Making Metal, Casting Society at The Cairns, Orkney

ring headed pin moulds with cast pin
Ring headed pin moulds with cast pin

New radiocarbon dates from The Cairns archaeological excavation shed light on the possible structure of society in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD in Orkney.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research excavation at The Cairns, Orkney, talks about the latest research findings from the site.   

“We have been very lucky at The Cairns over the years of the excavations to find a substantial set of remains and residues that relate to Iron Age metalworking. This includes at least two iron-working furnaces, and many other features and artefacts, but there is one particularly big and concentrated event that took place beyond the broch in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M. The remains of this episode include furnaces, bronze waste; bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze objects. Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches.

The remains of 'Structure K' where the jewellery-making episode ocurred
The remains of structure K where the jewellery-making occurred

The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community. Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, as well as their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.

The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overly the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement. We therefore knew from the assessment of the layers (the stratigraphy) on site that the metalworking episode did not occur very early on in the sequence of events and buildings on site but it remained to be seen if it was going on towards the end of the monumental broch period on site, or if it was actually occurring after the broch was put out of use, which we know occurred around the mid-Second Century AD based on previously obtained radiocarbon dates. The calendar date of the metalworking was therefore of great interest. Did the jewellery-making episode date to the period late in the life of the broch, or was it happening after the broch itself was decommissioned and put out of use?

Two moulds for casting penannular brooches
Two moulds for casting penannular brooches

Craft and Chronology
Newly obtained radiocarbon dates make it clear which of these scenarios is correct. The new dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. Now, with this enhanced understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking we can begin to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.

It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.

Jewellery as social currency: Feasting, and gift-giving?
At the end of the bronze-casting event a fairly thick, very rich animal bone midden was laid down in the vicinity and slightly overlying the metalworking area. The close relationship between the metalworking and the animal bone is shown by the presence of a few of the crucibles and mould fragments amongst the midden also. What’s in this midden?

Well lots of domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep and pig, especially large cattle long bones. In addition, there were other mammal bones such as red deer, otter, and even a small quantity of horse. The midden also contained carbonised soils, ash and broken fragments of pottery. Many fire-cracked beach cobbles were also excavated, and these represent the exploded remains of ‘pot-boilers’, heated cobbles that were immersed in vessels to heat up water and cook some of the food. It seems that the people gathered at our feast were consuming beef on the bone, boiled pork, and roasted mutton and venison, some of which may have been washed down by beverages drunk from many pottery vessels.

The close stratigraphic association between the fine metalworking and the feasting raises the question of what exactly was going on here. One possibility that I like very much is that the feasting could be the spectacular social event at which the products of the jewellery-making were handed out, or gifted, to their intended recipients by those who had sponsored the metalworking in the first place. We may therefore be peering into the social circumstances of the jewellery-making and the distribution of its products amongst the community at The Cairns. If this is so, then it is a fascinating insight into the moment at which objects like the pins, brooches and rings started off on their biographies, their journey through people’s lives.

This is a very rare opportunity to see more clearly the initial nature of the social and political significance of these objects from their start-point. It would mean that the sharing or gifting of the jewellery was surrounded in the circumstances of a big social occasion, a massive party, if you like. We are seeing their birth and the important role they played in the power-play and social strategies of Iron Age groups and individuals. With the circumstances of the jewellery-making we are able, for once, to investigate the intended status and significance of these items within the context of their birth, rather than depending on the information we usually get, which is based on the discovery of these objects much later in their lives, in fact at the end of their lives, when they went in the ground, perhaps many decades, or more, after they were originally made and worn. Most theories about the brooches and pins and their role in society have been based on what we glean from them in this end-state, but the assemblage of metalworking evidence from The Cairns; the moulds, crucibles, and other items, together with the massive remains of the feasting allows us to grasp what was going on at the point in time when these jewellery items were instigated.

Jewellery, Society and the wider Northern Scottish Iron Age
It is highly intriguing that the birth of these prestigious pieces of jewellery appears to have been accompanied by communal, outdoor feasting and judging by the volume of animal bone it involved a large part, if not all, of the community. In the absence of the big spacious monumental buildings, such as the brochs, which may have previously served to gather large numbers of people under one roof at important times in the life of the community, we can ponder whether feasting events like this were the new arena for expressing the identity and solidarity of the community.

