What Makes Ruination and Decay Attractive?

Ruined WW2 building, Lyness, Hoy, Orkney

The University of the Highlands and Islands Humanities & Arts Research Cluster (HARC) themed research event ‘Ruination & Decay’ is now truly up and running.

The year long event itself features monthly seminars, blog articles, photographs, podcasts and culminates in a themed conference in December 2019.

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!

Ragnhild continues…..

“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?

A mirror briefly reflects the photographer in this ruined WW2 hut in Orkney

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.

Abandoned island in Orkney

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.

Abandoned Village, Sanday, Orkney

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.

Ortie Village, Sanday, Orkney

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.

Near Yesnaby, Orkney

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?”

New Archaeology Research Framework Launched

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.

For more information on SIRFA and the First Western Isles Symposium see  their website or email Dr Rebecca Rennell sirfa@uhi.ac.uk

UHI Ross Drummond and the Dunyvaig Castle Dig

The picturesque location of Dunyvaig Castle and excavation site 

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.

Dunyvaig Castle: a wilder day on site serving as a reminder of the stormy past that the castle has lived through

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.

Building B – the latest structure to emerge from Trench One

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.

Wall in Trench 2 along with some areas of intense 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.

One of the buildings in Trench Three along with the possible oven/kiln in the foreground

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.

The Seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, dating to 1593 (Image: Islay Heritage Facebook Page)

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.

A packed Ramsey Hall in Port Ellen for the public talk on the Dunyvaig Project

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.

Members of the excavation team working together to back fill the site on the final day

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.

UHI Archaeology Institute students on the Dunyvaig Project dig. From L to R….Mairead, Ross, Darroch, Angus, William and Duncan

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.

All the best,

Ross Drummond, MSc, UHI Archaeology Institute 

For any further info on the Dunyvaig excavations and the Islay Heritage Project as a whole, make sure to check out their website.

Orkney’s Oldest Wooden Bowl Unveiled

A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left
A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left

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.

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Looking across The Cairns Broch itself

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.

Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple
Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple

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.

Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl
Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl

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.

‘Bowled Over’!

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!”.

Conservation work progressing on the bowl
Conservation work progressing on the bowl

“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.

A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile
A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile

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.

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Dr Anne Crone & Alex Wood examining the bowl in the lab

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.

Background Notes

• 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.

 

Environmental Archaeology Workshops – Enrol Now

Palaeo Poster V1.aiJoin Dr Scott Timpany from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to learn about Environmental Archaeology.

Workshops are to be held at Orkney College UHI on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th November 2018. Join us to study the hidden world of Kirkwall through the microscope….following up on the results of the Kirkwall Town Heritage Initiative excavations in 2016.

  • Saturday 10th November – Introduction to Pollen
  • Sunday 11th November – Introduction to plants and insects
  • Venue: Orkney College Lab 2
  • Time: 10am – 3pm both days.

No previous experience is required and you are welcome to come to both workshops or single days.

There is no charge to take part, but booking is essential. Contact Kat Fryer enquiries.orca@uhi.ac.uk or telephone 01856 569345


 

Archaeology in Orkney, Summer – Part Two

The Loth Road site2, Sanday
The Loth Road Excavation

This is the second in a series of blog posts looking at the main findings from the excavations undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute during the summer of 2018.

This time we examine the fascinating excavations on Sanday – one of the northern most islands in Orkney.

Professor Colin Richards continues…..Cata Sand, Tresness Chambered Tomb & Loth Road Bronze Age House, Sanday. Fieldwork on Sanday this summer was arguably undertaken at some of the most beautiful places in Orkney! Also, in the most glorious weather.

In all, three archaeological sites were investigated relating to two different research projects.

First, a new project entitled ‘Northern Exposure’ began by excavating an Early Bronze Age settlement at Loth Road. The research project is examining the period c 2400 – 1800 BC, which marks the transition from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age. As an ‘in between’ period, these centuries have tended to be neglected as researchers tend to work on the Neolithic (3700 – 2400 BC) or the Bronze Age (c. 2000 – 800 BC). In fact it is a fascinating period of time beginning with the abandonment of the late Neolithic ‘villages’ such as Skara Brae, Ness of Brodgar, and on Sanday, Pool. Around c. 2400 BC, communities appear to fragment and people live dispersed across the landscape in paired or ‘double’ houses.

The beach location of the Cata Sand site
The beach location of the Cata Sand site

There seems to be a change in climate around this time, and across mainland Scotland we see the possible influx of new groups of people from the continent. These people are metalworkers and the first metal (copper) objects come into circulation and use. It does not look as if these immigrants get as far as Orkney, although they are present in Caithness. Nonetheless, judging from the abandonment of the villages, society appears to be disrupted from about 2400 BC in the Northern Isles.

