We invited Andrea Freund PhD student currently studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands to write a guest blog on her research and exhibition into Viking runes.
Andrea continues the story……….”I am currently in my final year of a PhD at the Institute for Northern Studies. My research is funded through an “Applied Research Collaboration” by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities in a partnership between UHI and Orkney Museum.
This relatively new kind of studentship gives the PhD student a non-academic partner and a practical, public engagement project. In my case, that is a temporary exhibition at Orkney Museum from 9 – 30 March 2019.
When it came to find a topic for my exhibition, it was clear to me that it would be about runes in Orkney, which is the central focus of my entire thesis. However, as often with such cases, the devil is in the detail. Namely, the location of many runic inscriptions from Orkney. Many early finds are now part of the permanent exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and I knew from the start it was unlikely that I would be able to show them. Then there are the 33 inscriptions inside the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe – rather difficult to get to the museum, so they could not be the main focus.
Another consideration, which has fascinated me from my first visit in Orkney was the way runes are still an inspiration for artists and designers here, which I never saw anywhere else to such a big extent. I felt it was important to reflect the ongoing importance of runes in and for Orkney in the exhibition because that throws up many aspects of how runes, and with them the Norse, are received in modern Orkney.
Therefore, the exhibition is called “A Millennium of Writing”, making the connection from the approximate time (sorry, I cannot guarantee that it is exactly a millennium, but “About 1025 years of writing” or so wouldn’t look good on a poster) that runes were first used in Orkney to the present day. In putting together the exhibition, I was very lucky in various regards. Orkney had a new find of a runic spindle whorl in 2017, and this is the first time it can go on display. Inscribed bones from Earl’s Bu have also recently been moved to Orkney Museum and are going on their first ever display, too. In addition, it has been possible to secure loans of objects that have never been at Orkney Museum and that have never formed part of the same exhibition, alongside with loans from artists and designers, to tell a more comprehensive story about runes in Orkney.
One thing I personally like in museums is a hands-on experience, and I wanted to try and recreate that. This means that visitors can try themselves at carving their names in runes – made slightly easier than the Norse original technique by replacing stone with flower foam and sharp knives with wooden cuticle pushers. The runic spindle whorl is also available as a digital 3D model, created by Jim Bright, so visitors can enlarge and turn it as they wish even though the original is in a glass case. Finally, visitors are asked for their own suggestions what the rather mysterious lead amulet from Deerness might say on its inside – which we may never discover because it can neither be unfolded nor X-rayed.
I hope that visitors will enjoy the exhibition just as much as I have enjoyed the process of planning and putting it together, that it appeals to Orcadians and tourists alike and makes people reflect on Orkney’s runic heritage and how it is portrayed and used today.”
In this blog Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, Orkney College UHI , talks about the attraction of the theme…..Ruination & Decay. This article originally appeared on the HARC Ruination & Decay blog. Click through to catch the latest!
“Ruined buildings and decaying remnants of human activity have a strange attractiveness and bewitching aesthetics to them. When ruination and decay was taken up by the Humanities and Arts Research Cluster (HARC), University of the Highlands and Islands, as the first of its annual research themes, I was immediately excited by the topic. Why should this be so? Why was I not repulsed?
Firstly, there is the detective aspect, of course. As I child, I always wanted to be an archaeologist, because it combined the professions of detective and adventurer. True enough, I had a somewhat skewed image of what an archaeologist does, influenced by Indiana Jones and Thor Heyerdahl. However, even now with a more mature understanding of the profession, I am still attracted to its puzzle solving aspect. It is like finding fourteen pieces of a thousand-piece jigsaw and from there trying to gain some sort of understanding of the picture. This attracts me to ruined buildings, too. From what is left now, can we form a picture of what it was like before and about its story over time?
Another thing I like about ruins and decay is the effect of getting a little glimpse, as if looking briefly into a single shard of a broken mirror. A wartime hut at the old naval base of Lyness in Orkney: Reduced to a pile of rotting wood like a match-stick house after a storm. But on the one wall that is still standing: Miraculously, a little mirror is still hanging up! Allowing us for a short second to have a look into the past and at the person who last used it to shave before going out into another day of war.
There was an underwater archaeological survey done recently here in Orkney, looking at the naval wrecks of Scapa Flow. The most amazing images came out. What touched me to the core was not the ships in themselves, or their gun turrets, but the little everyday things that were spread on the seabed around the wrecks. A tuba. A fork and a saucer with the ship’s name on the porcelain. Shoes. Lots of shoes, which once contained feet.
I am mesmerised by looking at photographs of decaying structures from the relatively recent past. A well-known example is the Mark Twain Public Library in Detroit, which closed down due to budget cuts and lies abandoned with books and furniture still in it. There are Pinterest collections out there dedicated to urban decay, showing abandoned and decaying schools, factories, swimming pools and sports centres, mansions and churches, lecture halls and theatres. I have spent hours on Google Earth, looking at the town of Chernobyl, where trees and grass have taken over the apartment blocks and the Ferris wheel in the amusement park has become no more than a trellis for the returning plant life. My fascination with urban decay stems, I think, from the clashes between the familiar and the strange and between the temporal moment and vastness of time. It shows so clearly and unrelentingly that human structures are no more than temporary surface alterations and that however familiar we are with the music hall it is but a brief and temporary assemblage of materials which one day will be claimed back by Planet Earth. A mirage of civilisation and illusion of governance over nature.
We have such places here in Orkney where I live, too. Little stone cottages, abandoned as farms grew bigger. In the island of Sanday, there is an entire abandoned village. Little remnants of past community life are still there: Rhubarb is still growing, a tea pot is left on a windowsill, a sewing machine stands abandoned behind a little stone window. We even have abandoned islands. The last inhabitants of the island of Swona – a brother and sister by the name of Rosie – thought they were only leaving for a few days, but never returned. Rose Cottage stands lonely with food in the cupboards, a tea towel hanging on the range in the kitchen, but with cattle and birds as the only inhabitants of the island. The human time-line which started in Swona five millennia ago with a Neolithic chambered cairn stopped in its tracks in 1974. But the time of the cattle and the wildlife still goes on.
Regarding sunsets, I have noticed a strange effect. Sunsets are sometimes better enjoyed when not looking at them directly. I was thinking of this latterly as I was walking home from work one late February afternoon. My path took me along an old stone wall, rather tall, which I could not see over. Behind it, a glorious, golden sunset was in progress. The sky above looked like Soria Moria, the fabled golden castle in the clouds from Norwegian fairy tales. But when I got to the end of the wall, and I could finally look directly at the sun, it was no more than an ordinary sunset.
Perhaps part of the attraction to ruins, too, is that it allows you to look at human life without staring at it directly. Just like the attraction of a traditional Geisha is how she hides behind fans and draperies and layers of silk, allowing only glimpses into a secret world (paraphrasing Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha). Or the way that a horror film is much scarier when you don’t see the monster, only its shadow. There is something about that step of removal, that distance, which makes ruins and abandoned places attractive. Not too far, but not too close. Layering and glimpses of a hidden world.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, when ruins were at the height of fashion, intellectuals had this idea that their own modern times were characterised by the loss and corruption of an older, truer culture, belonging to our forefathers. They carried around copies of the Poems of Ossian, they dug out prehistoric tombs and monuments, looking for the Celtic Twilight and the Old North. They thought of archaeology and folklore as these scattered jigsaw pieces, or shards and glimpses of a hidden world which was purer and truer than their own.
I remember visiting Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire some years ago. Although the abbey itself has an interesting history, I was also fascinated by what the tour guide said about its use as a ruin. A beautiful Georgian garden had been designed around it, with the ruined abbey as its centrepiece. The land had been landscaped, the stream had been deliberately directed to create an artificial Arcadia. In this Georgian version of augmented reality, the ruined abbey was the jewel in the crown.
At this point, I suddenly felt that the abbey lost its magic and became no more than a garden folly. A special effect in a theatre. It had lost its mystery. It had been tamed. Georgian landscape gardeners would even build fake ruins. But these have no mystery. Built ruins are not alive.
In his seminar on “Decaying flesh and the instability of substances” 28/2/19, Colin Richards spoke about the blurring of the categories ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’. That the type of Neolithic building which we call a ‘tomb’ may in fact not be a static disposal unit for dead bodies, but rather the opposite: A living transformation. “The monument itself becomes a living thing,” he said. “It is all a process of becoming.” It has been deliberately built with layers of stone ‘skin’. The stones of the inner walls have been carefully split to create an ‘open’ face inwards, ready to absorb the persons who are put inside. Through this process, the entire building and bodies together become something new. We don’t know what they called it, but we can think of it as something along the lines of an ancestor.
This made complete sense to me, both in terms of my own personal response to ruins, and as a researcher who is interested in Viking Age, medieval and early modern folklore and beliefs. In the Orkney archive, there are accounts from as late as the 1920s telling us how people saw ancient burial mounds as alive. Opening or destroying it meant bad luck. The inhabitant of the mound was called a “hogboy” or “hogboon” (from ‘mound dweller’ in Old Norse) and he could be dangerous if his mound were to be disturbed. You could tell that the mound was alive by observing the strange fire that would burn above it on certain nights. The fire is like the beating heart of the burial mound, just as the peat fire in the hearth was the heart of a croft-house.
Both for ancient ruins and more modern ruins, the following holds true: When human life in it, or human use of it has come to an end, the building nonetheless still has its own life. It continues to live and interact with nature and the world around it. Abandonment, ruination and decay is not about stopping time, but about transforming into something else. As Colin Richards put it: Decay is a generative process. Perhaps the root of my fascination lies here, in the notion of a ruin being alive. And perhaps this is why once the ruin is consolidated, made secure by Historic Environment Scotland and opened up to ticket-buying visitors, it loses some of its appeal to me?”
The MLitt Archaeological Studies course at the University of the Highlands and Islands can be undertaken from anywhere in the world – as long as you have internet access and a computer.
For the next few weeks we have the pleasure of working with Don Helfrich – one of our MLitt Archaeological Studies students, from New Mexico in the USA – in Orkney.
Don usually completes the course remotely from his home, but for the next few weeks, he is experiencing the slightly different climate of Orkney to continue his research at The Cairns excavation. I caught up with him working with Martin Carruthers and the team in the broch ditch……
“This is something different for me. Although the sun is shining, the temperature is not in the high 100’s. I live in the desert of New Mexico and the landscape of Orkney is just so captivating to me. I teach Geography and Cartography part-time at Central New Mexico Community College and work part-time as a GIS/GPS Specialist at American Southwest Ichthyological Researchers. ”
Being a geographer myself, I asked Don how he arrived at Archaeology? He continued, ” This is my third time in Orkney and I have always been interested in prehistory, but after my first visit to Orkney, it became a fascination. In due course I was accepted to study the MLitt in Archaeological Studies at the UHI Archaeology Institute. ”
What happened next, I asked and Don continued…..”The course has offered me the most rewarding way to study prehistory. I began with an interest in the Iron Age of Britain and Ireland, but my first visit to the region in 2006 opened my eyes to the Neolithic. Although I have to say that I am now back in love with the Iron Age having been here at the dig at The Cairns. You couldn’t ask for a more immersive experience than to work in such a richly informative site as the Cairns, there’s so much coming to life about this impressive structure occupied at a pivotal time of world history. Realising the effort behind an excavation report, I was still struck by the complexity of this process, giving me a lot to think about regarding the skills I hope to bring to the field of Archaeology. ”
Next steps, Don?
“Well, I will be able to extend my teaching in The States from this experience and the course as I lecture on geography and cartography. This now gives me first hand experience of excavating and researching animal remains from two thousand years ago.”
Oh and what are your perceptions of Orkney?
“This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I am used to long vistas and so the wide horizons of Orkney are to my liking. But it’s also the way of life too. Even the cattle seem happy with their lot!”
If you would like to learn more about studying the MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, see our website or drop us a line at email@example.com to find out more.
Today was, indeed, open day and a big thank you to everyone who came along and visited the site. There was a great turn out of visitors and fun was had by all.
One of our MSc students, Ross, even ran sessions for the children on making clay replicas of the well-known ‘Cairns character’ our carved head from an earlier season of the site. It was a privilege and pleasure to share our findings directly with the public, both locals and visitors from further afield.
While some of us led tours and showed visitors around, work continued in the key areas of the site. Within the broch the work of recording the slab floor in the western zone was completed, and by the end of the day this late floor could be lifted to reveal…charcoal rich soils…more floors in other words. Lest you think this is in any way disappointing to us – please be disavowed of that idea. In fact these multiple juxtaposed floors, one after the other, are the glory of the broch for us, and they represent a detailed and insightful record of what sorts of activities were going on in the broch, and they’ll yield lots of information on the chronology and tempo of the occupation in the broch.
Elsewhere in the broch, in the Northeastern zone, Jo has continued to take micromorphology samples from the floors here, in order to see even more detail of the activities two thousand years ago. In the process she has revealed beautiful, vividly coloured, (bright red, brown and black) thin laminations, or lenses, within the ashy floor deposits. It’s exciting to think what will be revealed in the finer microscopic resolution of her eventual studies.
In the well, work also continued on the lower fill deposits, and some startlingly well-preserved wood was recovered. This time brushwood was the order of the day, and a fair amount of it. Some quite long pieces of clearly knife-pruned branches and twigs came out, as well as finer mossy and heathery matter. Essentially, this material looks like lining at the bottom of the well.
Brushwood from the broch well
A view of the excavated and cleaned up well staircase
The brushwood in the base of the well
Over in area M/Q Bobby’s team are still revealing new wall faces and the relationships between them, in the area immediately to the northeast exterior of the broch. We really are now seeing a clear sense of the busy nature of the settlement and something of its development through time here. One amazing find relates to another find we made way back in week one. You may recall we found a very finely made antler mount with drilled perforations. This piece clearly hafted something like a knife, handle. Well on Friday another piece of the same haft turned up in a close by area. At first we thought this new piece of antler was likely to be the piece from the other side of the handle or haft, and that would have been nice enough. However, it turned out to be a refitting fragment of the same antler mount making the piece very long and quite a curving piece. It now looks like it intended to form one side of the handle of a two handed blade, something like a scythe or a serious cleaver.
In the south extension we drew things to a close for this year. Structure J, the village building constructed up against the broch wall here, is now looking very fine, indeed, thanks to everyone involved and to Sam who took care of this area for several days. We can now see the full outline of, at least one phase, of this building and its’ slightly dumbbell shape. We’ll excavate no further in here this season but we now have the building complete with some of its’ internal fixtures and fittings revealed and we can really explore its history of use and inhabitation in the following season.
For now, we have one week left of this seasons’ excavations. We’ll keep you posted as to how we fare with the key areas that we are working within, and any last week surprises that may yet come our way!
Today was day 10 on site and therefore we approach the midway point of the project season. What a couple of weeks it has been!
There’s been quite major progress in areas like the broch interior and the extramural building complex on the Northern side of the site.
Meanwhile the artefacts turning up across the site have been stunning from glass bead to whalebone chopping bock and bronze ring to antler mount. Obviously, in the last few days, in particular, the site has produced items which are just astonishing! I’m referring to the contents of the ‘well’ structure.
The existence of the wooden bowl is just well-nigh miraculous. Its hard to convey how unusual and rare this sort of preservation is in a Scottish context and particularly away from a crannog, or wetland site, such as the wonderful on-going excavations at Black Loch of Myrton in Dumfries and Galloway. Indeed, it seems to have been a weird time in Scottish Iron Age studies recently with sites yielding up this kind of normally exceptionally rare preservation!
Today as we took stock of that particularly dramatic situation, there was minimal work in the well structure itself, however, we did inspect the deposit at the base of the well again and I can reveal that a third substantial wooden object is present. It appears, at this stage, to be another peg-like piece and possibly driven into the deposit like the previous one, but it appears to be larger and firmer than the first. There is also evidence of other organics including what looks like twisted plant fibres here and there, which may be a simple grass or heather weave, possiby the remains of a net, a mat or a bag! We’ll keep up with the updates over the rest of the work in the well.
Elsewhere on site, Linda’s time with us as supervisor for the South area of the site drew to an end today and so we bid her farewell for now, and reflect on the great progress made even today in revealing the building (Structure J) tucked into the lee of the terrace revetment.
Down slope from the broch on the Northern side of the site in Bobby’s area things have changed dramatically with lots of new walls and new understandings of existing walls coming into evermore sharper focus, and the fascinating thing is that these seem to reflect substantial structures of a likely contemporary date with the broch itself.
Here’ a few pictures, some to remind us of what we’ve seen so far and a few new ones of recent finds and features on site. I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you…
Bronze ring from Area Q-M
A second antler mount – a knife handle from cleaning Trench area Q
I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you over the next few days.