If we now recall Professor Sharples’ aforementioned thesis that the changes at the end of the Middle Iron Age to late Iron Age involved a major transformation of the way people expressed their social identity, from the communal to the individual then this evidence for big community feasting in the early part of the Later Iron Age is very interesting. Perhaps this serves to somewhat modify that concept, because in the post-broch era at The Cairns, for one, the community appears to have retained ways of expressing their greater collective identity. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that everyone was singled-out and gifted one of the pieces of fine jewellery that were produced.

At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period. If so, the excavations are really coming up trumps in terms of allowing us to peer into the social circumstances of Iron Age communities.

New dates for Structure B1: Have we found the elite sponsors of the metalworking?
The period of the jewellery-making is after the end of the broch and we were previously unclear which buildings amongst the many post-broch structures were occupied at the time of the bronze-working. The new dates also allow us to pin-point whereabouts on site, at least some of, the community were living at the time the jewellery-making was taking place. Armed with the new radiocarbon dates, it turns out, that one of the large rectangular post-broch buildings (perhaps a Wag-like building of the type found in Caithness and at The Howe in Orkney) known to us as Structure B1, located about 30 metres to the south-west of the jewellery-making area was first constructed and occupied between the Mid-3rd to 4th Centuries AD, and therefore at the same time as the metalworking.

The big formal hearth in Structure B under excavation- a high status bui...
The large formal hearth in Structure B under excavation

Structure B1 lies directly over the reduced and in-filled remains of the broch. One of the most remarkable aspects of this building is its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the remains of the abandoned broch almost co-opting its former position and grandeur have always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time, and may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.

It is intriguing therefore to now know unambiguously that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor the lavish jewellery-making on site. Pushing this further, it is tempting to speculate that it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the post-broch Iron Age community at The Cairns.”

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Martin would like to thank Professor Dave Barclay, Forensic Consultant, and Professor Emeritus, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen for the very kind and helpful donation, which made it possible to fund the most recent radiocarbon dates discussed in this piece.

If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at or see our website.


What did the Romans eat at the Chester Amphitheatre?

Typical seived samples
Typical sieved samples showing changing nature of Roman deposits in the 3rd Century. Scale 1cm.

Dr Jen Harland, lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has contributed a chapter on her zooarchaeology research to a major new book on the Roman Amphitheatre located in Chester, England.

The chapter is entitled Fish Bone from Roman Phases and appears in the recently published book: The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I, edited by Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner.

Jen’s research investigates the largest single fish bone assemblage in Roman Britain, uncovered during excavations at the amphitheatre in 2004-2006. The Roman structure originally dates from 70AD, but between 85AD and 100AD was re-modelled and timber seating was installed. The lower parts of the timber framework was held in place by dumped material from the arena and elsewhere. This material contained over 20,000 fish remains dating from the Roman to post-medieval period and there were over 4,500 fish remains dating to the Roman period – providing a very useful addition to the zooarchaeology of Roman Britain.

Spanish Mackerel
Spanish mackerel vertebrae. Scale 1cm.

Fish was a prominent part of Roman diet and marked out those elements of the population who wanted to be ‘Roman’. Most of the British Iron Age population did not consume fish as a regular part of their diet. On examining the fish remains, Jen’s research found that flatfish were the most common with over 70% from this order, eel was the second most commonly consumed fish at the site with salmon and trout the third most popular.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Spanish mackerel was also found in the deposits. These fish are not found in the waters around the British Isles and thus they were somewhat of a surprise during analysis.The Spanish mackerel was, perhaps as the name implies, an import from the coastal regions of Portugal, Spain and the north coast of Africa and they provided a taste of the Mediterranean to Chester’s small Roman population.

Jen’s research also sheds light on the way that the Roman population in and around the amphitheatre consumed their fish. There were no butchery marks on the bones found suggesting that the fish was eaten on the bone and perhaps formed a meal for one or two people. This probably means that the meal would have to be eaten delicately and with care rather than in a fast food/on the move manner.

Location of Chester England
The Roman city of Deva, now Chester

The research also provides clues to the ‘fishing industry’ operating in this part of the Roman Empire during this period. Evidence from the types of fish found in the assemblage suggests that fishing was organised on a local scale with the Roman fishermen not venturing far into Liverpool Bay. However, the ‘industry’ would also have to be organised on a relatively large scale to provide the volume of fish found.

There is also evidence to suggest that tastes, the environment or fishing methods changed over time. There is a trend to find smaller fish in the assemblage as time progresses into the 3rd century and herring also becomes more common – much more like the tastes and preferences of later centuries and much less ‘Roman’.

Harland Oxford poster

BookIf you wish to investigate this fascinating subject further then check out The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I. Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner. ISBN 978-1-78570-744-5 and can be purchased at


UHI PhD Student Jasmijn Gains Award for Research Poster

Identifying and counting pollen grains from one of the research sites.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is celebrating the award of Best Research Poster to PhD student Jasmijn Sybenga at the Association for Environmental Archaeology Conference held in Edinburgh in December 2017.

Jasmijn started her PhD in February 2016 after finishing both undergraduate and graduate degree at Leiden University, the Netherlands. She grew up in the east of the Netherlands which is – in contrast to what many people would expect from the Netherlands – hilly and contains woodland.

“I’ve always been interested in the development of woodlands and how people would have managed and used woodlands in the past.” Jasmijn continues,” The topic of my PhD is therefore related to my interests and after a successful application I moved to beautiful Orkney, where the only thing that I sometimes miss are the trees!”

Jasmijn’s research poster was entitled,’ Investigating the feasibility of reinstating the natural woodland of the Highlands by using long-term palaeological records’ – and will contribute to Scottish Forestry Commission reinstatement policy for the natural woodland of the Scottish Highlands.

One of the research sites: Dalchork

The conference’s theme was the ‘Grand Challenge Agenda in Environmental Archaeology’ and focused on investigating the dynamics of complex socio-ecological systems, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human-environment interactions. The full AEA conference abstract goes on to say, “Environmental archaeology is ideally situated to contribute directly to these challenges, concerned, as it is,with the human ecology of the past – the relationship between past human populations and their physical,biological and socio-economic environments – through the analysis and interpretation of animal and plant remains within the depositional environment of the archaeological site and its surrounds.”

An auger survey to investigate the depth of the peat and gauge the overall stratigraphic sequence before taking a pollen core

Jasmijn continues…..”Areas of peatland in the Scottish Highlands have been afforested since the Scottish Forestry Commission (SFC) was established in 1919. During the 1980s and the early 1990s these upland areas have been extensively covered with non-native conifer plantations which drastically affected the landscape and present ecosystems. Over the last few years, plantations have started to be felled in order to reinstate peatland.

As an addition, the SFC who maintain most of the afforested peatland is keen on developing policies on the reinstatement of the “natural woodland” of the Scottish Highlands. Areas of peatland within the Highlands can contain significant depths of peat (>5m) that have accumulated over thousands of years. The anaerobic conditions of the peat create suitable conditions for the preservation of pollen grains, plant macrofossils and non-pollen palynomorphs (NPPs) which can inform on long-term vegetation patterns and climate change cycles. This is of particularly relevance to modern ecology where studies tend to be relatively short-term in comparison and therefore we can use these records to inform on much longer trends for example vegetation changes in response to human impact or changing climate.

Checking the stratigraphic sequence

My PhD project will use palaeoecological data from three peatland areas under the care of the SFC to create long-term vegetation records with particular attention on former native woodland. The aim is to understand what these woodlands would have looked like, what caused the demise of these woodlands and whether if planted today these woodlands would thrive or demise in the present conditions of these Highland areas. This information will have implications for future conservation strategies in the Highlands and potentially across Scotland.”

