A Summer of Archaeology in Rousay

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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.

Chrissie and her test pit containing Norse midden

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.

Ornate moulded red sandstone

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.

Planning the remains of the barn in Trench 2

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.

Visitors!

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.

        

 

Project Update: Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre, Land and Sea

20170613_164533_LRWork at Skaill farmstead, Westness, Rousay, got underway last week with some building survey, walkover survey and a workshop with the Rousay Community School.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were joined by the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) survey team to record the remains of the buildings at Skaill farmstead and The Wirk (Norse tower). This is the first phase of the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present project – a summer of activities and reaearch.

20170613_162201_LRThe HES team produced accurate scaled drawings of the buildings (plans and sections) using a plane table and alidade – a basic but very effective survey method which results in highly accurate scale drawings. At Skaill farmstead, these included features such as the fireplaces, doorways, blocking, alcoves and shelves allowing the different phases of construction to be identified. The house was extended four times to the north as the farm expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the barn, the beautiful corn drying kiln was recorded along with a flue, a grain store, winnowing doors and vents. A dairy was identified at the northern end of the house.

Walkover survey was started around the farmstead with the help of volunteers. Features such as the stone walled enclosures, and earthworks such as banks and terraces were recorded. These sites were mapped with a handheld GPS and help to place the farm buildings into a wider context. An earlier phase of enclosure, perhaps and early hill dyke, was walked on the steep slope above the road.

Ten pupils from the Rousay Community School had a day of activities during the week. This started with a class-based workshop about what archaeologists do, how we know where to look, what we find and what this can tell us. They looked at finds and thought about what you might expect to find below the ground, especially in a farm mound such as that at Skaill, and above the ground in terms of built heritage.

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The class then visited Skaill farmstead and after a picnic lunch found out about building recording and photography from the HES team. Pupils traced from the geophysics plot of the farm and we looked at what we could see on the ground. They finished by drawing their own plans of the farm buildings. The weather was kind and a good day was had by all.

We look forward to starting the excavations at Skaill and Swandro next month!

The project has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant and additional funding from the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund.

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Dates for the diary:

  • 10-23 July: Excavations at Skaill farm. Test pit weekend/open days 22-23 July. Volunteers and visitors welcome.
  • 3-28 July: Excavations at Swandro coastally eroding site. details available soon.

Volunteers welcome! Please get in touch if you want to take part in the fieldwork at Skaill.

Contact The Archaeology Institute for details on how to take part: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk tel: 01856 569225


 

Walking Archaeological Talk, Hoy, 17th June

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To celebrate the time Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Max) lived in Hoy, Dan Lee, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, will be completing a ‘Walking Talk’ to ‘Max’s’ former croft at Rackwick.

  • Walk starts: Moaness Pier, Hoy
  • Time: 10am
  • Date: 17 June 2017
  • Bus back from Rackwick to Hoy Kirk to see the exhibition celebrating Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ time in Rackwick
  • Take the Ferry from Stromness at 9.30am, returning on the 6.30pm from Moaness Pier

With the music of Max in mind, the walk will explore the landscape of Hoy, taking in the archaeology, heritage and folklore through the valley. Recent archaeological surveys have recorded numerous sites and points of interest. The walk is approximately five miles in length and can be difficult in parts – especially if the weather has been wet. Bring a packed lunch as there are no shops at Rackwick.

Starting at 10 am on 17th June, the walk will finish above Bunnertoon, Max’s home during his most prolific years, with a view across the township.

Walkers will have ample time to explore the Hoy Max exhibition that examines how the island and its people shaped the composer’s life and music and how Max contributed to the small island community.

Contact hoyheritage@btinternet.com to book your place.

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Rackwick Bay, Hoy

Hoy Kirk Heitage CentreOrkney Ferries run a daily foot passenger service from Stromness to Moaness, Hoy. There is a cafe at Moaness and the exhibition at Hoy Kirk is 15 minutes walk from the pier.

With thanks to Hoy Kirk Heritage Centre. For more information on Hoy, the exhibition and the St Magnus Festival events held on the island check out their website.

When is a cist, not a cist?

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Some of the most significant finds in archaeology are not found by trained archaeologists, but by members of the public.

We know that there is so much archaeology to find on Orkney and one of the most exciting elements of being involved with the University of the Highlands and Archaeology Institute is taking a call from a member of the public who has spotted something interesting in a field, on the beach or eroding out of a shoreline.

And so, when Julie Gibson (County Archaeologist for Orkney) took a call saying that someone had identified a possible cist eroding out of the shoreline, we set off with ranging poles, trowel, camera, photograph, map and a set of sturdy boots to investigate.

DSC_0017The weather was perfect with the sun breaking through spring clouds and even Scapa Flow was mirror flat as we searched for the site. The area was not too distant from an identified early settlement site and a ship beaching point and so we were optimistic that perhaps the find was significant.

We soon identified the place from the description, map references and photograph and to all intents and purposes, it certainly did look like a burial cist – upright stones, set within peat in a rectangular shape. The feature was situated on the foreshore of Scapa Flow and was regularly inundated with water and so it could be a feature eroding out of the shoreline – as so much archaeology is so doing in Orkney.

Following a more detailed investigation of the area, it soon became evident that the feature was, in fact, a peculiar geological feature and not a cist as first suspected. But it could have been and it could have been an indicator of another important archaeological discovery in Orkney.

Many thanks to those people who take the time and effort to contact us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute when they come across finds and features in the landscape. Who knows, the next time the phone rings it could well be another Ness of Brodgar!

Exciting New Project for Stromness-Listening to the Piers

Stromness Piers_Credit Diana Leslie

Stories, Stones and Bones: Listening to the Piers – Exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers.

The Stromness Museum celebrates £9700.00 Heritage Lottery Fund grant as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017

IMG_1907The Orkney Natural History Society Museum, Stromness, has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant. This exciting project, Listening to the Piers – Exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers is led by Stromness Museum in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. The programme involves organising arts and science workshops for the public and local schools and is aimed at exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers. This project is part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

The Stromness Museum is teaming up with the UHI Archaeology Institute, local artists, and marine scientists from the International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT) Orkney Campus to give the local community a chance to learn about life on and around the town’s stone-built piers, past and present. The events form part of the ‘Per Mare’ during 2017 when Stromness celebrates the 200 year anniversary of becoming a Burgh of Barony. The project will provide the opportunity for all ages of the community to explore different ways of seeing and interpreting the piers using innovative science and arts workshops held on a ‘Piers Day’ (Tuesday 25th July) during the Per Mare week (24-30th July).

The project team will work with local school children and residents to record stories,IMG_1894 memories and the history of the piers during May and June. Workshops on Piers Day will include archaeological test pit excavation on the town beaches to explore what the town threw away, sea life in the piers and intertidal zone, drawing (5-minute sketches), photography (artefacts and sea life) and time-lapse filming. Participants will learn new science and arts-based skills and help create new insights into the piers. These events are free and open to all ages.

The project will culminate in a temporary exhibition this autumn at the Stromness Museum, including artefacts, drawings, photographs and a new listening post with stories collected during the sound recording workshops.

Commenting on the award, Janette Park (Honorary Curator) said: “The museum is delighted to be able to run such a ground breaking project during such an important year as the 200th anniversary of Stromness becoming a Burgh of Barony. The piers of Stromness are a hugely important part of the shared community history of the town. The opportunity to explore and document the piers for the future will be a lasting legacy.”

Dan Lee (Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, UHI Archaeology Institute) added: “We are really looking forward to exploring these iconic piers and the history of Stromness with such exciting arts/science workshops; combined they will help us all learn about the piers and understand them in new ways”.

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Credits: Stromness Piers artwork: Diana Leslie, Photographs: UHI Archaeology.


Stories, Stones and Bones is designed for any not-for-profit group wanting to engage more people with the heritage and take part in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Stories, Stones and Bones grants between £3,000 and £10,000 are available to groups who want to discover their local heritage. Projects can cover a wide spectrum of subject matter from exploring local archaeology and a community’s cultures and traditions to identifying and recording local wildlife and protecting the surrounding environment to managing and training volunteers and holding festivals and events to commemorate the past.

The Stromness Museum is an independent museum maintained and managed by a committee of volunteers elected from the members of the Orkney Natural History Society Museum SCIO. The Stromness Museum exists to promote natural science, to preserve local history and to offer an enjoyable educational and informative experience to as large a range of people as possible. The museum contains natural and cultural history with galleries focussing upon Canada and the Arctic, maritime history and models, natural history, wartime Orkney and ethnographic material.

See their website for more information: http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/stromnessmuseum/index.asp


Archaeological Building Survey Opportunity, Kirkwall

Rear 10 Victoria Street 2

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be completing a further Archaeological Building Survey Workshop on Friday 19th and Saturday 20th May 2017 (10am – 3pm).

This continues on from the work completed at Parliament Square in April and the town centre excavations, surveys and gardens digs last year in the Kirkwall THI Archaeology Programme. The workshop will include basic training in building survey techniques, mapping, photography and a trip to the archives.

The work will commence in the court yard to the rear of Finns former shop (10-12 Victoria Street), opposite RBS bank. Access is through the gate to the right of Spence’s Newsagents. The day will include training in scale drawing, photography, written records and how to look at buildings archaeologically. The building itself contains large amounts of re-used medieval stone.

Further workshops will also be recording the Old Castle on Main Street the following weekend (26-27 May, with some laser scanning the day after on the 28th).

For further information on the project see our previous blog post.

If you would like to take part in these free archaeology workshops then please contact Dan Lee on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk


Swartigill Friday

Day Five 2The Swartigill dig is a community dig. This means that local people are involved at all stages of the process and local volunteers receive basic training in archaeological methods and help with the actual dig.

Today, local school children joined us in the field. As part of a wider school project, they were shown the features that had been discovered so far and then helped with the dig itself…discovering a little about the people who worked and lived on the site nearly two thousand years ago.

Rick Barton takes up the story….

“Yesterday (Thursday), we made a great deal of progress. The weather was kind and the sun even came out for a few hours. We have started removing rubble infill from the structure at the north end of the trench (which I’ve started calling Structure A).

Day FiveThe shape is starting to appear with the revetment wall on the north-west side continuing to curve slightly to the south to meet up with the big boulders that we saw just after stripping. Bobby recovered a single fragment of pottery, a rim shed, from that rubble deposit.

Volunteers are taking down the mineralised soil overlaying the rubble to the south of Structure A and it seems to be fairly sterile. Starting to reveal more wall lines or possible revetments within the centre of the trench, running on an east-west alignment.

Meanwhile, in the south-east corner, we have boxed out a sondage to investigate the stonework poking through the subsoil, where it appears to match the anomaly on the geophysics. This stonework is well built from substantial blocks, forming a wall on a roughly north-south alignment with rubble spread to the east in the trench.

There is a very black layer forming between some of the rubble, but it doesn’t seem to be organic. Looks like either very degraded stone (that black material that seems to turn to dust) or a scene of manganese panning (though I’ve never seen it so consistent).”

Dr Scott Timpany is arriving tonight and will be taking peat and soil samples from around the site to help determine the form of the local landscape in the Iron Age period.


The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Written by Rick Barton 2017. Photographs by Robert Friel.