However, it is precisely at this time that for the first time links become apparent between Orkney and Shetland, with materials being exchanged and similar house architecture occurring in both areas (also present on Fair Isle). So the big questions revolve around why were the villages abandoned, what effect did climate change have on their lives and why did the folk on Orkney begin to engage with communities in Shetland? Equally, what effect did the new populations moving through Britain (with ancestry reaching back across the north European plain to the Steppes) have on late Neolithic Orcadian society?

As one of the northern isles, Sanday is a good location to explore the beginnings of links between Orkney and Shetland, the Loth Road Early Bronze Age settlement comprises a double house (and possibly more structures) overlooking the Bay of Stove where a massive late Neolithic village is present several hundred metres away.

Structures emerging at Cata Sand, Sanday
Structures emerging at Cata Sand

Excavations uncovered some well-preserved houses, which had been decorated with cup-marks. These are small depressions normally found on rock outcrops or burial cists or mounds. This is exciting as it is the first example of such decoration in an Early Bronze Age domestic context, and more importantly shows links to Shetland where they are present on rock outcrops on Unst and Whalsay. Excavations will continue next year where it is hoped more material from Shetland will be discovered.

The second research project involved excavating the chambered cairn at Tresness, together with a contemporary early Neolithic house at Cata Sand. This fieldwork continues a project investigating the early Neolithic of Orkney and Shetland and includes house sites excavated in both places.

The Sanday early Neolithic house site of Cata Sand is situated on a low rock spit projecting into the bay. This is a very dynamic environment which changed dramatically before and after the settlement was inhabited (c. 3300BC). Indeed, the landscape is changing today and one of the reasons this site was discovered was because an eroding sand dune revealed masonry and hearths. Investigations have uncovered at least two, and probably more, substantial houses – obviously these have been eroded by the sea (the site can be covered at high tide), but enough remains to enable us to examine house floors and hearths.

The site became well known last year due to the unexpected discovery of large numbers of whales that had been buried in large pits just a few hundred years ago. The Neolithic houses are interesting because of their low lying coastal position. Investigations on Mainland over recent years at Stonehall, Smerquoy, Knowes of Trotty and Wideford Hill have found similar early Neolithic houses much further inland at the base of rising ground and clearly sited with regard to water sources. It will be interesting seeing if the inhabitants of the Cata Sand houses had a higher engagement with the sea.

The final site examined is the chambered cairn of Tresness, which is roughly contemporary with the Cata Sand houses (c. 3500-3300BC). Again, coastal erosion is destroying this site and an excavation was mounted to explore the mound composition and burial chamber. After removing the flagstones over the chamber, it was found that a later wall had been built across the chamber. The wall is probably of later date and suggests the cairn was dug into in the Iron Age. This is a common occurrence in Orkney where Iron Age communities (c. 800BC – AD800), seem to target Neolithic tombs to enter and either build structures on top or nearby. This is unfortunate for archaeologists interested in Neolithic burial remains and practices! Hopefully, the later disturbance will be restricted to the entrance area and untouched Neolithic burial remains discovered next year.

Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road, Sanday
Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road

It has been interesting and exciting work on Sanday because our initial findings show us how different the islands were through prehistory. Furthermore the archaeology on Sanday for the period 2400 – 1800BC may well provide us with important information about why people stopped living in the big villages, and why they not only altered their domestic arrangements, but also began to turn and look northwards and to forge closer links with communities on Fair Isle and Shetland.

At each site the landowners were very enthusiastic and helpful and we would like to thank Adam and Jimmy Towrie and Colin and Heather Headworth. A great many local people visited the sites and kindly helped the team in various ways, and are very much looking forward to returning next year, and expecting equally fine weather….The excavation is a joint project between the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire.

For more on the continuing excavation on Sanday in Orkney see our previous blog posts.


If you would like to join us to study archaeology at any of the 13 colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk 

Brochtoberfest 2018

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The Cairns Broch Orkney 2018

Brochtoberfest is an annual celebration of all things related to brochs and the Scottish Iron Age more generally.

Day One: Lectures and Exhibition

  • Date:     20th October 2018
  • Time:    Midday to 16.30
  • Venue:  St Magnus Centre, Palace Road, Kirkwall KW15 1PA
  • Host:     Orkney Archaeology Society

Day Two: Field-trip to Broch of Gurness

  • Date: 21st October 2018
  • Time: 11.00 -13.00
  • Meet: Will be arranged on Day One

It’s a concept originally devised by Orkney Archaeology Society and this year will be the third annual event in the series, and sees the return of the event to Orkney shores after a very successful meeting in Caithness last year, hosted by Caithness Broch Project.

There will be stalls such as Young Archaeology Club, OAS, Iron Age Spinning, 3D images of the Cairns Broch and finds from the Broch. On the Sunday there will be a field trip to the Broch of Gurness which will be led by Historic Scotland’s Andrew Burnet, along with UHI Archaeology Institute Martin Carruthers.

Martin Carruthers, Chair of Orkney Archaeology Society, Site Director of The Cairns Broch excavation and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute continues………

“The event is to be held in October, as its name suggests, on the 20th and the 21st of the Month, and we intend to broaden the event, and its appeal by including more space for stalls, exhibitions, posters, field outings as well as presentations from professionals, academics, students, and community groups currently, or recently, involved in broch-related projects. There will therefore be opportunities to show-case ongoing projects, initiatives and research.

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I wanted to use this opportunity to invite initial interest in any or all of these types of activity. As you’ll appreciate time is marching onwards so please feel free to pass this message on directly to anyone who you feel might have an appropriate interest, and especially to anyone (students, community groups, professionals, academics, living-heritage professionals, experimental archaeologists) that you feel could be productive contributors to the vibrancy of the festival, whether through presentation, exhibition, demonstration, or other means.

We would, for instance love to have representation from all of the major Northern Scottish Iron Age projects currently under way as well as from collaborators and partners such as Caithness Broch Project, Yarrows Heritage Trust, etc.

The festival organisers would also very much like to hear of anyone who might be interested in representing other archaeological projects from adjacent periods and regions, so those pursuing Later Bronze Age, Late Iron Age and Early Historic themes would also be very much welcome. Our aim is to be broad and expansive in our definition of what is relevant to brochs.”

Please do get in touch with any queries and especially if you feel that you, or your organisation, would like to be involved by dropping us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

 

 

UHI MSc Student Ross Drummond at the Ness of Brodgar

Looking over to Hoy on a lovely summer morning
View from the site over to Hoy in the distance

In the fourth episode of his story detailing his experience of studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands, MSc student Ross Drummond tells us about his time at the world renowned Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 4 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time I was taking on the absolute monster which is The Ness of Brodgar; Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer.

A lot of you may already know about The Ness of Brodgar already through the amount of media attention it has received in recent years, featuring heavily in a 2017 3-part BBC Documentary series ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’; which attracted the attention of a remarkable 2.1 million viewers for the first episode.

For those of you not familiar with The Ness of Brodgar I shall provide a brief summary, but for more detailed info check out the website (http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/ ). The first work on the Ness involved a geophysical survey in 2002, with revealed a huge complex of anomalies, and had high archaeological potential. The following year a large notched stone was ploughed up in the field between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, which looked like it could have been part of a Bronze Age cist, with the possibility of human remains. A small trench was opened and a large rectangular wall was found, this was the revealing of structure One. In 2004 8 test-trenches were opened up uncovering more structures and Neolithic materials, and the rest they say is history… With excavation work taking place for several weeks every summer since.

Overview of part of the Ness of Brogdar site
Looking north at the Ness of Brodgar

The earliest evidence onsite dates as far back as 3500 BC with activity at stopping around 2300BC, and although there is a large number of buildings present, the site is not simply domestic. It is thought that The Ness was a gathering place where Neolithic people from Orkney and further afield would come together for feasting, trading and celebration of important political and celestial events.

Since Structure One first appeared in 2003, over 30 additional structures have been found since. The largest structure onsite is Structure Ten, measuring some 25m long, 19m across and has 4m thick walls. It is absolutely massive and is the last structure in use on the site, with its ‘closing’ around 2450 BC. However, the structure was not just abandoned, its ‘death’ was marked by a huge feast and large numbers of animals were slaughtered. When uncovered in 2008, the bones of around 400 cattle were found placed in the passageway surrounding the structure.

Similar to my first excavation of the summer at The Cairns, The Ness of Brodgar also accommodated some of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) archaeological students completing the ‘Excavation’ module as part of the degrees. This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. In addition to students from the various UHI campuses, The Ness of Brodgar was also home to students from Willamette University, Oregon who spent a total of 5 weeks on-site; taking part in the excavations and learning a large set of archaeological processes and techniques as part of their academic curriculum.

Allessandro and Fabrizio
Allessandro and Fabrizio undertaking their excavation module at the Ness of Brodgar

The Excavation module was again overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over their time at The Ness, which were explained and demonstrated by Rick and other trench supervisors first; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one-to-one training whenever the students themselves felt they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone.

Due to my Placement with the university, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being able to take part in both The Cairns and The Ness of Brodgar excavations. They are both absolutely fantastic excavations to be a part of and no matter if it’s your very first time digging on an archaeological site or if it’s another place to add to the CV, both sites are invaluable in experience gained. The skills and training received is also something that will stand to students as they pursue a career in archaeology; and the UHI Archaeology Institute pride themselves on providing students with the best practical in-the-field training possible.