Jasmijn AEA Poster2-page-001
Jasmijn’s poster

Jasmijn’s PhD title is Seeing the Wood for the Trees. A Palaeological Approach into the Research of Past Natural Woodland in the Scottish Highlands. The research is funded by the Scottish Forestry Commission. PhD supervisors are Scott Timpany, Roxane Andersen and Melanie Smith. You can contact the Association for Environmental Archaeology through their website.

You can study our courses from any one of the colleges in the UHI network and that you can also study MLitt Archaeological Studies from anywhere in the world.

If you would like to chat with us and explore your options at the UHI Archaeology Institute then contact Mary on 01856 569225,e-mail us at  or see our website.

UHI Archaeology Institute Excavation Calendar 2018

The exciting archaeology research dig programme for 2018 is now confirmed. 

There are seven sites open in Orkney alone with further exciting community projects planned throughout the year. Check out this blog and social media for  updates.

The on-site teams welcome visitors and there is no charge for entry….although we welcome donations to help support the research. There are a few things to keep in mind when visiting:

  • The sites can be muddy following bad weather so sturdy boots are recommended
  • Sites can also be closed if the weather is particularly inclement, so if in doubt please check by sending us an e-mail
  • If you need any help in planning a trip to the projects listed below, then please feel free to contact us on We are always happy to help you find the site or answer questions.

There are also opportunities to take part in these community events, even if you have no experience of archaeology. So if you want to take part in these exciting community events then contact Dan Lee on .

The Cairns Excavation

The Cairns 1

  • Site Director: Martin Carruthers
  • Iron Age Broch and Settlement in a stunning coastal location
  • Location: Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. Follow the sign to Windwick on the A961 between St Margarets Hope and Burwick.
  • Open to the public from 18th June to 13th July 2018
  • Tours are available Monday to Friday. There are no set times, but the site opens at 10.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm.
  • Open Day is Friday 6th July. All welcome.
  • Access to the site involves a short, but steep unpaved road over a small bridge.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week. No-one will be on site during the weekend.
  • You can also follow on social media.

Ness of Brodgar Excavations


  • Site Director: Nick Card
  • World renowned Neolithic Excavation
  • Location: Stenness, West Mainland, Orkney
  • Nick Card, Site Director Ness of Brodgar, will be giving a talk to the Orkney Archaeology Society on 21st June. Venue: Orkney Theatre, Kirkwall. Time to be confirmed.
  • Site open to the public from 4th July to 22nd August 2018
  • Tours are available
    • Monday to Friday at 11am, 1pm and 3pm.
    • Saturday & Sunday 11am and 3pm.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week. The site is open at the weekend for 2 guided tours, but archaeologists will not be present.
  • Booking essential for ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops for young people (see here to book) which will be running on:
    • 24th July 2018
    • 31st July 2018
    • 7th August 2018
    • 14th August 2018
  • Open Days will be 15th July and 19th August.
  • Please check the Ness of Brodgar Trust website for up to date information. You can also follow on social media.

Cata Sand, Tresness Chambered Tomb & Loth Road Bronze Age House


  • Site Directors: Professor Vicki Cummings (UCLan), Professor Jane Downes (UHI), Professor Colin Richards (UHI), Chris Gee
  • Neolithic & Bronze Age excavation in collaboration with UCLan.
  • Location: Cata Sand, Tresness, Sanday, Orkney. The Loth Road excavation is close to the ferry terminal and will be signposted.
  • The sites are on the northern Orkney island of Sanday. The ferry timetable is available here.
  • Open to the public from 7th July to 4th August 2018
  • You are welcome to visit the three sites under investigation. The sites open at 10.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm.
  • Access to the Tresness and Cata Sand sites involves a long walk along Tresness beach from the B9069.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week.
  • The site is in the intertidal zone and so will be submerged for some parts of the day. Please check with staff concerning working times as they will depend on the tides. Contact:

Skaill Farmstead Excavation, Rousay

20170714_133753 LowRes

  • Site Directors: Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dan Lee
  • The work at Skaill 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. Why not visit the coastally eroding site at Swandro as well, which is a further 10 min walk along the coast from Skaill.
  • Location: Skaill, near Midhowe Broch, Rousay. There is a regular ferry service to the island.
  • Open to the public from 9th – 22nd July 2018 (note, the team will not be on-site 14-17 July)
  • The site opens at 9.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm.
  • Access to the site involves a walk down a steep hill from the car park for Mid Howe Broch and left (south) along the shoreline (15 min walk). The ground is uneven and the path is a little overgrown in places. Please do not access from Westness Farm.
  • Archaeologists will be working on site during the week.
  • The Open Day will be on the final weekend 21st-22nd July
  • Contact:

If you wish to be added to our mailing list for community archaeology volunteers then please use the contact form below or contact

See the web page on Visit Orkney for more information on transport links and accommodation.

