UHI Masters Student Professional Placements Begin

Simon working on another Ness….the Ness Battery, Stromness on a rather cloudy day in January

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc programme includes a professional placement in a commercial or academic organisation.

This provides students with the vital experience of working in the often demanding environment of a large organisation. This year, two of our students, Simon and Charlotte, requested a placement in marketing at the UHI Archaeology Institute to gain experience in the increasingly important world of social media communication.

Simon takes up his story……….

“My name is Simon Gray and I am a current Masters student with the UHI Archaeology Institute and for the last seven years I have spent my summers excavating as part of the team at the Ness of Brodgar.

Over the course of this 2017 season, I will be making a series of short, episodic videos filmed on site documenting the key finds and continuing research of the excavation. Further to this, each video will include interview footage and a real ‘behind the scenes’ perspective to bring across the experience and dynamic of the dig team, many of whom, like myself, return each year as a result of their commitment to and love of the site and the team respectively.

It is my intention for these videos to be uploaded to the UHI Archaeology Institute Youtube channel and shared through social media and as many press outlets as possible in order to relay the story of this season’s excavations to the archaeological community, the local Orcadian population and indeed the wider public.

During the two open days on site, and on a frequent basis throughout the weeks as I spend my time at the Ness, I plan to engage actively with the public in order to factor their thoughts and opinions into my research.”

Charlotte excavating the animal bone adjacent to the furnace at The Cairns

Charlottes professional placement aims to develop the social media platforms for The Cairns site and increase local engagement through both digital and traditional non-digital marketing routes. Charlotte has already set up @thecairnsbroch Twitter account for The Cairns site and posts on a daily basis live from the site as part of her MSc placement. New tee shirts also now adorn the diggers and local people are being encouraged to visit through leafleting and other initiatives in the local community.

For more information on studying MSc Archaeological Practice at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute see our blog page http://wp.me/p6YR8M-326

Extended MSc Archaeological Practice – limited number of funded places also available


The MSc in Archaeological Practice at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has always included modules that prepare students for the workplace.

The requirements of the archaeological workplace are increasingly changing to include in-depth knowledge and professional experience of applied environmental archaeology techniques.

Building on our experience of research in the field of bioarchaeology we have now extended the MSc Archaeological Practice course to include additional targeted modules in environmental archaeology and geoarchaeology.

  • Archaebotany to archaeozoology (20 credits optional)
  • Practical Archaeology (20 credits core)
  • Geoarchaeology of the North Atlantic (20 credits optional, led by Professor Ian Simpson, University of Stirling)
  • Professional Placement in environmental archaeology with Dr Scott Timpany, Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Jennifer Harland (60 credits)
Postgraduate students working at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

Contact Dr Ingrid Mainland for more details or click through to the University of Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to apply.

Start date: September 2017.

Funded Postgraduate Places

The University of the Highlands and Islands is pleased to offer a limited number of places with full tuition fee support for Scottish-domiciled/EU students, studying full time, on this course starting in September 2017 to help talented students join this key growth sector for the Scottish economy.

Fees will be funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programmes.

See the University of the Highlands and Islands web page for more details.ESF-&-SFC-Logo

Archaeology MLitt by Research Studentship Available

Brough of Birsay

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to offer a one year MLitt by Research in Archaeology EU/UK fees only full-time studentship, starting 1st Oct 2017.

Topic: Marine Mammal exploitation in Late Iron Age and Medieval Orkney.

During the late first millennium AD, the Northern Isles of Scotland saw the introduction of a new material culture and permanent settlement by incoming settlers from Scandinavia -the ‘Vikings’- which was part of a broader colonisation by these Norse peoples into the North Atlantic islands. These were largely farming societies, using developed Iron Age technology, but whose agricultural economies were heavily subsidised by wild species, including marine mammals.

IMG_13264The relative contributions, management, and sustainability of sea mammal populations, prior to the 16th century, are, however, currently less well documented and understood than are systems used for terrestrial species. Such data would contribute both to socio-economic reconstruction of early Norse populations, and to millennial scale population dynamics in the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean ecosystems, helping to inform on current and future sustainability of whales, seals and other North Atlantic species.

This MLitt by Research project will take as its focus human interactions with seals and whales in one specific area of the Norse North Atlantic, Orkney. It will seek to establish diachronic variability in the exploitation of and attitudes to these species both within the Norse period (ie c. 8th-15th centuries AD) and between the Norse and preceding Late Iron Age periods.

This will involve research into the distribution and relative frequency of sea mammals, including both artefactual and zooarchaeological evidence, for relevant sites alongside a detailed taphonomic analysis focusing on depositional context, carcase utilisation, butchery, bone fragmentation and artefact use/production.  Historical and ethnographic sources will also be drawn into the study where appropriate.

Research results will form the basis for selection of samples for aDNA analysis as part of a larger project into sea mammal exploitation and population dynamics in the North Atlantic. This MLitt project will also provide data for a pilot study for DataARC, an NSF-funded cyberinfrastructure project that aims to link and organise complex transdisciplinary data sets related to Arctic research.

