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.

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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

Surprise in Sanday – Loth Road Archaeology Dig Update

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The team from the University of the Highlands and Islands and UCLan are progressing well with the excavations in Sanday – one of the northern isles of Orkney – and have unearthed a few surprises.

Professor Colin Richards takes up the story of the enigma that is the Loth Road site……

The excavations at Loth Road began two weeks ago when we began work on what was hoped to be a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age ‘double’ house. This forms part of a new project (Northern Exposure) looking at the transition from the Neolithic into the Early Bronze Age periods. The site was previously identified as a possible Bronze Age house when the area was surveyed in advance of a new road to the ferry terminal. So this made it a good candidate to begin the project.

However, sometimes things do not turn out as expected. Rather than being a domestic building a very unusual structure of probable Early Bronze Age date is being unearthed. Indeed, it resembles a ring-cairn in many ways in having a substantial curb formed by upright stones and an inner facing of thinner uprights. The outer curb incorporates beautiful red sandstone uprights. Cup-marked stones (both structural and on smaller stones) are also present at the site, which is unique for an Orcadian Early Bronze Age site.

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We are currently still high in the mound/building which unfortunately seems quite damaged on its eastern side. There are also several confusing elements to the site, first, two ‘standing stones are set within the structure. Second, a pair of upright stones (orthostats) resemble the ‘stalled’ architecture of Early Neolithic buildings and third, we have found a number of flints including scrapers and knives. Hammerstones, and cobble tools are numerous. Could it be that an Early Neolithic building (house or chambered cairn) has been modified at a later date into a burial monument?

There has been much excitement over the discovery of so many cup-marked stones. Apart from those present at the Ness of Brodgar this is a scarce form of prehistoric rock art in Orkney, although panels are known from Shetland. Since Sanday is a northern isle in the Orkney archipelago could it be that in the second millennium BC we are seeing a convergence between the two island groups?

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Another similar monument appears to be positioned alongside the ‘ring cairn’. Inside this a number of large stone boxes have been unearthed and much discussion surrounds their identification as burial cists.

Within the next few days we will be examining these and the question will be resolved. Very rarely have we encountered such confusing buildings and the architecture of the initial ‘ring cairn’ is very curious. Undoubtedly, over the next couple of weeks all will be revealed but at present, as the students working on the site find amusing, our interpretations change from day to day!

UHI Student Ross Drummond and The Cairns or #absolutecairnage

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Ross and his makeshift stall for ‘Create you own Cairns Character’

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his time at The Cairns dig…..and, for those that follow the conversation on Twitter, his created hashtag #absolutecairnage

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Before you ask no, this isn’t a late entry for The Cairns Dig Diary 2018 series; you’ll just have to wait until next year for that. Anyway this will be the first of several pieces I’ll be writing over the summer in relation to my Placement with the university. So I guess you can just look at it as my ‘Summer Of Digging: Pt.1’.

For my Placement with the University of Highlands and Islands as part of my MSc Masters course I plan to try engage the wider world with archaeology (both locally here in Orkney and further afield), mainly through the use of social media and getting involved with outreach activities on each of the excavations I’ll be participating in. I’m fortunate enough to be spending a few weeks at each of the excavations being run by the UHI Archaeology Institute up here in Orkney over the summer: The Cairns (South Ronaldsay), Skaill (Rousay), Cata Sands (Sanday) and The Ness (Stenness, Mainland). I’m also lucky enough to be one of a select few archaeology students within the UHI Archaeology Institute to be chosen to take part in the first year of the Dunyvaig Field School in Islay, which will be running in August in collaboration with the University of Reading.

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The magnificent setting of The Cairns

Anyway enough of an introduction, back to the focus of this piece. This first piece will focus on the recently finished excavation season at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay, an excavation I had the pleasure of spending a whole three weeks digging. I’m sure plenty of you have heard about the site and possibly have visited it previously or even over this past season; however if not, make sure to catch up on all the news and discoveries of this season’s activities (including my Dig Diary entry) right here on this blog, under ‘The Cairns Dig Diary 2018’.

Following an in depth discussion and tour of the site, and a run through health & safety procedures for the site by site director Martin Carruthers; it was time to get down to business. The first day on site focused on getting the site ready and uncovered for the new season of excavation. This involved a major group effort from staff, supervisors, students and volunteers in removing the tarp and tyres that had so effectively kept the site safe and protected over the harsh long months that the Orkney winter threw at it. A future warning to all those involved in re-opening an archaeological site for excavation: waterproofs are a must (even if it’s not raining) as you will get destroyed! Also tyre and tarp build-up are a real thing and you’ll probably get a few instances of muddy water splashing you in the face when the wind picks up and blows the tarp all over the place (not a graceful moment at all). So the odd face/baby wipe wouldn’t go amiss either. Once the site was uncovered the real activities begun and we could start to get our hands dirty!

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The Broch Ditch

My first two weeks at The Cairns were completed as part of the ‘Excavation’ module run by the UHI Archaeology Institute for various archaeology courses and years in the UHI curriculum. 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. This is a very helpful and important module (in my opinion anyway) because fieldwork is an essential part of being an archaeologist, even for more desk-based academics.

Besides given the choice between being outdoors and conducting college work or being inside writing an essay; I’m sure college students everywhere (no matter what their study subject) would jump at the opportunity of outdoor learning as well. I already had a decent bit of experience in the field before taking part in this module but it was great to get a refresher and go over fieldwork procedures again, especially given the fact I’ll be going all out with excavations until early September. So I’m hoping all the advice and skills I’ve learnt over the past few weeks, will be put to good use over the next few months.

The Excavation module was overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for ORCA. Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over the two week field school that were explained and demonstrated first by Rick himself; 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 like they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone who heeded their attention.

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Rick and Ross in the broch

The site director and brains behind the whole operation is Martin Carruthers. As the Programme Leader for the MSc Archaeological Practice, I have been fortunate to have worked and dealt with Martin on a regular basis over the academic year through various different modules; but it was something else to be working in the field with someone of his experience. The enthusiasm and joy he shows in discovering more about his project (The Cairns site) is a great sight to behold; and the pleasure he takes in working on his site is probably only equalled to by the pleasure he takes in eating his beloved Tunnock’s Teacakes.

For the whole period of my time spent on site I had the honour of conducting activities within the broch. The broch is the main structure at The Cairns and seems to have been the focus of activities and settlement for the whole site. Dubbed the ‘A Team’ by Rick himself; Therese, Gary, Kath and myself had the honour of being the first of this season’s team to enter the broch, where we each remained for the duration of our time on site. Many others followed suit over the following few weeks, but we were the OG’s of the broch (apologies to the rest of ye)!

The first few days spent inside the broch interior involved the trowelling and cleaning of the whole floor surface, as being covered up over the winter months had made some areas a bit smudgy and unclear. Once the initial cleaning was completed, the team targeted certain areas inside the broch under the guidance of Rick. After helping Therese take geochem and bulk samples in the West quadrant of the broch interior for a day or two, I was given the responsibility of taking over my own area in the broch; as the NE quadrant of the broch was re-opened for the new season.

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The grid in the NE quadrant of the broch

My first job was the arduous and bothersome task of re-stringing the quadrant in a grid of 50cm per section. This was the first time the area was open for excavation since 2015 so what remained of the grid on the ground from previous work, looked nothing at all like what the records from the drawings and context sheets represented. So after a bit of tussling with some of the old string and the grateful discovery of new string, I managed to re-string the grid fairly accurately. Although the non-compliance of some parts of the ground coupled with several instances of nails being knocked out of place (wasn’t always just myself), led to a few readjustments over the weeks; but sure it seemed to provide my broch compatriots with a few laughs and smiles at times, so at least it kept morale up.

Once the grid was set up I started to take soil samples which will be used for environmental sampling over coming months, so we can learn more about the presence of materials in the floor deposits. The purpose of setting up the grid was to maintain control over the sampling of these floors so that when we get results of wet sieving and various soil analysis we can see spatial patterning of activities and inputs across the floors. This was done through collecting a geochem sample (small bag, holding soil samples <1 litre) and a bulk sample (larger bag, holding soil samples <5 litres). Each square in the grid was done one by one, until the end of this season’s activities when nearly all squares in the grid had relevant samples (some squares were just overlain by large slabs, so these were left as they were for possible future work in coming seasons if needs be).

The start of the second week began with a day off-site as Duncan and I were chosen to spend the day doing environmental sampling at Orkney College UHI with Cecily Webster, (also I may have had a top of the table football match that night in Kirkwall so the closer to the home that day the better – but we won so still top of the league Mon Accies!!!). But anyway…

The environmental sampling involved the wet sieving and examination of previous season’s soil samples taken at The Cairns. The samples were immersed in a tank lined with gauze and the silt massaged away by hand. This allows matter such as seeds, and charcoal to float to the top where it is separated into a sieve then placed on a tray to dry. The remaining small stones and detritus is also placed on a tray to dry, after which it is sorted through to find miniscule pieces of flint, bone, cramp (ashy slag residue from cooking or cremation) or other similar tiny pieces of archaeological material.

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Possible post setting

I returned to site the next day to carry on retrieving samples from the gird and bit by bit trowelling down through the layers of the broch’s floor surfaces. Upon my return to site I had discovered that Rick had nicknamed the NE quadrant ‘Terrence’ apparently for no good reason (to this day I think even Rick himself has said that the origin of the nickname remains an enigma). My work in the area continued up until my departure from the site following the Open Day on the Friday of the third week. It was great seeing the layers in the different grids of the quadrant come out in such vibrant colours, and hopefully the samples taken from these will allow us to discover more of the story of this particular area in the broch. There were also one or two possible post-setting like features that were excavated in the process of trowelling down through the soil, so hopefully the samples from these particular squares may shed some light on these possible features.

Possible post setting and Ross
Ross and the possible post setting post excavation

Although my third and final week on-site was a bit different to the previous two (as I had completed the excavation module) and involved less excavation and more of a focus on outreach & social media side of things; it was great to work alongside Dr Jo McKenzie for a day or two and see her expertise in action. Jo is a soil micro-morphologist – so the knowledge and techniques she used and provided while further sampling parts of the NE quadrant, should reveal even more information in identifying some of the activities which took place within the broch.

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One of the numerous tour groups on Open Day

My final few days at The Cairns were geared up towards the Open Day and running outreach activities on the day. My Placement supervisor Dan Lee, came up with the brilliant idea to run a workshop on site creating clay models of the Cairns Character, which was found on-site a few years previous. Dan got in contact with Andrew Appleby (The Harray Potter) who graciously offered a bag of terracotta clay to use to create the figures. I even had the pleasure to take a run through session with Andrew himself at his pottery a few days before the Open Day, which was much appreciated as the Friday could have been a complete disaster having never really used clay before myself….

Also in the lead up to the Open Day I attempted to try gain the site more attention online and in the local media, by attempting to spread posters and hashtags around as part of Social Media Storm Day. I had access and have been running the @thecairnsbroch account on Twitter for this season’s activities, as well as posting various material on the official UHI Archaeology Institute accounts on both Facebook and Instagram.

I’m proud to claim the hashtag #AbsoluteCairnage as my own brainchild, although it’s a bit of a catch 22; as trying to follow up on the catchiness of that hashtag for future excavations over the summer may strain my creative muscles…

The Open Day itself was a huge success, with visitors making the trip down to South Ronaldsay and arriving in numbers early as 10:30 that morning. The clay workshop was also a hit and really added another dimension to activities on the day. Parents & adults got all the information and saw the amazing finds which had been discovered during the excavation season, while the ‘Create Your Own Cairn’s Character’ provided an outlet and activity for children to get involved in archaeology and the site, without having to just sit through a tour and a load of talking.

The best part was all those who made a Cairns Character, were able to bring it home themselves after; as a memento from the day. It wasn’t only the children who got their hands dirty either, as many older visitors (older as in not a child – before any offence is caused) had a go at making their own clay model. The workshop provided a good laugh to everyone who got involved and who stopped by the make-shift stall, with a lot of positive feedback saying it was a great idea; and I had a lot of fun myself running the activities.

After all the visitors had left it was time to pack up the site for the day. Following the few hours of hustle and bustle it was nice to have a moment to take in the broch and catch a glimpse of ‘Terrence’ once last time before being covered over again. Hopefully I’ll return at some stage to walk the steps as the ancestors did and possibly work on further examination & analysis of the NE quadrant again, but who knows what the future will bring; so for now all that’s left to say is ‘Bye Bye Broch’!

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Martin re-emerging from the depths of The Well

As for a personal highlight of my time at The Cairns, it would have be when Martin discovered the wooden and organic objects in ‘The Well’. Many of you may have already read or heard about these discoveries in the media recently; if not make sure you check out this blog and the UHI Archaeology Facebook page for more details. But with the NE quadrant being right beside ‘The Well’ I was one of the first ones to hear the screams of absolute joy coming from down there when Martin emerged with the objects in hand, which saw the light of day for the first time in around 2,000 years!! The pure look of glee and the smile beaming across his face was great to see, that with all the years of experience and excavations behind him, Martin still gets excited over finding new artefacts & materials (although to be fair these objects in particular are highly significant for Scottish archaeology as a whole)!!!

Either that or the time when making my way to the beach for a lunch-time dip in the sea, I came across this sight… Could not have planned the photo better myself, and just about managed to take a decent photo before bursting into a fit of laughter… Good ol Dig Dog!

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Dig Dog ready for action

Anyway that’s probably enough of me yapping, you’re probably sick of me by now (if you’ve managed to stay reading). Hopefully this has been interesting an insightful into a first-hand experience of being in the frontline of the trenches (pun intended). Thanks for reading and look forward to updating ye all in my next instalment of my ‘Summer of Digging’ in upcoming weeks. I would apologise for any bad archaeology jokes and puns included in this post, but I thought they were funny so guess you’ll just have to dig my awful sense of humour if you plan on following my archaeological adventures over the summer (please do, I’ll try improve the jokes…..maybe).

Before leaving at this stage I feel it would be poor form if I didn’t acknowledge and give a shout out to all those who kept the gears of The Cairns machine running and advancing over the four weeks of activities. I think I speak for all students and volunteers in giving a massive thank you to Martin Carruthers (site director), for giving us the opportunity and privilege to take part in excavations on his project. Also a big thanks to all the supervisors over the four weeks: Rick Barton, Bobby Friel, Colin Mitchell, Linda Somerville, Kevin Kerr and Dr Jo McKenzie; for their guidance and advice on various topics and tasks.

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Some of The Cairns Squad

Also a mention of thanks for Ole, who saved most of our voices by taking responsibility for conducting the majority of tours for visitors over the duration of the four weeks. 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! Also a big thanks and much appreciation to all of you who visited the site and followed the story and updates & used the hashtags on the various social media platforms, your support and interest means a lot!

Next stop for myself is Skaill on Rousay, make sure to keep tabs on social media outlets for info and updates on progress there in the near future!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student


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For further information on studying for a Masters in archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute contact studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website

Two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered in underground chamber beneath broch site.

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The Cairns Broch site

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were astonished last week when they unearthed a two thousand year old wooden bowl from an underground chamber beneath The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

The vessel itself is the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney and will give the team from the UHI Archaeology Institute a unique insight into life in an Iron Age broch in Northern Scotland.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns
A detached section of the wooden bowl following initial cleaning

The beautifully preserved object is a complete, wood-turned bowl around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and rounded base. Although the object has split at some point in the past, it is complete and was being held together and protected by the muddy silts of the excavation.

The bowl has been confirmed to be made from alder and the dating is known from the location within the subterranean chamber which the archaeologists on site have termed, ‘The Well’.

A detached section of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed from The Well at The Cairns (2)
A detached section of the wooden vessel showing the rim

This amazing underground feature, consists of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. It is assumed that the bowl dates from this period also, however, radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could be even earlier than this time. At any rate it will be Orkney’s oldest preserved complete wooden vessel.

The rim of2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Cairns Broch, Orkney, still encased in the silt from The Well 2
The rim of the 2000 year old wooden bowl, still encased in the silt from The Well

In addition to the bowl, there are preserved plant fibres, some of which appear to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seem to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs.

Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, are also present. There appears to be more waterlogged objects waiting to be lifted from the silt. Ancient insect remains and probably a host of other tiny items, perhaps including parasite eggs and coprolites (fossilised faeces), may even be found.

Site Director, Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said: ‘It’s miraculous that we’ve got this wooden vessel. It’s really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at The Cairns! In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink. Its round base makes you think that it would have been required to be constantly held when full, and perhaps used socially, passed around from hand to hand, person to person. It’s already been nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. “

Martin continued, “I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of ‘The Well’. For one thing it’s not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water, but if it were used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket or, dare I say it, poured as a libation, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps”.

There is still much work to do in The Well, and there are other amazing remains to be recovered from the silts there, as well as across the site. The excavations are on-going and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time. The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects. It is hoped that funds can be raised as soon as possible to pay for specialist conservation.

*In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and passed around to celebrate the marriage.

Iron Age Settlement
Excavations have been taking place at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, since 2006 under the auspices of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The site is a substantial Iron Age period village settlement with a broch (tower-like monumental house) lying at its heart. The ancient buildings on the site are very substantial and rich in finds. The broch itself and the village buildings are very well-preserved and already this season there have been many artefacts recovered including a bronze ring and a glass bead.

Three years ago an opening into an underground chamber was discovered under the floor of the broch, but only this year has the excavation project turned its attention to fully excavating the well. The subterranean structure is preserved intact with its stone roof still in place and it has been sealed since the Iron Age. Steps lead down into the partly rock-cut cavity that dates back to the time of the construction of the broch.

Iron Age ‘Wells’ and Waterlogged Remains
Traditionally, these structures have been termed wells by generations of archaeologists, however, there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, with constricted entrances and the steepness of their staircases, have raised doubts about their function in recent years, and the volume of water found in the structures is seldom sufficient to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation
The stairs leading into The Well at The Cairns Broch

Additionally, previously excavated examples have contained an unusually high amount of wild animal bones, such as red deer and fox, in their in-fills, suggesting the wells had some special significance. Famously, a massive ‘well’-type structure was discovered at Mine Howe, East Mainland, Orkney, and also excavated by archaeologists from UHI in the early 2000s. Although the subterranean chamber at Mine Howe had previously been informally excavated in the 1940s and its contents emptied, the archaeologists found that it lay at the heart of a high status metalworking complex that was also apparently the scene of ritual practices and the deposition of the human dead.

About 20 such structures have been found beneath brochs in previous excavations, but many of these investigations were undertaken by antiquaries in the 19th Century, and fairly few of these structures have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still, have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns. It would seem that the basal silts within the ‘well’ have been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen). This means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items and, therefore, there is incredible preservation of organic items, usually only seen in the rarefied conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

At The Cairns there has been little previous reason to suspect that such preservation conditions existed. However, the depth of the well at over two metres under the floor of the broch, and a further two metres beneath the modern ground surface, has meant that  the base of the well remained damp since the Iron Age and allowed for the protection of the wood and organic items.

The excavations ran until the 13th of July and visitors were encouraged to see the work at the site for themselves, throughout the excavation period.

Media contact: Sean Page, Marketing Officer, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. Sean.page@uhi.ac.uk Tel: 01856 569229
High Resolution images are available.

Open Day @thecairnsbroch

Visitors on open day
Some of the visitors touring the site

Today was, indeed, open day and a big thank you to everyone who came along and visited the site. There was a great turn out of visitors and fun was had by all.

One of our MSc students, Ross, even ran sessions for the children on making clay replicas of the well-known ‘Cairns character’ our carved head from an earlier season of the site. It was a privilege and pleasure to share our findings directly with the public, both locals and visitors from further afield.

While some of us led tours and showed visitors around, work continued in the key areas of the site. Within the broch the work of recording the slab floor in the western zone was completed, and by the end of the day this late floor could be lifted to reveal…charcoal rich soils…more floors in other words. Lest you think this is in any way disappointing to us – please be disavowed of that idea. In fact these multiple juxtaposed floors, one after the other, are the glory of the broch for us, and they represent a detailed and insightful record of what sorts of activities were going on in the broch, and they’ll yield lots of information on the chronology and tempo of the occupation in the broch.

The work of lifting the late paving in the broch begins
The work of lifting the late paving in the broch begins

Elsewhere in the broch, in the Northeastern zone, Jo has continued to take micromorphology samples from the floors here, in order to see even more detail of the activities two thousand years ago. In the process she has revealed beautiful, vividly coloured, (bright red, brown and black) thin laminations, or lenses, within the ashy floor deposits. It’s exciting to think what will be revealed in the finer microscopic resolution of her eventual studies.

Vivid multi-coloured soils of the occupation deposits in the broch
Vivid multi-coloured soils of the occupation deposits in the broch

In the well, work also continued on the lower fill deposits, and some startlingly well-preserved wood was recovered. This time brushwood was the order of the day, and a fair amount of it. Some quite long pieces of clearly knife-pruned branches and twigs came out, as well as finer mossy and heathery matter. Essentially, this material looks like lining at the bottom of the well.

Over in area M/Q Bobby’s team are still revealing new wall faces and the relationships between them, in the area immediately to the northeast exterior of the broch. We really are now seeing a clear sense of the busy nature of the settlement and something of its development through time here. One amazing find relates to another find we made way back in week one. You may recall we found a very finely made antler mount with drilled perforations. This piece clearly hafted something like a knife, handle. Well on Friday another piece of the same haft turned up in a close by area. At first we thought this new piece of antler was likely to be the piece from the other side of the handle or haft, and that would have been nice enough. However, it turned out to be a refitting fragment of the same antler mount making the piece very long and quite a curving piece. It now looks like it intended to form one side of the handle of a two handed blade, something like a scythe or a serious cleaver.

In the south extension we drew things to a close for this year. Structure J, the village building constructed up against the broch wall here, is now looking very fine, indeed, thanks to everyone involved and to Sam who took care of this area for several days. We can now see the full outline of, at least one phase, of this building and its’ slightly dumbbell shape. We’ll excavate no further in here this season but we now have the building complete with some of its’ internal fixtures and fittings revealed and we can really explore its history of use and inhabitation in the following season.

For now, we have one week left of this seasons’ excavations. We’ll keep you posted as to how we fare with the key areas that we are working within, and any last week surprises that may yet come our way!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day Thirteen – 2018

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Looking across the broch to Windwick Bay

It’s Day Thirteen and Conal O’Neill, BA (Hons) Archaeology UHI student steps into the breach to write todays blog post from The Cairns.

As day thirteen of excavations on The Cairns draws to a close the amazingly good weather has remained.

Within the broch, or Structure A, soil sampling continues alongside planning by Therese while Gary continues to dig a large pit. A new addition to the team, at least since I arrived at the start of the week, is Jo, who has been enacting soil micromorphology, where small soil block samples are analysed to provide a detailed assessment of the microscopic floor layers of the broch.

Jo preparing to sample floors in the broch
Jo preparing to sample floors in the broch

Within my own area, of soil sampling within a grid, a worked bone, possibly antler, was discovered. Following the cleaning of the area surrounding the antler it was photographed, however then I was called away to write this blog, so excavating it will sadly have to wait until tomorrow.

Conal's antler object
Conals antler object

In structure J, Sam continues to lower the soil in the corner of the structure, and further tidy it up for photographing. The ditch area, dug by Gary, Iona, has been further cleaned and excavated yielding lots more animal bone and revealing a large lump of slag in the process, which may actually be a furnace base.

Structure J where Sam has been working
Structure J where Sam has been working

In Structure O some high, superficial orthostats (upright stones) were removed to reveal the wall beneath and further excavation has revealed bone, pottery and possible worked bone.

Finally, in Area Q the team is continuing to excavate the trench to the level of Area M eventually forming a ‘super trench’!

Today's blogger Conal digging in the South quadrant of the broch
Todays blogger Conal digging in the south quadrant of the broch

Anyway the hut’s about to be locked up and Bobby’s threatening to lock me in here for the night, so before I become part of The Cairns I’m going to leave!

Cheers.

Conal O’Neill, BA (Hons) Archaeology UHI Student.

!!Stop Press!! Towards the end of the day Dr Scott Timpany arrived on site and told us that he’d managed to identify the wood species of the wooden bowl from the well. It’s made from Alder.

A tiny portion of the wooden bowl under the microscope revealing the structure and identifying it as Alder
A tiny portion of the wooden bowl under the microscope revealing the structure and identifying it as Alder

Meanwhile he has also been out in the landscape near to The Cairns visiting a wetland site where the conditions may allow us to obtain a picture of the ancient environment at the time of the site. There will be a very useful palaeoenvironmental record of hundreds if not thousands of years embedded in this!

Scott's core through the old loch that will help to reveal the environment of the landscape around The Cairns
Scotts core through the old loch that will help to reveal the environment of the landscape around The Cairns