Two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered in underground chamber beneath broch site.

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The Cairns Broch site

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were astonished last week when they unearthed a two thousand year old wooden bowl from an underground chamber beneath The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

The vessel itself is the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney and will give the team from the UHI Archaeology Institute a unique insight into life in an Iron Age broch in Northern Scotland.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns
A detached section of the wooden bowl following initial cleaning

The beautifully preserved object is a complete, wood-turned bowl around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and rounded base. Although the object has split at some point in the past, it is complete and was being held together and protected by the muddy silts of the excavation.

The bowl has been confirmed to be made from alder and the dating is known from the location within the subterranean chamber which the archaeologists on site have termed, ‘The Well’.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns (2)
A detached section of the wooden vessel showing the rim

This amazing underground feature, consists of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. It is assumed that the bowl dates from this period also, however, radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could be even earlier than this time. At any rate it will be Orkney’s oldest preserved complete wooden vessel.

The rim of2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Cairns Broch, Orkney, still encased in the silt from The Well 2
The rim of the 2000 year old wooden bowl, still encased in the silt from The Well

In addition to the bowl, there are preserved plant fibres, some of which appear to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seem to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs.

Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, are also present. There appears to be more waterlogged objects waiting to be lifted from the silt. Ancient insect remains and probably a host of other tiny items, perhaps including parasite eggs and coprolites (fossilised faeces), may even be found.

Site Director, Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said: ‘It’s miraculous that we’ve got this wooden vessel. It’s really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at The Cairns! In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink. Its round base makes you think that it would have been required to be constantly held when full, and perhaps used socially, passed around from hand to hand, person to person. It’s already been nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. “

Martin continued, “I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of ‘The Well’. For one thing it’s not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water, but if it were used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket or, dare I say it, poured as a libation, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps”.

There is still much work to do in The Well, and there are other amazing remains to be recovered from the silts there, as well as across the site. The excavations are on-going and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time. The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects. It is hoped that funds can be raised as soon as possible to pay for specialist conservation.

*In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and passed around to celebrate the marriage.

Iron Age Settlement
Excavations have been taking place at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, since 2006 under the auspices of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The site is a substantial Iron Age period village settlement with a broch (tower-like monumental house) lying at its heart. The ancient buildings on the site are very substantial and rich in finds. The broch itself and the village buildings are very well-preserved and already this season there have been many artefacts recovered including a bronze ring and a glass bead.

Three years ago an opening into an underground chamber was discovered under the floor of the broch, but only this year has the excavation project turned its attention to fully excavating the well. The subterranean structure is preserved intact with its stone roof still in place and it has been sealed since the Iron Age. Steps lead down into the partly rock-cut cavity that dates back to the time of the construction of the broch.

Iron Age ‘Wells’ and Waterlogged Remains
Traditionally, these structures have been termed wells by generations of archaeologists, however, there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, with constricted entrances and the steepness of their staircases, have raised doubts about their function in recent years, and the volume of water found in the structures is seldom sufficient to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation
The stairs leading into The Well at The Cairns Broch

Additionally, previously excavated examples have contained an unusually high amount of wild animal bones, such as red deer and fox, in their in-fills, suggesting the wells had some special significance. Famously, a massive ‘well’-type structure was discovered at Mine Howe, East Mainland, Orkney, and also excavated by archaeologists from UHI in the early 2000s. Although the subterranean chamber at Mine Howe had previously been informally excavated in the 1940s and its contents emptied, the archaeologists found that it lay at the heart of a high status metalworking complex that was also apparently the scene of ritual practices and the deposition of the human dead.

About 20 such structures have been found beneath brochs in previous excavations, but many of these investigations were undertaken by antiquaries in the 19th Century, and fairly few of these structures have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still, have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns. It would seem that the basal silts within the ‘well’ have been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen). This means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items and, therefore, there is incredible preservation of organic items, usually only seen in the rarefied conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

At The Cairns there has been little previous reason to suspect that such preservation conditions existed. However, the depth of the well at over two metres under the floor of the broch, and a further two metres beneath the modern ground surface, has meant that  the base of the well remained damp since the Iron Age and allowed for the protection of the wood and organic items.

