Archaeology in Orkney, Summer – Part Two

The Loth Road site2, Sanday
The Loth Road Excavation

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.

The beach location of the Cata Sand site
The beach location of the Cata Sand site

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.

Structures emerging at Cata Sand, Sanday
Structures emerging at Cata Sand

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.

Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road, Sanday
Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road

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.

For more on the continuing excavation on Sanday in Orkney see our previous blog posts.


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 studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk 

Study Archaeological Science BSc (Hons) at UHI

Labwork in Perth College
Labwork in Perth College UHI

This year we are delighted to announce the start of a new archaeology degree course to add to our existing archaeology programmes at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The BSc Honours degree in Archaeological Science is designed to meet the needs of those with an interest in the scientific and forensic aspects of archaeology, as well as delivering on the fundamentals of archaeology, including excavation, survey and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping.

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Students auguring

Archaeological Science is a cornerstone of archaeological investigations and a number of analyses are regularly applied to archaeological materials recovered during excavations. Over the course of this degree programme you will be introduced to the different scientific methods that form part of archaeological study, such as osteoarchaeology (study of human bone), archaeobotany (study of plant remains), zooarchaeology (study of animal bone), together with other techniques including biomolecular archaeology (study of lipids, ancient DNA. Isotopes) and geoarchaeology (study of sediments, microfossils).

These different forms of scientific study are used to answer a number of archaeological questions such as:
• Where did we come from? – ancient DNA, isotopes
• What did people eat in the past? – archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, isotopes, lipids
• How did people live and die? – osteoarchaeology
• What impact did people have on their environment? – geoarchaeology, archaeobotany

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Excavating intertidal peat at the Bay of Ireland, Orkney

Through this course you will develop your understanding and knowledge of different scientific methods and their application to archaeology. There will be opportunities for hands-on learning within a laboratory environment in order to put your scientific knowledge into practice and these can be further developed through taking an archaeological science placement and through modules such as archaeological science project and dissertation.

Modules on BSc Archaeological Science include:
• Science and Archaeology
• Excavation Skills
• Wetland Archaeology
• Practical Environmental Archaeology
• Archaeology Placement
• Archaeological Science Project
• Biomolecular Archaeology
• Archaeological Science Dissertation

Together with undertaking modules from the Archaeological Science degree you will also have the option over first and second year to take modules from across the different science and humanities degrees offered by UHI in order to explore different fields of study and gain a wider breadth of module choice.

Survey and excavation
Survey and excavation at The Cairns broch, Orkney

There will be opportunities to participate in on-site archaeological excavation at world renowned sites, such as the Ness of Brodgar through our field schools and excavation modules. You will also be able to take part in ongoing archaeological scientific research being conducted by staff, such as in palaeoenvironmental studies and zooarchaeological studies. For details see the The Scotsman article on ‘Archaelogists survey Scotland’s Forests under the Sea’.

More information and online application for a start date of September 2018 can be accessed by clicking through to our UHI course webpage. Or if you wish to talk to us contact Dr. Scott Timpany on 01856 569225 or through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

 

Examining the Cata Sand Whales

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The excavation at Cata Sand on the island of Sanday in Orkney not only unearthed the remains of Early Neolithic Houses, but also as reported in August, the skeletons of around twelve whales originating in the nineteenth century.

The team led by archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, University of Central Lancashire and volunteers from Sanday Archaeology Group travelled to Sanday to excavate a possible Neolithic site. However within a few hours, two trenches were discovered to contain remains of whale skeletons.

DSC_01001During the excavation, eight individual skeletons were lifted and transported carefully to the UHI Archaeology Institute laboratory in Kirkwall, where Stephen Haines and Claire Mackay, began to examine the remaining bones last week. Stephen is a recent MSc graduate in Forensic Anthropology (UCLAN) and has volunteered to help clean, assemble and analyse the bones. Claire has recently started a research masters at the UHI, in which she will be exploring the exploitation of whales in Late Iron Age and Norse Orkney.

As Stephen assembled the bones into anatomical order, it soon became apparent that, as the area where they were found was an inter-tidal zone, many of the bones were waterlogged and brittle. However, Stephen assembled the bones in order and a number of interesting facts emerged.

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Interestingly all of the animals appear to be missing their heads. A likely explanation could revolve around the known practice of giving the heads of whales as prizes to Captains involved in the hunt or local landowners in the case of beached whales. The head of a whale was especially valuable as it contained a large quantity of precious oil.

Perhaps surprisingly the evidence points to the fact that the animals were not butchered for their meat. There does not appear to be any cut marks on the bones themselves and they were not disarticulated and scattered – as usually found at butchery sites.

So how did these huge skeletons get into the ground? In the nineteenth century account of the whale beaching, a visitor to the island complained about the terrible smell coming from the decomposing animals. Reading the account further, it would seem that this complaint resulted in the local people burying the carcasses on the beach. And there they remained for over 200 years….forgotten by locals and visitors alike.

Sadly, as we don’t have access to the heads, identifying the species involved is incredibly difficult, however based on the general morphology we believe the bones belong to the dolphin family – potentially a Risso’s Dolphin. Further research will confirm the species.

The initial findings have now been edited into a series of videos clips…..


The excavation team included Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.

If you want more information on studying at the UHI Archaeology Institute then email us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or check out our website

 

YAARP – Looking at the Archaeological Landscape Differently

DSC_0069The latest video results are now in from the Yesnaby Art & Archaeology Project team who were working in the field during the summer.

The team led by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute archaeologist Dr James Moore and visual artist Rik Hammond use the shared language of the disciplines of art and archaeology to explore the landscape of Western Orkney through a different lens. The research project aims to use both disciplines as tools to understand the continuously changing physical environment and people’s perceptions of a specific area on the island.

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James continues, “Everyone perceives a landscape differently, depending on your own experiences, background and so on. An archaeologist would read a location differently to someone who has say trained in geography. A person brought up in an urban environment will see something different to someone who grew up in a rural setting, or on an island. Using GPS, video and a variety of other arts-based techniques we can create maps of activity, and diverse images of the landscape, which consider the ways in which members of the team experience different aspects of the environment, and provides a way of challenging our own perceptions of the landscape. By combining these ideas with our understanding of the locations and distribution of archaeological material obtained through our more traditional survey work we can hopefully begin to think about the ways in which people in the past might have understood and experienced the landscape in which they lived.”

One feature of the project involved placing a camera on the slope overlooking the valley and, using timelapse techniques, create a video to explore the landscape over a period of nine weeks….through sunshine and rain, night and day. The result not only tracks the changing environment of Yesnaby over a defined time period, but in many respects forces us to look at the archaeological landscape in a different way.

This is the third year of YAARP and this year the team have focused on creating unique digital and traditional artwork in the field based on the natural and cultural landscape. The team are looking forward to presenting a taste of the results by staging an exhibition in Orkney during spring 2018. There will be more from the team soon.

Follow YAARP social mediaFacebook @YesnabyArtArchaeologyResearchProject and Twitter @YAARP_Orkney and Rik Hammond @rik_hammond

Thanks to Orkney Islands Council Culture Fund for supporting the project.

New Research Published – suggests long-distance movement of cattle in the Bronze Age

Chillingham_Bull. Thanks to Sally Holmes
Chillingham Cattle. Thanks to Sally Holmes.

Dr Ingrid Mainland of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is the co-author of a new investigation into the origins and husbandry of Mid-Late Bronze Age cattle – now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

The authors include Jacqueline Towers & Julie Bond of the University of Bradford, Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, Ingrid Mainland of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Janet Montgomery of Durham University.

Bioarchaeological evidence suggests that the site of Grimes Graves, Norfolk, characterised by the remains of several hundred Late Neolithic flint mineshafts, was a permanently settled community with a mixed farming economy during the Mid-Late Bronze Age (c. 1400 BCE – c. 800 BCE).

Cattle Tooth with enamel sequentially sampled for isotope analysis
Cattle tooth with enamel sequentially sampled for isotope analysis

The aim of this study was to investigate, through isotope ratio analysis (87Sr/86Sr, δ13C and δ18O), the origins and husbandry of Bronze Age cattle (Bos taurus) excavated from a mineshaft known as the “1972 shaft”. Strontium isotope ratios from the molar enamel of ten Grimes Graves cattle were compared with eight modern animals from the Chillingham Wild White cattle herd, Northumberland.

The range of 87Sr/86Sr values for the modern cattle with known restricted mobility was low (0.00062) while the values for the Grimes Graves cattle varied much more widely (range = 0.00357) and suggest that at least five of the cattle were not born locally. Two of these animals were likely to have originated at a distance of ≥150 km.

Cattle mandible - occlusal (biting surface) view
Cattle Mandible – occlusal (biting surface) view

Intra-tooth δ13Cprofiles for eight of the Grimes Graves cattle show higher δ13Cvalues compared to those of Early Bronze Age cattle from central England. Most of these profiles also display pronounced shifts in δ13C during the period of enamel formation.

One possible interpretation is that the cattle were subject to dietary change resulting from movement between habitats with different vegetation δ13C values. More comparative data, both archaeological and modern, is required to validate this interpretation.

The multi-isotope approach employed in this study suggests that certain cattle husbandry and/or landscape management practices may have been widely adopted throughout central Britain during the Mid-Late Bronze Age.

The full report can be downloaded from the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports. You may have to subscribe to the journal if you or your organisation are not members.

‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference-International Speaker Line-up.

Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar. Photo: Jim Richardson.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute looks forward to welcoming an impressive line-up of speakers and contributors to the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference on the 14th- 17th September.

The conference sessions include speakers from around the globe on themes relevant to island life – past, present and future.

  • Session One: The Three Islands Group Research Framework (more on this session in a later separate blog)
  • Session Two: Identity and Culture
  • Session Three: Sustainability and Conservation
  • Session Four: Migration and Abandonment
  • Session Five: Connectivity and Travel
  • Session Six: Island Culture and Place

We look forward to welcoming an international array of delegates including  Adam Markham, Deputy Director of Climate & Energy the Union of Concerned Scientists, who will be opening Session Three with a paper entitled: Climate Change, Island World Heritage, and Lessons from Community Responses.

Adam writes in his abstract,Cultural resources, including archaeology, historic sites and intangible heritage are at risk from climate change on islands the world over. Climate impacts include sea level rise, coastal erosion, and extreme weather events. Irreplaceable archaeological and other cultural resources are being lost at an alarming rate, and with them, important and sacred places, and some of the stories and histories that help provide peoples’ sense of belonging. Island World Heritage sites provide an opportunity to draw local and international attention to the threat posed by climate change and to the special circumstances island communities face in responding to change. ”

Come along and listen to Adam in person at 11am Saturday 16th September 2017 when he is scheduled to present his paper.

Everyone is welcome to attend…register by sending in the Conference Registration Form to archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

See our Conference website for more details on ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference 2017.

Follow the conference on Twitter #oiopconference