Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at the UHI Archaeology Institute takes up the story of Day Eight at The Cairns….
Martin here again with a today’s update, and what a cracking day today was! The sun shone down on us as we dug. In fact, it was one of those days when you feel bad about wishing it wasn’t quite so warm and dry, and sunny! In the full glare of the of the sun we made good progress across the site.
Over in the south extension Linda’s team have really started to work down the edge of the ditch, and it’s nice to see the profile start to emerge of this once very substantial enclosure. Also in this area Angus and Paul have been revealing more details of the building that crouches in the lee of the revetment. This building will, we hope, be one of the village buildings that allows us to test whether our broch village was founded at the very same time as the broch itself or sometime after.
Within the broch, Rick’s team have been recording the flag stone floor and hearth in the western area/room of the interior. This occupation level pertains to late use of the western zone and probably dates to sometime around the Mid 2nd Century AD. Soon the team will be able to lift this horizon and see what lies beneath. They strongly suspect there’ll be another hearth for one thing, but also that more rich floor deposits are awaiting our investigation.
Colin, Anthea and Deryck have further defined the newly emerged wall cell (‘A6’) within the northern segment of broch wall. It’s looking very nice with its mixed construction of coursed masonry and upright stone panels, and it’s much better preserved than we had expected, considering the damage it had received from above during a later Iron Age stone robbing episode. There also appears to be in situ floor/occupation deposits remaining within the base of the chamber. That’s great for ultimately giving us more information about the use of the chamber.
Also in the broch today we really started to excavate the subterranean feature in the northern interior of the broch. This type feature is known in the literature as a well, but there are various reasons for suggesting that something more is going on with these fascinating underground structures. Our ‘well’ is very nicely preserved, entirely intact in fact, and was completely sealed when we first discovered it. The entrance is very well built and flush with the broch floor level in this area. A very steep set of steps lead downwards and in an anti-clockwise direction to the partly rock cut chamber below. The structure is quite a substantial cavity about 2 metres deep in total as far as we can tell.
Today we began the arduous process of excavating and sampling (100% recovery) the deep and very silty fill. It’s very wet, loose and prone to a suction effect that makes it difficult to make headway. Nevertheless, we hope this will be a very worthwhile exercise and that we can recover pollen, and lots of other environmental information. Additionally, you never know what else may be in there in terms of artefacts. We’ll keep you posted…
In Area Q/M in the Northern area of the site, Bobby’s team have also been making very good progress revealing a beautiful flagstone floor associated with Structure K in one area. Meanwhile, towards the eastern end of Area Q/M various walls out the front and north of the broch exterior that have seemed quite disparate and bitty are now starting to come together very nicely, and they seem to be tracing the outline of a whopper of a building.
It looks very like one particularly long and sinuous stretch of walling represents a major building and part of the broch village complex, perhaps a type of building seen in other broch villages such as the one at Gurness in West Mainland, Orkney, which was itself an impressive and substantial structure close to the front of the broch and designed to be appreciated and to impress.
We’ll bring you updates and further images from these and other developments as they emerge!
Welcome back everyone to the daily blog for The Cairns excavations from me, Martin Carruthers the site director!
It’s absolutely fantastic to back on site and be able to share our findings with you once more. Each day of the project we’ll be bringing you updates and perspectives from different members of the team.
We welcome back many familiar faces to take part once again in the project and we also say hello to an equal number of new faces to the site. Altogether the team already shows great promise in terms of good humour and commitment, necessary qualities in these very opening stages of the work, as well as beyond.
Today was the first day of the new season, and although a little advance party of us took a lot of the covers off the trench last week we nevertheless had a lot more tidying up of the site to do today with the big team. After site introduction and the obligatory health and safety briefings, it was onwards to moving the tyres out of the fenced area of the site and gathering up weathered fragments of plastic to generally neaten up things.
Early in the afternoon we were able to actually start the job of cleaning the surface of the trench bringing it up to good condition for the start of excavation proper. The wonderful thing is that even in the midst of this house-keeping activity we made some lovely finds! Whilst cleaning up in the broch, Therese found a lovely little piece of worked bone, a pierced and shaped antler mount of some kind.