The excavations ran until the 13th of July and visitors were encouraged to see the work at the site for themselves, throughout the excavation period.

Media contact: Sean Page, Marketing Officer, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. Sean.page@uhi.ac.uk Tel: 01856 569229
High Resolution images are available.

Open Day @thecairnsbroch

Visitors on open day
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 Thirteen – 2018

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Looking across the broch to Windwick Bay

It’s Day Thirteen and Conal O’Neill, BA (Hons) Archaeology UHI student steps into the breach to write todays blog post from The Cairns.

As day thirteen of excavations on The Cairns draws to a close the amazingly good weather has remained.

Within the broch, or Structure A, soil sampling continues alongside planning by Therese while Gary continues to dig a large pit. A new addition to the team, at least since I arrived at the start of the week, is Jo, who has been enacting soil micromorphology, where small soil block samples are analysed to provide a detailed assessment of the microscopic floor layers of the broch.

Jo preparing to sample floors in the broch
Jo preparing to sample floors in the broch

Within my own area, of soil sampling within a grid, a worked bone, possibly antler, was discovered. Following the cleaning of the area surrounding the antler it was photographed, however then I was called away to write this blog, so excavating it will sadly have to wait until tomorrow.

Conal's antler object
Conals antler object

In structure J, Sam continues to lower the soil in the corner of the structure, and further tidy it up for photographing. The ditch area, dug by Gary, Iona, has been further cleaned and excavated yielding lots more animal bone and revealing a large lump of slag in the process, which may actually be a furnace base.

Structure J where Sam has been working
Structure J where Sam has been working

In Structure O some high, superficial orthostats (upright stones) were removed to reveal the wall beneath and further excavation has revealed bone, pottery and possible worked bone.

Finally, in Area Q the team is continuing to excavate the trench to the level of Area M eventually forming a ‘super trench’!

Today's blogger Conal digging in the South quadrant of the broch
Todays blogger Conal digging in the south quadrant of the broch

Anyway the hut’s about to be locked up and Bobby’s threatening to lock me in here for the night, so before I become part of The Cairns I’m going to leave!

Cheers.

Conal O’Neill, BA (Hons) Archaeology UHI Student.

!!Stop Press!! Towards the end of the day Dr Scott Timpany arrived on site and told us that he’d managed to identify the wood species of the wooden bowl from the well. It’s made from Alder.

A tiny portion of the wooden bowl under the microscope revealing the structure and identifying it as Alder
A tiny portion of the wooden bowl under the microscope revealing the structure and identifying it as Alder

Meanwhile he has also been out in the landscape near to The Cairns visiting a wetland site where the conditions may allow us to obtain a picture of the ancient environment at the time of the site. There will be a very useful palaeoenvironmental record of hundreds if not thousands of years embedded in this!

Scott's core through the old loch that will help to reveal the environment of the landscape around The Cairns
Scotts core through the old loch that will help to reveal the environment of the landscape around The Cairns

The Cairns Day Twelve – 2018

Roundwood from the well today- possibly birch
Roundwood from the well today – possibly birch

Day Twelve at The Cairns and UHI Archaeology Institute student Gary Lloyd has unearthed something very special so I shall hand over to him to continue the story.

To this point the weather has been extremely cooperative and today was another beautiful day. Though with the sunshine the temptation is to play hooky and go to the beach, work at the site goes on.

For me the day began learning to use the EDM to get reference points for all of the small finds (artefacts) collected today and ended with a real surprise. But for now, I’ll talk about the rest of team.

Beginning at the south extension the team excavating the area of the ditch fill continues to expose animal bone and pottery fragments with Gary uncovering a large fragment of salmon coloured pottery. To the north of the ditch area Sam has been excavating and has now revealed the clearly defined arc of a wall in structure J along with a cache of animal bone.

Area Q-M on site with its myriad walls
Area Q-M on site with its myriad walls

Having spent most of my time in the Broch I hadn’t noticed, until today, the amount of work Bobby’s team has accomplished on the NE side of the site in the Q and M trenches. The maze of wall features is relatively complex and sorting rubble from wall has been quite a challenge. Dagmar, Hannah, Ruby, and Marianne, are working to expose walls at the north side of the trenches. Lindsay and Charlie are drawing back layer 1401 to determine if walls continue from trench M into trench Q and distinct structures are now coming into view including the large Structure (O) just outside the Broch entrance where Henrik has been working.

