The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney College UHI are pleased to be hosting a major three day workshop this week where leading climate scientists and heritage professionals from across the globe are gathering to apply a new tool for measuring the climate change threat to World Heritage sites.
Claire Mullaney, Senior Communications Officer at Historic Environment Scotland continues….”Supported by Historic Environment Scotland (HES), in partnership with University of the Highlands and Islands, James Cook University (JCU, Australia), Orkney Islands Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the workshop in Stromness will pilot the new methodology which assesses the risks to all types of heritage sites impacted by climate change, known as the Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CVI).
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney will be the first cultural World Heritage site to undergo CVI assessment, following an initial trial of the tool over 8000 miles away at Shark Bay in Western Australia – a natural site which encompasses 2.2 million hectares of diverse landscapes, animals and plant life.
As part of the CVI workshop, delegates will visit the historic sites that comprise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site, including Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. Several delegates will also speak at a public event at Orkney College UHI in Kirkwall on the evening of Thursday 25 April, which will offer the local community an opportunity to find out more about the project and the challenges of managing the World Heritage site in changing climate.
Following the workshop, a report will be produced and then presented during the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee which takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan this July, highlighting the results from Orkney and recommending that the CVI be adopted as a world standard for measuring the climate change risk to World Heritage sites.”
Ewan Hyslop, Head of Technical Research and Science at HES, said: “Climate change poses a number of very real threats to heritage sites, not only here in Scotland but throughout the world, and we’re very pleased to have been asked by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Climate Change and Heritage Working Group to pilot the CVI assessment tool in Orkney.
“At HES, we’ve already undertaken significant work to research the climate change risk our historic sites face, as outlined in our Climate Change Risk Assessment report which was published last year. This workshop offers an important opportunity to further enhance our knowledge and pool expertise by working collaboratively with our local, national and international partners to face this shared challenge, and take a positive step forward to help protect World Heritage sites across the globe.”
Dr Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer in Physics at JCU and one of the lead developers of the CVI assessment tool, said: “Climate change has been identified as the fastest growing threat to World Heritage properties, many of which are already being impacted. The purpose of this workshop is to assess the climate vulnerability of the Orkney World Heritage site, using a tool custom designed for application to all types of World Heritage properties – cultural and natural, marine and terrestrial.”
Adam Markham, Deputy Director for Climate and Energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a member of the ICOMOS working group, said “UCS has been at the forefront of identifying the growing threat to World Heritage sites from climate impacts including from sea level rise, extreme weather events, coastal erosion and worsening storm surge.
“From the Statue of Liberty in New York, to Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, iconic heritage sites the world-over are at risk”, said Markham. “We’re excited to be working with HES and the other partners to pioneer the development of this urgently needed rapid assessment tool to help prioritise and plan climate resilience actions at internationally important sites.”
“Our research shows that Orkney’s world class heritage is suffering greatly from the impacts of climate change,” says Professor Jane Downes, who leads the University of the Highlands and Islands Institute of Archaeology. “We welcome this work as a vital part of setting Orkney’s heritage in today’s global context, while planning for the long term.”
Find out more about how climate change affects the historic environment and what HES is doing to help limit the impact on our website.
About Historic Environment Scotland
Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is the lead public body charged with caring for, protecting and promoting the historic environment. HES is also the lead on delivering Scotland’s first strategy for the historic environment, Our Place in Time.
Historic Scotland, Scran, Canmore, The National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP), The Engine Shed, Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle are sub-brands of Historic Environment Scotland. Historic Environment Scotland is a registered Scottish Charity. Scottish Charity No. SC045925
You can keep up to date with news from Historic Environment Scotland and register for media release email alerts here. If you wish to unsubscribe, please contact us.You can follow Historic Environment Scotland on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and our blog.
Thanks to Claire Mullaney, Senior Communications Officer for the above article. Contact: 0131 668 8588
Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card was invited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to give a lecture in Xi’an this month – the birthplace of Chinese Civilisation and home to the Terracotta Army.
The trip not only gave Nick the opportunity to take part in an international workshop on heritage management and present the Ness of Brodgar as a case study of how archaeology can contribute to local economies, but also explore the amazing archaeology in and around Xi’an including the famous Terracotta Army associated with the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang – China’s first emperor.