This page will be updated as new events and activities are confirmed.

The Ness of Brodgar- Summer 2017

DJI_0562-view to hoy

The plans for the Ness of Brodgar dig season 2018 are well under way, and with the end of the year in sight, perhaps it is time to catch up with some of the highlights of the 2017 season. 

Hints at links between the Ness of Brodgar and the Stonehenge area were unearthed this summer, during a record-breaking season at the Stenness site. Over the eight-week excavation, around 21,500 visitors made their way to the Ness, where a team of international diggers were hard at work on the Stone Age complex. At the helm, as usual, was site director Nick Card, of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Once again, the Ness lived up to its reputation of throwing up lots of new questions, but also some magnificent finds. Of particular interest this year were the two items that suggest contact between Orkney and the Stonehenge area. The first of these was a fragment of pot recovered from a trench extension over Structure Twenty-Six. This came as something of a surprise as the decoration on the sherd was very reminiscent of pottery from Durrington Walls . That said, there were also distinctly Orcadian features, which led us to wonder whether the original vessel blended decorative elements from these two world-renowned sites – but which were hundreds of miles apart.

Fragments of the 'incense' cup - only 4 others of this style are known - all from the Stonehenge-Wessex region
Fragments of the ‘Incense ‘ cup – only 4 others of this style are known – all from the Stonehenge-Wessex Region

Parallels between the Orkney and Wessex sites have been noted before — particularly when Mike Parker Pearson, who excavated at Durrington Walls, visited the Ness in 2010 and 2014 — but a second discovery in Structure Twenty-Six brought these back into the spotlight.

On the surface, it didn’t seem very significant but, thankfully, Claire Copper, who had just finished a research project on these artefacts, immediately recognised it for what it was — a beautiful little ‘incense cup’. After much checking, we were delighted when it was confirmed the cup was what we thought it was. There are only four other examples of this particular type of ‘cup’ in the UK and they all hail from the Stonehenge area.

These tiny artefacts are often highly decorated and mostly found in Early Bronze Age contexts — often associated with burials. Their use has been the subject of debate over the years. It has been suggested that they were used to carry embers to a funeral pyre, or perhaps for the burning of incense during burial ceremonies.

Tracing the walls

Elsewhere on site, it seems likely that the “Great Wall of Brodgar” was one of the first constructions on site. The four-metre-thick wall was unearthed in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the discovery of a second wall — to the south-east of the site — prompted the theory that the complex was completely enclosed.

Trench J in 2008 - red shows GWB and yellow, Structure 5
Trench J in 2008 – red shows Great Wall of Brodgar and yellow Structure 5

Last year, a trench was extended down towards the Stenness Loch looking for evidence that the wall sections were once connected. Unfortunately, nothing was found. This year, however, close examination of an aerial photograph from 2016 revealed very faint, but definite, marks on the landscape around the site. Not only did these “crop marks” clearly show the location of the two known wall sections but highlighted the layout of the enclosing side walls. The difference was that the wall running along the side of the Stenness Loch was closer to the water than originally thought.

We were disappointed last year when there were no upstanding traces of the connecting wall, but it now seems we had been digging in the wrong place. We had tried geophysics on the Stenness loch side, but overhead power lines and a fence line scrambled the results. With no scans to worth with, we had to extend the trench based on our suspicions and it now seems we did not taken the extension far enough down towards the water. Hopefully next year we’ll open a small exploratory trench over the revised location and see what comes up.

The inner face of the Great wall of Brodgar once again see the light of day

Meanwhile, the trench containing the corner of the ”Great Wall” — and the adjacent building, Structure Five — was re-opened this year for the first time since 2008. Nick suspected that Structure Five was was an early Neolithic building and this proved correct. The building is very reminiscent of the early house at the Knap of Howar (3600BC), in Papa Westray. But, in true Ness of Brodgar fashion, is much bigger.

It also became clear that the “Great Wall” not only curved to follow a path along the shore of the Harray Loch, but curled closely around Structure Five — suggesting that it, too, was a very early element in the history of the site. This was confirmed by excavation, which showed nothing lay beneath the wall section except the natural boulder clay on which it was built.

It may be possible to date the construction of the wall using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) — a technique that could provide the last date on which the ground beneath the wall’s foundation was exposed to sunlight — something that may be explored in the future.

Frustration and delight in Trench T

While work progressed and questions answered, Trench T — to the south-east of the main site — proved particularly obstinate. Here, work to excavate a huge midden mound began in 2013. At first it was thought this was nothing more than a “monumental pile of rubbish” — a visible example of conspicuous, Stone Age consumption, and a reflection of the status and affluence of the Ness, left there for all to see. In 2014, however, the stump of a standing stone turned up at the foot of the mound, hinting there might be more to it.

In 2015, sections of walling and orthostats were found at the bottom of the trench, followed, last year, by massive stone slabs in the remains of a puzzling structure. We felt these structural remnants represented a chambered cairn, similar to the one he had excavated at Bookan, at the other end of the Ness, in 2002.


But, as the weeks passed, the sheer scale of the building — dubbed Structure Twenty-Seven by the archaeologists — became clearer. The building was huge and the stone slabs so big that it was suggested they were re-purposed standing stones. These massive megaliths were used to support orthostats that clad the structure’s less-than-perfect interior wall face.Given its position, it Structure Twenty-Seven is also likely to pre-date many of the other buildings on the Ness.

Describing the trench as a “source of frustration and delight”, Nick had hoped to reveal more of Structure Twenty-Seven this season, but progress was slowed by the discovery of pits and fragments of walling.

“Everything about Trench T is just different,” he said. “This year we extended it, hoping to quickly expose more of the structure — whatever it is — but, as usual, you should always expect the unexpected and we came down upon intermediary structural elements that had to be dealt with and recorded. Some of these may relate to Structure Twenty-Seven but I think there’s other things happening in this area and this has really muddied the waters.”


He added that more of the building’s south end was uncovered and that there are also hints of what might be its entrance. “We had also thought that Structure Twenty-Seven had been substantially dismantled in the Neolithic — its stone plundered for use elsewhere and that not much of it had survived. But this summer, we found another section of nicely built drain, that may have been underneath a flagged passageway around the exterior of the building — somewhat similar to that around Structure Ten in the main trench.”

In addition, more of the building’s 2.3-metre-thick back wall was uncovered and found to be in a better state of repair, with several courses surviving. All we can hope for now is that work in 2018 will bring us a clear idea of the layout of this puzzling building.

Back to the Iron Age

Meanwhile, at the top of Trench T, another fragment of pottery, added to the evidence that the Neolithic midden mound was remodelled in the Iron Age, thousands of years after the site was abandoned. Not only was a ditch cut into the mound, but a revetment wall, on the upslope side, was enhanced by a large bank, itself held at the rear by another revetment wall.

“If these structures ran right round the crest of the mound — with the ditch open and highly visible on the downslope and the bank above — the visual effect would have been striking in the extreme,” said Nick. “Indeed, because of the height of the midden mound it was built on, the structure would have been visible for miles around. No doubt this was the intention of the Iron Age builders, as there are many other examples in Orkney of their willingness to alter the landscape and any older structures visible within it.”

Public Interest

Over 14 years since the discovery of the Ness complex, the site continues to produce stunning artefacts and discoveries on a daily basis. But on a site where the extraordinary has become the norm — and with it the expectations of the public — is Nick concerned there is a danger interest could wane?

The first tour of the season is shepherded by site dog Bryn

“We have still got stunning finds coming up on a daily basis that, ten years ago, or at any other site, would hit the headlines across the country. 2017 saw more artwork, stunning stone tools and — in a first for the Ness — a beautiful example of an Early Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged flint arrowhead, recovered from the exterior of Structure Ten. I think that these days people are looking beyond the initial ‘wow’ factor and are just as interested in how finds — no matter how small — fit into the story of the site as a whole. The arrowhead, for example, was a lovely find and a delight to behold, but just as important is its role in interpreting the life, and death, of the Ness.”

Close up of the arrowhead - a first for the Ness

It was found in a lump of midden filling the outer passage of Structure Ten — the so-called ‘cathedral’ — which overlaid the animal bone we think was the result of a decommissioning feast. Elsewhere in this passage, in the same context, we found a distinctive piece of Beaker pottery from the same period. These finds, together with the dating evidence so far, are key to the idea that the start of the Bronze Age heralded the demise of the Ness. And perhaps more importantly, shows that Bronze Age influences had made it this far north.

But it is not just the artefacts that draws people to the Ness. It is the whole package of seeing an excavation under way; the trenches; the archaeologists…With visitor numbers for 2017 up by 63 per cent and the daily online dig diary recording a 30 per cent increase in traffic it is clear that public interest — local, national and international — continues apace.

“Since we started work, one of our main aims was to take the archaeology and share it with as many people as we can,” said Nick. “Going on the visitor figures, this seems to be working, and we’re looking at other ways to improve things, online and on-site.”

He added: “Overall, it’s heartening to see that interest continues to grow because over 75 per cent of our funding comes from the general public and without that support the Ness just wouldn’t happen.”

You can support the excavations by making a donation or buying a copy of the excellent guidebook at

The site is supported by the Ness of Brodgar Trust (, American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney Islands Council and the Orkney LEADER Programme 2014-2020.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate archaeology students at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are given the opportunity to be involved with the archaeological investigation at the Ness of Brodgar in addition to The Cairns and other archaeological excavations across Orkney and Scotland. If you want to study archaeology and be involved with the research taking place at UHI Archaeology Institute then contact us on or see our website.




Cata Sand and Tresness Excavation Fieldwork Reports now Available

Cata Sand Site 1

The Data Structure Reports (DSR) detailing the exciting 2017 excavations at Cata Sand and Tresness Chambered Tomb, Sanday, Orkney are now available for download.

Taking the the Cata Sand excavation DSR first, the document examines the aims of the excavation, methodology, context narrative, discussion, outline of future work and post-excavation strategy, references and registers. 

Introducing the report, the team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire write……”On the eastern side of Cata Sand, Sanday, a small sand dune known as the Grithies Dune is located in the intertidal zone. In December 2015 we identified archaeological material eroding out of the sand immediately to the south of the Grithies Dune. We returned in March 2016 to undertake an evaluation. We opened up a small trench roughly 8 x 5m over an area where we had previously seen archaeological deposits.”

Aerial Photograph of Cata Sand Excavation 2017

“The work involved the removal of windblown sand only rather than the excavation of any of the archaeological layers revealed. This simple cleaning exercise, however, produced 41 artefacts including flint debitage, Skaill knives, coarse stone tools and pottery. The evaluation revealed that the remains of occupation, including a house, lay exposed just beneath windblown sand. In order to ascertain the extent of the occupation here we then conducted a large-scale geophysical survey of the area using magnetometry. This revealed an area of magnetic enhancement around the Grithies Dune roughly 20m in diameter. We returned for a four week period in 2017 to excavate the archaeological remains concentrated at the Grithies Dune site.”

The full Cata Sand Data Structure Report can be downloaded in pdf……Download the Cata Sand DSR 2017

Tresness Chambered Tomb

Moving on to the The Tresness Chambered Tomb excavation, the DSR explores the archaeological background to the site, methodology, excavation results, recording of the eroding section, assessment of the erosion at the site, management recommendations and suggested further work, post-excavation schedule, public outreach activity, bibliography and registers.

The Tresness Chambered Tomb is located on the southern tip of the Tresness peninsula, Sanday, Orkney. It is a site which has not seen significant previous excavation. This report describes excavations conducted in August and September 2017 and offers an assessment of the on-going erosion at the site.

