The Cairns Day One 2018

Part of the team forms a human chain to move tyres out of the trench
Part of the team forms a human chain to move tyres out of the trench

Welcome back everyone to the daily blog for The Cairns excavations from me, Martin Carruthers the site director!

It’s absolutely fantastic to back on site and be able to share our findings with you once more. Each day of the project we’ll be bringing you updates and perspectives from different members of the team.

We welcome back many familiar faces to take part once again in the project and we also say hello to an equal number of new faces to the site. Altogether the team already shows great promise in terms of good humour and commitment, necessary qualities in these very opening stages of the work, as well as beyond.

In the broch
In the broch

Today was the first day of the new season, and although a little advance party of us took a lot of the covers off the trench last week we nevertheless had a lot more tidying up of the site to do today with the big team. After site introduction and the obligatory health and safety briefings, it was onwards to moving the tyres out of the fenced area of the site and gathering up weathered fragments of plastic to generally neaten up things.

Cleaning trench area Q
Cleaning trench area Q

Early in the afternoon we were able to actually start the job of cleaning the surface of the trench bringing it up to good condition for the start of excavation proper. The wonderful thing is that even in the midst of this house-keeping activity we made some lovely finds! Whilst cleaning up in the broch, Therese found a lovely little piece of worked bone, a pierced and shaped antler mount of some kind.

Meanwhile, over in Bobby’s area, that’s the belt of settlement lying to the North of the broch (Trench area Q) the clean-up brought to light another beautiful antler mount, this time most of a handle for a large blade. You can clearly see the perforations for rivets that would have held this antler plate in place on the tang of an iron blade, probably a chunky knife. This is all quite unbelievably exciting for day one and essentially a clean-up job!

Over in this year’s trench extension on the Southern side of the site the work to clean over the newly revealed deposits was also going well. It looks very much like here we have the upper fills of the great ditch that encircles the broch period settlement. The deposits today were gratifyingly full of animal bone, shell, and pieces of pottery, boding well for the richness of these ditch-fills.

Looking down the entrance of the broch into the interior where the covers where being removed
Looking down the entrance to the broch into the interior where the covers are being removed

Tomorrow, we’ll press on with the site cleaning and then really start to get our teeth into the deposits and features. We’ll keep you posted on how we get on!

Funded Places Available – MSc Archaeological Practice


The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is offering a limited number of funded places on the MSc Archaeological Practice course.

The MSc Archaeological Practice is a world leading archaeology course which equips you with the tools for work in the real world. Key practical skills are emphasised using the rich archaeological resource of Orkney as your research ‘laboratory’.

Core modules will develop your practical skills in a suite of archaeological techniques including project management, excavation, non-intrusive field archaeology, environmental archaeology and post-excavation analysis. You will gain additional vocational experience through our professional placement enabling you to take full advantage of employment opportunities.

  • Study in the outstanding archaeological landscape of Orkney
  • Optional modules allow you to develop professional skills in a range of areas including archaeobotany, archaeozoology, geoarchaeology, survey & geophysics,
    digital recording of archaeological materials and sites
  • A 3 month professional placement offers the opportunity to further develop your professional skills in a chosen area(s)
  • The course is flexible to fit in with your personal and professional life

A limited number of places with full tuition fee support are available for Scottish-domiciled/EU students, studying full time, on the MSc Archaeological Practice starting in
September 2018. Eligible students must live in Highlands and Islands, including Moray, Perth and Kinross for the period of their studies.

Full details on the course, funding and how to apply see our website  or drop us a line at



Harvesting Seaweed- Fertilised Bere Barley – Experimental Research Reaps First Results

Field trial

Magdalena Blanz, PhD Student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is progressing well with her research into Seaweed as Food and Fodder in the North Atlantic Islands: past, present and future opportunities.

For her PhD, Magdalena is investigating the importance of seaweed use in the past, and how traditional use of seaweed can inform modern-day practices. In particular, she is researching how the chemical composition of skeletal remains changes with the consumption of seaweed, to allow the identification of past seaweed consumption.

“After starting my reading for the PhD, I realised that distinguishing between the use of seaweed as animal food and the use of seaweed-fertilised terrestrial plants would be important, and might not be straightforward to do chemically, which is why we did the field trial”, Magdalena describes.

Back in May 2017, Magdalena commenced a field trial in partnership with Orkney College Agronomy Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee – planting bere barley and applying seaweed as a fertiliser in a controlled experiment (see earlier blog post here).

far right is not fertilised
Far right sample of Bere was not fertilised

The bere from the field trial has now been harvested and first results indicate that fertilisation with seaweed worked well: Seaweed-fertilisation doubled the yield of bere barley compared to unfertilised plots. Magdalena is now moving onto the second phase of her research: Identifying the differences in chemical composition caused by fertilisation with seaweed.

Magdalena continues: “If there is a significant difference, the question is if this difference will also affect the chemical composition of the skeletal remains of humans and animals that consume seaweed-fertilised crops, and if there is a potential of finding such differences in archaeological charred cereal remains.”

Magdalena in the field in front of UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI

Many thanks to Dr Peter Martin Orkney, Dr Burkart Dieterich and John Wishart from the Orkney College Agronomy Institute. Magdalena’s supervisors are Dr Ingrid Mainland (UHI Archaeology Institute), Dr Mark Taggart (UHI), Dr Philippa Ascough (SUERC) and Prof Feldmann (University of Aberdeen), and she can be contacted at

If you are interested in pursuing research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, contact Mary Connolly or see our website.

This research was funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme.


Fascinating Finds from The Cairns

Seal Tooth

Enigmatic finds continue to emerge from The Cairns during post-excavation work being carried out by Kevin Kerr – one of our MSc students from 2016.

The picture above shows a seal tooth that was unearthed last summer at The Cairns. It was found in the metal working area that may post-date the broch.

Part of the tooth is highly polished and, despite having been buried for nearly 2000 years, still glistens when held up to the light. To add to the enigma, there is also slight wear on one side which could have resulted from its use as a tool or perhaps it is an item of discarded jewellery?

It is also interesting to note that the wide bay and beach that The Cairns overlooks is still used by seals who regularly snooze on the rocks and sand at the base of the cliff. It is also the site where seal cubs are born and, in autumn, Windwick Bay echoes to the haunting sound of seals calling to their new offspring.

IMG_3000 - Copy
A seal relaxing in Windwick Bay – just below The Cairns site.

Kevin Kerr (one of our MSc students from 2017) has the monumental task of recording and cataloguing the hundreds of finds unearthed at The Cairns. He can be found most days, when not working elsewhere, entering data, surrounded by boxes of artefacts stacked in the Finds Rooms at the Institute. While discussing some of the finer points of broch life with Martin Carruthers, Kevin showed me a further small find that on the face of it looked like many other finds unearthed at The Cairns, until two tiny crosses were pointed out. Marks that had obviously been scratched into the bone by a very sharp blade.

They were regular and so cannot be butchery marks, but what was their use? Why did one the of inhabitants of The Cairns broch scratch two tiny regular crosses into a broken animal bone? Do they have significance? Are they just a mark of someone’s boredom? Were they used for counting and recording? I guess we will never know….but the object does represent another reminder of the small things that made up the life of the people living in the broch.

Close up X bone
Two tiny marks scratched into an animal bone

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

The Cairns Whalebone-the inside story

IMG_3822Post-excavation work is progressing well on the whalebone vessel unearthed at The Cairns late last year.

The vessel not only contained a human jawbone, but also animal bones, remains of ceramic pots and stone tools.

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MLitt student, Karen Kennedy, is working with Dr Ingrid Mainland (Programme Leader for MLitt Archaeological IMG_3828Studies), examining, recording and cataloguing the animal bone fragments as part of her research into ‘Feasting in the Iron Age’.

Initial findings suggest that neonatal lamb, calf and pig bones were deposited within and around the huge whalebone container in addition to fragments of broken pottery and stone tools. This indicates that the inhabitants of the broch took part in a final feast and ceremony to close the structure down following hundreds of years of occupation.

Post-excavation work on the whalebone is almost complete. The object has been carefully cleaned and emptied of all contents. This has enabled a closer examination of the huge find and gives us an insight into the processes involved in the making of this impressive piece. The transverse processes had clearly been hacked off with a sharp blade, but when examined closer, small knife marks are clearly visible around the rim and the whole of the interior.

The Iron Age inhabitants of The Cairns broch seemed to have a liking for whalebone. This object forms part of a growing collection of whalebone objects emerging from the site. Over 60 whalebone objects have been unearthed in the 2016 season alone.

Karen’s work will not only add to our understanding of the rituals involved at The Cairns but on a personal level, will also enhance her career prospects as she learns new techniques involved in front line archaeological research.

Marks on the whalebone vessel rim.

More details concerning our research at The Cairns will be discussed at ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held in Kirkwall between 14th and 17th September 2017. For more information about our conference, contact or see our conference website.

Call for papers poster outlining the themes

Recognising the demands of the workplace – MSc Archaeological Practice

Orkney 2014, Ness of Brodgar dig visit

There is an ongoing conversation amongst archaeologists, infrastructure developers and government that is increasingly recognising a number of issues concerning archaeology in the UK.

The most salient issue can be seen as a real opportunity for many rather than an issue….there are not enough archaeologists in the UK to support the massive infrastructure projects which will be coming online in the next few years – HS2 in England and the A9 development in Scotland.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has recognised this issue and it has to be said that the interest in both our postgraduate and undergraduate courses is high and that our courses can enhance a student’s prospects in the jobs market.

postgrad-leaflet4-2016The other thread in this conversation involves students preparation for the real world of commercial archaeology; that students do not possess the skills required for the rigours of archaeology in the working environment. Perhaps this is unfair as I well remember the same argument doing the rounds when I graduated in the early 1980’s – I certainly required a period of transition from student life to work life. But I was expected to hit the ground running by my employers with little time to adjust to a new city and a new way of life…although this was in advertising rather than archaeology!!!!

Recognising both the opportunities and the challenges that the rapidly changing commercial archaeology work environment now demands, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have developed their MSc Archaeological Practice to include a work placement in a real-world environment where students are introduced to the pressures and expectations of a commercial archaeology, council archaeology, education or museum organisation.

The Institute have developed links with commercial and academic partners to offer MSc students the opportunity to develop work-based skills that add to their overall prospects for employment. Furthermore, students, with support and coaching, are expected to contribute to the day to day research and commercial archaeology programmes and so gain the experience necessary to enhance their employability.

The MSc Archaeological Practice programme for 2016 was a great success for the students.Students were given the opportunity to develop professional skills in a commercial or real world work environment – whether that was organising the excavation of test pits in a collaborative outreach project, lab work for a commercial archaeology company, being appointed as the Small Finds Officer on a major excavation or curating in a museum.

img_0457Each placement was evaluated and every organisation was requested to return a full report and comment on their students. Suffice to say that every student received a glowing report and some employers have asked if there are students available for 2017!

But what is it like day to day….what is the MSc Archaeological Practice course like in the field. We asked Sorcha Kirker, who studied with us last year, and on a January day at The Cairns excavation site, she bravely answered my questions in a Force 9 gale.

The Institute is affiliated with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

To apply for a Masters Degree click on the following links, or contact us for an informal chat on 01856 569225 or email


I was totally immersed in archaeology from day one in one of the most exciting places to study the subject- Orkney. The course gave me the confidence to develop my own research ideas and through the work placement module improve my professional skills and expand my links with commercial organisations. Kevin Kerr MSc Archaeological Practice student

The placement has shown me how I can use the skills I gained on my Masters course in a real work-place. I have really enjoyed working with Orkney Museum on this project and I must thank them for everything they have done. The placement has also strengthened my interest in following a museum career. Sorcha Kirker, MLitt Archaeological Studies

Whale Tooth and Metal Working at The Cairns

img_0430As each day passes, post-excavation work at The Cairns broch site in South Ronaldsay provides us with more clues concerning the working lives of the people who lived there two thousand years ago.

Jim Bright is one of our Masters students working with some of the objects unearthed at the site. He is investigating the Iron Age landscape in Orkney and has created 3D images of objects found at the site for his ongoing research. One of the fascinating objects he is working on was found during last year’s excavation…..a 6cm long whale tooth.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, sheds light on the object and the working life of the broch….

“The whale tooth was found in a context associated with metalworking in one of the trenches at The Cairns. Whale-tooth is fairly often used in the production of quite complex composite items during the Iron Age, such as pommels or hilt guards for iron blades like cairns-2016-schematic-page-001swords and knives. It’s possible that this was such a composite part of that kind of object, but any kind of diagnostic feature is missing due to the breakage pattern. It might have been part of a composite object that’s been stripped down for recycling the metal and the whale tooth was discarded, or it may have been destined for such an object but broke before it could be finished. A third possibility is that it was intentionally deposited as part of the ending of the metalworking phase in Trench M.”

You can view the 3d model by clicking the link below:


Becoming a Digital Coppersmith


Iron Age Pin Cast for the First Time in Two Thousand Years. Research student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute uses 21st Century technology to unlock the secrets of Iron Age jewellery.

 This summer has been an exciting season for the archaeologists working at The Cairns archaeological site on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. For the first time in two thousand years the full extent of an Iron Age broch has been unearthed and further exciting insights into the people who lived there have been discovered.

Initial evidence pointing to metal working on the site was confirmed when around 60 clay mould fragments used for casting bronze jewellery were discovered, scattered in a matrix of rubble in Trench M over a five to six metre area. These objects dated from the First Century to the Third Century AD and were present in a roughly made structure that was used only briefly – judging by the thin layer of deposit present in the trench. These objects were extremely fragile, but after cleaning, it was clear that a negative image of a delicate, ring headed pin was present in the clay of one mould.

How wonderful would it be if we could re-create this Iron Age pin? To see it as the people who lived in the broch two thousand years ago would have seen it? To experiment and use it as those people would have used it? But further, to use the object in research and teaching, knowing that it was cast from an original mould? But there was a problem…the moulds were too delicate to use in any metal working process.

However, following much discussion, Ben Price – a postgraduate student studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute – decided to accept the challenge and use his expertise in computer modelling to re-create the pin in bronze; the original metal used to create these objects. After further discussion and guidance from Martin Carruthers, Master Programme Leader, Ben decided to use the opportunity to make the re-creation of the pin the subject of his Masters Degree dissertation and so use the research to feed back into the teaching at The Archaeology Institute – a particular strength of The Institute.

normal-wholeUsing 21st Century 3D rendering technology, Ben photographed and scanned the original Iron Age clay moulds into a computer and created a digital 3D image on the screen. This in itself was exciting as the delicate details of the projecting ring headed pin could be clearly seen emerging from the screen. A 3D model of the resultant pin was created on screen by using the detailed surfaces of the moulds.

The pin model was then sent off to be 3D printed in wax and then used to cast in bronze using the lost wax method.

Archaeologists are used to examining metal objects that have been in the ground for thousands of years, but this process gave archaeologists a view that would have only been available to the original pin maker.

No-one was prepared for the wonderful object that emerged from the casting process. It was an object of wonder, and left everyone speechless for a few moments. It was bright and heavy and extremely tactile. It was an object that would obviously have been treasured and would have been striking as a piece of jewellery.

Martin Carruthers, Masters Degree Programme Leader, said, “This process gives us a unique and exciting insight into the objects that the people of The Cairns actually experienced and used over two thousand years ago. You can see the imperfections and the work involved and it also proves that moulds were made using an object. The process also opens up many possibilities in terms of experimental archaeology in addition to educating the public at large. The object also in a way opens up the possibility that the Iron Age was full of colour and bright objects that were treasured….perhaps they were not so dissimilar to people of today!”


Masters Students Talk about their Professional Placement Experience

One of the aspects of the Masters course at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute that stands out for students is the opportunity to gain a professional placement in a real world, real work environment.

Each student studying for a Masters qualification is given the opportunity to gain professional placement experience – either within the University of the Highlands and Islands, ORCA or an alternative outside organisation.

Working on the Swandro Community dig

The programme ensures that the students are placed in roles which give them both responsibility and experience in areas that lie outside their usual academic studies – whether that is teaching children about archaeology on a community project or being in charge of small finds on a large scale archaeological dig. They become a valuable member of the team in the organisation and have the opportunity to incorporate their recently learned skills into the work methods of the organisation in which they were placed.

Just to give you a flavour of the sectors that our students experienced, they gained placements in the following:

  • Andy – Ness of Brodgar Dig
  • Sorcha – Kirkwall Museum
  • Freya – Highland HER and Historic Environment Team
  • Emma – Archaeobotany analysis at ORCA
  • Therese – Stirling Council
  • Steve – AOC Archaeology
  • Jasmin – The Cairns Dig
  • Kevin – Small Finds Supervisor at The Cairns Dig
  • Luke – ORCA Outreach and Community Projects and Marketing

Sorcha Kirker was given the responsibility of creating an exhibition as part of her curatorial duties at Kirkwall Museum- including liaising with the various promotional agencies involved with the museum. This exhibition presented the archaeology of The Cairns dig in a different light….including the “Archaeology of the Archaeologists”, the view from the diggers and presenting the finds unearthed during the 2016 season. The press release stated…..

Exhibition tells the story of a remarkable dig

A new exhibition at the Orkney Museum features the archaeological excavations at the Cairns Iron Age site in South Ronaldsay. The dig, which takes place each summer, is being carried out by a team from the Archaeology Institute at Orkney College UHI and has produced some remarkable finds.

The exhibition, which runs until mid-November, has been created by Sorcha Kirker, an MSc student with the University of the Highlands and Islands, as part of a placement at the museum.She said: “It tells the story of the Cairns archaeological dig – past and present – and highlights the processes involved. My aim was to provide an insight into the archaeological experience from a digger’s perspective. The placement has shown me how I can use the skills I gained on my Masters course in a real work place. I have really enjoyed working with Orkney Museum on this project and I must thank them for everything they have done. The placement has also strengthened my interest in following a museum career.”

Each student was also given the task of presenting and evaluating their experience in a seminar at the end of their placement.

And finally….Kevin Kerr added “The placement allowed me to take more responsibility. I was the Small Finds Officer for the site and I had to hit the ground running after the first few scrapes resulted in a find straight away! I ended up amending the finds register and digitised the whole process…I felt as if I was an important member of the team and gained a great deal from the experience. I must thank Martin for his guidance and for allowing me to get involved with The Cairns at this level.”

New Research – Trading Identities & Viking Horse Burials in Scotland

Sands of Gill and Pierowall Westray
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.

Trading Identities Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland
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