Students are exposed to a whole range of different techniques and skills which are used on sites in commercial archaeology. One of the main aims for the university is for students to be able to walk into a commercial job upon completing their degrees, with broad excavation experience behind them; and have the confidence and competency to fit right into any team. There are a large amount of techniques worked on during UHI fieldschools such as environmental sampling, artefacts processing, archaeological recording (i.e. the written record – contexts sheets, finds deposit sheets), archaeological photography skills, archaeological surveying and the drawn record (including planning and section drawing).

Examining finds at the Ness of Brodgar
Examining finds at the Nessof Brodgar

Most of the techniques conducted are helped by the presence of specialists in each area who guide students through the process and all supervisors are well equipped and knowledgeable in helping out with most techniques as well. The staff and volunteers at both The Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns are also very welcoming and supportive of past former students who return to help out with the excavations each summer. The UHI also highly encourage promotion from within as several of the supervisors from both sites are former Master’s students with the college themselves (as exemplified by my supervisor Andy, who completed her MSc with the UHI a few years back).

I think all students who took part in the fieldschool would testify to how great an experience it was, especially in a place like Orkney where the archaeological landscape is so rich and sites are present in abundance; it’s great to be added to the history and story of these sites (no matter how small/brief your presence on them is). I myself am probably going to have a tough time sorting out my CV once the master’s is done, after all the experience I’ve gained over the summer!

On arrival to the site, the new recruits and I were given a run through procedure and Health & Safety, followed by a tour and explanation of the site by site director Nick Card. This was followed on by a talk about finds and what to look out for while excavating by Anne Mitchell. After the morning briefing the new diggers were split up and sent to various different trenches around site. Kacey, fellow UHI student Hannah and I made our way over to Structure One, which was being excavated under the wonderful guidance of Andy (who was a former MSc graduate with the UHI Archaeology Institute herself). Also part of the Structure One team were my classmates from the Neolithic module in semester two, Fabrizio and Allessandro; as well as Giles and Marc. So we had a solid little team, with a good representation from the Institute as well which was nice.

Hannah and Ross
Hannah and Ross at work in the midden area between Structures One and Twenty One

I spent most of my time working in the midden area between Structures One and Twenty One with Hannah. The midden area was very artefact rich, containing animal bone and more pieces of prehistoric pottery than I can count. It was a constant process of cleaning and taking down the ground level in spits, as midden deposits are very rich in information; so it’s important to keep an eye out for any changes in soil or any possible finds of high importance, which could be missed if the process was just rushed through. Towards the end of the first week, our patience paid off as Hannah discovered a large vessel within the midden area. Exciting as the find was she then had the arduous and difficult task of lifting the vessel, which she did expertly and the pottery survived intact.

Hannah pottery
Hannah excavating and lifting the pottery vessel

My own time to shine came the following week, when on my second last day on The Ness I brought the ‘Luck of the Irish’ in full force with me to site. Having only seen and heard about miniature pots found at The Ness off Anne the previous day while I was discussing finds with the ‘Digging up the Past’ workshop; I was fortunate enough to find two of these little pots in the one day!

Ross and Pot
Ross and his first pot of the day!

While trowelling back in the midden area just near the exterior wall of Structure Twenty One I came across an oddly shaped piece of pot. Had there not been the discussion with Anne the previous day, the odd shape of the pot when the first glimpse of it was revealed from the ground, may not have stood out so much. I called Andy over and her excitement about the find made me realise it was fairly significant. Unfortunately the pot wasn’t fully intact when found, with the top missing. There were a few incisions on the exterior of the pot but it is difficult to judge whether these were deliberate or just random. There have been a few of these thumb pots found over the years, but as of yet their exact use and function remains a mystery. My own favourite theory about the pots is that they could be prehistoric shot glasses, although given the size of the pots, the Neolithic people would have had to be drinking some fairly strong concoctions!

First mini pot
Up close view of the first mini pot or ‘thumb pot’

 

One pot would have been regarded a great day anyway, but I wasn’t finished yet. As the clouds began to darken and approach, the rain began to fall, and the team began preparations for covering up the site until the morning. I was just finishing cleaning up the loose soil when I noticed the base of something sticking out of the ground around the same area where the first pot was found. This time I knew exactly what it was! With pack up for the day looming and the weather worsening, I decided to save the pot from possible damage from being left out in the elements overnight. Upon safely removing it from the ground I knew I made the right choice as this pot was in a lot better condition than the first one and possessed clear incisions. Andy couldn’t believe it when I popped up with another pot, and Nick and Anne were delighted; this time more so as there was still soil contained within it.

Second mini pot
Ross celebrating his second mini pot of the day

Onsite pottery specialist Roy Towers judged the second pot to be different than the previous thumb pot, his thinking is that this was an imitation pot and would have mimicked a large vessel. The material that fills it will have to be examined carefully and possibly analysed for pot residue, but the expectation is that the base of the imitation pot will be flat on the interior, just like a full-size pot and in contrast with the often-rounded base interior of thumb pots.

When the second pot was found Roy was in the middle of a tour and in astonishment had to pause briefly while examining the pot. I ended up getting a round of applause off the 50 strong tour group, so it was an unexpected and added bonus to go with the finds I guess haha. I even got the blog for the day called after me ‘Luck of the Irish’ and as fate would have it, it would have to be Day 33 and all! Rick thought it was hilarious due to the ‘th’ coupled with the ‘r’ sound, which has already been discussed in my previous blog about the Skaill excavations (see blog at archaeologyorkney.com for inside on joke); but Rick is probably just jealous it wasn’t him who found the pots.

Close up of imitation pot
Showing the clear incisions and designs on the second mini pot

The following evening was the end of site party, and marked the departure of many of the Ness of Brodgar team who had been working on the site over the summer. Nick graciously had the whole team over to his house, and everyone celebrated the season’s great work and progress made over the few weeks. As we all sat around the fire pit Nick thanked all the team for their hard work over the summer, and reiterated how The Ness was like a family, and how great it was to see faces again who had been there previous summers. Everyone had a great time, with a fire spinning show (provided by Andy), singalongs, laughter, fake tattoos and maybe a beverage or two consumed; but it was a lovely way to bring official excavation proceedings to an end, and a good note to mark my end of involvement with the excavations.

My final day of involvement with The Ness would be at the Open Day. As the majority of the lecturers from the Skaill excavation were away at the time and on Anne’s suggestion; I was given the task of running a stall and communicating some of our findings from the season to the public. Having played such a major role in the Skaill excavations myself and having only recently completed the blog post on the experience this was a great opportunity and the day went off really successfully. I discussed the history of the site, the team’s findings from the season and even had a few finds with me to show visitors on the day. The Stenness Hall had a constant flow of visitors throughout the day, who came for a look having already been to see the magnificence of the Ness of Brodgar in the flesh. On site however, The Ness proved its importance and wide appeal yet again with over 1,100 people visiting the site on the Open Day.

Open Day
Ross on the Skaill Farm excavation stall at the Open Day

As part of my Work Placement focusing on outreach and social media use in archaeology, I also had the pleasure of taking part lending a hand with two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops as well as helping out my supervisor and Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee in hosting a group from Connect. These were fantastic opportunities to be a part of and it was great to introduce archaeology to people who have never dug before. As well as getting tours of the site and talks about finds, participants were able to get an insight into the archaeological process as a whole and having a go at specialist workshops with Chris Gee (stone working) and Dr Ingrid Mainland (animal bones). It was also particularly great to see the joy and excitement on the faces of the participants when they uncovered finds from the ground (all of which were added to the site’s find collection as a whole). I even surprised myself in how much I had learned about The Ness in a week, when I was conducting the site tours for ‘Digging up the Past’ in Dan’s absence the second week.

Digging up the past
Dan Lee showing participants in the ‘Digging up the Past’ workshop designs on stones in Structure One

My experience at The Ness is one I won’t forget quickly. Besides my luck with finding the two miniature pots, it was great to meet up with people again who I had been working with at The Cairns such as Rick and Gary (A Team for life!). It was a very worthwhile and enriching experience also to be a part of the two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops while on site, and great to see the fantastic work HES Rangers and UHI staff conduct as part of those activities. It was also a brilliant experience just to be a part of an excavation on that scale, having been on smaller projects the previous weeks on Rousay and Sanday; the first few days were a bit of an adjustment, but it was a great comparison and shows the potential that archaeological sites have up here in Orkney to capture the public’s attention.

I would like to express my thanks to site director Nick Card, for not only allowing me the chance to take part in the excavations on The Ness of Brodgar, but who also kindly offered some time out of his ridiculously busy schedule on-site to sit down with me and talk about how The Ness has developed and expanded over time; not only in a physical sense with the trenches but also in terms of outreach and media attention. It was a great insight into the excavation itself and also very helpful in relation to my own placement aims with the institute.

I would also like to thank Anne Mitchell, who was very helpful onsite and also instrumental in pinning down my role in The Ness Open Day. Anne’s role in the excavations in general is absolutely crucial and Nick described her as an ‘indispensable’ part of the team, especially behind the scenes. I also want to thank Sigurd Towrie who I liaised with every day, discussing social media agendas and was very helpful in finding a role for myself in using material for the UHI social media accounts.

