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


 

Marine Archaeology Course, Orkney

Remote Sensing Survey

Nautical Archaeology Society MAC Introduction to Side Scan Sonar Survey course. Orkney. Scotland.

  • 2 day course
  • 24th and 25th September 2016
  • Stromness, Orkney
  • Cost £249

This two day course is organised by ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology) and provides an overview of Side Scan Sonar surveying and the application of remote sensing in archaeological surveys.

Students will gain practical experience of designing, completing and interpreting Side Scan Sonar surveys in one of the most exciting marine archaeology environments in the UK. Click through to the Scapa Flow Historic Wreck website for details of the wrecks present around Orkney’s coastline.

This course is suitable for professionals wishing to undertake continuing professional development or for those interested in the remote sensing aspect of marine archaeology.

For more information or to book your place on the course, contact Sandra Henry studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or ring 01856 569225

 

HMS Hampshire Initial ROV Images

Initial images from the ROV Survey of the HMS Hampshire wreck site. 25th May 2016

HMS Hampshire sank on the 5th June 1916 when she struck a mine laid by German U-Boat U75. The wreck is located in approximately 60 metres of water off the west coast of Orkney and sank while en-route to Archangel in Russia. She was transporting Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, to a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II.

The first archaeological condition assessment and recording of the wreck and surrounding seabed was recently undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute working in partnership with Seatronics – an Acteon Company, Teledyne RESON, Roving Eye Enterprises Ltd and Triscom Marine Ltd. This work offers new information and data concerning the wreck and provides insights into the mine damage at the bow of the vessel, the impacts of salvage activities on the wreck, and the natural deterioration caused by the marine environment.

The Roving Eye Enterprises ROV survey confirmed previous findings that HMS Hampshire capsized as she sank and lies with an upturned hull on the seabed in approximately 60m of water. The superstructure itself is compressed and is buried in the soft silt of the seabed. The hull is damaged in places throughout the length of the vessel, exposing various elements of the interior, including torpedo tubes and machinery. Guns from the ship’s secondary armament were also identified on the surrounding seabed at a distance of up to 30m from the main body of the wreck. The location of these breech loading 6-inch MK VII guns may be related to the sinking event or salvage activity on the wreck.

Sandra Henry, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute said that “This remote survey has provided many new insights into the sinking and wreck of the HMS Hampshire. Ongoing work will continue to develop our knowledge base, revealing new information as we continue to gather and process data, creating a record of the Hampshire in 2016”

Keith Bichan of Roving Eye Enterprises Ltd commented that, “It was a real privilege to be involved with this project. I am an Orcadian who has had had an ROV business in Orkney for nearly 20 years and the HMS Hampshire was a wreck I always wanted to visit, due to its importance to First World War history, and the mystery and controversy that still surrounds it.”

Further survey work using the Seatronics Predator ROV is in the planning stage.

This project has received funding and sponsorship from Interface, Orkney Islands Council and NorthLink Ferries.

Permission to undertake this remote survey was granted under licence by the MOD

For further information

Sean Page (Marketing Officer, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute). Tel: 01856 569229 e-mail sean.page@uhi.ac.uk

Sandra Henry (Marine Archaeologist, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute) Tel : 01856 569223 e-mail sandra.henry@uhi.ac.uk