The full Tresness Chambered Tomb Data Structure Report can be downloaded in pdf…..Download the Tresness DSR 2017

smiley people

The excavation team included Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involved specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.

A few thank yous from the team…………..”We are very grateful to Colin and Heather Headworth who allowed us access to their land. Scottish Natural Heritage granted permission for this work to take place on an SSSI. The project was funded by the University of the Highlands and Islands, the University of Central Lancashire and the Orkney Islands Council. Hugo Anderson-Whymark came out at short notice to conduct photogrammetry at the site, and we are also grateful to Tristan Thorne for taking aerial shots with his drone. Ingrid Mainland and Jen Harland from the UHI Archaeology Institute came out to site to help us with the whales.

The Sanday Archaeology Group were as supportive as ever and in particular we would like to thank Caz, Ruth and Cath for logistical and practical support, both on site and in terms of storage! Ruth and Ean Peace organised the talk in the community centre and also provided us with historical accounts of whaling.

John Muir at Anchor Cottage and Paul and Julie at Ayres Rock must be thanked for providing accommodation. We are grateful to Sinclair Haulage for acquiring (and securing!) our portaloos and to the Sanday Community Shop for arranging to transport the whales to Kirkwall. Sean Page helped with the press releases.

We are very grateful to our volunteers who worked incredibly hard in such a beautiful but exposed setting: Justin Ayres, Edd Baxter, Irene Colquhoun, Ana Cuadrado, Grant Gardiner, Stephen Haines, Joe Howarth, Arnold Khelfi, Mike Lawlor, Rob Leedham, Therese McCormick, Ginny Pringle, Alex Shiels, and Cemre Ustunkaya.”


New Research Published – suggests long-distance movement of cattle in the Bronze Age

Chillingham_Bull. Thanks to Sally Holmes
Chillingham Cattle. Thanks to Sally Holmes.

Dr Ingrid Mainland of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is the co-author of a new investigation into the origins and husbandry of Mid-Late Bronze Age cattle – now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

The authors include Jacqueline Towers & Julie Bond of the University of Bradford, Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, Ingrid Mainland of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Janet Montgomery of Durham University.

Bioarchaeological evidence suggests that the site of Grimes Graves, Norfolk, characterised by the remains of several hundred Late Neolithic flint mineshafts, was a permanently settled community with a mixed farming economy during the Mid-Late Bronze Age (c. 1400 BCE – c. 800 BCE).

Cattle Tooth with enamel sequentially sampled for isotope analysis
Cattle tooth with enamel sequentially sampled for isotope analysis

The aim of this study was to investigate, through isotope ratio analysis (87Sr/86Sr, δ13C and δ18O), the origins and husbandry of Bronze Age cattle (Bos taurus) excavated from a mineshaft known as the “1972 shaft”. Strontium isotope ratios from the molar enamel of ten Grimes Graves cattle were compared with eight modern animals from the Chillingham Wild White cattle herd, Northumberland.

The range of 87Sr/86Sr values for the modern cattle with known restricted mobility was low (0.00062) while the values for the Grimes Graves cattle varied much more widely (range = 0.00357) and suggest that at least five of the cattle were not born locally. Two of these animals were likely to have originated at a distance of ≥150 km.

Cattle mandible - occlusal (biting surface) view
Cattle Mandible – occlusal (biting surface) view

Intra-tooth δ13Cprofiles for eight of the Grimes Graves cattle show higher δ13Cvalues compared to those of Early Bronze Age cattle from central England. Most of these profiles also display pronounced shifts in δ13C during the period of enamel formation.

One possible interpretation is that the cattle were subject to dietary change resulting from movement between habitats with different vegetation δ13C values. More comparative data, both archaeological and modern, is required to validate this interpretation.

The multi-isotope approach employed in this study suggests that certain cattle husbandry and/or landscape management practices may have been widely adopted throughout central Britain during the Mid-Late Bronze Age.

The full report can be downloaded from the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports. You may have to subscribe to the journal if you or your organisation are not members.