Specific topics for analysis may include:

  • what whales and seals represented in practical economic terms, as well as social and cultural significance
  • whether Orcadian communities actively hunted great whales, or other cetaceans, prior to the spread of commercial whaling in the 16th and 17th centuries, or if they were mainly exploited in natural or induced strandings.
  • interactions of island economies, climate change, and animal biogeography

This project is being undertaken as part of an ongoing NSF-supported transdisciplinary international collaborative investigation of the roles of marine mammals (seals, cetaceans, walruses) in North Atlantic subsistence and market economies from the early through late Middle Ages (NSF Award #1503714) (PI Dr. Vicki Szabo, Western Carolina University).

The research student will be based at the University of the Highlands of Islands Archaeology Institute at Orkney College in Orkney.

The supervisory team will be led by Dr. Ingrid Mainland at the UHI Archaeology Institute together with Dr.  V. Szabo (WCU), Dr. Colleen Strawhacker (University of Colorado, Boulder) and Dr. Jen Harland  (UHI Archaeology Institute).

For further information on this opportunity, please contact Dr. Ingrid Mainland (Ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk)

The studentship covers fees only at the University of the Highlands and Islands Home/EU rate for a total of 12 months (including writing-up) (https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/studying-at-uhi/first-steps/how-much-will-it-cost/tuition-fees-research-postgraduate-students/). The project is expected to start on the 1st October 2017.

International are welcome to apply however please be aware that you will be required to make up the difference between Home/EU and International fees.

Applicants must possess a minimum of an Honours degree at 2:1 and/or a Masters Degree (or International equivalent) in a relevant subject.

To apply please send a CV indicating qualifications, any prior research experience (including publications) together with a statement of interest in the project and contact details for two academic referees to Ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk

Closing dates 19th June 2017. Interviews 3rd July, by Skype.

Iron Age Leisure Time at The Cairns


The Cairns archaeology site in South Ronaldsay, Orkney has its fair share of spectacular pieces, such as the carved whalebone vessel, but it is the small finds that provide a glimpse into the ordinary everyday existence of people during the Iron Age.

There are quite a large number of small carved discs from the site, and these are usually interpreted as gaming pieces, or gaming counters in the academic literature of the Iron Age period. If this is indeed what they were then they’re a really interesting insight into the ‘leisure’ time or social lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of the site. Most of these counters have come from the later post-broch Iron Age or Pictish levels of the site.

They are usually small, well-made sandstone discs or counters (although we have a whale-tooth example as well), and are similar to modern draughts counters.
18518395_10154700266656325_6349977046841925377_oOccasionally, there are taller, upright pieces like one in the photo here made from a black shale material such as lignite, cannel coal or even jet.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, continues, “Perhaps these were used in another game, or maybe these are the King/Queen pieces in the game. There are only a very few more like this one from Scottish Iron Age sites such as Scalloway in Shetland. One of the things we’d love to find would be one of the stone plaques or slabs with incised gridlines that appear to have been the boards that the game was played on. These have been found on a few Iron Age sites- we can only hope for one turning up in a future season!”

The final picture shows a nicely carved sandstone ‘counter’ and a smooth, conglomerate pebble. The pebble is perhaps more 18451700_10154700266891325_3279832134332830650_odoubtful as a gaming piece, but it was found next to the carved one and it was certainly selected and brought to the site by human hand. Both pieces were found next to the central hearth in Structure E-one of our Late Iron Age buildings.

Perhaps in your minds eye you can imagine a winter’s evening with a family group gathered around the fire, using these pieces to play a game, while outside the wind howls over the Orkney landscape.

If you want to know more about The Cairns and are in Orkney on 21st-23rd June 2017 then enrol on our new short course.
For details see our blog post.
Or e-mail Mary Connolly: studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Applying Archaeology Research

Archaeology is not only concerned with researching the past, but also applying that research to provide insights into present-day issues – such as climate change, food supply and overall change in society.

Last week, Magdalena Blanz, a PhD student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Insitute, commenced a field trial in partnership with Orkney College Agronomy Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee.

Magdalena is researching how seaweed was used in prehistory and how this under-utilised resource could be used in commercial farming in the future. The research is supervised by Dr Ingrid Mainland and is based in Orkney.


If you are interested in postgraduate research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then please do not hesitate to get in touch by e-mailing at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our guide page on this blog.

This PhD studentship is funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme

Test Pitting @ The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

Charlotte and Simon excavating a test pit on the north western side of the ditched enclosure around the broch.

MSc students from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute ventured out to The Cairns last week to investigate several features around the site.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, takes up the story….

“We began by excavating test pits at The Cairns.  In glorious sunshine, our intrepid MSc students began to investigate the Neolithic midden, Iron Age soils close to the ditch surrounding the broch and the natural boulder clay in the northern part of the field; all of which help us to define the extent of the archaeological remains here.

18358843_10154675732601325_2490963565498319916_oA previously unknown, probably prehistoric site, located 180 metres to the south-east of The Cairns was brought to light in a shallow test pit containing ashy midden and a stone setting, possibly a remnant wall. Not visually spectacular at this stage but highly significant in our ever-expanding awareness of the landscape around The Cairns. Finds were few but a fragment of a saddle quern came out of the ashy soil and hints that the site is prehistoric. This ‘new’ site aligns to one end of a buried linear feature previously investigated, which turned out to be a ditch or hollow-way, maybe a track leading from the entrance of the broch village down-slope to this point in the landscape.

The image below is looking from the test pit back up-slope in the direction of The Cairns mound. The ‘hollow-way’ takes a line from here straight through the modern telegraph pole, to the mound of The Cairns beyond it.”


The Cairns excavation starts on the 12th June 2017 and continues until 7th July 2017. Martin and the team welcome visitors during the season. The site is literally in the middle of a field so bring wellies and wet weather gear if it has been raining. One of the team would be pleased to show you round and explain the emerging features of this intriguing site.

Contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk if you require directions or more information.

Coastal Erosion in Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

ahu naunauCoastal erosion, as a result of rising sea levels and the increased frequency of storms, is destroying archaeological sites across the globe.

In this article, researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Bournemouth University examine the impacts of coastal erosion in Easter Island.

The ahu (platforms), with their moai (statues) are the iconic monuments of Rapa Nui. Hundreds of these complex ceremonial monuments encircle the island, the majority of them being located immediately on the coast. Therefore these monuments are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion, and many are collapsing into the sea (Photograph 1).

Picture One

The ahu comprise, on the landward sides, ramps which often have burial cists built into them. Surmounting the ahu are the moai, and fragments of moai were also incorporated within the ahu make-up as the structures were rebuilt over time. Further burials are often to be found at the edge of the ramps. Levelled areas – plazas – have situated upon them a variety of structures relating to ceremonies associated with the ahu such as dance platforms and boat houses.

The seaward side of the ahu, and therefore most eroded by wave action, were built as vertical walls created from basalt facing slabs. Damage to one of these walls can be seen in Photographs 2 and 3.

Picture Two

Picture Three

Situated typically behind the wall and therefore closest to the sea are crematoria, often stone built platforms where deposits of cremated bone can be exposed, and cremation burials either deposited within cists or as surface spreads.

Cremation was, unusually for Polynesia, the dominant burial rite during the image ahu-building era and afford an opportunity to learn much about the beliefs of the society as well as being a rich source of data about the population more generally. Cremated bone also could provide important information for chronology, but very little has been used for dating and none in recent times.

Canoe ramps were situated to the side of and extending beyond the ahu into the sea. Erosion of a canoe ramp can be seen in Photograph 4.

Picture Four

In a paper entitled ‘Coastal climate change impacts for Easter Island in 2100’ (L. Quilliam, R. Cox, P. Campbell and M. Wright, Rapa Nui Journal Vo.28 (1) (May 2014), coastal inundation was identified as one of the two main climate change impacts to the island  (the other being water supply). Stakeholders on the island felt that risk of tsunami was an even greater threat than coastal inundation. Ovahe beach is identified in the study as being at ‘serious risk of permanent inundation’ (ibid, 65); Photograph 5 shows waves breaking against an important crematorium platform.

Picture Five

In 1960 the reconstructed ahu Tongariki was destroyed by a tsunami originating from an earthquake off the coast of Chile, and the ahu was again reconstructed in the 1990’s (Photograph 6).

Picture SixThis site, along with Hanga Roa, Tahai and ‘Anakena are identified by the Quilliam et al study as being at highest risk of coastal inundation, with ‘wave runup forces’ having the ‘potential to damage the seaward ahu wall’ and therefore undermine the structure upon which the moai stand (Quilliam et al 2014, 63). These sites of reconstructed ahu with moai standing upon them are really central to the tourism industry and therefore to the economic basis of Rapa Nui.

As our illustrations show, there is ongoing wave damage to many other of the ahu, with a consequent loss of data relating to aspects of the ahu as a whole, and to the above-mentioned aspects that have been little researched. Cliff instability, which climate change has an unquantifiable potential to exacerbate as sea level rises may cause waves with greater energy and increase the rate of undercutting of the cliffs (Quilliam et al 2014, 65), threatens the famous bird man rock art at ‘Orongo, where parts of the sea cliff have already collapsed. Our aerial photograph taken at Poike shows that cliff instability also threatens the ahu (Photograph 7).

Picture Seven

Wind erosion is also a factor; while at ‘Anakena onshore winds transport large quantities of sand onshore (Photograph 8), at the coast on Poike the devastation caused by wind erosion can be seen in Photograph 9. At Poike archaeological deposits have been almost wholly removed and the unique black basalt and white ahu stands proud of the ground surface.

Picture Eight

Picture NineIt is clear that climate change is having an adverse and worsening impact on sites situated on the coast. This damage will destroy parts of the archaeological resource including deposits that are particularly under-researched, but moreover could have a significant negative impact on the tourism economy of Rapa Nui.

Text by Professor Jane Downes (University of the Highlands and Islands) and Professor Kate Welham (Bournemouth University), photographs by Adam Stanford (Aerial-Cam).

Research visits to Rapa Nui undertaken as part of the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC)–funded ‘Rapa Nui – Landscapes of Construction’ project have afforded the opportunity to generate these observations.