Nick, when showing me the photographs from his trip, talked about the sheer scale of the archaeology present in the landscape in and around the city; pointing to huge population mobilisation (reputedly 700,000 for the construction of the mausoleum alone) and highly sophisticated social organisation over 2,000 years ago.
He continued,” The archaeology is breath-taking, not only in its scale…for example the Daming Palace in Xi’an itself covers an area equivalent to 300 football pitches….but in the artefacts and monuments that are being uncovered. The local archaeologists have only uncovered a tiny percentage of the mausoleum site that overall covers several square kilometres and yet the insight into this incredible civilisation provided by the discoveries so far are nothing short of astonishing.”
Following Nicks presentation on the Ness of Brodgar, the workshop progressed onto discussions on heritage management and the innovative methods being used in China to preserve and present the past. One line of discussion centred on the Chinese creation of huge archaeology parks such as the one in Xi’an.
The few days Nick spent in the city also gave him the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which gave him chance to think on LP Hartley’s opening line in the 1953 novel ‘The Go- Between’ “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
The trip was fully funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – a huge thanks to them for this opportunity.
The Ness of Brodgar is a University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute research excavation and is part financed by the Scottish Government and the Leader 2014-2020 Programme.
In this blog Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, Orkney College UHI , talks about the attraction of the theme…..Ruination & Decay. This article originally appeared on the HARC Ruination & Decay blog. Click through to catch the latest!
“Ruined buildings and decaying remnants of human activity have a strange attractiveness and bewitching aesthetics to them. When ruination and decay was taken up by the Humanities and Arts Research Cluster (HARC), University of the Highlands and Islands, as the first of its annual research themes, I was immediately excited by the topic. Why should this be so? Why was I not repulsed?
Firstly, there is the detective aspect, of course. As I child, I always wanted to be an archaeologist, because it combined the professions of detective and adventurer. True enough, I had a somewhat skewed image of what an archaeologist does, influenced by Indiana Jones and Thor Heyerdahl. However, even now with a more mature understanding of the profession, I am still attracted to its puzzle solving aspect. It is like finding fourteen pieces of a thousand-piece jigsaw and from there trying to gain some sort of understanding of the picture. This attracts me to ruined buildings, too. From what is left now, can we form a picture of what it was like before and about its story over time?
Another thing I like about ruins and decay is the effect of getting a little glimpse, as if looking briefly into a single shard of a broken mirror. A wartime hut at the old naval base of Lyness in Orkney: Reduced to a pile of rotting wood like a match-stick house after a storm. But on the one wall that is still standing: Miraculously, a little mirror is still hanging up! Allowing us for a short second to have a look into the past and at the person who last used it to shave before going out into another day of war.
There was an underwater archaeological survey done recently here in Orkney, looking at the naval wrecks of Scapa Flow. The most amazing images came out. What touched me to the core was not the ships in themselves, or their gun turrets, but the little everyday things that were spread on the seabed around the wrecks. A tuba. A fork and a saucer with the ship’s name on the porcelain. Shoes. Lots of shoes, which once contained feet.
I am mesmerised by looking at photographs of decaying structures from the relatively recent past. A well-known example is the Mark Twain Public Library in Detroit, which closed down due to budget cuts and lies abandoned with books and furniture still in it. There are Pinterest collections out there dedicated to urban decay, showing abandoned and decaying schools, factories, swimming pools and sports centres, mansions and churches, lecture halls and theatres. I have spent hours on Google Earth, looking at the town of Chernobyl, where trees and grass have taken over the apartment blocks and the Ferris wheel in the amusement park has become no more than a trellis for the returning plant life. My fascination with urban decay stems, I think, from the clashes between the familiar and the strange and between the temporal moment and vastness of time. It shows so clearly and unrelentingly that human structures are no more than temporary surface alterations and that however familiar we are with the music hall it is but a brief and temporary assemblage of materials which one day will be claimed back by Planet Earth. A mirage of civilisation and illusion of governance over nature.
We have such places here in Orkney where I live, too. Little stone cottages, abandoned as farms grew bigger. In the island of Sanday, there is an entire abandoned village. Little remnants of past community life are still there: Rhubarb is still growing, a tea pot is left on a windowsill, a sewing machine stands abandoned behind a little stone window. We even have abandoned islands. The last inhabitants of the island of Swona – a brother and sister by the name of Rosie – thought they were only leaving for a few days, but never returned. Rose Cottage stands lonely with food in the cupboards, a tea towel hanging on the range in the kitchen, but with cattle and birds as the only inhabitants of the island. The human time-line which started in Swona five millennia ago with a Neolithic chambered cairn stopped in its tracks in 1974. But the time of the cattle and the wildlife still goes on.
Regarding sunsets, I have noticed a strange effect. Sunsets are sometimes better enjoyed when not looking at them directly. I was thinking of this latterly as I was walking home from work one late February afternoon. My path took me along an old stone wall, rather tall, which I could not see over. Behind it, a glorious, golden sunset was in progress. The sky above looked like Soria Moria, the fabled golden castle in the clouds from Norwegian fairy tales. But when I got to the end of the wall, and I could finally look directly at the sun, it was no more than an ordinary sunset.
Perhaps part of the attraction to ruins, too, is that it allows you to look at human life without staring at it directly. Just like the attraction of a traditional Geisha is how she hides behind fans and draperies and layers of silk, allowing only glimpses into a secret world (paraphrasing Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha). Or the way that a horror film is much scarier when you don’t see the monster, only its shadow. There is something about that step of removal, that distance, which makes ruins and abandoned places attractive. Not too far, but not too close. Layering and glimpses of a hidden world.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, when ruins were at the height of fashion, intellectuals had this idea that their own modern times were characterised by the loss and corruption of an older, truer culture, belonging to our forefathers. They carried around copies of the Poems of Ossian, they dug out prehistoric tombs and monuments, looking for the Celtic Twilight and the Old North. They thought of archaeology and folklore as these scattered jigsaw pieces, or shards and glimpses of a hidden world which was purer and truer than their own.
I remember visiting Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire some years ago. Although the abbey itself has an interesting history, I was also fascinated by what the tour guide said about its use as a ruin. A beautiful Georgian garden had been designed around it, with the ruined abbey as its centrepiece. The land had been landscaped, the stream had been deliberately directed to create an artificial Arcadia. In this Georgian version of augmented reality, the ruined abbey was the jewel in the crown.
At this point, I suddenly felt that the abbey lost its magic and became no more than a garden folly. A special effect in a theatre. It had lost its mystery. It had been tamed. Georgian landscape gardeners would even build fake ruins. But these have no mystery. Built ruins are not alive.
In his seminar on “Decaying flesh and the instability of substances” 28/2/19, Colin Richards spoke about the blurring of the categories ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’. That the type of Neolithic building which we call a ‘tomb’ may in fact not be a static disposal unit for dead bodies, but rather the opposite: A living transformation. “The monument itself becomes a living thing,” he said. “It is all a process of becoming.” It has been deliberately built with layers of stone ‘skin’. The stones of the inner walls have been carefully split to create an ‘open’ face inwards, ready to absorb the persons who are put inside. Through this process, the entire building and bodies together become something new. We don’t know what they called it, but we can think of it as something along the lines of an ancestor.
This made complete sense to me, both in terms of my own personal response to ruins, and as a researcher who is interested in Viking Age, medieval and early modern folklore and beliefs. In the Orkney archive, there are accounts from as late as the 1920s telling us how people saw ancient burial mounds as alive. Opening or destroying it meant bad luck. The inhabitant of the mound was called a “hogboy” or “hogboon” (from ‘mound dweller’ in Old Norse) and he could be dangerous if his mound were to be disturbed. You could tell that the mound was alive by observing the strange fire that would burn above it on certain nights. The fire is like the beating heart of the burial mound, just as the peat fire in the hearth was the heart of a croft-house.
Both for ancient ruins and more modern ruins, the following holds true: When human life in it, or human use of it has come to an end, the building nonetheless still has its own life. It continues to live and interact with nature and the world around it. Abandonment, ruination and decay is not about stopping time, but about transforming into something else. As Colin Richards put it: Decay is a generative process. Perhaps the root of my fascination lies here, in the notion of a ruin being alive. And perhaps this is why once the ruin is consolidated, made secure by Historic Environment Scotland and opened up to ticket-buying visitors, it loses some of its appeal to me?”
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the launch of Scotland’s Island Research Framework for Archaeology (SIRFA).
The four year project is supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers Scotland and is funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy.
The project commences with the First SIRFA Symposium which will be held in the Outer Hebrides from Monday 7th January to Friday 11th January 2019. The conference is open to everyone who works in the archaeological research field including museum professional, commercial archaeologists, academic researchers, archaeology students, community heritage groups, independent researchers and local and national government agencies.
The focus at the symposium will be:
to identify and agree key research gaps
to identify and agree areas of research potential
to propose a statement of research objectives and development by period and theme
The symposium will form the first in a series of conferences to be held in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland over the next few years.
The project is co-ordinated by UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer Dr Rebecca Rennell based at Lews castle College UHI, Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Dunyvaig Castle excavation.
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again, reporting about Part Five of my ‘Summer of Digging’; excavations at Dunyvaig Castle as part of the Islay Heritage Project. This edition is an extra bonus blog, as my Placement with the university only involved 8 weeks of work & excavations; so the extra two weeks experience in Islay rounded off my participation in and interaction with over 5,000 years of Scottish archaeology over the summer.
The three week excavation work at Dunyvaig Castle is part of a much larger and wider project (the Islay Heritage Project), which will involve further excavation work in addition to desk-based and other research methods over the next 10 years; to further investigate Islay’s past and enhance our understanding of it. The director of the Dunyvaig Project is Steven Mithen, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading and also the Chair of Islay Heritage; with Darko Maricevic being the director of the Dunyvaig excavation & the Director of Archaeology for Islay Heritage as a whole.
Dunyvaig Castle, located at Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of the Isle of Islay, was once the naval fortress of the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of Clan MacDonald and the greatest Gaelic Lordship of late Medieval Scotland.
The Dunyvaig Project will provide a comprehensive study of the castle, its hinterland and role in the economic, social and political history of the Western Atlantic Seaboard. It will transform Dunyvaig into a vibrant heritage centre for the residents and visitors to Islay while maintaining its rugged and romantic appeal.
The main aims of the project were to use the geophysical surveys from 2017 to assist in putting trenches over areas of the highest archaeological potential. Although the castle would be the focal point of the project’s investigation, it didn’t operate on its own; as it was important to get an idea and see evidence of what happened outside the castle walls as well. Resistance surveys were carried out to detect walls and structures, with areas and anomalies darker in colour indicating higher resistance; and more likely to have archaeological remains.
While I was still up in Orkney at the Ness of Brodgar finding those mysterious miniature pots, the team in Islay were working hard opening up this year’s trenches; so by the time I arrived at the start of the second week of the excavation, proceedings were well under way and the three main trenches for this year had been fully exposed.
Upon arrival I was informed I would be working in Trench 1 for the duration of the project under the enthusiastic and experienced guidance of Amanda Clarke. Amanda is an associate professor with the University of Reading and has a wealth of excavation experience and knowledge behind her. She plays a big hand in the running and teaching of a fieldschool involving the University of Reading, having spent many years as director of the Silchester field school in England.
Trench One is located in the castle courtyard and was only previously surveyed by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland (RCAHMS) in the 1970s. Trench One looked to investigate buildings at the either side of the entrance into the courtyard, the entrance area itself, the relationships with the outer walls, possible battlements stairs, evidence for a possible gatehouse and the approach to the main gate. Together with its extension, Trench 1 looked to generate the evidence for the bombardments and the repairs to the outer wall, and investigate one of the outer buttresses postulated by the RCAHMS’ survey.
It was theorised that the castle wall had a ‘double skin’ or two layers of walling, and it was thought that there may be the presence of a staircase in between these two walls. This part of the castle had been bombarded and badly damaged following three major attacks between the 16th and 17th centuries. On the very right of the trench inside the courtyard wall what was known as ‘the well’ but could have been a water system or water latrine. This was poor enough condition upon arrival at the site as farming equipment and metal materials from more recent times had built up inside. Great effort was made to clear ‘the well’ but unfortunately time wasn’t on the team’s side to give a full investigation; so this feature will have to wait until next year to be looked at in-depth. However, ‘the well’ again highlighted the castle as a ‘living monument’; being used for different purposes at different times through its history.
On the left side of the internal wall of Trench 1 was Building B. This was a late insertion and was propped right up against the courtyard wall, which dates to the 16th century with a later add-on from the 17th century following demolition in the bombardments. The earlier layers were made up of clay and the later layers made up of mortar, with the clay bonded walls being a rare find in construction dating to this time period. The external area of Trench One at the back of the courtyard wall (on outside) showed the make-up of the wall and indicated several layers. The presence of turf in this area was built on top of earlier wall material and is thought to have plugged the gap and been a quick-fix following attacks on the castle.
Trench Two looked to target the sea gate to establish what activities were undertaken in this area and how the sea gate itself was used at different times. An electrical resistance survey carried out months prior to the excavation did not identify any further substantial structures in this area, which suggests that the direct access to the sea may have been important throughout the history of the castle. There were three main phases in Trench Two. The first phase involved the ramp, which provided access in & out of the Seagate. Initial thoughts are that this seems to be a probable structural slipway, but further excavation next year will give us a better insight. The trench had evidence for structural collapse or dumping, found in the presence of rubble; which was covered by the turf blocking of the Seagate.
There was a seal horizon of clay which appeared to level the ground; with this turf wall blocking off the sea gate and bringing its use to an end at some point in time. The second phase was indicated by the presence of a few walls. Signs of a possible double wall which was mainly built of rubble and turf but not much mortar; and all walls appeared to exist together at some point in time. The third phase was indicated by an intense period of burning.
Trench Three was made up of a series of smaller trenches, located several hundred yards outside the castle walls; which looked to investigate the wider landscape of the settlement outside of the castles interior. Visitors to the site would have noticed ridge and furrows and other earthworks above ground level which indicted the presence of buildings or other archaeological related material beneath the overgrowth; so the nature of some of these were also examined. Trench Three revealed the remains of a rectangular T-shaped building, with burning in the trench also possibly suggesting evidence for an oven or a kiln. It appears that the building had burned down at some stage, with a red material laying on top of the building surface. However, whether this was deliberate or accidental is currently difficult to tell. There was evidence for a house which went out of use in the 17th century. There were also finds of pottery but none of the pieces discovered dated after the 17th century. The finds of pottery suggest people may have been supportive of the castle and that the pottery indicates the castle as a trading place.
However, the site wasn’t without some prehistoric evidence as Trench Three also provided the find of a prehistoric blade. This find highlights the attractiveness of the location in the wider environment and shows the site was an area of settlement long before the castle was built. Geophysics carried out in the area also suggested a possible road and a number of structures and possible enclosures.
A major aspect of the Dunyvaig Project as a whole was the involvement of an archaeological field school. Similar to archaeological excavation projects run by UHI Archaeology during the summer up in Orkney, the Islay Heritage Project was run by the University of Reading (UOR) who also have a field school running in Silchester, in England. The field school provided participants the opportunity to acquire archaeological field skills and also involved the use of the Archaeology Skills Passport, which students can use to record and keep track of their progress in archaeological fieldwork; and build up their skills over time. Also similar to the UHI excavations up in Orkney, the Dunyvaig Project (for the majority of participants); gave students their first real taste and experience of an archaeological excavation. This seemed fitting given it was the first year of the Dunyvaig Project, so it gave an entirely new and fresh feel to all involved in the excavation.
As well as general excavation and fieldwork techniques, students were also trained in other various aspects of the archaeological process. This included geophysical surveying, palaeoenvironmental surveying, finds processing and environmental sampling; all of which gave students a fuller experience and appreciation for the wide world which archaeology entails.
Another large part of the Islay Heritage Project was the involvement of the local community. Local inhabitants of Islay were encouraged to get involved in the excavations as volunteers and were a welcome addition to the on-site workforce. As well as the excavations at Dunyvaig Castle being open to the public for guided tours on a daily basis, locals were also included in the excavation with special dedicated days and associated activities such as the ‘Dunyvaig Bake-Off’ and an ‘Artist’s Day’ with Dietmar Finger.
The involvement of local school visits were also an especially beneficial aspect to the excavation. It was great to see the joy and fascination which took over the children when digging and finding their very own artefacts; while also learning all about the history of the site and their local area in general. There were 130 school children who visited the site and took part in activities, with the involvement of six primary schools and one secondary school. In total over the 3 week excavation period there were over 400 visitors who came to the site; all of whom were given guided tours of each trench by the students themselves.
During the third and final week of this year’s excavations, a remarkable find was discovered. Zoe a first year University of Reading student, used her ‘archaeological eye’ to notice what turned out to be the find of the season. The object found was none other than the Seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor; who took ownership of Islay in 1615. The seal dates to 1593 and originally would have been attached to a wooden, antler or lead handle. The castle was eventually abandoned by the Campbell’s of Cawdor in 1677 following continuous sieges and bombardments; so the fact this seal was found suggest it may have been either hidden or forgotten and lost in the chaos of attack.
The seal was among several artefacts and finds on show at the Public talk on the excavation which took place on the second last night of the project. There was a massive turnout at Ramsey Hall, in Port Ellen, for the talk in which the supervisors from the project discussed the findings of the Dunyvaig Project and plans for future work. Zoe even got a round of applause from the public when the seal was discussed. The great turnout by the people of Islay for the public talk was a great way to bring the successful excavation project to an end. Having come straight from site to the talk, it’s safe to say the excavation team absolutely devoured the pizzas that Steve had kindly arranged to be delivered to the hall following the end of the talk.
For many participants the dig was their first ever time on an archaeological excavation and we can say that it was an extremely successful three weeks. The find of the seal was just the icing on the cake of an already prosperous first year and indicates great things for the future of the project.
I speak on behalf of all UHI students who took part in the excavation when I say that it was an absolutely great project to be a part of, and one that will hopefully see more UHI students return over the coming years and add to our understanding of Islay. Also a shout out to all staff and students from the University of Reading for making myself and all other UHI students feel very welcome and valued members of the team. It was also great that several of the lecturers and teaching staff from UHI Archaeology (including the Director of the UHI Archaeology Institute Professor Jane Downes, Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Jen Harland) came to visit the excavation and catch up with the UHI students about how the project was going along. The collaboration of the two universities ran very smoothly and I think benefited both greatly; so hopefully this joint venture will continue for many years to come.
I think I also speak on behalf of the whole student contingent (both UOR and UHI) when I say a massive thanks to Steven, Darko, Amanda and all the other supervisors; for allowing all students to learn and enhance their archaeological skill sets & understanding in such a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.
A big acknowledgement of gratitude also goes out to staff at the Port Charlotte Youth Hostel for basically letting us take over the place for the three week duration of the project.
Well, this blog officially marks the final chapter of my Archaeological Adventures and Summer of Digging for 2018 with UHI Archaeology Institute. It’s safe to say it’s been a hectic old few months but it’s been an absolutely fantastic experience, and one not many people will have the fortune to experience.
Thank you to all the readers of my blogs and those who have interacted with and followed my Archaeology Adventures over the summer through UHI Archaeology’s various social media accounts. I hope I’ve managed to convey the story of each excavation in a clear and interesting manner; and maybe one or two of ye learned something new along the way as well.
The Cairns Site Director and University of the Highlands and Islands Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, updates us on the conservation of the two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered at the site in the summer.
A remarkable, perfectly preserved, wooden bowl unearthed from a two-thousand-year-old well has been revealed during conservation work being undertaken on the artefact this week, and an extraordinary story of ancient repair of the bowl suggests it was a valued object during the Iron Age.
The Wooden Vessel Revealed: Old, Bowl-ed and Beautiful!
In July of this year, a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based in Orkney, excavated an enigmatic underground chamber beneath the floor of an Iron Age broch at the site of The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, as part of research at the site.
