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

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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 studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

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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).

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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.”

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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 Magdalena.Blanz@uhi.ac.uk.

If you are interested in pursuing research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, contact Mary Connolly studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk 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.

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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 studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk 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.

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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 archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk or see our conference website.

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Call for papers poster outlining the themes