Multi-coloured ashy occupation deposits inside the broch
Multi-coloured ashy occupation deposits inside the broch

Inside the Broch the deliberate work of sampling the grids laid out on the floors is being carried out by Conal, Caitlin, Ross, and Hamish with samples collected for both chemical and environmental analysis. The floor area Ross has been working on is particularly rich in contrast, promising some valuable data. Martin’s daily expedition down into the well has yielded even more organic material from the silt, including another piece of wood with some bark still intact. The complexity of the hearth area in the NW quadrant is being carefully recorded by Therese.

Roman Glass
Possible Roman glass

Between the hearth and the pit, I had the pleasure of finding a beautiful piece of blue-green, potentially Roman, glass. This glass was discovered in the same layer as the glass bead found by Therese last week. I have to admit it’s the biggest thrill excavating I’ve had to date.

Gary Lloyd, BA (Hons) Archaeology student, UHI, Orkney.

The Cairns Day Eleven – 2018

Working inside the broch today
Working inside the broch today

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns excavation and lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute continues the exciting story of the dig as it enters week three……………

Today I thought I’d discuss what we hope to achieve in the next half of the project season.

We will carry on with the broch and the work of teasing out the soil floors in the building. It is after all one of the main elements of the site and certainly one of the important contributions that we hope that the project can make; helping us to understand the complex, changing use and lives of brochs. We hope to be able to reach some of the earlier floors within the building. Rick’s team have been doing great work here in arduously sampling the floors on various grid patterns to keep spatial control of all the findings and the environmental and geochemical samples. The hearth in the western area of the broch looks likely to be a lengthy series of hearths, one laid out on top of another!

The new hearth inside the broch that has emerged under the later one
The new hearth inside the broch that has emerged under the later one

This will provide a great sequence of radiocarbon dates and a strong sense of the longevity of certain feature areas, like this, within the broch. Additionally, we aim to finish the excavation of the wonderful well-chamber under the floor of the broch, and to be able to recover all of the incredible organics that survive there (I think I’m still reeling from the preservation of the wooden items there and especially the bowl!). Of course there is still some of the anaerobic deposit to come out of this space and there could be other remarkably preserved objects to come! We’ll keep you posted.

view into the subterranean chamber today
View into the subterranean chamber today

I spent a little time in the well chamber today and I could certainly detect at least one more quite large wooden piece to come. In addition, there are large quantities of plant materials in these silts that we’ll have to recover in sample tubs.

Work in the Southern extension will now concentrate on the deposits in the ditch fills, with just a little work to define village building Structure J. The ditch fills, I feel, still have a few surprises to yield. After all our sneak preview of this feature last year produced 4 bronze objects, lots of pottery and animal bones. Beyond the finds themselves the merit of this ditch exploration is to give a sense of the longer history of the site as the ditch is likely to be filled with deposits from across the phases of the site.

Area QM wall lines and buildings emerging
Area QM wall lines and buildings emerging

In Area Q/M, on the north side of the broch, we anticipate amplifying the good results already achieved in here in elucidating the village buildings. Bobby’s team were at it again today- uncovering new walls and adding to the litany of features and likely buildings in this area! We have the grandly imposing Structure O just outside the broch entrance and running northwards from this another wall related to Structure K or Q! It will be very interesting to see what sense we can make of the jumble of walls in this zone by the time we’re ready to pack up and go home in two weeks’ time, and the likelihood of nice artefacts coming from this area in the meantime is high!

From tomorrow we’ll resume our usual practice of sharing perspectives from the wider excavation team with you as they recount their experiences and their findings!

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 Nine – 2018

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Martin Carruthers continues the exciting story of Day Nine at The Cairns….

Hi folks, Martin here yet again. Not meaning to bore you by doing the blog again two days running but I thought I’d better describe today’s findings. What I have to share with you, however, is anything but boring! It’s been an amazing day on site.

