Cata Sand Dig – First Update


The excavation of the recently discovered late Neolithic /Early bronze Age settlement dating to c.2500-2000BC is now underway. It is early days, but already the team are beginning to unearth finds.

It has to be said that the island of Sanday in Orkney can be a little exposed at times – being situated in the North Atlantic – but the weather has been kind over the last few days to the team working in one of the northern most islands in Orkney. The site itself is beautifully located on the beach, but in many ways this adds to the difficulties as erosion is an ever present danger. In many respects the team are working against the clock, knowing that the site may be damaged by the next winter storm.

The location also works against us in the respect that up to the minute Twitter, Facebook and social media posts are difficult from this isolated outpost. So if you are used to the daily coverage from our other sites then please forgive us on this occasion for not being so up to the minute.

However, Chris Gee, Project Officer Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology UHI Archaeology Institute, managed to send us a brief report on the first couple of days at the dig. He continues….”On Sunday 13th August and Monday 14th August we cleaned the beach deposits from the site, and as indicated by the magnetometer survey, revealed midden material and an arc of stone spread possibly indicating a wall beneath. The inital work has already produced many exciting finds including skaill knives, flint working waste and a fine rubber stone which has also been used as a pounder and possible anvil.”


The excavation team includes Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.


A Summer of Archaeology in Rousay

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Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present.

Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute together with a team of local volunteers and school children embarked on a programme of archaeology in Rousay, Orkney over the summer 2017.

Rousay’s Summer of Archaeology culminated in a host of activities along the west shore during July. Excavations were carried out at the coastally eroding site at Swandro (by a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute & University of Bradford) and at Skaill farmstead.

Together, the work at these sites aims to explore the remarkable deep time represented along the west shore; from the Neolithic, Iron Age, Pictish, Viking and Norse periods to the 19th century clearances. Work at these sites framed a series of community activities and workshops including test pit excavation at Skaill, training placements for Rousay residents, metalworking workshop, bones and environmental workshop, experimental archaeology, and open days at the two excavations. Over the month, the sites received hundreds of visitors, from Rousay and all over the world.

Chrissie and her test pit containing Norse midden

Excavations at Skaill farmstead were undertaken within the middle two weeks of July. The results of the geophysical survey in 2015 showed potential earlier features below the present 18/19th century farmstead. Subsequent test pits in 2016 identified several earlier structural phases below the farmhouse, including a wall with two outer stone faces and midden core, which is likely to date to the Norse period. The site represents a small ‘farm mound’ where successive phases of building, levelling and rebuilding give rise to a low mound.

The aim this season was to establish the extent and character of the farm mound, and the depth, quality and date of any deposits and structures in order to better understand the site for more detailed investigation. A line of 1m by 1m test pits at 10m intervals were excavated in two transects across the mound. The natural underlying glacial till was located at the northern, western and southern edges of the mound helping us to define the extent of surviving archaeology.

Ornate moulded red sandstone

In the centre of the mound, deep stratified deposits were found. These are likely to be over 2m in depth. Post-medieval deposits were found to overlay a distinctive Norse horizon. Norse pottery, fish bone, shell midden and elaborate red sandstone mouldings were found in the earlier horizons. The moulded red sandstone is significant, indicating high status buildings in the area during the late medieval period, and may help provide insights into the ornate red sandstone fragments nearby at The Wirk and on Eynhallow. Evidence for metal working, in the form of iron slag, has also been recovered from Skaill. Significant assemblages of animal bone, fish bone and pottery from the 17-19th centuries were also recovered. These will help us understand farming and fishing practices during the last few hundred years.

Planning the remains of the barn in Trench 2

To the north of the farmhouse, a small trench across a former 19th century barn was reopened and extended, showing the external wall footings and internal flagged floor. The building was demolished between 1840 and 1882 during a time when the farmstead was cleared and ceased to operate. In addition, a small evaluation trench across a suspected field boundary to the south of the barn was reopened from last season and completed. This contained a stone-lined drain and midden enhanced soil, indicating that earlier buried structures could be widespread at the site. Indeed, all of the earthworks that fell within one of the test pits contained structural remains such as walls.


