UHI Archaeology Institute Excavation Calendar 2018

The exciting archaeology research dig programme for 2018 is now confirmed. 

There are seven sites open in Orkney alone with further exciting community projects planned throughout the year. Check out this blog and social media for  updates.

The on-site teams welcome visitors and there is no charge for entry….although we welcome donations to help support the research. There are a few things to keep in mind when visiting:

  • The sites can be muddy following bad weather so sturdy boots are recommended
  • Sites can also be closed if the weather is particularly inclement, so if in doubt please check by sending us an e-mail studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk
  • If you need any help in planning a trip to the projects listed below, then please feel free to contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk. We are always happy to help you find the site or answer questions.

There are also opportunities to take part in these community events, even if you have no experience of archaeology. So if you want to take part in these exciting community events then contact Dan Lee on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk .

The Cairns Excavation

The Cairns 1

  • Site Director: Martin Carruthers
  • Iron Age Broch and Settlement in a stunning coastal location
  • Location: Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. Follow the sign to Windwick on the A961 between St Margarets Hope and Burwick.
  • Open to the public from 18th June to 13th July 2018
  • Tours are available Monday to Friday. There are no set times, but the site opens at 10.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm.
  • Open Day is Friday 6th July. All welcome.
  • Access to the site involves a short, but steep unpaved road over a small bridge.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week. No-one will be on site during the weekend.
  • You can also follow on social media.

Ness of Brodgar Excavations


  • Site Director: Nick Card
  • World renowned Neolithic Excavation
  • Location: Stenness, West Mainland, Orkney
  • Nick Card, Site Director Ness of Brodgar, will be giving a talk to the Orkney Archaeology Society on 21st June. Venue: Orkney Theatre, Kirkwall. Time to be confirmed.
  • Site open to the public from 4th July to 22nd August 2018
  • Tours are available
    • Monday to Friday at 11am, 1pm and 3pm.
    • Saturday & Sunday 11am and 3pm.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week. The site is open at the weekend for 2 guided tours, but archaeologists will not be present.
  • Booking essential for ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops for young people (see here to book) which will be running on:
    • 24th July 2018
    • 31st July 2018
    • 7th August 2018
    • 14th August 2018
  • Open Days will be 15th July and 19th August.
  • Please check the Ness of Brodgar Trust website for up to date information. You can also follow on social media.

Cata Sand, Tresness Chambered Tomb & Loth Road Bronze Age House


  • Site Directors: Professor Vicki Cummings (UCLan), Professor Jane Downes (UHI), Professor Colin Richards (UHI), Chris Gee
  • Neolithic & Bronze Age excavation in collaboration with UCLan.
  • Location: Cata Sand, Tresness, Sanday, Orkney. The Loth Road excavation is close to the ferry terminal and will be signposted.
  • The sites are on the northern Orkney island of Sanday. The ferry timetable is available here.
  • Open to the public from 7th July to 4th August 2018
  • You are welcome to visit the three sites under investigation. The sites open at 10.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm.
  • Access to the Tresness and Cata Sand sites involves a long walk along Tresness beach from the B9069.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week.
  • The site is in the intertidal zone and so will be submerged for some parts of the day. Please check with staff concerning working times as they will depend on the tides. Contact: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Skaill Farmstead Excavation, Rousay

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  • Site Directors: Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dan Lee
  • The work at Skaill aims to explore the remarkable deep time represented along the west shore; from the Neolithic, Iron Age, Pictish, Viking and Norse periods to the 19th century clearances. Why not visit the coastally eroding site at Swandro as well, which is a further 10 min walk along the coast from Skaill.
  • Location: Skaill, near Midhowe Broch, Rousay. There is a regular ferry service to the island.
  • Open to the public from 9th – 22nd July 2018 (note, the team will not be on-site 14-17 July)
  • The site opens at 9.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm.
  • Access to the site involves a walk down a steep hill from the car park for Mid Howe Broch and left (south) along the shoreline (15 min walk). The ground is uneven and the path is a little overgrown in places. Please do not access from Westness Farm.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week.
  • The Open Day will be on the final weekend 21st-22nd July
  • Contact: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

If you wish to be added to our mailing list for community archaeology volunteers then please use the contact form below or contact studyarchaology@uhi.ac.uk.

See the web page on Visit Orkney for more information on transport links and accommodation.

This page will be updated as new events and activities are confirmed.

Cata Sand and Tresness Excavation Fieldwork Reports now Available

Cata Sand Site 1

The Data Structure Reports (DSR) detailing the exciting 2017 excavations at Cata Sand and Tresness Chambered Tomb, Sanday, Orkney are now available for download.

Taking the the Cata Sand excavation DSR first, the document examines the aims of the excavation, methodology, context narrative, discussion, outline of future work and post-excavation strategy, references and registers. 

Introducing the report, the team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire write……”On the eastern side of Cata Sand, Sanday, a small sand dune known as the Grithies Dune is located in the intertidal zone. In December 2015 we identified archaeological material eroding out of the sand immediately to the south of the Grithies Dune. We returned in March 2016 to undertake an evaluation. We opened up a small trench roughly 8 x 5m over an area where we had previously seen archaeological deposits.”

Aerial Photograph of Cata Sand Excavation 2017

“The work involved the removal of windblown sand only rather than the excavation of any of the archaeological layers revealed. This simple cleaning exercise, however, produced 41 artefacts including flint debitage, Skaill knives, coarse stone tools and pottery. The evaluation revealed that the remains of occupation, including a house, lay exposed just beneath windblown sand. In order to ascertain the extent of the occupation here we then conducted a large-scale geophysical survey of the area using magnetometry. This revealed an area of magnetic enhancement around the Grithies Dune roughly 20m in diameter. We returned for a four week period in 2017 to excavate the archaeological remains concentrated at the Grithies Dune site.”

The full Cata Sand Data Structure Report can be downloaded in pdf……Download the Cata Sand DSR 2017

Tresness Chambered Tomb

Moving on to the The Tresness Chambered Tomb excavation, the DSR explores the archaeological background to the site, methodology, excavation results, recording of the eroding section, assessment of the erosion at the site, management recommendations and suggested further work, post-excavation schedule, public outreach activity, bibliography and registers.

The Tresness Chambered Tomb is located on the southern tip of the Tresness peninsula, Sanday, Orkney. It is a site which has not seen significant previous excavation. This report describes excavations conducted in August and September 2017 and offers an assessment of the on-going erosion at the site.

The full Tresness Chambered Tomb Data Structure Report can be downloaded in pdf…..Download the Tresness DSR 2017

smiley people

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 involved specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.

A few thank yous from the team…………..”We are very grateful to Colin and Heather Headworth who allowed us access to their land. Scottish Natural Heritage granted permission for this work to take place on an SSSI. The project was funded by the University of the Highlands and Islands, the University of Central Lancashire and the Orkney Islands Council. Hugo Anderson-Whymark came out at short notice to conduct photogrammetry at the site, and we are also grateful to Tristan Thorne for taking aerial shots with his drone. Ingrid Mainland and Jen Harland from the UHI Archaeology Institute came out to site to help us with the whales.

The Sanday Archaeology Group were as supportive as ever and in particular we would like to thank Caz, Ruth and Cath for logistical and practical support, both on site and in terms of storage! Ruth and Ean Peace organised the talk in the community centre and also provided us with historical accounts of whaling.

John Muir at Anchor Cottage and Paul and Julie at Ayres Rock must be thanked for providing accommodation. We are grateful to Sinclair Haulage for acquiring (and securing!) our portaloos and to the Sanday Community Shop for arranging to transport the whales to Kirkwall. Sean Page helped with the press releases.

We are very grateful to our volunteers who worked incredibly hard in such a beautiful but exposed setting: Justin Ayres, Edd Baxter, Irene Colquhoun, Ana Cuadrado, Grant Gardiner, Stephen Haines, Joe Howarth, Arnold Khelfi, Mike Lawlor, Rob Leedham, Therese McCormick, Ginny Pringle, Alex Shiels, and Cemre Ustunkaya.”


Mapping Magnus Dig Update 4/10


The team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and local community volunteers are now beginning to bring the Mapping Magnus dig in Palace Village to a close.

Everyone involved, from school children to local residents to students from UHI Archaeology Institute and volunteers from further afield, have all said how successful the dig has been and how it was so good to be involved in community research.


The weather over the past week has been furious with several gales tracking over the exposed coastal site – but despite the weather the enthusiasm of everyone involved has carried the team through.

Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist at the UHI Archaeology Institute, takes up the story…

“We’ve found medieval middens and structures in most trenches. The schools outreach was very successful despite the weather! Many thanks to those of you who have helped out during the excavations. We have one last push tomorrow with backfilling the main trench, so any extra help would be much appreciated, even for just an hour or so. Chris Gee and the team will be there from 9am.”


There are a few more activities to come on the project, such as geophysical survey and walkover survey at Manse Stone sites, and noust survey at Marwick. so we will keep you posted if you wish to be involved.

Please do lend a hand backfilling tomorrow if you can. There will be lifts available from Orkney College at 8am as usual. No need to book, just turn up.

The Mapping Magnus project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Orkney Islands Council and the UHI Archaeology Institute as part of Magnus 900, commemorating the 900th anniversary year of the death of St Magnus during 2017.


Open Day at Mapping Magnus Dig


A team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute together with volunteers from the local community will be holding an Open Day at the Palace Village dig, Birsay on Saturday 30th September 2017.

All are welcome and the event is free to enter. One of the questions we are asked by potential visitors to our Open Days is, “Can I bring my children?” Children of all ages are welcome and there will be opportunities for them to look at and take part in some of the activities on site.

The Open Day starts at 10am and is planned to end around 3pm to allow the team to clean the area for the next day. There will be signs directing you to the dig site on the day from the Palace Stores.


There is no need to book…just turn up and discuss the progress of the dig with the team. Already a substantial wall has been unearthed as the trial trenches take shape….who knows what will be discovered on the Open Day itself?

Contact: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or 01856 569225 for further information.

Open Day Poster Mapping Magnus V2

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

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


Mapping Magnus Dates for the Diary 2

20170826_151839Upcoming activities in the Palace village area of Birsay for September & October 2017 (updated).

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

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

Phone 01856 569225


Next Workshop is:

Archive research training. 1 & 2 Sept

What? Research the history & archaeology of Birsay with Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon in the Orkney Library and Archive. No previous experience required, training in archive reaesrch will be provided. Contribute original research to the project.

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

When? 10am – 3pm. Please contact us to book for the full days, but you are welcome to drop in for a visit.

Coastal Survey. 6, 7 & 8 Sept

What? Record the coastally eroding sites from Palace village to the point of Buckquoy area with archaeologist Dave Reay. Numerous sites from prehistoric settlement, Viking Norse remains to more recent boat nousts were recorded in the 1970s and 1980s during the Birsay Bay Project. The remains of these sites will be identified and their current condition recorded (photographic and written record). No previous experience required, training will be provided.

Where? Meet at Point of Buckquoy, Brough of Birsay car park, Birsay.

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Geophysical Survey. 12, 13 & 14 Sept

What? Help the team survey small areas in the village using Earth Resistance and Magnetometry techniques. Understand the process of geophsyical survey and its applciation in archaeology. Help put the key site in Palace Village, Birsay, into a wider context. No previous experience required, training will be provided.

Where? Meet at Palace village car park, opposite the kirk.

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Archive Research drop-in day. 23 Sept

What? Come and visit Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon and the archive reaearch group in the Orkney Library and Archive to look at their research into the history & archaeology of Birsay and Palace village for the project.

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

When? 11am – 3pm. No need to book, just drop in anytime!

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

What? Help the Archaeology Institute team dig test pits in Palace Village around the medieval site of the Bishops Palace. Join in for a day or whatever you can manage. No previous experience required, training will be provided.

Dig open day on Saturday the 30th September.

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

When? 10am – 4pm each day

Please note: Booking is essential for all activities.

Bay of Ireland Community Archaeology Dig – 5th & 6th September

Bay of Ireland3
The Bay of Ireland, looking across Scapa Flow to the Island of Hoy

Join the archaeology team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute on 5th & 6th September at the Bay of Ireland, Orkney investigating Late Mesolithic landscapes.

This project, led by Dr Scott Timpany and Dan Lee, invites volunteers to team up with archaeologists to open test pits on the foreshore of the Bay of Ireland to investigate the landscape of the Late Mesolithic. 

In 2013 an oak trunk was discovered within the intertidal peats at the Bay of Ireland in Stenness. Previous to this discovery it was known that such intertidal peats in coastal locations across Orkney were of an early date, often around 6000 years old! Excavation, recording and radiocarbon dating of the oak trunk took place in 2015 and it was confirmed as dating to the Late Mesolithic period with a felling date of c. 4400 cal BC; making this the only wooden artefact of Mesolithic date so far found in Orkney. A study of the pollen grains and the seeds within the peat next to the oak trunk showed that it was deposited in a reed-swamp environment fringed by woodland of willow and birch.

Excavating the oak trunk in 2015. Photo John Barber
Excavating the Oak Trunk in 2015. Photo: John Barber.

Although no tool marks have been found on the oak trunk it has been shown to be radially split, meaning it was cut in half before being placed in to the peat. The landscape information from the pollen suggests oak trees may have been present somewhere in the wider landscape but were not growing close to the Bay of Ireland. This suggests that the oak trunk was cut in half elsewhere and then deliberately placed into the reedswamp by Later Mesolithic people. But what was the oak trunk for? Was it a marker place in the landscape? Maybe an indication of a routeway to what is now the Brig O’Waithe to the Loch of Stenness? Is there other evidence of the activities of these people at the Bay of Ireland? Can we find tools or evidence of wood working?

In order to answer these questions, a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are going to be carrying out some small excavations on the foreshore at the Bay of Ireland on the 5th and 6th September and we would be delighted if people would like to come and help and see if they can find some evidence of these enigmatic former Orkney residents.

The team plan on undertaking some test pits through the peat near to the location of the oak trunk to see if further artefactual evidence can be found. Over the course of the two days we will also have the opportunity to discuss how the landscape of Orkney has changed since the Mesolithic to today as well as further details on the Bay of Ireland project and environmental archaeology.

If you would like to get involved in the dig or simply just want to come along to see the site and have a chat then please do get in touch through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

*** We have some travel grants available for Orkney residents from the north and south Isles to attend the excavations. Contact above for details***

A Summer of Archaeology in Rousay

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

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

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

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

Chrissie and her test pit containing Norse midden

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

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

Ornate moulded red sandstone

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

Planning the remains of the barn in Trench 2

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


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

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