Kim Ranger M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands has kindly volunteered to write todays dig diary. So over to Kim….
“Greetings from The Cairns excavation, its day two! In the South extension our enthusiastic volunteers and students supervised by Linda, have been working on uncovering more of the external broch wall to further define its features, reveal village buildings close to the broch wall, and also uncovering the big enclosure ditch that cuts through the extension. The team have only dug some of the initial soil layers so far and have found lots of animal bone in the fills. As they work down we expect to encounter more artefacts.
Within the amazing broch, the team led by Rick, have been cleaning up the sensitive but beautiful earthen floors of the building, in preparation for more intensive excavation to come. The occupation horizons are looking very colourful and detailed. In one place just towards the end of the day a very nice spindle whorl (a spinning tool) began to emerge from the floors. This will excite Masters Student Amber, who is undertaking a dissertation study on the textile tools from the site!
Over on the western edge of the site, the northern end of Structure B (a later Iron Age longhouse) lies partly on top of the broch wall, and here a small team have been working to define the stonework a little more. The team were very excited to discover a beautiful whetstone with nice wear.
In trench Area Q a team has been working on two little projects. Firstly, to clean up the entire area, and define it more. They’ve been excavating a broad strip of deposits that were deliberately left high some time ago (this is called a baulk), as it’s now time for the baulk to go, having done its job of allowing us to see the deposits in their vertical order of formation.
The team continued to dig down through the layers of a midden packed full of animal bones which form the remains of a huge feast by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Within the general mass of animal bone there was a particular dense concentration of bone related to a large mandible amongst others, which may represent a loosely articulated carcass. Other finds included a nice hammer stone.
Today the site was visited by tourists and historians who were given a personalised tour of the site by our experts. We welcome all visitors and hope that more people take advantage of the fine weather to come out and visit us, the area is easy to navigate and there is much being discovered about Iron Age Orkney.
Spindle whorl appearing in the floor of the broch
Some of the animal bone from the midden in the baulk
Trowelling over the south extension and looking out to Windwick Bay
If you do visit the site and you are arriving by vehicle from the direction of the Windwick road near to the war memorial, then please don’t park in the drive of the private house near the entrance to the field that the site sits in, or in the drive leading up to the site itself- thank you!”
Kim Ranger, M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands.
The island of Rousay in Orkney is renowned for the wealth of its archaeology; so much so that it is known as the Egypt of the North.
Over the next few weeks a team of archaeologists from around the world are assembling on Rousay to help unlock some of the questions still remaining about the distant past of this mysterious place.
Starting on the 16th April, an internationally renowned team from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI) based in Berlin, together with archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will begin the largest geophysics survey of the island to date. The first phase of the project will continue for two weeks, with the results connecting many of the sites researched by the UHI Archaeology Institute, the University of Bradford, and Historic Environment Scotland.
Professor Jane Downes, director of the UHI Archaeology Institute said, “We are very pleased and excited to be involved in this major international project on Rousay and we are looking forward to seeing the results from the cutting-edge geophysics technology that the team from DAI have brought with them. This will make a substantial contribution to the “Boyne to Brodgar” programme- an Irish/Scottish Neolithic research project. This fieldwork forms one of a whole series of projects happening on the island over the next two weeks including the ‘Gateway to the Atlantic Workshop’ that this week will bring together archaeological scientists working particularly on coastal erosion, climate change and heritage in the North Atlantic and Arctic, and the following week continues an archaeological survey involving experts from Historic Environment Scotland and UHI Archaeology Institute students. We are signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the DAI, for partnership working longer term. It is indeed an exciting time for archaeology in Orkney.”
Dr Alison Sheridan (National Museums Scotland) and Professor Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin) of the Boyne to Brodgar Initiative added that, ““We are absolutely delighted and honoured that the DAI team have come to Orkney to undertake their survey on Rousay. With this work, and the survey that they already carried out in the Boyne Valley in Ireland, the team are contributing enormously to the Boyne to Brodgar research initiative to understand Neolithic people, their monuments and their interactions in Britain and Ireland”.
Background to the Events on Rousay
Orkney – Gateway to the Atlantic: Rousay Workshop
19th and 20th April 2018
Venue: Rousay Community School
The UHI Archaeology Institute are hosting an international workshop on the island of Rousay, 19-20th April 2018. This workshop is organised on a multi-disciplinary basis bringing together colleagues who are working on a similar range of issues in the North Atlantic region, and in comparative islands environments. We aim to examine sustainability, resilience through time and work towards understanding impacts of climatic and environmental change. This meeting will provide an opportunity to catch up on existing projects, and an impetus and basis for planning further in-depth collaborations and projects.
Boyne to Brodgar Project
This major archaeological project aims to develop the understanding of early people in Scotland and Ireland and place within a wider European and global story. Through the study of prehistoric monuments, Boyne to Brodgar aims to increase awareness of and engagement with an early chapter in Scotland’s history. Outreach and community archaeology projects are planned across Ireland and Scotland which will help people to understand their shared heritage.
Memorandum of Understanding
A memorandum of Understanding will be signed between Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney College UHI in which the three organisations confirm their willingness to co-operate and may include:
• The exchange of personnel
• Joint research projects and workshops
• Technical support and training
• Other joint projects which will be specified at a later date.
New radiocarbon dates from The Cairns archaeological excavation shed light on the possible structure of society in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD in Orkney.
Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research excavation at The Cairns, Orkney, talks about the latest research findings from the site.
“We have been very lucky at The Cairns over the years of the excavations to find a substantial set of remains and residues that relate to Iron Age metalworking. This includes at least two iron-working furnaces, and many other features and artefacts, but there is one particularly big and concentrated event that took place beyond the broch in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M. The remains of this episode include furnaces, bronze waste; bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze objects. Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches.
The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community. Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, as well as their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.
The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overly the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement. We therefore knew from the assessment of the layers (the stratigraphy) on site that the metalworking episode did not occur very early on in the sequence of events and buildings on site but it remained to be seen if it was going on towards the end of the monumental broch period on site, or if it was actually occurring after the broch was put out of use, which we know occurred around the mid-Second Century AD based on previously obtained radiocarbon dates. The calendar date of the metalworking was therefore of great interest. Did the jewellery-making episode date to the period late in the life of the broch, or was it happening after the broch itself was decommissioned and put out of use?
Craft and Chronology
Newly obtained radiocarbon dates make it clear which of these scenarios is correct. The new dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. Now, with this enhanced understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking we can begin to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.
It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.
Jewellery as social currency: Feasting, and gift-giving?
At the end of the bronze-casting event a fairly thick, very rich animal bone midden was laid down in the vicinity and slightly overlying the metalworking area. The close relationship between the metalworking and the animal bone is shown by the presence of a few of the crucibles and mould fragments amongst the midden also. What’s in this midden?
Well lots of domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep and pig, especially large cattle long bones. In addition, there were other mammal bones such as red deer, otter, and even a small quantity of horse. The midden also contained carbonised soils, ash and broken fragments of pottery. Many fire-cracked beach cobbles were also excavated, and these represent the exploded remains of ‘pot-boilers’, heated cobbles that were immersed in vessels to heat up water and cook some of the food. It seems that the people gathered at our feast were consuming beef on the bone, boiled pork, and roasted mutton and venison, some of which may have been washed down by beverages drunk from many pottery vessels.
The close stratigraphic association between the fine metalworking and the feasting raises the question of what exactly was going on here. One possibility that I like very much is that the feasting could be the spectacular social event at which the products of the jewellery-making were handed out, or gifted, to their intended recipients by those who had sponsored the metalworking in the first place. We may therefore be peering into the social circumstances of the jewellery-making and the distribution of its products amongst the community at The Cairns. If this is so, then it is a fascinating insight into the moment at which objects like the pins, brooches and rings started off on their biographies, their journey through people’s lives.
This is a very rare opportunity to see more clearly the initial nature of the social and political significance of these objects from their start-point. It would mean that the sharing or gifting of the jewellery was surrounded in the circumstances of a big social occasion, a massive party, if you like. We are seeing their birth and the important role they played in the power-play and social strategies of Iron Age groups and individuals. With the circumstances of the jewellery-making we are able, for once, to investigate the intended status and significance of these items within the context of their birth, rather than depending on the information we usually get, which is based on the discovery of these objects much later in their lives, in fact at the end of their lives, when they went in the ground, perhaps many decades, or more, after they were originally made and worn. Most theories about the brooches and pins and their role in society have been based on what we glean from them in this end-state, but the assemblage of metalworking evidence from The Cairns; the moulds, crucibles, and other items, together with the massive remains of the feasting allows us to grasp what was going on at the point in time when these jewellery items were instigated.
Jewellery, Society and the wider Northern Scottish Iron Age
It is highly intriguing that the birth of these prestigious pieces of jewellery appears to have been accompanied by communal, outdoor feasting and judging by the volume of animal bone it involved a large part, if not all, of the community. In the absence of the big spacious monumental buildings, such as the brochs, which may have previously served to gather large numbers of people under one roof at important times in the life of the community, we can ponder whether feasting events like this were the new arena for expressing the identity and solidarity of the community.
If we now recall Professor Sharples’ aforementioned thesis that the changes at the end of the Middle Iron Age to late Iron Age involved a major transformation of the way people expressed their social identity, from the communal to the individual then this evidence for big community feasting in the early part of the Later Iron Age is very interesting. Perhaps this serves to somewhat modify that concept, because in the post-broch era at The Cairns, for one, the community appears to have retained ways of expressing their greater collective identity. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that everyone was singled-out and gifted one of the pieces of fine jewellery that were produced.
At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period. If so, the excavations are really coming up trumps in terms of allowing us to peer into the social circumstances of Iron Age communities.
New dates for Structure B1: Have we found the elite sponsors of the metalworking?
The period of the jewellery-making is after the end of the broch and we were previously unclear which buildings amongst the many post-broch structures were occupied at the time of the bronze-working. The new dates also allow us to pin-point whereabouts on site, at least some of, the community were living at the time the jewellery-making was taking place. Armed with the new radiocarbon dates, it turns out, that one of the large rectangular post-broch buildings (perhaps a Wag-like building of the type found in Caithness and at The Howe in Orkney) known to us as Structure B1, located about 30 metres to the south-west of the jewellery-making area was first constructed and occupied between the Mid-3rd to 4th Centuries AD, and therefore at the same time as the metalworking.
Structure B1 lies directly over the reduced and in-filled remains of the broch. One of the most remarkable aspects of this building is its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the remains of the abandoned broch almost co-opting its former position and grandeur have always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time, and may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.
It is intriguing therefore to now know unambiguously that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor the lavish jewellery-making on site. Pushing this further, it is tempting to speculate that it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the post-broch Iron Age community at The Cairns.”
Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
Martin would like to thank Professor Dave Barclay, Forensic Consultant, and Professor Emeritus, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen for the very kind and helpful donation, which made it possible to fund the most recent radiocarbon dates discussed in this piece.
If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or see our website.
The 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.
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.