Over the two weeks, Skaill received nearly 150 visitors, with 70 visitors over the test pit weekend. Several local children helping dig the test pits. Overall the season was a great success; helping raise the profile of the island, opening up the site to so many folk and increasing our understanding of the Skaill and Westness story.

The project has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant and additional funding form the OIC Archaeology Fund.



Mapping Magnus dates for the diary 1

Upcoming activities in the Palace village area of Birsay for August and September 2017.

Be a part of this exciting archaeology project commemorating the Magnus 900 year! More activities will be announced soon. Places for local residents and volunteers from Orkney available now.

Book your place now (limited places available):

Phone 01856 569225

Next Workshop is:

Village survey. 25 & 26 August

What? Record and survey the upstanding archaeology in and around Palace/Birsay Village, Birsay. Learn survey techniques with Dan Lee. Map and record features relating to the Magnus Story.

Where? Meet at Palace village car park opposite kirk.

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Archive research training. 1 & 2 Sept

What? Research the history & archaeology of Birsay with Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon in the Orkney Library and Archive. Contribute original research to the project.

Where? Meet at Orkney Archives Room (upstairs), Kirkwall Library

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Coastal Survey. 6, 7 & 8 Sept

What? Record the coastally eroding sites from Palace village to the point of Buckquoy area with archaeologist Dave Reay.

Where? Meet at Point of Buckquoy

When? 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

Archive Research drop-in day. 23 Sept

What? Come and visit Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon in the Orkney Library and Archive to look at her research into the history & archaeology of Birsay and Palace village for the project.

Where? Meet at Orkney Archives Room (upstairs), Kirkwall Library

When? 11am – 3pm. No need to book, just drop in anytime!

Village excavations. 25 Sept – 6 Oct (2 weeks)

What? Help the Archaeology Institute team dig test pits in Palace Village around the medieval site of the Bishops Palace. Join in for a day or whatever you can manage.

Where? Meet at Palace village car park opposite kirk. Booking essential.

When? 10am – 4pm each day

Please note: Booking is essential for all activities.

Turning Back the Tides: investigating Orkney’s submerged landscape

Bay of Ireland Stenness looking out towards the island of Hoy
Bay of Ireland, Stenness, looking out towards the island of Hoy

Fieldwork is taking place over the summer 2017 on an exciting project investigating the submerged landscape of Orkney; land now under water, covered by the tide but which would have been terrestrial land >5000 years ago during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods when Orkney would have had a much larger land mass than today.

The project team is an ensemble cast from the Universities of the Highlands & Islands, St Andrews, Dundee, Trinity St David’s, Hull, Coventry and University College Dublin, together with Mesolithic specialist Caroline Wickham-Jones.

The project, which is funded by the Carnegie Trust and Historic Environment Scotland, aims to reconstruct the landscape of Orkney from the Mesolithic period to the Early Bronze Age, a timeframe of some 6000 years. This will give us a glimpse into an Orkney much different to today where woodland was commonplace and there were greater tracts of wetland in areas now submerged.

The project will be looking at how this landscape changed and how people in the past interacted with this landscape such as through farming, manipulating wetland through burning and clearing of woodland.

During this time, sea levels were rising rapidly and people would have observed their land changing both in terms of vegetation as freshwater wetland became saltmarsh, together with a visible loss of land to the sea. A further aim of the project is then to investigate how people would have reacted to this change in terms of resilience and adaptability; themes common to people in areas of the world affected by such changes happening today.

The Tide Covering over the test pit following sampling and recording
The tide covering over the test pit following sampling and recording

The project will be looking at the area of the Bay of Ireland through to the Loch of Stenness, taking a multi-disciplinary approach in order to carry out this investigation; therefore, a number of methods involving different technology will be used. A marine geophysical survey of the Bay of Ireland will be conducted to help us understand what the former terrestrial landscape now under the water would have looked like. The survey will also look for sediments on the seabed, such as peats and silts that can preserve organic remains and cultural materials such as wooden objects.

Sediments will also be sampled through coring and test pitting to recover material for environmental analyses in both the intertidal zone and the Loch of Stenness, meaning we will have a slice of the landscape from the marine zone through to on land (or rather on loch). These will include methods such as pollen and plant macrofossils (seeds, buds, fruit stones, nuts, wood fragments), together with insects (e.g. beetles) that can inform us of what the landscape used to look like e.g. different plants have different shaped pollen grains that can be identified from the sediments to show what plants were present in the past.

We have recently been out in the intertidal zone at the Bay of Ireland to do some test pit sampling. Previously a 3.5m long split oak timber of Mesolithic date (6000 years old) was discovered exposed within the peat in this area (the first to ever be found in Orkney), while remains of trees approximately 5500 years old can also be seen in what is termed a submerged forest (preserved remnants of woodland), the physical remains of Orkney’s past woodland.  With the help of UHI Archaeology Institute students Alanis Bruhag and James Bright, together with Laura Hindmarch from Historic Environment Scotland and a lot of digging, a test pit was eventually opened up that could be sampled for sediments we could use for our environmental work (pollen, insects etc.). The sediments that were sampled can be seen in the section (side) of the test pit below and these themselves start to tell us a story of how the landscape of Orkney has changed over time (see below).

Test Pit annotated

The samples taken on site were transported back to our laboratories at the UHI Archaeology Institute where the sediments will be recorded in more detail and they can be sub-sampled for the environmental work. Material will also be used for radiocarbon dating so that we can see how long it took the sediments to accumulate and to say when some of these major landscape changes happened.

Keep tuned to the Archaeology Blog for details on the results as we get them. After the test pit had been sampled and recorded, it was backfilled (so no one can fall in!) and we were left to reflect on the encroaching tide covering the past landscape once more.

Some more traditional archaeological investigation will also take place and in September (5th & 6th), we will be undertaking an excavation in the intertidal zone in order to look for archaeological materials such as wooden objects and stone tools. If you would like to come along and help take part in this excavation, you would be more than welcome! Please contact Dr Scott Timpany at the Archaeological Institute UHI for more details at


The Ness of Brodgar – Digging Deeper


The time of year is upon us again when hundreds of people migrate to Orkney for two months in the summer to take part in one of the most exciting Neolithic archaeological excavations in Europe.

Volunteers and students from around the world are starting to arrive in Orkney to take part in the 2017 Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig which starts 5th July 2017 and continues until 23rd August 2017.

Under the direction of Nick Card, Site Director, the volunteers are preparing themselves for the arduous task of removing the coverings that protect the four-thousand-year-old structures. Only then can the archaeological work begin.

The ongoing excavations at the Ness turn up new discoveries on an almost daily basis, many without parallel and they are changing our perceptions of the past. This year will be particularly exciting as we dig deeper into the past and uncover new insights into the world of Orcadian Neolithic society….New questions remain to be answered – What is the purpose of the structure discovered under the midden at the very end of last year? It is currently wide open to interpretation, but as far as we can tell it is unique. What new discoveries will be unearthed in Trench X that leads down to the Loch of Stenness? What will the detailed analysis of the floor layers in Trench P tell us about the use of these enigmatic stone structures and the people who used them?

It is now becoming clearer just how complex and in many ways, puzzling Neolithic society was in Orkney. The new trenches have brought archaeologists face to face with the utterly unknown. As the excavation develops we will continue to tell the world about the remarkable Neolithic discoveries through the new website (, our social media, the dig diary and video reporting – something totally new this year as Simon Gray, one of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc students, creates a video diary of the whole summer dig.


The dig is open to the public from 5th July until 23rd August and Open Days are being held on Sunday 16th July and Sunday 20th August when everyone is welcome to take part in activities across the site and at Stenness Community Centre.

  • Dates: open to the public from Wednesday 5th July to Wednesday 23rd August
  • Tours are available and archaeologists will be on site most weekdays. Please check the Ness of Brodgar Trust website for up to date information.
  • Tours are also conducted at 1100 & 1500 on Saturday and Sunday during the dig season, but there will be no archaeologists on site during the weekend.
  • Open Days are Sunday 16th July and Sunday 20th August
  • Location: Stenness, West Mainland
  • Dig Diary
  • More information

This project is being part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014 – 2020 Programme





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

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