A second antler mount – a knife handle from cleaning Trench Q
Therese’s pierced bone mount from cleaning up in the broch
A few pottery sherds from cleaning over the new extension
Meanwhile, over in Bobby’s area, that’s the belt of settlement lying to the North of the broch (Trench area Q) the clean-up brought to light another beautiful antler mount, this time most of a handle for a large blade. You can clearly see the perforations for rivets that would have held this antler plate in place on the tang of an iron blade, probably a chunky knife. This is all quite unbelievably exciting for day one and essentially a clean-up job!
Over in this year’s trench extension on the Southern side of the site the work to clean over the newly revealed deposits was also going well. It looks very much like here we have the upper fills of the great ditch that encircles the broch period settlement. The deposits today were gratifyingly full of animal bone, shell, and pieces of pottery, boding well for the richness of these ditch-fills.
Tomorrow, we’ll press on with the site cleaning and then really start to get our teeth into the deposits and features. We’ll keep you posted on how we get on!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need any help in planning a trip to the projects listed below, then please feel free to contact us on email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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: email@example.com
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.
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
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.”
“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.”
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 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.”
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.
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?
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.
Upcoming 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): firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
*** We have some travel grants available for Orkney residents from the north and south Isles to attend the excavations. Contact above for details***
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well we have reached the end of the excavation season at The Cairns. Let’s review what we set out to do and what was achieved.
Birth of a broch: the southwest extension
We extended the main trench on the south-western side of the broch this season. This was quite a large new area, and I must confess that the intention here was that we would not necessarily do a great deal of work in this area this year. I wanted to get a better more expansive view of the southern arc of the broch wall and possibly see hints of the extramural complex of buildings. However, from the outset the deposits and features in this zone were very intriguing and potentially conveyed important information about the early stages of the establishment of the broch.
The more time we spent in this trench the more that was borne out. We have long inferred that the preparation for building the broch involved cutting a large terrace into the hillside that it sits on. The logic for this hypothesis was that: in several places that we have reached the outer foot of the broch wall it is level to within a few centimetres, and this is despite the fact that it sits on a hill-slope or gradient of 1 in 20 (in other words the hill descends around 2 metres in height over the span of the 22 metre diameter broch). Obviously this would have made for an extremely sloping broch and interior without some modification.
At a distance varying between 3 and 6 metres out from the southern wall-face of the broch we could clearly see the natural glacially-derived clay only a few centimetres beneath the turf. Between there and the broch wall-face, however, it disappears and we have archaeological soils and features instead. This shows that the natural clay had indeed been cut into on its up-slope side. This year the southwest extension has allowed us to prove this terrace does exist and that the builders of the broch must have seriously landscaped the hillside by moving hundreds of tonnes of earth, clay and boulders to create a level platform for the broch. A huge effort was put into the formative stages of building the broch and shows us just what a substantial monumental project the building of the broch actually was.
Of Boundaries, Beads and other Bling!
Another surprise discovery from the SW trench extension this year was the presence of the ditch. Although we have known for some time (from geophysics and excavation on the northern side of the broch) that The Cairns, like many broch sites, was contained within a large ditched enclosure we hadn’t anticipated that the ditch trench would actually appear in the trench even if only present as an edge of the ditch.
We have been able to sample excavate the ditch and it turned out to be very rich in artefacts and animal bones, indeed, with lots of large chunks of pottery vessels and several metal objects; pins and the like. Ditches were clearly often receptacles for midden and refuse, however, they were also quite important symbolic boundaries between the community and the outside world, and this may be reflected in the types of materials, objects and deposition that occurs in them. So in future seasons we will do more work in the ditch. In many ways its a dramatic space, with lots to tell us in terms of the way the community lived and worked, but maybe also about their ideologies.
One of the artefactual highlights of the season also came from high up in the in-filling of the ditch. This was the so-called ‘proto hand-pin’, a type of decorative Iron Age bronze pin which are thought to have been in currency in the 3rd to 5th Centuries AD. As well as being a beautiful object in its own right, this little pin is instructive in giving us an early indication of when the ditch became fully in-filled.
And staying with flashy bling for a moment the other rival for artefact of the season has to be the little blue glass bead that came from one of the cells in the broch. This beautiful little object looks likely to be a 1st or 2nd Century AD Roman type, known as a bi-conical blue bead, and only a couple of others have been found at Scottish Iron Age sites, including Traprain Law in East Lothian, and Hownam Rings in the Scottish Borders. It may show how the site’s occupants were plugged into fairly extended exchange links with the Roman province.
Excavation of the Broch Floors
Inside the broch, the part of the team supervised by Rick Barton did a great job of dealing with the sensitive floor deposits. Work concentrated on the Western part of the broch interior. This area has previously been left at a higher level than in the east, simply as a result of our excavation schedule, and this season was our opportunity to explore this side of the broch more, and bring things into the same phase across the whole broch. It wasn’t long before interesting features were emerging. Under the uppermost rubble, a late hearth was uncovered occupying a central position within the western zone. It was large, and well-used judging by the heat cracking across the large base slab, but perhaps lacked the formality one would expect to see in primary, or original, hearths inside brochs. The vast quantity of charred organic material from deposits surrounding the hearth will yield lots of information about how this hearth was used. The way in which the hearth appeared to be sitting on top of a pronounced bump in the floor of the broch indicates it may be mounded up over an earlier hearth, and by the time we were finishing work this season there were hints of this situation in the form of edge-set stones and other heat-affected deposits emerging from beneath the edges of the hearth.
In the eastern side of the broch interior we undertook only a little work this year, as we want to wait until we have the west side down to the same level before proceeding too far, however, when we were joined by Dr. Jo Mackenzie, a specialist in soils and floors we undertook some excavation and sampling of the floors in this side of the broch. The floors were seen to be very rich and they possess very nice stratification (clearly laid down layers) that will help tell a very good story of life inside the broch two thousand and more years ago. The dark organic deposits seen in section show many thin layers of occupation, dark brown ones with charred plant materials, red peat ash ones, paler silty layers, etc, but when they are examined under the microscope it will be possible to see many more, otherwise invisible, layers that will be full of information on the different activities and activity areas within the broch; and the conditions prevailing at any point in the history of the broch.
The Broch Village
This year we were able to explore the extramural settlement, or village, that lies around the outside of the broch. We had a substantial window onto this settlement in the form of Trench Q, supervised by Dave Reay, and also the southwest extension also brought us into contact with the settlement. In Trench Q, a serious amount of rubble and ashy soils effectively sealed and masked the features of village buildings here, and it took sometime to reach the upper walls of buildings. However, Dave and his team were able to reveal the wall-tops of at least two, possibly three, Iron Age buildings across Trench Q. One of these has a nicely built curving wall and may turn out to be a roundhouse. The other was constructed by revetting into existing soils and rubble and may well be a building dating to later than the broch itself.
Meanwhile, in the southwest extension the same terrace cut discussed above, also contained the walling of a building that may well turn out to be part of the broch village. Indeed, this may reveal very telling information about the nature of the relationship between the broch and village. There is a debate in Scottish Iron Age studies about how contemporary the villages that surround brochs are with the construction of the brochs themselves. Some scholars favour the idea that villages developed around broch towers gradually, and were subsequent to the building of brochs, but others consider the villages to have been part of the plan from the outset, especially in Orkney and Caithness, perhaps, where the village buildings tend to have a very integrated, and planned appearance. The presence of a village building in the construction terrace of the broch may well tell us that the plans for the broch included village buildings from the outset. This will be a very significant piece of evidence in the debate, and it arises from the fairly unique way in which the broch builders chose to build and to deal with the topography, sculpting the hill slope in the first place.
One of our aims this season was to deal with the deposits inside the souterrain on the eastern side of the broch. We excavated the deposits that in-fill the souterrain and took lots of soil samples to try to understand the composition of this in-fill. What’s more the way is clear for us to try to chemically analyse the floor of the souterrain to try to glean more information about how it was used.
A very odd feature of the souterrain seen in a previous season was the quern installation set up on the roof of the souterrain at its southern end. Essentially, two rotary querns had been set up inverted over an intentional aperture in the souterrain lintels. The central holes of the querns were aligned with the aperture, and the entire feature conveys the impression of being used to pour something into the underground passageway from above. There are several instances of Iron Age querns reused in this way to form a porous lid on pits in wheelhouses in the Western Isles, and in one instance it was suggested that there may have been libations being poured into them! Now that we have been able to excavate and acquire soil samples these will be subjected to phosphate analysis, amongst other analyses, to try to discern what trace there might be of any substance that was being poured into the hole in the roof.
Different ways of seeing the site: aerial images and 3D modelling
This year at site we have been able to take advantage of the burgeoning new technologies like never before. The use of UAV’s (commonly known as drones) has been rapidly revolutionising the elevated perspective that archaeologists are able to get on archaeological sites. We were massively assisted in gaining this broader context this year by the UAV work of artist Rik Hammond and my colleague Dr. James Moore. Their use of the UAV several times during the course of the site has given us a fantastic aerial perspective on the site and its landscape.
The second new technology requiring acknowledgement here is that of 3d computer modelling. Throughout the period of the excavation one of our MSc students Jim Bright has been developing his skills in this domain. The results of some of his models have been posted here already, and there will be many more models. These are not just aesthetically pleasing models of the features and artefacts but actually useful in research terms as they allow us to gain privileged perspectives otherwise difficult or even impossible to acquire.
Meanwhile, another colleague Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark has produced a complete, whole site 3D model of The Cairns. This is a massively useful and impressive piece of work, that again allows us to interrogate lots of different aspects of the features and structures of the site. Again it provides an incredible tool for visualising the site in all its detail. The link to Hugo’s fabulous model is given here: https://sketchfab.com/models/db98e708e7e14e70aac55d8ee027c85b Here’s Hugo’s model and a little blog within the blog that he has prepared for it: Enjoy!
The Cairns Broch Excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney The Cairns is an Iron Age broch – a massive circular structure with thick defensive walls that would have risen …
‘Over the last few years I’ve produced 3d models of various archaeological sites and artefacts in Orkney further afield and on Monday I finally got the chance to scan The Cairns. It’s a large and complex excavation site, with lots of thin projecting stones that present a real challenge for 3d modelling – the sort of challenge I like! The 3d modelling technique I use is ‘structure from motion’ photogrammetry which produces 3d models from overlapping photographs taken on any digital camera. In total I took 1648 photographs for the site over a few hours, when the sun and showers permitted. Most of these images were taken vertically from a pole, but within the broch I took images from a range of angles to capture the complex arrangements of stone orthostats. After 10 hours processing with Agisoft Photoscan on my PC, the model I’ve uploaded to Sketchfab appeared on my screen. This model offers a great way to explore the site, as the archaeology is more easily understood from above, but it also forms an important part of the site archive as the model is tied into the site grid and captures the vast progress made in the 2017 excavation season’.
All in all, it has been a very fruitful and enjoyable season, with a lot learned about the nature of the site, from its beginnings to the end, major features of the site such as the excavation of later broch floors, the broch construction platform and the ditch will immeasurably help us to understand the character of the settlement, and the finds this year have been very rich and highly useful in a number of ways to elucidate issues relating to dating, the status of the community and their depositional practices.
Now some thank you’s! I’ll take this opportunity to thank the entire project team for their unstinting humour, patience and enthusiasm. Without them the site would of course remain unexcavated, and its only through their sterling efforts that we begin to understand what was going on at the site more than 2000 years ago!
This year the donations made by the visiting public have been more substantial than ever before. We benefitted from the largest number of visitors to the site of any season so far, and they were very generous in their expression of support for the project. The funds will now be spent on important aspects of furthering the research, such as radiocarbon dating the beginning of the broch, and understanding the major metalworking episode on the site. I would like to thank all of the visitors and donors, and for allowing us to communicate our findings at the site.
Finally, I would like to thank Charlie and Yvonne Nicholson and all of their family and friends in South Ronaldsay for their many acts of assistance and generosity. Our time at The Cairns is made possible, enjoyable and very amiable due to their great kindness.