Swartigill Day Two & Three

Day Two

Working in the Highlands and Islands of  Scotland, you soon develop a healthy respect for the weather. It has the habit of reversing a trend pretty rapidly and frustrating all your best-laid plans. One day may be bright and sunny and the next, driving snow.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, it was obvious by around 9.00am on Day Two that the dig could not continue. The whole area took on the characteristics of a well-shaken snow globe as the cold combined with the snow to make conditions impossible. Health and safety issues became paramount so the team decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retreated back to a snug cottage to analyse the results from Day One.

Day three, however, dawned cold and only slightly cloudy allowing the team to progress well with the dig. Community volunteers arrived and soon the plan for the day was in place.

A few people have asked, “How do we know where to dig?” It’s a good question. In the past archaeologists had to trust to luck to a certain extent, but nowadays we have technology on our side in the shape of geophysics. This technology gives us a map of ‘anomalies’ which with an experienced eye can be interpreted to give an indication where to place a trench.

Martin explains the geophysics in this short video….

The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Investigating Iron Age Social Change in Caithness

DSC_0016The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Yarrows Heritage Trust to commence excavation at the Burn of Swartigill on 24th April.

Located in Caithness, the site was excavated on a small scale in 2015 where the aims were to explore anomalies from a geophysical survey undertaken by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

This survey had pointed to the possible presence of a substantial rectangular building, perhaps a post-broch Iron Age period ‘Wag’ – a form of building well-known in Caithness and Sutherland. A second objective aimed to establish the character of archaeological remains discovered eroding from the side of the Burn of Swartigill.

During the 2015 fieldwork, a substantial mass of stonework and well-preserved archaeological features were unearthed and it was suggested that the linear wall lines picked up in the geophysics survey may reflect a long building with its long axis at right-angles to the stream.  A possible drain feature was also identified indicating an element of water management over and above that required for a purely domestic use. Samples taken from the site may even be able to shed light on the role and function of the site.

untitled-8It was also established that previously recorded massive blocks of stone that were eroding out of the stream bank were also parts of wall lines and wall faces. Well-made and decorated Iron Age pottery was also recovered in addition to a quern rubber and hammer stone – the latter from the drain feature.

However the most surprising find was a copper alloy triangular fragment with a possible setting for an enamel or glass paste inlay. This would appear to have been a relatively valuable item from something like a brooch and perhaps hints that a certain social status was accorded to the Swartigill site during the Iron Age.

Interestingly, radiocarbon dates suggest that the site also was occupied in the period when brochs were evolving in the Northern Scottish Iron Age. It can be tentatively suggested that Swartigill represents an early Iron Age site, occupied before and during the establishment of brochs in the wider landscape.

DSC_0113The unusual mix of well-built stone features may imply that the site had some function connected to hydrology, perhaps in an industrial/craft capacity and the site may ultimately allow us to reflect on a wide range of types of place and activity associated with the Caithness Iron Age.

The 2017 excavation will give us the opportunity to further explore the social and historical conditions that were present at an important moment of change during the Iron Age period in Caithness.

If you want to be involved in this community dig then call 01955 651387. No experience required!


If you are interested in our research work, then check out our conference………..

Our Islands, Our Past Conference

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to: archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.

The Mystery of Iron Age Burials


The research by Dr Mary Macleod Rivett raised several questions from a number of people on social media, concerning burial in Iron Age Britain generally and more specifically the significance of the face down burial.

The following is a brief synopsis of a conversation between Mary Macleod Rivett and Martin Carruthers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and raises some interesting points about the role of the dead in Iron Age society. 

In terms of Iron Age face-down burials, I’m not aware of very many.  There’s one adult male from the in-fill of a souterrain at Bu, near Stromness in Orkney where he was buried on his front with his hands apparently behind him, head slightly tilted to one side.  He was also accompanied by a further half a dozen or so human individuals, in the same souterrain back-fill, of a range of sexes and ages, including some quite young children.  I wouldn’t want to jump to any sinister conclusion about what this configuration means, but it is interesting that the in-fill of the souterrain also seems to have been one of the final acts during the Iron Age period on this particular site.  It’s probably different from the burial described by Mary Macleod, I would suggest, as it doesn’t carry the same formality and the fascinating grave goods.

I suppose one of the things that is often thought to limit what we can say about burials from this period is that there are so relatively few of them (and traces of human remains more generally) and therefore it’s very uncertain how representative any of the burials actually are, in terms of a ‘normal’ or normative burial tradition as such.  The Early and Middle Iron Age burials that have been found are very diverse in terms of the treatment of the deceased.  There are inhumations like this one, cremations, semi-articulated portions of bodies, and completely disarticulated pieces of human bone (like the jaw found at The Cairns recently).

There are even pieces of modified human bone like the pierced femur heads from some sites where they seem to have been used as spindle whorls, or the pierced skull plates that seem to have been hung on strings for display.

And although there have been more Iron Age burials discovered in recent years, most regions of the UK (except parts of East Yorkshire, or the South East) still stubbornly refuse to give up anything like the volume of burials that we know must have gone with the relatively large population size during the Iron Age.

We still have a very long way to go to start putting these burials in a better contextual understanding.  However, that does actually mean that each and every new Iron Age period burial is very significant as they are such a relatively rare resource for understanding the treatment of the dead during the period.

Mary adds, “I also dug a prone, male, IA burial (no C14 date) several years ago at A’Cheardach Ruadh, Baile Sear, North Uist, but the body there had a twisted spine (scoliosis), and there may have been practical reasons for that one…”

Sounds like a good subject for a PhD!!!


Always Visible-How Lewis Archaeology shows Enduring Love of the Land

Mary Macleod Rivett carefully excavates the unique iron bracelet from beside the Iron Age woman’s skull.

Dr Mary Macleod Rivett from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute talks about her research in the Outer Hebrides.

An Iron Age woman buried beneath the fragile, sandy turf of the Isle of Lewis is helping to provide some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the deep bond between ancient Scottish islanders and their homeland, according to a paper soon to be published.

Illustration showing the grave site with the skeleton of an Iron Age woman. Credit: Alan Braby.

Dr Mary Macleod Rivett, an archaeologist at the Stornoway Campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), is one of the senior researchers at the UHI Archaeology Institute. Her new paper uses four decades of research to map thousands of years of local movement on Barvas machair, on the west side of Lewis. In a comparatively small space bounded by sea, rivers and today’s main road to Stornoway, people from Neolithic times onwards have chosen to make homes and fields alongside the reassuring physical evidence of how their predecessors lived. For many generations, she says, ‘the past was always visible in the present’.

“Even nowadays, when you drive along the road, you see the remains of two or three houses on each plot – a new home, an old, empty house and maybe the ruin of a blackhouse now being used as a byre. People have always re-used the remains of older buildings as a resource, but also for the sentimental attachments and memories they carry. That blackhouse could be ‘where Granny lived’ – and that was just as true in the past.

“Machair is really fragile and subject to active erosion. Prehistoric folk could always see earlier buildings, burials and field walls. They could see the past all around them and even when people moved – say in the middle Bronze Age when a homestead moved by just 300 metres – they still re-used the early Bronze Age site and buried their dead in it. They had the same kind of sentimental attachments and memories that we have nowadays.”

The burial of an Iron Age woman, excavated by Dr Macleod Rivett in 2001, provides a poignant demonstration of the way in which early people honoured their dead, valued their landscape and acknowledged their own continuing survival. The grave was particularly carefully constructed and lined with matched local stones. The woman lay face downwards – highly unusual in any era – and alongside her head was a beautifully worked iron bracelet with bronze embellishments, the only such find in Scotland. While working on the excavation with the support of the local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), alongside volunteers from the Barvas and Brue Comunn Eachdraidh (historical society) and with professional archaeologists, Dr Macleod Rivett came to know the Iron Age woman very well.

“She was a big strong woman – tall for her time at 5’ 6”, well-muscled and quite young. She was buried sometime between 212 – 387 AD, at least 1,600 years ago, and her burial has been carefully made. As well as the beautiful bracelet which was buried with her, and the well-crafted grave itself, the burial was covered in a cairn of pretty, pale-coloured beach pebbles, each no bigger than could be carried in one hand, and each brought from up to a kilometre away, at the shore. I think she was an important person to her local community – they put a lot of effort into making this a nice grave close to an earlier house, which is evidence of the feelings and memories of the people, their own references back to their past.”

Illustration detailing the fine ornamentation on the iron bracelet. Credit: Marion O’Neil

Dr Macleod Rivett’s full report pieces together research from field-walking finds to the results of detailed excavations. The community which she studies, Barvas or Barabhas in Scottish Gaelic, sits on the distinctive machair landscape, unique to the Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland, particularly along the western shores of Outer Hebridean islands like Lewis. In these areas wind-blown shell-sand mingles with peaty soil at the edge of blanket-bog to create a narrow area of fertile land, intensively used throughout human history to support settlement and food production. With the riches of the sea on one hand, good grazing for livestock and productive land for crops, machair has offered security to small communities over thousands of years.

“We must remember that agricultural people worked outside all the time, so that for them ‘home’ was not a narrow space within walls, but an attachment to the wider land. For them, and for island people right up to my grandparents’ time, home was the whole of what they could see. When you work the land and are dependent on it, you come to know the different resources within it in a very intimate way. Wherever they moved their fields and houses, this whole landscape was their home.”

Barabhas Machair: Surveys of an Eroding Sandscape, by Dr Macleod Rivett and co-authors Trevor Cowie, the late Mark Elliott and Torben Ballin, reviews survey work starting from 1978. Stone structures, burials, middens, tools and weapons show almost 3,500 years of human presence, from 2000BC to the transitional period of the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Western Isles was handed over from Norse to Scottish rule. The Iron Age woman was not the only valuable discovery – Beaker pottery in a house dated to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age is one of very few such finds worldwide, and descendants re-used the ruined home as a cemetery many years later, with crouched burials of later Bronze Age date.

Together with old map evidence, and visible bumps of protruding stone and worked land, the whole area speaks of greater riches still to be found. But on the machair time, erosion and climate change are the enemies. Dr Macleod Rivett says: “Sites may appear and disappear within days or, in extreme conditions, hours. The machair was subject to innumerable gales and storms during the research period, including a catastrophic hurricane in January 2005.” Another storm could expose a new glimpse into the ancient past of Barvas, or destroy evidence for good. More discoveries in the same small area could yet be made, but historic continuity is a Scottish island strength. The present day village of Barvas continues to quietly co-exist with the stones, field lines and ruins of a community that’s both historic and alive,  where ‘the past is always visible in the present.’

Every Stone has a Story-The Scarcement Level at The Cairns

It doesn’t matter how many times you visit an archaeology excavation such as The Cairns, there is always something new to see.

As part of the pre-season planning, Martin Carruthers Site Director, together with a masters student and myself visited The Cairns dig site overlooking Windwick Bay.

The site is in good order, despite the ravages of several winter storms, and while clambering over the earth mounds surrounding the site, Martin stopped and pointed out an assemblage of large, worked stones.

Initially, the stones had formed one side of a passageway in one of the later Iron Age buildings on the site. When the blocks were examined closely the archaeologists realised that they were looking at worked stone that would have formed a scarcement level in the broch structure – before re-use in the later Iron Age building.

Looking across The Cairns broch showing the scarcement level stones in situ at ‘A’

A scarcement level is in effect a line of massive blocks that were built into the inner wall face of a structure. Their sole function was to hold up timbers that would, in turn, hold up a wooden floor.  If you visit The Cairns broch then you will see  a line of huge stones positioned along the top of the existing wall (A in the photograph above). The stone scarcement-levelarrangement is also visible at Gurness Broch, but there is a difference at The Cairns….the scarcement level blocks are supported below by the wall and do not just “jut out” from the interior structure. The rough field sketch should help to clarify the role of the stones at The Cairns broch.

Martin explains more in this video clip…………..

Student Research Piecing Together Life at The Cairns

dscn0540Work does not stop when the excavations are covered over for the winter. The all important post-excavation work continues.

Postgraduates and undergraduates studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have the opportunity to work on exciting material from the summer’s excavations as part of their studies.

Kai Wallace, a fourth-year student studying BA (Hons) Archaeology at Perth College UHI, has come up to Orkney to work on bone assemblages recovered from The Cairns this summer. This important research work will form the basis for his dissertation on animal bone groupings in Iron Age Orkney.

dscn0538Unusually there is little evidence for complete articulated bone assemblages in Iron Age Orkney. Unlike England and the Western Isles, where animal burials are common, most animal bone remains are found disarticulated with little sign of deliberate deposition such as ritual activity.

However recent discoveries at The Cairns, including the discovery of a human jawbone and whalebone vessel, point to a highly ritualistic culture. So why is there no real evidence for articulated (joined up) bones in Iron Age Orkney?

The reasons behind this could be varied and could be due to weathering, erosion or the fact that the various bones recovered have not been recognised as part of the same animal. Kai is re-examining a sample of the animal bones unearthed at The Cairns and is piecing together bones that may have been part of the same animal. This requires patience and a knowledge of animal anatomy in addition to archaeological skills, but with the help of Dr Ingrid Mainland, Kai is making progress in this giant sized jigsaw puzzle!

Already an articulated assemblage, discovered lying on top of the capping stone of the broch ‘well’, has been identified as the backbone of a sheep and a series of red deer bones look as if they may be part of one animal that was placed with its head tucked under its body.

Kai’s research is beginning to piece together the story of these bones and add more detail to the way of life of the people of The Cairns 2000 years ago.

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more, either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

Ness of Brodgar Excavation Dates Confirmed


The Ness of Brodgar has quite rightly attracted a great deal of attention over the last few months, especially with the new BBC2 documentary series, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney hitting the screen.

Nick Card and the team can now confirm the schedule for this season’s introductory talk, the excavation itself and Open Days.

  • The Orkney Archaeology Society Ness of Brodgar talk will take place on 15th June at 19.00 in the Orkney Theatre.
  • The excavation will be open from Wednesday 5th July to Wednesday 23rd August.
  • Tours are available and will be conducted by team members at 11 and 1 Mon-Fri and by Historic Environment Scotland Rangers at 3 pm each day. Archaeologists will be on site most weekdays. However please check the Ness of Brodgar Trust website for up to date information as the weather has a habit of intervening at times!
  • Tours are also conducted at 1100 & 1500 on Saturday and Sunday during the dig season, but there will be no archaeologists on site during the weekend.
  • Open Days are being held on Sunday 16th July and Sunday 20th August. Last year over 1200 people attended each event and we are hoping for more this year. All are welcome…and there will be activities for the whole family, so bring along the children for a Neolithic Day out!

On seeing the sheer scale of the excavation visitors to the site frequently ask,”Who pays for all this?” We do not charge for admission and the tours are also free. You can stay as long as you wish. You can ask the archaeologists questions. You can even bring along activities and spend all day there. You will be made most welcome.

So who funds all the work?? Well, the answer is that the project is mainly supported by public donation through the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar  with support from a plethora of other people who give their money or their time or both to help.  This includes Orkney Islands Council (who recognise the economic and cultural importance of archaeology in Orkney), Orkney Archaeology Society (who amongst other things organise the running of the massively important on-site shop), and the UHI Archaeology Institute.


However, the whole project could not happen without donations from the public….from you reading this, all the other people who visit the website and donate a few pounds or indeed on some occasions thousands of pounds, the people who visit the site and buy a few items from the shop or sponsor a square. This funding is what makes it happen.

Nick and the team would also like to thank all the volunteers who give up their time to work on the site and make the whole project work like clockwork.

If you wish to help support the project then please go to the Ness of Brodgar website and if you can, donate a few quid. Many thanks from the Ness of Brodgar team.

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more, either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page