art
  • Group Presentations/ Seminars and Essay
  • Assessment and feedback

Entry requirements:  honours degree in a relevant subject such as archaeology, art, design, art history, cultural studies or other closely related discipline such as arts or museum administration. Applicants with other qualifications or relevant experience are encouraged to apply and will be considered on an individual basis. Note that students are required to cover their own travel and accommodation expenses for the four day residential workshop.

The course is also an optional module for students studying the Fine Arts MA, the Archaeological Studies MLitt, the Archaeological Practice MSc in addition to other related Music and the Environment, History, Cultural or Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

To apply and for more details, please contact Mary Connolly by emailing studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk for an application form or 01856 569225