Also a massive shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! I was only onsite for 2 weeks myself due to my involvement in other excavations, but some of the team members were working at The Ness from start to finish all summer; so a massive admiration and appreciation must go their way, which was reiterated by Nick at the end of site party. A large amount of gratitude also goes to all those who work behind the scenes not only during the excavation period, but throughout the year cataloguing finds, etc. There’s too many people to name but Nick holds you all in the highest regards and The Ness ‘machine’ would not be able to run without your continued hard work and effort.

The magnificent setting
The magnificent setting of the Ness of Brodgar

 

As massive and globally known as The Ness of Brodgar is, only 10% of the site has been uncovered so far, and unfortunately there is no real constant source of funding coming into the site. The only way the site keeps going and excavations continue each summer is from the kind donations given by the public. If this has peaked your interest in the site or if you have already been, and want to keep The Ness of Brodgar going for not only future generations to enjoy, but for the team to come back again next summer, donations big and small are very welcome, information can be found on the website. Your continued support and interest in the site is very much appreciated by all!

Also can’t sign off without giving another shout out to Kirkwall Accies (last time I promise). I may have turned up to The Ness Open Day with a slight sporting injury from a football final the day before, but as they say ‘No pain, no gain, we won the final and completed the Double! Hon Accies!

Well this blog officially brings an end to my Placement with the institute this summer. I will have one more blog to come out in the near future about my experience at the newly formed Islay Heritage Project, run by the University of Reading and UHI, but for the next few weeks I’ll be putting the head in the books and attempt to transfer my crazy summer of digging into an academic paper. Thanks for all the support and interest shown in my blogs and social media posts over the summer! I’ll see ye all on the other side (hopefully)!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond. UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student

For more information on this summer’s excavations or just in general about the Ness of Brodgar check out: http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/

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UHI Student Ross Drummond and the #Skaillsaga

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Skaill Farmstead, Rousay

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Skaill Farmstead dig, Rousay, Orkney.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! This time reporting about Pt. 2 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay. The project at Skaill has been running since 2015, with this season’s activities (July 9th-24th) being the fourth year on site.

The main basis for the project when it was begun was to explore the Viking, Norse and post-medieval archaeology on the Westness Estate. The present farm on the site dates to the 18-19th centuries and was involved in the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga as the home of the Powerful Earl Sigurd, so there is a high possibility of a Viking site on Rousay somewhere along the coastline and Skaill may possibly be it; which was right up my street as the Viking-Norse period is my preferred time period in terms of archaeology.

Midden Galore
Midden galore found on Day One

The main aims for this year’s project were: to excavate the test pit transects, investigate and put trenches over the earthworks, investigate the farm mound, locate post-medieval midden and characterise the Norse horizon. SPOILER ALERT!!! We were pretty successful in accomplishing all these aims!

The team consisted of four site co-ordinators: Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons (all lectures at UHI Archaeology Institute Orkney), ORCA Project Officer Sean Bell (for week one, Bobby Friel took over for second half of project), students from various years of UHI Archaeology and local volunteers (Anthony, Chrissie and Ewan). Not to mention a solid young archaeological workforce in the form of some of the lecturer’s kids, who were very proactive in getting involved over the course of the two and a half week excavation.

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The team at lunch on the beach below the site

Arrival on the first day started off with a tour of the site and a discussion of the plans for the upcoming excavation season by UHI Lifelong Learning and Outreach Officer Dan Lee. Following the introduction we got our hands dirty straight away and began working on opening up three of the main trenches for this seasons activities: Trench 19 (outside farmhouse in courtyard), Trench 4 (at back of house extending on a previous year’s trench) and Trench 23 (side of the farmstead). These were chosen based on previous geophysics and earthworks surveys which showed these as locations with high archaeological potential.

The first day ended in success as one of the project’s main aims for the season was accomplished early on in Trench 19, with post-medieval midden being found in abundance (pretty much as soon as I used a mattock to loosen up the soil after de-turfing). This was collected as bulk samples for later analysis, however, by day three the initial excitement would fade as midden material would end up in the spoil heap – there was just that much of it!

My role for this excavation would take up a slightly more hands on approach in dealing with outreach and social media as I was given several tasks. As well as being responsible for the social media activities for the site on various media platforms (#SkaillSaga), I also was given more outreach experience in giving site tours to any visitors to the site over the excavation period.

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The Digging for Britain camera crew being ‘helped’ by Ross

This season at Skaill also saw a wider interest in the site, as Digging For Britain sent a camcorder to site for a possible feature in the upcoming series of the show due to air later this year (so stay tuned for that). So Dan and I took turns filming footage of the excavation over the course of the two weeks.