If you’ve been following the blog thus far you’ll know from yesterday’s piece that we began to excavate the so-called ‘well’ that lies deeply under the floor of the broch. This subterranean structure is reached by a set of steep stone steps that curve down, slightly spiralling in a counter-clockwise direction. There’s a very sticky silty fill down there. It’s very wet and claggy and we’ve considered that it might hold out the promise of organic preservation. Today that promise has come true!

Examining organic matter just recovered from the well
Examining organic matter just recovered from the well

Within the partially rock-cut chamber, underneath the very fine upper grey silt deposit we uncovered a darker deposit, still very wet, but with a more compact consistency, and, I have to say, a quite a distinctive smell!

This morning we got the first hint of organic preservation from this dark deposit in the form of what appeared to be grass fibres, some of which even appeared as if they might be woven! There were also pieces of tree bark present. This was sufficiently stunning, and we were just contemplating the significance of this over morning tea break, but this was nothing to the shock of what emerged after the break. I was working in the well myself carefully examining the ‘dark deposit’, and noticed a strange solid curving object beginning to appear amidst the silt. Unbelievably, it was a wooden bowl…

Wooden bowl coated in silt from the well, the rim of the bowl can be seen on the middle right
Wooden bowl coated in silt from the well, the rim of the bowl can be seen on the middle right

I was astonished to see this very dark, very smooth object begin to appear more clearly as a vessel. The bowl is in several large chunks, but all in the correct relationship to each other showing that the vessel was complete, and it was clearly lying upright with the rim upwards. In form, the thing has a lovely out-swinging (or everted) rim just like a contemporary Iron Age pot. The bowl is round-bottomed like some Middle Iron Age ceramic vessels too. Within the curve of the rim I could see that there was further organic preservation – a mass of plant material. Startlingly, a second wooden object became apparent lying near to the wooden bowl, but closer to the bottom step of the staircase leading into the chamber. This time it was a long piece of round-wood about 20 centimetres long with a pronounced carved head at one end and a sort of carved ledge under the ‘head’. The object very closely resembles a modern wooden tent peg!

Before the end of the day we were able to lift the peg and the wooden vessel and safely pack it all up in protective layers and significant amounts of its own silty matrix within a plastic crate. The whole thing will have to be sent off to conservators to stabilise the object and prevent any deterioration of the precious wooden object. In the meantime we have not yet reached the bottom of the chamber. It was quite clear that in lifting the wooden bowl there was more organic material beneath, what seemed like a thick mass of plant fibres, perhaps the bowl was resting on a mat of some sort! Only a little time will tell as we continue to excavate this important feature!

New walling emerging in Structure O the big building outside the broch entrance
New walling emerging in Structure O, the big building outside the broch entrance

Meanwhile in other parts of the site some great progress has also been made. Over in area M/Q Bobby’s team have yet again been revealing more wall lines. By the end of today they now have uncovered three sides of the building that lies just outside the broch entrance (Structure O). This looks like a large imposing building, with very well built walls utilising substantial blocks of sandstone, just the sort of grandeur that would be expected of one of the premier buildings within the broch-village complex. Also, in the same part of the trench a whopping whalebone vertebra has been uncovered and it has been carved, and pierced to provide handle holes, we think, and utilised as a chopping board with many serious chopping scars revealed on the surface.

The whalebone chopping block
The whalebone chopping block

In the south extension Linda’s team have been continuing to work away at the ditch fills, and, nearby, Angus has been revealing even more of Structure J, a village building tucked into the lee of the broch and its construction terrace.

Finally for this round up, back to the broch interior and Therese has been recording the slab floor in the Western quadrant and then she began to lift the shattered remains of the late hearth base slab. Underneath lay more burnt material and edges of stones that suggest an earlier hearth remains to be fully investigated. In the Southeast quadrant of the broch Ross continued to grid-excavate the beautiful ashy floor horizons with their riot of black and vivid red colours.

Gary and Paul have begun to remove the fill (masses of rubble) from a huge pit set in the floor of the broch and we’ll hopefully get to see what this very deep set feature is all about over the next few days- possibly a sub-floor tank that has been partly robbed out for stone and then filled in or something more enigmatic? We’ll see…

Well tomorrow’s another day and we’ll keep you posted on what emerges!

Martin Carruthers, Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute