Two thousand-year-old occupation deposits in the Eastern half of the broch in the process of clean-up
A rather grey and windy day at The Cairns today, yet that didn’t stop the many visitors stopping by. The weather didn’t stop the exciting developments that have been happening across the site today.
The south-west extension was especially exciting today as the bronze object (possibly a pin), which was found yesterday, was lifted by Martin, under the close observation of many onlookers. At the other side of the extension Gary and I found quite a substantial amount of finds in one small area, these included two different animal jawbones, beside a stone tool, sherds of pottery and an animal bone that has signs of butchery, which were located under some of the rubble that we had just removed.
The crucible showing the spout that would have been used for pouring molten bronze
One of the Star finds of the day was found by Hanneke in the rubble that is butting against the broch wall, a large piece of pottery that turned out to be a piece of a crucible, a vessel that would have carried molten metal.
Down in the broch, things have also been slowly progressing, the floor deposits in the eastern section have been cleaned back. In the western portion, the paving has been cleaned and is being recorded.
The new wall emerging in Karoline and Marianne’s pit, outside the eastern wall of the broch
Across the site in ‘the Pit’, an area of modern disturbance and back-fill, Marianne and Karoline also had quite an exciting day, the wall that started to make its appearance over the last few days is now looking even more enticing, the wall now is adjoining to another wall at a right angle. Another of the star finds today was also from this area, where articulated cow vertebrae were found.
Down in Trench Q things seem to be coming on quite nicely, though it was previously not quite looking like anything other than ‘voidy rubble,’ it is starting now to show signs of some of wall lines joining through the baulk to a structure in Trench M, if this is the case or not, only time will tell.
It’s Monday and the weekly routine on site starts again.
There is a new batch of first year UHI students on site ready to begin their first second year module bringing with it a slightly extended weekly brief detailing the findings of last week which include the discovery of the outer ditch around the broch, progress on finding the plateau, or terrace, edge, the steady progress in Trench Q, including the voided pit, and the ongoing excavation of the interior of the broch.
Copper alloy emerging from the outer broch ditch
After briefing, the excavation started and with rested excavators, the finds and discoveries quickly started popping up. In the outer broch ditch (in the south west extension) there have been continuous finds of bone, burnt clay, pottery and a piece of copper alloy, adding to and expanding the material record of the site. In the same south west extension, a furnace bottom was found. This is a ‘plano-convex’ shaped cake of solid iron waste that forms in the bottom of a smelting furnace.
Over in Trench Q the continual trowelling and mattocking revealed what looks like an interior wall face. While it remains unknown what this wall relates to, and how far it extends, it looks nicely built and substantial and may well be part of one of the village buildings that goes with the broch.
The team in the interior of the broch have been exposing more of the occupation layers and further distinguishing the interior divisions, giving something to look forward to over the coming weeks as the occupation layers are excavated.
Lastly the furnace keeps on as ever producing slag and keep the small finds team busy, with it looking ever more likely that it was dismantled before it was covered up.
Overall, it is business as usual on site, with people continuing previous efforts to reveal ever more detail about the nature of occupation though it seems that over the coming week there may well be some new discoveries to report on soon.
We will keep you posted!
Ashley Davis, Placement student, University of Bournemouth.
We have reached the end of week two on site, and I thought I’d give a summarised round-up of what we have been doing recently.
It’s been a great week on site, with lots of lovely sunny weather and we have really enjoyed showing off the site to the many visitors that have been coming round the site. The excavations have been going very nicely, with fairly major progress achieved across all of the areas that we are concentrating on this year.
In the broch, the team led by Ricky, have been made their way through the lowest rubble and then they came down on to a roughly paved surface, and a charcoal rich organic deposit spread across large parts of the western half of the building. It looks like this has been the uppermost occupation remains and is obviously very late use of the broch.
More mystifying has been the discovery of a very large pit-like feature in the south-eastern part of the broch interior that appears to have been back-filled with very large rubble. This pit plummets for nearly a metre in depth and has just today come on to a new different fill deposit, but we have not yet reached the bottom. It may turn out that this feature is some kind of stone-lined, or faced, feature set into the broch floor, perhaps a little like ones discovered in other brochs such as Crosskirk broch in Caithness. Our pit has been in-filled with rubble when the broch was abandoned, but only time will tell what the true nature of this feature is and what lies at its very base!
Another surprise discovery from the broch was yesterday’s little blue glass bead mentioned in Hanneke’s blog-piece. Kevin’s very sharp eyes spotted this lying on the top of our ‘red cell’ in the broch after it had been cleaned for photography. Technically, this is a ‘cobalt blue, truncated bi-conical, glass bead’, and although there are ‘native’ glass beads at this time, it appears that the nearest parallels for our bead are from Roman contexts in Britain. It’s a lovely little find and would typically date to the 1st or 2nd Century AD.
In the south-west extension that we have added to the main trench this year, I must confess that my original intention was to open up the area, do only a little work this year and plan for much more work there next season. However, from the outset, the deposits there have been so tantalising and potentially informative of the earliest plan for the Iron Age settlement that we simply couldn’t resist giving it a good bit more attention. For one thing, the SW extension appears to contain evidence of the way that the Iron Age community went to tremendous efforts to landscape the hill-slope in preparation for the construction of the broch. The natural glacial clay that is present in the trench appears to have been cut into during the Iron Age to create a substantial terrace on which the broch was constructed. This must have entailed the movement of hundreds of tons of earth and clay before even the first course of broch masonry was laid. It really strongly indicates the huge effort that was involved in the building project of the broch!
In addition, the SW extension also unexpectedly contains a large band of dark stony silts in one corner, these appear to be the upper fills of the great ditch that surrounds and encloses the Middle Iron Age period settlement. Today these fills have been coming up trumps in terms of finds as they have been yielding masses of large sherds of beautiful Iron Age pottery rims and bases. I can’t wait to see what else is in these ditch fills over the next couple of weeks!
On the eastern exterior of the broch Paul, Kath and Kathryn have been working in the souterrain, Structure F. The interior soily deposits of this underground passage have been gridded-out for excavation and sampling and so far there has been some intriguing substantial animal bones found in the fill. It’s early days in here, but I think we’re going to find more very interesting deposits and hopefully also solve the mystery of the special aperture that had been created in the roof of the souterrain at its southern end when it was constructed.
Some readers may remember that when we first encountered the in situ stone roof of the souterrain, a special stone setting containing two upside-down, rotary querns had been set up on the roof, and that the holes through these were aligned to the gap in the major roof lintels beneath. We hope that this season excavation and soil chemistry might reveal whether this special aperture was used to pour something into the souterrain, and what that might be. We’ll update you as and when we begin to get a sense of what might have been going on here!
Trench Q is the area to the North and East of the broch, and we anticipate that it ought to contain extramural buildings, a village, surrounding the broch. So far, rather than any obvious sign of substantial village buildings it has been full of rubble and ashy silty soils, masses and masses of soil! There have been interesting things in this Iron Age soil; deer antlers, stone tools and pottery, etc., but no sign of building remains. It looks like they are very much more deeply buried beneath the rubble and ash.
Meanwhile, over in the eastern corner of Trench Q we have encountered an area of modern disturbance, adjacent to a modern pit that we have previously excavated. It appears that this disturbance involved a large amount of very large pieces of rubble being filled into a pit. We can see that there are some massive voids reaching down to about a 1.5 metres below the present surface of the trench. It looks as if next week we may be able to establish what this modern pit hit when it was first dug out, and it looks like it might be a very big voided structure of some kind. We will keep you posted!
Finally, and by no means least, I’d like to extend a big thank you to our Archaeology Short Course students who have joined us on site this week. They began their day with us digging some test pits in the hinterland of the broch. This turned out very well, as they yielded useful insights into the extent of the archaeology on the western side of the broch, and also brought us into contact with the Neolithic mound (a settlement, we suspect) that lies to the north of the main trench. The short course students also helped us carry out some geophysics in the wider landscape and continued to excavate the main trench under Dan Lee’s supervision. Here, they have revealed the fuller extent of Structure E; one of our late Iron Age buildings, and have shown that it is most probably a multi-cellular building or a ‘shamrock’. This is really valuable new information about the site, so thank you to them all for their work this week!
Today was another glorious day at The Cairns. Many visitors have been taking the opportunity to visit the site and enjoy tours by the knowledgeable Martin, Kevin and Ole.
The squad have been working hard and we had various interesting finds today. Kevin spotted a small blue glass bead on the wall of the broch wall in the ‘red cell’. It looked as if it had been wedged between two courses of masonry. Definitely an exciting find!
Charlotte cleaned the metal working furnace and found debris and furnace lining. The team in Trench Q found a very large worked stone and some pottery. Hannah removed a scapula (shoulder blade) from the ditch on the outside of the broch wall. The question in this area is whether the ditch was built before the houses or if the broch developed more organically.
Peter enjoyed some charcoal sampling for carbon dating and Gary made a sketch (planning) as a record of that particular area. I have trowelled down to the natural ‘clay’ and sandstone of what is possibly the upper edge of the terrace created to build the broch. We cleaned the area and a nice clear division between the natural layer and later contexts were revealed.
All in all an enjoyable and exciting day.
Hanneke Booij, MSc Student University of Stirling.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Masters student Jim Bright talks us through his role as The Cairns Digital Archaeologist.
“Over the excavation season at The Cairns Project, I’ll be spending time as the ‘on-site digital archaeologist’. That may sound like an unusual term and one of the reasons for this is that, put simply, it is an unusual thing to do.
Quite often, digital work undertaken for archaeological excavations is completed after the dig season has finished. 3D models of finds created using photogrammetry are usually made in the comfort of a warm office or lab after the finds have been categorised, labelled and wrapped up for preservation, or put on display in a museum. 3D models of trenches during an excavation season are sometimes made, however usually this is just a single model of a particular context during excavation.
Being on the excavation site for the entirety of the dig here at The Cairns, enables the opportunity to generate some 3D models of the same trench at different phases, when different contexts are being discovered. Moreover, when a particularly interesting find is discovered, I can be there to make a 3D model just as it’s unearthed. That way, we can get some 3D models out there for everyone to view the day they are found. Recently, I made the model below of what has been termed the ‘Red Cell’. The Red Cell is a small compartment or room, just off from the centre of the broch.
I’ll be posting more models over the season which I will include in future blogs. Some models may appear on the Friends of the Cairns Facebook page and the @thecairnsbroch twitter page, along with the @UHIArchaeology page, all great sources for information about the Cairns project and what we are doing.
I will also be trying out some interesting new techniques for photogrammetry, utilising different software packages and trying out some experimental digital archaeology, so there will be a lot to see and a lot to write about. Indeed there will be much for me to reflect on during my placement here as a Masters degree student at UHI.”
Blog written by Jim Bright, MSc Archaeological Practice student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
Today was certainly a mixed one in terms of the weather, and the team worked through very warm sunshine and some really torrential rain showers as well! But results were well worth the labour!
Spirit unabated progress continued in the trenches. In the broch, the team have been excavating the lowest rubble deposits from the western half of the interior, revealing patches of tantalising black organic occupation material here and there. The hope is that once some more of the rubble has been removed we will see that the greater portion of the area is taken up with this nice deposit so that we can then begin to excavate in a strategic manner on a grid, taking many soil samples for analysis.
Even the rubble, though, has significant points of interest. For example, Kath, one of our degree students found a nice sizeable chunk of whalebone set in the rubble snug against the broch inner wall face. There are also other little bone finds in here too, such as a sheep jawbone, shells and occasional stone tools. It appears that even the rubble infill relating to the abandonment of the broch (about the middle of the 2nd Century AD), apparently contained deliberate little deposits of items, a phenomenon we have previously witnessed in other zones of the broch infill.
Meanwhile in Trench Q, during our exploration of the extramural features around the outside of the broch on the north and east side we found quite thick blankets of silty soils and light rubble that contain a lot of artefacts and environmental remains. Hannah has been finding some chunky cattle bones, for example, and there has been a lot of pottery, including a nice sherd with decoration in the form of applied diagonal pellets under a nice rolled rim. This decorated pottery is Middle Iron Age in date and therefore roughly of the period of the broch, however, in this case it probably dates to a time just after the broch was abandoned.
In the western edge of Trench Q, Charlotte and Therese have been cleaning up in our furnace area, a feature we believe is associated with iron-working. Intriguingly, they have been finding articulated animal bones on the edge of the furnace zone, and this is in an area where we previously found a large pig skull that was severed clean off its body with a substantial edged object, most likely a metal blade! It seems likely that there are also special deposits in and around the furnace!
With the bursts of heavy rain our south-west extension became effectively unworkable with its spreads of clay and thick silty soils, so the part of the team that had been working there, migrated into the broch to help the others and progress in the last part of the afternoon was good.
Tomorrow, with the help of good weather, (fingers and toes crossed!), we should be able to reach our goal of establishing the uppermost occupation deposit across the western interior of the building- then the fun begins!
Today’s fine weather allowed us to get going with preparing various parts of the site for excavation, and getting stuck in to trenches Q and M.
I started this morning re-homing the lintel stones from the souterrain. These were taken out at the end of last season in order to allow the excavation of floor deposits within the souterrain passage this year. This morning a small team of strong-armed diggers moved them to safer pastures outside the work area. Here they’ll be out of harm’s way (and visible if you swing by for a visit!).
Our reward for this hard work was the chance to get in the broch itself – so hard hats went on and the work began to get the broch ready for the serious excavation to come. The team moved out some slabs and stony fill in order to get down to the exciting floor layers below.
Elsewhere on the site Therese and Charlotte cleaned up the furnace in Trench Q, and in the process found some articulated bone – a hopeful sign of even more interesting finds in this area. In the finds tent Kevin and Kathryn reported surprisingly large amounts of pottery coming from all areas of the site – more than has been found in previous seasons – as well as a Skaill knife (a stone blade used in butchery and scraping hides, etc.).
Thankfully the rain largely stayed off during the day, allowing the team to make some progress and build momentum on site – we’re now really getting excited for the coming weeks.
Today’s blog was written by Hannah Boyd – a recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh and a newbie to The Cairns community. This is Hannah’s first time digging at The Cairns and she’s excited to get the chance to work on a broch site – particularly such a rich and interesting site as this!
Hi folks, Martin again, reporting on progress during day two of the project.
We spent the earlier part of the day cleaning over surfaces within the trench and generally tidying up its appearance in preparation for beginning to actually start excavating in earnest.
Indeed, it was during the general clean up, within the extension on the south-west side of the site that we made today’s star find! Woody, who has just completed his degree studies with us, was cleaning the edge of the new trench when he made the fine. It’s a beautiful bronze pin. This particular type is known as a ‘Hand-pin’ because it has a head shaped like an arc or ring with three little beaded projections above. The entire decorated head resembles a little hand.
This is a really nice find, and it’s quite chronologically suggestive as well since pins like this are an early form of the hand-pin (sometimes known as a proto-hand pin) and are thought to date to around the 3rd or 4th Centuries AD, and a little later- so about the same period as the later Roman period in Southern Britain.
The pin had come from a deposit high in the sequence of dark silty soils that we think might be the uppermost fills of the great enclosure ditch that surrounds the site. This could be some very interesting dating evidence for the last infilling of the ditch.
Nearby, Kath, another of our degree students found a really nice piece of pottery with a ‘rolled’ rim, which is, again suggestive of a date in the earlier part of the Late Iron Age.
Meanwhile, as work progressed over on the northern part of the site to clean up in Trench Q, Christine, yet another UHI student found an equally chunky and impressive piece of pottery, but this time of a slightly different sort. It had an everted (out-swinging) rim and a nice globular body. This is more of a Middle Iron Age type- the period of the heyday of the broch itself.
All, in all, considering it was a day largely given over to preliminary clean-up we have had a very nice set of finds and together with the feature and deposits we are encountering they are helping us to formulate the story of the site, yet further.
In future days, we’ll be bringing you perspectives from a range of people involved in the excavations at the site.
Please check in with us again tomorrow for more exciting developments from the trenches.
Welcome everyone to the new blog for The Cairns. Today was day 1 of the new season of excavations.
Today consisted mainly of preparing the site by removing the covers that have protected the site over the winter and spring months. This can be an arduous, physically demanding process but it’s also a very rewarding one as we slowly (or sometimes not so slowly, as indicated by today’s progress!) see the archaeological features emerging.
The site is already looking very impressive and together with its new extension on the South-west, we’re going to be spending most of our time this season in three main areas of the site.
The first area is within the broch itself. As we delve further, and more intensively, into the floor deposits of the massive monumental roundhouse we hope to continue to build a picture of life inside this imposing structure and the range of activities that went on inside. The second area is so-called Trench Q, which lies to the north and east of the broch, and where we expect to reveal more of the extramural complex of buildings that lies around the broch. Essentially we think this area represents a village, contemporary with the occupation of the broch.
Thirdly, but by no means least, we intend to fully excavate the underground souterrain or earthhouse (Structure F), which lies outside the broch entrance and dates to the period immediately after the broch was abandoned and filled in with rubble
We have a fairly large team of diggers and over the next four weeks they will be providing daily updates giving you regular insights into our progress and the wonderful finds that the site has to offer. Each of our key areas of investigation will be covered in these blog posts and you will be able to experience the discoveries very close to the moments that we make them.
Tomorrow we will be able to begin cleaning up the surface of the site and begin to start excavating in earnest, so please join us on the blog to see what emerges!