Dan ‘very kindly’ gave me the ‘special honour’ of taking responsibility of activities in Trench 22, which involved possibly one of the worst de-turfings I have ever done; the ground was rock hard with stones and roots all over the place, the spade would barely even make a dint in the ground. However, I’d have the last laugh as Trench 22 would turn up trumps in the end; just had to endure a lot of struggle the first few days.I was joined in trench 22 by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons and Jen’s son Callum (who would become my little protégé and remain by my side in the trench for the remainder of the project).

Following the first few days in the trench early theories were that the area where Trench 22 was located was used as a dump of structural materials as buildings were knocked down and re-used over time on the site (due to a large amount of lime mortar, stone with attached mortar and red sandstone). However, fortunes changed towards the end of the week as it seemed the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was on our side with my presence, as I found a coin in the SE corner of the trench just before pack up.

The coin was identified as a George III half-penny dating to 1806! I was delighted as it made the struggle during the original de-turfing of the trench worth it. But this find came at a cost… Despite the obvious associations of possibly being a Leprechaun (those of you familiar with American Gods can just call me Mad Sweeney), Irish readers will be able to relate to the fact that ‘th’ words provide a difficulty in our pronunciation of certain words, especially in addition to an ‘r’ in third. You can see where I’m going with this…. So basically if Skaill does manage to make it onto Digging For Britain in the future remember I’m saying ‘George the Third’ and I am not talking about poo hahaha. This has since provided many with a laugh including myself, and probably will for some time to come (it’s not my fault I’m Irish!!!).

Following my find and pose with the coin Dan jokingly referred to me as the ‘Poster Boy for UHI Archaeology’ on film for Digging For Britain and after that the name kinda stuck around site (could be worse nicknames I guess).

On our return to site in the second week Trench 22 began to turn up some more surprises as we took the level down bit by bit, with an assemblage of medieval pottery being found near the same corner as the coin. Unfortunately the pottery was in pretty poor condition and was not able to be lifted as one piece, but several pieces were scattered all over the one area. These were excavated carefully and collected by myself and Callum and by the end of it we had the remains of the biggest collection of medieval pottery belonging to a single vessel found at the site thus far.

Following the removal of medieval pottery we noticed a pig’s jaw beneath where the majority of pieces had been collected, and meticulously began investigating the area further. After a day or so of careful excavation, our patience and attentiveness paid off as the ‘Luck of the Irish’ struck again. A finds deposit of medieval pottery, a pot lid and a piece of garnet mica schist were found around the pig skull.

Pig skull, pot lid and garnet mica schist
Pig skull, pot lid and garnet mica schist in situ

The garnet mica schist was part of a rotary quern and is of high significance as although it can be found in parts of Western Scotland, it is a common find from Shetland and possibly even Norway and usually associated with Norse activity. The garnet mica schist was a great find because it’s dating to Norse time suggests that the other finds within the deposits may also date to that period, and it tied in with other Norse materials and structures found at other parts of the site.

Close up of garnet mica schist
Close up of the garnet mica schist – part of a rotary quern

The lifting of the pig skull was also a success as I managed to lift it in one piece under the watchful eye of Callum (it was a team effort).

Ross Drummond with the pig skull following lifting
Ross with the pig skull intact following lifting

The Open Weekend was also a great success with steady number of visitors over both days despite varying weather conditions. I missed the Open Day on the Saturday myself (had a football final with Kirkwall Accies, we lost, less said about it the better; but we’ll get the last laugh!). I returned to site on Sunday morning in high spirits until Dan came to ‘commiserate’ with the loss (reminding of me his own past triumph’s in football and vandalizing one of the site open day posters I had made dedicating a special shout out to myself). But the rest of the day went off really well, in between doing several site tours I managed to catch up on all the paperwork for Trench 22 with the end of the excavation fast approaching.

My final day on site involved working with UHI photographer Tim Winterburn who took some portraits of the students and lecturers involved on the dig for college profiles. I also managed to draw a plan of Trench 22 before catching the afternoon ferry back to Mainland in preparation for my travel to Sanday the following day for my next excavation.

The two structures in Trench 19
The two structures in Trench 19

Successful results were also achieved in the other trenches over the two week season. In Trench 23, Ingrid and Steve’s work revealed two structures (walls extending N-S) which seemed similar to Trench 19 just over the wall. These structures were joined by another structure, possibly a temporary wall; with a further feature in the NW corner – function at present unclear but may possibly have been an animal pen. Finds were mostly post-medieval in date such as thin plate and thick glass which would be post 1700s, as well as some animal bone in the SW corner.