Now, on-going conservation work on a water-logged deposit, recovered from inside the underground chamber beneath the broch, has afforded an exceptionally rare glimpse of a stunningly well-preserved, two-thousand-year-old, wooden bowl. The nature of the bowl, and the details emerging about its life story, may help archaeologists to better understand the enigma of such subterranean chambers, leading to a fuller appreciation of their complex role within Iron Age communities.
The first stage of the conservation work was completed this week, as specialist conservators at AOC Archaeology, based in Edinburgh, have now patiently ‘micro-excavated’ the bowl from its protective soil block.
The work offers a clear view of the object for the first time in about two thousand years. The very finely carved vessel, which is nearly complete but fragmentary, is exceptionally smoothly finished, appearing almost burnished. The bowl is around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Although the object has split into two large pieces and about twenty smaller pieces at some point in the past, it is largely complete. The bowl had been skilfully hand carved from a half-log of an alder tree. Tool marks are visible in the interior of the bowl, but the exterior has been finely burnished.
Making a Mend: A History of Repair
On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about sixteen strange looking wiggly strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly-spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large ancient crack. The strips are in fact a very unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and the rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to the vessel to prolong its life.
There are other examples of Iron Age bowls with visible repairs, but the distinctive special metal fasteners are unique and appear to be otherwise unknown from the British Iron Age. In form, they might be familiar to modern DIY enthusiasts or wood-workers. Sometimes referred to by building trade suppliers as: ‘saw-tooth fasteners’ or ‘corrugated edge fasteners’ they can be hammered into a cracked wooden surface to stabilise wooden objects and save them from imminent collapse.
The repair work seen on the bowl suggests clues about the importance of the bowl in an Orkney context. Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and director of The Cairns project said: “After first encountering the bowl this summer, we had wondered if wooden bowls, and other objects made from wood, might actually have been much more common than we would have previously expected for the mostly treeless environment of Iron Age Orkney. Perhaps archaeologists have been guilty of overplaying the scarcity of wood in Scotland’s Northern Isles. Maybe there were almost as many wooden vessels in circulation as there were ceramic ones, fragments of which we recover in great numbers from sites like The Cairns.
Martin continues, “The bowl discovery made us ask an important question: was the survival of the bowl in the well merely an outcome of the unique quality of preservation down there, or was its presence there also reflective of other special qualities accorded that place by people in the Iron Age? I think the biography of the bowl that is emerging could well help us answer these questions”.
Dr Anne Crone, a specialist in ancient wooden artefacts with AOC Archaeology, who is providing specialist analysis of the bowl, said, “The rarity of wooden vessels in Orkney could be why they went to such lengths to repair what is a quite beautiful object”.
The Enigma of Iron Age Broch ‘Wells’
The bowl was excavated from beneath the floor of the broch inside an enigmatic type of underground chamber, traditionally known as a well. Around 20 such structures have been found during previous excavations, but many of these were 19th Century antiquarian investigations, and fairly few wells have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns.
Archaeologists used to interpret such chambers straightforwardly as ordinary wells, envisaging them as supplying the households that built them, but in recent decades, problems have been identified with this interpretation, and there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, including constricted entrances and steep staircases, has raised doubts about their functionality, and the volume of water found within them is seldom enough to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.
The Cairns chamber itself is an amazing feature, comprising a series of seven stone steps descending two metres underground into a chamber that was carefully rock-cut, with a corbelled (bee-hive shaped) roof around two metres in height. The chamber is complete and even more remarkable because, when discovered, it had remained sealed since the Iron Age, thus affording archaeologists the opportunity to excavate it carefully under modern scientific conditions. The bowl must also have been placed in the well at this time, however radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could stem from an even earlier date. Whichever is the case, it is Orkney’s oldest wooden vessel.
As the excavation of the well commenced, it quickly became clear that it did indeed contain very intriguing remains. Martin Carruthers again takes up the story: “Underground features, especially sealed and damp ones, can yield astonishing survivals in preservation terms, but I was still amazed when perfectly preserved organic items started to turn up as we began to excavate the silt within the chamber at the foot of the staircase. We began to find a lot of plant material – grasses, moss, plant stems from heather and wetland type species – as well as insect remains. Then we found a carved wooden object, some sort of peg, made from willow, again a type of tree frequently present on the edges of wetlands. Frankly, all of this was sufficiently dramatic, and very significant for our understanding of the Iron Age environment. I was already well-satisfied with these findings, but then when the wooden bowl began to emerge…that was simply a spine-tingling moment!”.
“It was obvious that this was something really very special, a miraculous survival from the Iron Age – a whole wooden bowl! It was still upright and in a level position within the sediments, as though it had been simply placed down on the base of the well the day before. But we knew it was about two thousand years old! During the fieldwork season, the bowl was nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. Throughout the excavation we retained the bowl in its silty matrix, and we recovered it, still in this soil block, to try to keep it together and promote good preservation conditions until we could get it to a specialist conservator. That meant that we hadn’t really clearly seen the full object until the conservation work occurred this week”.
Understanding the Well and the Bowl
The work on the bowl is providing lots of new and forthcoming information and it is hoped that will shed more light on the broch ‘wells’, and more for the project team to weigh up.
Carruthers reflected: “If the bowl was used within the well, and not just placed there at the end of its life, then perhaps this is telling us something about the nature of the well, and how it was used. The great care that was taken over the repair of the wooden bowl to extend its life tends to suggest that such items were not actually common, and the Cairns bowl seems to have been highly valued. Prior to the conservation work and witnessing the fully revealed bowl and its repair work, we weren’t sure whether to think of the bowl as merely the device for drawing off water from the well, or whether to see it as something more significant, perhaps related to the special nature of the underground chamber. The former possibility already seemed unlikely due to what we observed of the bowl during excavation.”
Essentially, the bowl didn’t have a huge carrying capacity, and its rather fine nature and unstable round base wouldn’t be very convenient for routinely handling water or placing the vessel on the ground when it was full. The bowl might have been used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring the liquid to a larger bucket, but alternatively it could have been poured as a libation, or used to perform ablutions within the well, perhaps even, within a ceremonial context.
The extended life of the bowl makes it seem even more special, an object that was highly prized, perhaps with a well-known and important history, even a valued relic, curated, if you will, as an heirloom of the broch household. Presumably, that broch household finally placed the bowl in the underground structure at the deepest, innermost end of the chamber, towards the end of the life of both the bowl and the well sometime in the mid- to late-2nd Century AD.
If the bowl was used within the underground chamber for periods before that final deposition and abandonment, then, as well as reflecting the wonderful preservation, it suggests these subterranean chambers also had special qualities for the Iron Age people who constructed and used them. If that’s borne out, then this is an important step towards establishing what the Iron Age subterranean structures are all about.
Next Steps: Restoring Ancient Repairs
Now that the wooden bowl has been excavated from its protective soil block, the first stage of the conservation work has been successfully completed. The next stages will involve recording the object through illustration and scanning work, and then the crucially important, and time consuming, process of soaking the object in consolidant so that it can be stabilised and, ultimately, go on public display. Then it may be possible to restore the bowl to whole again, but this will very much depend on how it behaves during the soaking and stabilisation process.
In addition to consolidating the bowl, there is much more that may be learned about it. Further scientific analysis may reveal more important hidden details. Research questions include: are there any residues present within the bowl that might give further clues to its use? As the bowl appears to have been a curated item, just how much earlier than its final resting place could it be? Radiocarbon dating the bowl will hopefully shed light on this.
In addition to the bowl itself, there are many other well-preserved organic materials and items from the well, which will also be studied, and which may give further clues to the status of the well. As well as all the plant material, there are preserved insects, and coprolites (fossilised faeces!), and the astonishing survival of hair, which may well be human.
All the conservation work and the scientific analysis costs a fair amount of money and the UHI project team will shortly be launching a crowd-funding initiative to help meet the costs.
• Preservation conditions: The basal silts within the ‘well’ had been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen), and this means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items. It is a circumstance usually only seen in the rare conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations, by AOC archaeology, at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron Age wooden bowl earlier this summer.
Cairns cog: In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and communally passed around to celebrate the marriage.