Gairsay Ballast Mounds – Flora and Fauna

Volunteer divers joined a team of archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology last month to start the second phase of an archaeological project to explore Orkney’s early maritime heritage.

The fieldwork concentrated on Milburn Bay on the small Orcadian island of  Gairsay. The volunteer divers not only discovered ballast mounds but in the clear water also filmed an astonishing array of flora and fauna.

The ballast mounds are colonised by a distinct assemblage of species that sets them apart from the surrounding seabed.  The most obvious constituent is the green alga Codium fragile, which grows abundantly on the mounds and less so in the surrounding area.  Its bright green, branched structure forms a dense canopy that adds to the sheltered habitat already provided among the ballast stones.  Sea squirts are also abundant on the mounds, particularly the large pink species

Its bright green, branched structure forms a dense canopy that adds to the sheltered habitat already provided among the ballast stones.  Sea squirts are also abundant on the mounds, particularly the large pink species Ascidia mentula, distinguished by the white spots around the lip of its inlet siphon. Numerous other species were present around and among the ballast stones, including the sea urchin (Echinus esculentus), green crabs (Carcinus maenus) and a variety of small juvenile fishes.

Thanks to Sula Diving. ORCA staff, Paul Sharman, Senior Projects Manager and Sandra Henry, Marine Archaeologist, are leading the project.


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Pictish Carved Stone Discovered in Orkney Cliff

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The Pictish Cross Slab. Photo by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark

It has to be said that Orkney is an amazing place to study archaeology. It seems that every month, news of another discovery lands on my desk.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) with support from Historic Environment Scotland complete a delicate rescue mission to recover a rare Pictish Carved Stone from an eroding cliff face in East Orkney.

Erosion by the stormy sea surrounding Orkney is a tangible threat to coastal archaeological sites. This situation is brought home especially during the winter months when high tides and powerful winds combine to batter the coastline of these beautiful islands. However, sometimes these same waves, can reveal unique and important finds that have been lost to view for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Following one of these storms, Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, an archaeologist based in Orkney, was examining an area of the East Mainland coast that had been particularly hit during a south westerly gale and discovered something amazing – a stone that had been unearthed by the sea, projecting precariously out of the soft, cliff face. This stone, on closer examination, was different to the other rocks at the site – it had obviously been worked and designs were visible and clearly ancient.

A dragon motif tantalizingly peered out from the emerging stone slab and pointed to a possible Pictish (3rd-8th centuries AD) origin, but further examination was difficult due to the location. This carved stone was clearly significant and needed to be quickly recovered before the next forecast storms that were due to hit the following weekend.

The race was on. Nick Card, Senior Projects Manager at ORCA (University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute), contacted Historic Environment Scotland, who realizing the significance of the find offered funding support to investigate, remove and conserve the precious object.

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The reverse side of the slab. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute.

When the carved stone was carefully lifted, the significance of the find was clear – a Pictish cross slab, probably dating from the enigmatic 8th Century, emerged as the soft sand fell away from the front face. The exquisite design had been weathered, but an intricately carved cross flanked by the dragon or beast was clear to see. On the reverse side another Pictish beast design stared out from the stone face – beak open grasping what looked like the remains of a staff.

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Sean and Dave excavating the stone. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute.

Nick Card takes up the story,”Carved Pictish Type 2 Stones are rare across Scotland with only 2 of this type having been discovered in Orkney. This is therefore a significant find and allows us to examine a piece of art from a period when Orkney society was beginning to embrace Christianity. Now that the piece is recorded and removed from site, we can concentrate on conserving the delicate stone carving and perhaps re-evaluate the site itself.”

“The Orcadian coastline is an extremely dynamic environment, and it was clear that we needed to act quickly” says Dr Kirsty Owen, HES Senior Archaeology Manager. Because the stone has been properly excavated, we have a better chance of understanding how it relates to the development of the site.”

The excavation of the Pictish stone was undertaken with funding from the Historic Environment Scotland Archaeology Programme, which is primarily intended to rescue archaeological information in the face of unavoidable threats.

The stone is now removed from the site and is scheduled for conservation and possible display at a future date. The site may be re-evaluated with funding being sought for further work.

3D model link below. Thanks to Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

Many thanks must also be extended to the landowner.

Great Turnout for Community Building Survey

There was a great turnout for the community archaeology event held today in Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney. Even the fabled Orkney sunshine made an appearance to add to the experience!

This is one of a series of archaeology events which offers volunteers the opportunity to learn basic archaeological skills such as building recording.

Volunteers from as far afield as Yorkshire listened to a short introduction by Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, as he outlined the days programme and then were treated to a guided walk through the back gardens of the village by several of the residents.

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The old Medieval right of way

The old medieval right of way was quickly identified running along the back of a small terrace of houses together with numerous cut and shaped stones which were clearly robbed from the Palace. Older residents who could remember the village in the 1930’s added to the narrative and answered some of the more perplexing questions concerning details of buildings.

The day ended with the volunteers identifying the medieval stones present in the fabric of the village buildings and walls – including the identification of 6 robbed out key stones – and recording them using archaeological techniques.

The next archaeological event is planned for the 14th October – involving making a 3D model of the Birsay Whalebone near Skipi Geo. More details will be published on the blog closer to the event.

A video clip showing the location of Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney.


The event is supported by Orkney Islands Council and The Birsay Heritage Trust

Intriguing Structure Found in Trench T

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Trench T seen from South East

It is a given in archaeology, that the most perplexing finds are unearthed in the final stages of a dig. So, as the dig at Ness of Brodgar in Orkney started the final week, some of the most intriguing finds of the season started to be unearthed in a trench which goes under the title of ‘Trench T’.

This area of the site is not open to the public, but is part of a research programme to discover what lies beneath the largest Neolithic midden yet discovered in north Scotland.

The Ness of Brodgar site itself is no stranger to discoveries, with human remains, possible Neolithic seaweed, rock art and of course the structures themselves giving archaeologists many things to think about Neolithic society in the last few weeks. However, nothing prepared the site director Nick Card and supervisor Ben Chan for the discovery made this week in Trench T.

As digging progressed, the archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute became more and more excited. A structure unlike any other discovered so far at the Ness was emerging from the midden. It was huge being nearly 10 metres wide internally and of unknown length as it disappeared out of the trench, but the construction – the way it was built – seemed to be unique. Although the outer wall faces were constructed of fine, large masonry the inner wall faces were much rougher. However, these inner faces would have been hidden behind upright orthostats ‘cladding’ the interior. More amazing was the size of large prone orthostats that helped support the upright slabs and pinned them in place against the inner wall faces. The only one that has been fully exposed is over 4 metres in length, but there are others, only partially revealed that could be longer!

The excitement intensified as the archaeologists realised that this structure was probably built before the main structures present on the site and that it had been deliberately buried by the huge midden.

The mystery deepened as more questions were asked. Where do these huge stones originate? They have rounded edges that suggest they were weathered or worked in the same way that some of the standing stones at Stenness appear to be. They are smaller than the surviving nearby Watch Stone, but road widening in the 1920’s unearthed evidence for a twin for the Watch Stone. Could these two stones have been part of another stone circle that was mainly dismantled?

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Close up of the orthostats in Trench T

Nick Card Site Director suggests, “The sheer size and scale of the stones unearthed are unprecedented on this site. The way the stones are built into the construction is also unique to the Ness. This all suggests that they may have been re-used and taken from elsewhere. Perhaps they may be part of a stone circle that pre-dates the main Ness site. It is all a bit of mystery and we won’t know more until we do more work.”

Other questions also remain unanswered for the moment. Was this structure roofed? If so then how was such a space spanned. Was this indeed, the first building on the site? What was it used for? Was it a chambered tomb? In any event it was clearly a special structure to the people who built it, but why was it covered in the largest Neolithic rubbish dump in Scotland?

As the digging season comes to a close it is a fact that these questions will only be answered through more research and more hard work next year.


Many thanks are due to James Robertson at http://orkneyskycam.co.uk/ who completed the drone photography and video work for free.

New Research – Trading Identities & Viking Horse Burials in Scotland

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Aerial photograph of Sands of Gill and Pierowall village, Westray, Orkney

New research by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute PhD student Siobhan Cooke, explores the use of animals, particularly horses, in Viking funerary rituals across Scotland. And how these rituals were used to help develop a cultural identity in the rapidly expanding Viking realm.

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Distribution map of pagan Viking burials containing horse remains

There are over 130 known Viking pagan burials in Scotland. Approximately seven per cent of the pagan Viking graves known in Scotland contained horse remains. This research presents a brief summary of the traditional interpretations of horse remains in burials of this period and presents an alternative interpretation of these remains with particular reference to the Viking cemetery at Pierowall, Westray, Orkney Islands which is dated c. AD 850–950.

It is argued that the act of horse deposition at Pierowall should be understood in the wider social context of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Scottish Islands during the initial period of west-ward expansion and social and political upheaval. It is in this context that the act of horse burial performed a specific communication function which served to create and strengthen cultural allegiances with trading groups travelling from the Scandinavian Peninsula towards the western seaboard of Scotland, and into the Irish Sea.

Identities are fluid; rather than seeing identity as something people are
born with, it is now being considered as an aspect of social relations, something that is
learnt, that is adaptable and that can change over time depending on the ways and contexts
in which people interact (Jones 1997;2000; Lucy 2005: 86–87). It is through identity
that we perceive ourselves, and how others see us, as belonging to a particular group
and not another and being part of a group involves active engagement (Diaz Andreu &
Lucy 2005: 2). Animals can also be actors in social relationships, playing an active role in
the depiction of identity.

The full research paper can be downloaded from Trading Identities: Trading Identities Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland. A Pierowall Perspective