Trench 4 was worked on by the team of Jen, Sam and Chrissie and findings this season will prompt a return to this trench again next year. A substantial wall was found running E-W which has a high possibility of dating to the Norse period and could form part of a Norse longhouse. In the south area of the trench a secondary lower wall was exposed, which looks like an early feature (possibly Norse or Viking), and will be investigated further next year.

Finds included post medieval pottery and glass, metal objects, unglazed pottery, whetstones; and also a large quantity of slag. Gerry McDonnell archaeometallurgist at the nearby Swandro dig examined some of the slag and suggested they showed evidence for the smelting of bog iron as well as smithing. These pieces of slag may possibly be the earliest evidence of smelting in Viking Age Orkney, could mean there is a possibility of a nearby smithy building, which could be hidden somewhere on the Skaill site awaiting to be discovered in the future.

The substantial wall in Trench 20
The substantial wall in Trench 20

Trench 20 was worked on by Dan and Conal, and originally started out as a 1 × 1m trench, but was extended upon the discovery of a very substantial wall (1m long by 80cm high) at the back of the farm buildings; and probably has a post-medieval date. Buried substantial buildings across the site like this one explain the ground level rise, answering more questions we had before excavating but still leaving a very complex story to unpick.

Trench 19 showing earlier building
Trench 19 showing earlier building

Trench 19 worked on by Bobby, Sean, Anthony, Jan and Sue showed that the most recent farmhouse building was built on an earlier one (similar to Trench 1 2 years ago). It is post medieval, possibly dating to late medieval in date, with the gable end having a 1m wall, similar to that found in Trench 20. There was also a blocked doorway found and it looks as though the structure may have extended south at some stage. The floor surface was covered in post-medieval midden, and there are plans to extend the trench next year to find out more on the diet and farming habits of the people who lived on the site.

It was a great dig to be a part of, very different to The Cairns in both time period and set up. The involvement of members of the local community as well as some of the lecturer’s children made it a really family friendly and relaxed environment. Little things like lunch breaks spent on the beach were an added bonus with great coastal views on clear days. Can’t leave without giving a shout out to my boy Callum, or claim that the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was the reason purely on the great results from Trench 22, it also involved teamwork from the Dream Team! There are talks of the Dream Team being re-united in late August at Islay so we’ll see what possible finds that excavations turns up. Only downside to the dig was the annoying presence of klegs and horsefly’s on site, so my admiration to the Rousay natives who probably deal with this problem on a regular basis (managed to survive without any bad bites or marks though thankfully!).

Next you’ll hear from myself will be from Sanday, where it’ll be an exploration of prehistoric and coastal erosion sites.
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross

P.S. Again keep in mind the ‘th’ problem for us Irish if those clips of me with the coin ever make it to air on BBC, and please do not ask me to say ‘George the Third’ for your own amusement, everyone will just end up laughing! Hopefully it won’t come back to haunt me in any future archaeological career I might have.

For any further info on Skaill and to follow my own archaeological adventures over the summer, make sure to check out our social media.


If you want to join the research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete a postgraduate qualification in archaeology then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our student section on this blog.

MSc Student contributes to research at The Ness of Brodgar

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Justin working in the lab at The University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute at Orkney College UHI

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute works with a number of other universities across the world on collaborative research projects and student exchanges.

Last month we welcomed Justine Ayres, Masters student from Sheffield University, who joined us to work on the Smart Fauna Structure 10 project at the Ness of Brodgar with Dr Ingrid Mainland from the UHI Archaeology Institute.

As usual I was intrigued by the motivation of Justin to visit and work in Orkney and asked him about his journey to study archaeology in general and how he arrived in Orkney in particular.

Justin replied, ” I have been interested in archaeology from around the age of fifteen or sixteen, but went into engineering. When I returned to Derbyshire to work in the family green grocers business I spent my free time wondering around the Peak District looking at Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. I started life-long learning modules in archaeology and then an undergraduate degree at Sheffield University. At a dig in Wales I met Professor Colin Richards and this led to an opportunity to dig at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Cata Sand archaeology excavation last year, where I met Dr Ingrid Mainland.

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Archaeologists working on a section of the main trench at the Ness of Brodgar

“I e-mailed Ingrid earlier this year in regard to analysing the faunal remains from Cata Sand, but it had already been completed, so she offered me the opportunity to undertake research with material from the Ness of Brodgar excavation for my dissertation. So here I am working on this incredible site collecting data for my Masters dissertation and collaborating on an important research project….in such a beautiful part of the world. ”

Next steps?……” I am now undertaking a Masters degree and wish to pursue a career in zooarchaeology. I will just keep learning and see what other opportunities present themselves in archaeology. I don’t think I would have thought ten years ago that I would be working on such a research project, so we will see how things go over the next few years.”


If you want to join the research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete a postgraduate qualification in archaeology then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our student section on this blog.

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Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar