A New Mexican in Orkney – MLitt student Don Helfrich

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The Cairns Broch ditch area

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……

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Don Helfrich at work

“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. ”

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Don at work at The Cairns excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

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 studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk to find out more.

Open Day @thecairnsbroch

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Some of the visitors touring the site

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.

The work of lifting the late paving in the broch begins
The work of lifting the late paving in the broch begins

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.

Vivid multi-coloured soils of the occupation deposits in the broch
Vivid multi-coloured soils of the occupation deposits in the broch

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.

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!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day Ten – 2018

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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!

Plant material- what appears to be heather or grass twisted in a simple weave
Plant material – possible heather or grass twisted in a simple weave

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…


I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you over the next few days.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns.

The Cairns Day Five 2018

Possible North Scottish decorated annular bead
Possible North Scottish decorated annular bead found at The Cairns today

Today it’s Don Helfrichs turn to write the dig diary. Don is studying for MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute….

Greetings from the ‘Land of Enchantment’ – yes that’s Orkney and The Cairns, but also my home state of New Mexico.

For myself, one of the ditch diggers in the newly exposed South extension this season, I struck it rich with what is appearing to be an articulated animal deposit (likely cow) complete with multiple vertebrae, scapula, the right side of a mandible, a shoulder joint, teeth, a femur or tibia head and either ribs or perhaps a Red Deer antler. There is more to expose. This deposit seems more special with the nearby presence of a whale tooth found last week during the uncovering process and a lovely stone Ard, which seemed to be pointing to the centre of the bone deposit. This is at the Southwest edge of the ditch extension. My nearby colleagues have continued to take ‘spits’ (sectional layers scraped downward) with more bone and teeth and the occasional piece of iron slag and pot sherd.

Excavating the new wall and passage in Structure B
Excavating the new wall and passsage in Structure B

This is the 3rd day for the Archaeology short course run by Dan Lee and Sean Bell. Today they were digging on the eastern side of the new extension over the ditch and have likewise found bones and teeth. They have finished their test pits and seemed to have gotten a taste for the site that I’m sure has only made them hungry for more.

Further to the east, in Area Q, a wall exposed in the 2017 excavation was extended and defined further to the south showing a nice curvature and what appears to be one and possibly two nicely built piers extending into the structure. This wall has been exposed down 3 courses so far. Further east it straitens into a structure topped by ‘beech pebbles’ – large water rounded ‘pillow stones’ on one side with an exterior wall face of the more common flat courses on its outer face.

New walls emerging in Area Q
New walls emerging in Area Q

The balks on either side of this wall are nearly taken down now and the question remains as to the relationship of this wall to the structure to its North which extends further to the East and had been thought to possibly tie in to the aforementioned southern structure.

Just outside the Broch interior on the north side, the collapsed part of the Broch wall has been cleared down to the paving and a post-broch doorway opening into what may be an extension to a structure excavated previously is now visible. A wall that defines its North East side is better defined now and we are interested to see if the entrance is contiguous to the clear structure and hearth(?) adjacent on to the west. This would have been a later building after the Broch’s initial destruction / decommissioning (?).

Just outside the Broch wall to the South West, coming back round to our ditch extension, Angus proudly found an antler tine.

And lastly, in the Northwest quadrant of the Broch itself, Therese was excavating a floor deposit near the hearth and found a beautiful glass bead – the find of the day! Work in this quadrant revealed a second layer of paving under the hearth and more floor sampling in the NE and NW areas is on-going.

For me, a “mature” student, I have had a great time meeting and getting to know fellow students and volunteers. I wish to give a fond farewell to Paul, Angie, and Moyra who I was not able to say goodbye to on this last day of their stint. I hope to stoop, groan and chat with you all again in future!

Don Helfrich (M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, UHI)

Stop press! Tentatively we can say that the glass bead looks like it’s a ‘North Scottish decorated annular bead’. These beads are usually reckoned to be produced in the region of Moray and particularly at Culbin Sands, and a few are known from Orkney and the Scottish Isles. This would be a 1st or 2nd Century AD type of bead, which would fit very well with the age of the deposits currently being excavated within the broch that the bead came from (Martin).

The Cairns Day Three 2018

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Looking south from the site

Today it’s the turn of Ross Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice student from UHI Archaeology institute to write the dig diary……….

Conas atá tú? (Irish for how are you?). Welcome to Day 3 of The Cairns excavation.
The team’s first task of the day was to tackle the facilities for this season’s excavation, which involved pitching the tent for crew members to use.

Despite wet and windy conditions, through teamwork and perseverance the tent was raised and secured into the ground; following a bit of help from some masking tape along the way. My team’s activities for the day took place within the broch structure, under the careful guidance and supervision of Rick. The first job for the team was to clean up and remove any excess water on the floor surfaces, which had accumulated from the morning showers. Once this was done the central area of the broch in between the orthostats was trowelled back and cleaned, this continued on from work done the previous day. The completion of this area marked the final step in the initial cleaning of the broch interior.

Following lunch the grid feature in the north-west quadrant of the broch was re-stringed and laid out in 50cm squares. Bulk samples and geochem samples were taken from each of the separate squares and bagged up. A fairly large assemblage of bone was also recovered and collected from this grid area.

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Gary and Therese working in the broch

In the South extension Linda’s team continued working on defining the ditch area. The edge so far remains elusive but we are hopeful of uncovering it in the coming days. Finds from the area included stone artefacts and a few examples of iron slag. In the upper to mid ditch area, the team also worked on extending the sondage; removing rubble and exposing more of the broch wall. A wall of one of the village buildings on the exterior of the broch was further exposed and early signs suggest it could possibly be linked to another structure further along the exterior of the broch structure; but this requires additional investigation and soil removal before we can establish this. Also towards the end of the day an exciting find was discovered by one of the team members, as what we believe could be a possible pivot stone was found. This could potentially be a doorway with accompanying steps leading down to a lower level village building, but this feature has yet to be fully explored and at the moment is too early to tell. We will keep you up to date with this exciting possibility as excavations progress.

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Pivot stone

On the north exterior of the broch, Colin’s team continued excavations below structure C. During today’s operations a semi-circular structure enclosing rough paving was discovered, and the team will carry on examining this as the week progresses. Finds from the area today included good quality stone tools and some mid-Iron Age pottery.

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Colin’s team at work outside the broch

Bobby’s team continued working on the baulk between trenches Q and M, planning to unify the two trenches in the coming days. The team are also advanced in exposing the wall and defining the stonework in trench Q. The main finds of the day from this area were some worked bone, mid-late Iron Age pottery and even some whale bone turned up. Bobby also added that the team morale was “sky high”. Always good to have happy workers!

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Bobby’s team working on the baulk

In the finds corner Kev gave a lowdown of all of the day’s finds. These included: some worked bone artefacts such as a pin and some notched bone, which were all found in the same area. There was also a lovely example of a rimmed pot. There were also many examples of animal bones, all coming from various different animals. When asked to sum up today’s finds Kev exclaimed “Bones galore!”, thanks Kev!

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Rimmed pot find

In addition to several tourists and visitors, the excavation team were also joined by members of the 3 day Summer Short Course offered by The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. The group were welcomed with a detailed talk and summary of The Cairns site by site director Martin Carruthers. Following this the course attendants were introduced to the practices and processes involved in field archaeology by the Archaeology Institutes trained staff (Dan Lee and Sean Bell), before starting their own test pits. The group are a very welcome addition to the site; great to see the interest and excitement amongst the group.

Anyway that’s about it for today’s summary of activities. Following this morning’s wet and windy start, the day really picked up as the team basked in the Orkney sun for the majority of the day. If the Archaeology Gods allow it, a few of the team may even be able to work on a nice tan before the week is out; as for me and my pasty Irish complexion, I just hope to avoid a bad burn…

Slán go fóill (Irish for ‘goodbye for now’),
Ross

Ross Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands.