The Cairns Day Nine – 2018

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Martin Carruthers continues the exciting story of Day Nine at The Cairns….

Hi folks, Martin here yet again. Not meaning to bore you by doing the blog again two days running but I thought I’d better describe today’s findings. What I have to share with you, however, is anything but boring! It’s been an amazing day on site.

If you’ve been following the blog thus far you’ll know from yesterday’s piece that we began to excavate the so-called ‘well’ that lies deeply under the floor of the broch. This subterranean structure is reached by a set of steep stone steps that curve down, slightly spiralling in a counter-clockwise direction. There’s a very sticky silty fill down there. It’s very wet and claggy and we’ve considered that it might hold out the promise of organic preservation. Today that promise has come true!

Examining organic matter just recovered from the well
Examining organic matter just recovered from the well

Within the partially rock-cut chamber, underneath the very fine upper grey silt deposit we uncovered a darker deposit, still very wet, but with a more compact consistency, and, I have to say, a quite a distinctive smell!

This morning we got the first hint of organic preservation from this dark deposit in the form of what appeared to be grass fibres, some of which even appeared as if they might be woven! There were also pieces of tree bark present. This was sufficiently stunning, and we were just contemplating the significance of this over morning tea break, but this was nothing to the shock of what emerged after the break. I was working in the well myself carefully examining the ‘dark deposit’, and noticed a strange solid curving object beginning to appear amidst the silt. Unbelievably, it was a wooden bowl…

Wooden bowl coated in silt from the well, the rim of the bowl can be seen on the middle right
Wooden bowl coated in silt from the well, the rim of the bowl can be seen on the middle right

I was astonished to see this very dark, very smooth object begin to appear more clearly as a vessel. The bowl is in several large chunks, but all in the correct relationship to each other showing that the vessel was complete, and it was clearly lying upright with the rim upwards. In form, the thing has a lovely out-swinging (or everted) rim just like a contemporary Iron Age pot. The bowl is round-bottomed like some Middle Iron Age ceramic vessels too. Within the curve of the rim I could see that there was further organic preservation – a mass of plant material. Startlingly, a second wooden object became apparent lying near to the wooden bowl, but closer to the bottom step of the staircase leading into the chamber. This time it was a long piece of round-wood about 20 centimetres long with a pronounced carved head at one end and a sort of carved ledge under the ‘head’. The object very closely resembles a modern wooden tent peg!

Before the end of the day we were able to lift the peg and the wooden vessel and safely pack it all up in protective layers and significant amounts of its own silty matrix within a plastic crate. The whole thing will have to be sent off to conservators to stabilise the object and prevent any deterioration of the precious wooden object. In the meantime we have not yet reached the bottom of the chamber. It was quite clear that in lifting the wooden bowl there was more organic material beneath, what seemed like a thick mass of plant fibres, perhaps the bowl was resting on a mat of some sort! Only a little time will tell as we continue to excavate this important feature!

New walling emerging in Structure O the big building outside the broch entrance
New walling emerging in Structure O, the big building outside the broch entrance

Meanwhile in other parts of the site some great progress has also been made. Over in area M/Q Bobby’s team have yet again been revealing more wall lines. By the end of today they now have uncovered three sides of the building that lies just outside the broch entrance (Structure O). This looks like a large imposing building, with very well built walls utilising substantial blocks of sandstone, just the sort of grandeur that would be expected of one of the premier buildings within the broch-village complex. Also, in the same part of the trench a whopping whalebone vertebra has been uncovered and it has been carved, and pierced to provide handle holes, we think, and utilised as a chopping board with many serious chopping scars revealed on the surface.

The whalebone chopping block
The whalebone chopping block

In the south extension Linda’s team have been continuing to work away at the ditch fills, and, nearby, Angus has been revealing even more of Structure J, a village building tucked into the lee of the broch and its construction terrace.

Finally for this round up, back to the broch interior and Therese has been recording the slab floor in the Western quadrant and then she began to lift the shattered remains of the late hearth base slab. Underneath lay more burnt material and edges of stones that suggest an earlier hearth remains to be fully investigated. In the Southeast quadrant of the broch Ross continued to grid-excavate the beautiful ashy floor horizons with their riot of black and vivid red colours.

Gary and Paul have begun to remove the fill (masses of rubble) from a huge pit set in the floor of the broch and we’ll hopefully get to see what this very deep set feature is all about over the next few days- possibly a sub-floor tank that has been partly robbed out for stone and then filled in or something more enigmatic? We’ll see…

Well tomorrow’s another day and we’ll keep you posted on what emerges!

Martin Carruthers, Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute

 

The Cairns Day Seven – 2018

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Kath Page, third year UHI Archaeology Institute student continues the story of the dig at The Cairns….

Today was a beautiful sunny day at the Cairns and the sunshine brought lots of visitors to the site, including Fiona from the Orkney News to report on how the excavations are progressing.

After several days of carefully removing shillet to a depth of almost 4ft, Colin, Anthea and Deryck have uncovered a cell beneath the rubble on the North West side of the outer broch wall. The rubble, though to be wall collapse, was lying beneath a layer of temporary paving, this discovery adds another dimension to the story of the Cairns broch and future sampling of the floor deposits may be able to tell us the purpose of this feature.

Inside the broch, students from UHI Archaeology Institute and Therese are continuing to retrieve geochemical samples. Therese and I are collecting 100% of the floor deposits around the hearth in the North West part of the broch interior, once retrieved, the area will be planned and eventually the flags will be lifted, hopefully revealing some more amazing finds. In the North West quadrant, Ross is collecting geochemical samples, and excavating a post hole setting and in the South West quadrant, Sue and Kathryn have begun the process of gridding out to enable them to collect geochemical samples from this area also. Gary has continued to clear rubble to further define the pit boundary in the North East quadrant of the broch and stabilise the stone work around the corbelled cell.

Work continues apace in the broch interior by Sue, Kathryn, Gary and Ross
Work continues apace in the broch interior. Pictured are Sue, Kathryn and Gary

In the South West extension, UHI Archaeology students Angus and Paul have discovered a possible wall feature and uncovered an up turned saddle quern today. Elsewhere in this large trench, work has continued to define the edge of the ditch running around the broch and Don has removed the animal bone deposit he discovered earlier this week.

Upturned saddle quern from the SW Extension trench
Upturned saddle quern from the SW Extension trench

Sorcha, Marianne and Michael have discovered an unusual feature in Area Q. Two upright orthostats are protruding from the trench and they have discovered some deer antler, fire cracked stone, cramp and a sharpening stone. Further investigation in the coming weeks will help us to understand exactly what this feature is. In Trench M, a wall area has been defined and stone tools discovered close by, further along, in Henrik and Vicky’s section, some large flat flag stones have been uncovered. Continued excavation of the trench should be able to tell us how these features relate to each other.

Area Q Feature
Area Q Feature

The Cairns is an important placement for both undergraduate and post graduate students from the University of the Highlands and Islands and as well as universities further afield such as Stirling, Oxford and Trondheim! Today Rick gave a tool box talk to students on how to plan a feature and MLitt students George and Amber had the opportunity to plan a section of the hearth situated on top of the North East section of broch wall. Rick also gave tuition on the use of the EDM Total station to record small finds across the site – all important skills that will be required for any budding field archaeologist.

Work continues apace in the broch interior by Sue, Kathryn, Gary and Ross2
Ross in the broch interior

The weather forecast tomorrow is for more sunny weather, I may regret saying this, but I hope there is a breeze too as the broch interior is somewhat of a suntrap!

Kath Page 3rd year UHI Archaeology Student

The Cairns Day Six – 2018

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Hi everyone, its Martin here and today was the start of Week 2 of the project, so I thought I’d give a little round up of things on site.

In the south extension of the trench the digging caries on apace led by Linda. The upper ditch fills here are coming into ever more crisp focus, and the animal bone in Don’s area just keeps getting more extensive in the area it covers as well as the number of very large bone fragments.

There are semi-articulated bone groups and enough elements from the same species and from the same region of the animal body to suggest we have large portions of carcass being introduced into these upper fills. This is, in some ways, to be expected in the ditch as several Iron Age period ditches that have been excavated on Northern Isles sites have been similarly rich, and seem to show that ditches were important places for meaningful deposition as well as simply the disposal of waste products.

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Don excavating the animal bone in the south extension

Meanwhile, still within the south extension, but slightly to the north, the area snug against the broch outer wall is changing rapidly, as well as throwing up some interesting finds. Large voids are appearing in the soils here and seem to hold out the promise of rubble and stonework just a little further down. Indeed, hopefully soon we’ll be able to reveal the connectedness of several hitherto disparate pieces of walling and show them to be all part of an entire building that we think should be roughly contemporary with the broch, essentially one of the village buildings that we call Structure J. The finds form this building today included several fairly well-preserved iron objects and two bone pins.

Inside the broch today
Inside the broch today

Inside the broch itself, the little team of Rick, Therese, Gary, Kath and Ross have been steadily excavating the floor in the western and south-eastern zones of the building. Last Friday’s glass bead found close to the hearth was a highlight, but hopefully there will be many more interesting items from these floors before we finish this season. The floor deposits are being excavated on a sample grid that allows us to control exactly where everything came from within the broch and allows us to build up a picture of distribution patterns across the floor. Hopefully, this will give us very good information about the range and location of activities within the broch during the Iron Age.

The entrance to the broch chamber with photgrammetry targets in place
The entrance to the broch chamber with photogrammetry targets in place

In the meantime this afternoon we recorded the opening into the cell within the broch’s western area. The lintels immediately over the entrance to the chamber have been destabilised in antiquity and we need to remove these in order to work safely inside the broch in this area. One way of recording these is through photogrammetry, where we place little targets on the masonry in order to act as reference points, and then we can create a very accurate rectified image and drawing based on this. You can see a photo of the cell doorway, the crooked lintels that we need to remove, and the photogrammetry targets in this blog.

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Area Q under excavation

In Area Q, Bobby and his team have been doing sterling work revealing several walls. In fact, these, are becoming very extensive, and I am beginning to hope that we are finally seeing some major stretches of wall reflecting big village buildings around this north-eastern side of the broch. Time will tell, but in the meantime the team are enjoying a rich array of animal bone from this area, including lots of red deer antler.

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For the rest of the week we will be exploring the ditch, the broch interior, and the village buildings of Area Q further, whilst recommencing some areas from previous seasons including the souterrain passage immediately outside the broch. We’ll keep you updated as to how we get on.

The Cairns Day Five 2018

Possible North Scottish decorated annular bead
Possible North Scottish decorated annular bead found at The Cairns today

Today it’s Don Helfrichs turn to write the dig diary. Don is studying for MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute….

Greetings from the ‘Land of Enchantment’ – yes that’s Orkney and The Cairns, but also my home state of New Mexico.

For myself, one of the ditch diggers in the newly exposed South extension this season, I struck it rich with what is appearing to be an articulated animal deposit (likely cow) complete with multiple vertebrae, scapula, the right side of a mandible, a shoulder joint, teeth, a femur or tibia head and either ribs or perhaps a Red Deer antler. There is more to expose. This deposit seems more special with the nearby presence of a whale tooth found last week during the uncovering process and a lovely stone Ard, which seemed to be pointing to the centre of the bone deposit. This is at the Southwest edge of the ditch extension. My nearby colleagues have continued to take ‘spits’ (sectional layers scraped downward) with more bone and teeth and the occasional piece of iron slag and pot sherd.

Excavating the new wall and passage in Structure B
Excavating the new wall and passsage in Structure B

This is the 3rd day for the Archaeology short course run by Dan Lee and Sean Bell. Today they were digging on the eastern side of the new extension over the ditch and have likewise found bones and teeth. They have finished their test pits and seemed to have gotten a taste for the site that I’m sure has only made them hungry for more.

Further to the east, in Area Q, a wall exposed in the 2017 excavation was extended and defined further to the south showing a nice curvature and what appears to be one and possibly two nicely built piers extending into the structure. This wall has been exposed down 3 courses so far. Further east it straitens into a structure topped by ‘beech pebbles’ – large water rounded ‘pillow stones’ on one side with an exterior wall face of the more common flat courses on its outer face.

New walls emerging in Area Q
New walls emerging in Area Q

The balks on either side of this wall are nearly taken down now and the question remains as to the relationship of this wall to the structure to its North which extends further to the East and had been thought to possibly tie in to the aforementioned southern structure.

Just outside the Broch interior on the north side, the collapsed part of the Broch wall has been cleared down to the paving and a post-broch doorway opening into what may be an extension to a structure excavated previously is now visible. A wall that defines its North East side is better defined now and we are interested to see if the entrance is contiguous to the clear structure and hearth(?) adjacent on to the west. This would have been a later building after the Broch’s initial destruction / decommissioning (?).

Just outside the Broch wall to the South West, coming back round to our ditch extension, Angus proudly found an antler tine.

And lastly, in the Northwest quadrant of the Broch itself, Therese was excavating a floor deposit near the hearth and found a beautiful glass bead – the find of the day! Work in this quadrant revealed a second layer of paving under the hearth and more floor sampling in the NE and NW areas is on-going.

For me, a “mature” student, I have had a great time meeting and getting to know fellow students and volunteers. I wish to give a fond farewell to Paul, Angie, and Moyra who I was not able to say goodbye to on this last day of their stint. I hope to stoop, groan and chat with you all again in future!

Don Helfrich (M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, UHI)

Stop press! Tentatively we can say that the glass bead looks like it’s a ‘North Scottish decorated annular bead’. These beads are usually reckoned to be produced in the region of Moray and particularly at Culbin Sands, and a few are known from Orkney and the Scottish Isles. This would be a 1st or 2nd Century AD type of bead, which would fit very well with the age of the deposits currently being excavated within the broch that the bead came from (Martin).

The Cairns Day Four 2018

Tony, Vicky and Catherine digging back from the revetmnet wall in Area Q
Tony, Vicky and Catherine digging back from the revetment wall in Area Q

Sue Dyke, volunteer archaeologist at The Cairns and soon to be student at UHI Archaeology Institute, describes the exciting day on site….

We start with a quick tour around the site! Over in the South extension (the area most exposed to today’s high winds and therefore coldest corner of the site!) our stalwart diggers have started to take a section through the broch-period ditch. Excavations of previous broch ditches have often proved rich with deposits, sometimes deliberate deposits associated with perhaps a decommissioning/closure events… so expectations are high for the ‘ditch to be rich’!

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The team in the south extension excavating the upper ditch deposits that slope down to the corner of the trench

Today’s haul of finds included animal bone and pot sherds. The section has revealed a few bands of stone high up which may be indicative of 19th Century rig-and-furrow (a post-medieval cultivation technique) in this area which fits nicely with a copper coin found by one of our summer school students here. In another part of this section though a massive cattle scapula turned up. Carefully working the soil around it Don managed to reveal most of it by the end of the day, and there seemed to be other bones associate with it also.

Don's cattle shoulder blade
Don’s cattle shoulder blade

The other group working in the south corner are extending a sondage (the word is from the French ‘to take a sounding’) and continuing to remove deposits against the south side outer broch wall, the stratification in this area is complicated and so the team are proceeding carefully one layer at a time. Finds today consisted of some slag and bone.

Moving around the broch clockwise (hard going today as that’s directly into the wind!) we come across the team excavating the northern part of Structure B. This area revealed an area of paving which appears to indicate further later Iron Age structure including a nice wall pier, just outside the north edge of the broch. Finds included a small amount of bone.

Colin and his team in Structure B north, the paving is to Colin's left
Colin and his team in Structure B. The paving is to Colin’s left.

Meanwhile today’s ‘intra-broch action’ takes place in the north-west quadrant of the interior. Therese has been sampling the ashy rake-out deposits from the hearth, while Gary and Ole have been recording the section through a very large pit in the north -west quadrant. Ross has started sampling floor surfaces and Kath has her planning square laid out in the centre of the broch. Analysis of the bone/charcoal/seed/charred grain/microfauna/whatever contained in samples from the excavation will be taking place at a later date.

Marc revealing more of the boulder topped wall in Area Q as the baulk gets excavated
Marc revealing more of the boulder topped wall in Area Q as the baulk is excavated

Saving the best till last (my home trench!), Bobby’s Chain Gang have worked tirelessly to continue to remove the baulk between area’s Q and M (these are situated downhill towards the end of the site … more sheltered from the wind than the other trenches). Removing the baulk will clarify the site and further define the wall features that are emerging. A lovely wall with large beach cobbles lining the top looks to be curving in a south easterly direction. In the area just behind the baulk (nearer the broch) there’s a possible revetment wall of a later building and work today has nicely revealed the shape and form of this.

The ‘find of the day’ made late in the afternoon by Catherine from the group of Masters students from Stirling University definitely goes to Trench Q. Excavating in the aforementioned later revetment wall building, Catherine found a very well-preserved beautiful bronze ring!

Sue Dyke, Volunteer at site and soon to be student of archaeology with UHI!

The Cairns Day Three 2018

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Looking south from the site

Today it’s the turn of Ross Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice student from UHI Archaeology institute to write the dig diary……….

Conas atá tú? (Irish for how are you?). Welcome to Day 3 of The Cairns excavation.
The team’s first task of the day was to tackle the facilities for this season’s excavation, which involved pitching the tent for crew members to use.

Despite wet and windy conditions, through teamwork and perseverance the tent was raised and secured into the ground; following a bit of help from some masking tape along the way. My team’s activities for the day took place within the broch structure, under the careful guidance and supervision of Rick. The first job for the team was to clean up and remove any excess water on the floor surfaces, which had accumulated from the morning showers. Once this was done the central area of the broch in between the orthostats was trowelled back and cleaned, this continued on from work done the previous day. The completion of this area marked the final step in the initial cleaning of the broch interior.

Following lunch the grid feature in the north-west quadrant of the broch was re-stringed and laid out in 50cm squares. Bulk samples and geochem samples were taken from each of the separate squares and bagged up. A fairly large assemblage of bone was also recovered and collected from this grid area.

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Gary and Therese working in the broch

In the South extension Linda’s team continued working on defining the ditch area. The edge so far remains elusive but we are hopeful of uncovering it in the coming days. Finds from the area included stone artefacts and a few examples of iron slag. In the upper to mid ditch area, the team also worked on extending the sondage; removing rubble and exposing more of the broch wall. A wall of one of the village buildings on the exterior of the broch was further exposed and early signs suggest it could possibly be linked to another structure further along the exterior of the broch structure; but this requires additional investigation and soil removal before we can establish this. Also towards the end of the day an exciting find was discovered by one of the team members, as what we believe could be a possible pivot stone was found. This could potentially be a doorway with accompanying steps leading down to a lower level village building, but this feature has yet to be fully explored and at the moment is too early to tell. We will keep you up to date with this exciting possibility as excavations progress.

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Pivot stone

On the north exterior of the broch, Colin’s team continued excavations below structure C. During today’s operations a semi-circular structure enclosing rough paving was discovered, and the team will carry on examining this as the week progresses. Finds from the area today included good quality stone tools and some mid-Iron Age pottery.

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Colin’s team at work outside the broch

Bobby’s team continued working on the baulk between trenches Q and M, planning to unify the two trenches in the coming days. The team are also advanced in exposing the wall and defining the stonework in trench Q. The main finds of the day from this area were some worked bone, mid-late Iron Age pottery and even some whale bone turned up. Bobby also added that the team morale was “sky high”. Always good to have happy workers!

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Bobby’s team working on the baulk

In the finds corner Kev gave a lowdown of all of the day’s finds. These included: some worked bone artefacts such as a pin and some notched bone, which were all found in the same area. There was also a lovely example of a rimmed pot. There were also many examples of animal bones, all coming from various different animals. When asked to sum up today’s finds Kev exclaimed “Bones galore!”, thanks Kev!

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Rimmed pot find

In addition to several tourists and visitors, the excavation team were also joined by members of the 3 day Summer Short Course offered by The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. The group were welcomed with a detailed talk and summary of The Cairns site by site director Martin Carruthers. Following this the course attendants were introduced to the practices and processes involved in field archaeology by the Archaeology Institutes trained staff (Dan Lee and Sean Bell), before starting their own test pits. The group are a very welcome addition to the site; great to see the interest and excitement amongst the group.

Anyway that’s about it for today’s summary of activities. Following this morning’s wet and windy start, the day really picked up as the team basked in the Orkney sun for the majority of the day. If the Archaeology Gods allow it, a few of the team may even be able to work on a nice tan before the week is out; as for me and my pasty Irish complexion, I just hope to avoid a bad burn…

Slán go fóill (Irish for ‘goodbye for now’),
Ross

Ross Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands.

 

The Cairns Day Two 2018

A fine view of the broch outer wall on the south side
A view of the broch outer wall on the south side

Kim Ranger M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands has kindly volunteered to write todays dig diary. So over to Kim….

“Greetings from The Cairns excavation, its day two! In the South extension our enthusiastic volunteers and students supervised by Linda, have been working on uncovering more of the external broch wall to further define its features, reveal village buildings close to the broch wall, and also uncovering the big enclosure ditch that cuts through the extension. The team have only dug some of the initial soil layers so far and have found lots of animal bone in the fills. As they work down we expect to encounter more artefacts.

Close up of a little animal bone group from the baulk
Close up of a little animal bone group from the baulk (see later for explanation)

Within the amazing broch, the team led by Rick, have been cleaning up the sensitive but beautiful earthen floors of the building, in preparation for more intensive excavation to come. The occupation horizons are looking very colourful and detailed. In one place just towards the end of the day a very nice spindle whorl (a spinning tool) began to emerge from the floors. This will excite Masters Student Amber, who is undertaking a dissertation study on the textile tools from the site!

Cleaning up the broch interior
Cleaning up the broch interior

Over on the western edge of the site, the northern end of Structure B (a later Iron Age longhouse) lies partly on top of the broch wall, and here a small team have been working to define the stonework a little more. The team were very excited to discover a beautiful whetstone with nice wear.

In trench Area Q a team has been working on two little projects. Firstly, to clean up the entire area, and define it more. They’ve been excavating a broad strip of deposits that were deliberately left high some time ago (this is called a baulk), as it’s now time for the baulk to go, having done its job of allowing us to see the deposits in their vertical order of formation.

The team continued to dig down through the layers of a midden packed full of animal bones which form the remains of a huge feast by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Within the general mass of animal bone there was a particular dense concentration of bone related to a large mandible amongst others, which may represent a loosely articulated carcass. Other finds included a nice hammer stone.

Excavating the baulk in Area Q
Excavating the baulk in Area Q

Today the site was visited by tourists and historians who were given a personalised tour of the site by our experts. We welcome all visitors and hope that more people take advantage of the fine weather to come out and visit us, the area is easy to navigate and there is much being discovered about Iron Age Orkney.

If you do visit the site and you are arriving by vehicle from the direction of the Windwick road near to the war memorial, then please don’t park in the drive of the private house near the entrance to the field that the site sits in, or in the drive leading up to the site itself- thank you!”

Kim Ranger, M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands.

 

The Cairns Day One 2018

Part of the team forms a human chain to move tyres out of the trench
Part of the team forms a human chain to move tyres out of the trench

Welcome back everyone to the daily blog for The Cairns excavations from me, Martin Carruthers the site director!

It’s absolutely fantastic to back on site and be able to share our findings with you once more. Each day of the project we’ll be bringing you updates and perspectives from different members of the team.

We welcome back many familiar faces to take part once again in the project and we also say hello to an equal number of new faces to the site. Altogether the team already shows great promise in terms of good humour and commitment, necessary qualities in these very opening stages of the work, as well as beyond.

In the broch
In the broch

Today was the first day of the new season, and although a little advance party of us took a lot of the covers off the trench last week we nevertheless had a lot more tidying up of the site to do today with the big team. After site introduction and the obligatory health and safety briefings, it was onwards to moving the tyres out of the fenced area of the site and gathering up weathered fragments of plastic to generally neaten up things.

Cleaning trench area Q
Cleaning trench area Q

Early in the afternoon we were able to actually start the job of cleaning the surface of the trench bringing it up to good condition for the start of excavation proper. The wonderful thing is that even in the midst of this house-keeping activity we made some lovely finds! Whilst cleaning up in the broch, Therese found a lovely little piece of worked bone, a pierced and shaped antler mount of some kind.

Meanwhile, over in Bobby’s area, that’s the belt of settlement lying to the North of the broch (Trench area Q) the clean-up brought to light another beautiful antler mount, this time most of a handle for a large blade. You can clearly see the perforations for rivets that would have held this antler plate in place on the tang of an iron blade, probably a chunky knife. This is all quite unbelievably exciting for day one and essentially a clean-up job!

Over in this year’s trench extension on the Southern side of the site the work to clean over the newly revealed deposits was also going well. It looks very much like here we have the upper fills of the great ditch that encircles the broch period settlement. The deposits today were gratifyingly full of animal bone, shell, and pieces of pottery, boding well for the richness of these ditch-fills.

Looking down the entrance of the broch into the interior where the covers where being removed
Looking down the entrance to the broch into the interior where the covers are being removed

Tomorrow, we’ll press on with the site cleaning and then really start to get our teeth into the deposits and features. We’ll keep you posted on how we get on!

The Structures of The Cairns

Structure A looking eastwards
Structure A looking East

The 2018 digging season is now upon us and The Cairns excavation is now being prepared for the new season.

This is a very exciting time as the covers are removed and the groundwork is commenced. Especially as this year the spoil heap has been moved and a new trench is to be opened. 

It is a measure of the interest generated in this site that the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute team now have a veritable army of volunteers from all over the world ready to start work.  However before the daily dig diary begins, perhaps it might be an idea to talk you through some of the structures that have been discovered at the site, to help you locate the finds that Martin and his team discover over the next few weeks of excavation.  Here is everything you have ever wanted to know about The Cairns, but were too afraid to ask…..well almost…..

Check out The Cairns Dig Diary 2018.

Structure names and numbers

Structure A: The Broch
Structure A is a broch, sometimes known as an Atlantic Roundhouse, a massive sub circular structure around 22m in overall diameter. The walls of the broch are 5m thick, and the structure has an internal diameter of over 11m. It is well-preserved with the remains reaching over 2m in height at some points.

Remains of stairs within the walls of Structure A under excavation
Remains of stairs within the walls of Structure A

The thick outer walls contain at least 4 ‘intramural’ chambers and the remains of a staircase indicating that this was a truly monumental multi-storey building. So far, from the investigations of the interior, the well-preserved internal fixtures and fittings of the layout of space have been uncovered as well as a series of floor deposits of laid clay and flagstones. These floors are rich in artefacts, and environmental evidence for the use of the broch. The Cairns project is a very rare opportunity to explore the entire suite of floors (from the very earliest to the last) from inside a broch, as this has very seldom happened in the modern era. At The Cairns we seem to have very good preservation of these important deposits and this is a real boon to the project. The work here should contribute a great deal to the study of the Iron Age in Scotland.

A complex arrangement of walls, hearth, internal fixtures built over Structure A
A complex arrangement of walls, hearths and internal fixtures built over Structure A

The Ditch
Evidence that a great ditch surrounded the broch and formed a substantial enclosure some 70 metres in diameter has been acquired in both geophysical surveys and in trial excavation. Last season when the main trench was extended on the southern corner we were treated to a view of the inner edge of this feature and we were able to excavate a few deposits from the fills. The ditch fills were very rich in animal bone, and in artefacts, including several bronze objects and a substantial quantity of pottery. This year we will extend the edge of the trench further and hope to gain even more information on this important Iron Age boundary. What deposits and materials will we encounter?

Structure B Area: A Late Iron Age/Pictish Settlement 
In the north and north-west part of the main trench, lies a substantial belt of building remains and features that we have called the ‘Structure B Complex’. This complex partly overlies the top of the remains of the broch (Structure A), as well as spreading beyond it. There are two main rectilinear and buildings present, with many well-preserved hearths, stone fixtures and fittings, small cells or chambers, thresholds, wall piers and floors. Often these various elements can be seen to relate to each other in a complex manner, with successive features cutting and partly demolishing earlier elements. It brings to the fore the rich story of social change that almost certainly lies behind the fairly frenetic changes that have taken place across the Structure B area.

The Cairns Charecter
Carved stone object in the form of a human head

The area has yielded numerous small finds including substantial amounts of pottery, stone tools, an extensive animal bone assemblage, gaming counters, as well as a number of striking metal items, including numerous knife blades. Perhaps most bizarrely, a carved stone object in the form of a human head came from the infill of Structure B2.
We now know that this post-broch settlement began at some point between the mid-3rd and 4th Centuries AD. How long it lasted into the Late Iron Age/Pictish period is not clear as yet.

Long hearth in Structure B emerges. Constrcuted between AD 250-300
Long hearth in Structure B

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Structure B1 building was its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the infilled interior of the abandoned broch make us suspect that the occupants of the B complex were keen to bask in the afterglow of the monumental broch, placing themselves directly over the core of its remains as if to co-opt its former position and grandeur. This has always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time. It may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.
It is intriguing therefore that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor an episode of lavish jewellery-making on site (see Structure K).

Structure C “The Workshop/Smithy”and another possible workshop:Structure E
Structures C and E lie toward the east and south-east of the main trench respectively. They are similar in construction and both directly overlie, and intervene in, the remains of the walls of the Structure A broch. They represent fairly substantial buildings built with a combination of stone uprights and coursed masonry, a style that has been seen as typically later Iron Age or even ‘Pictish’ in the past.

Structure C workshop
Structure C workshop

Structure C appears to have been sub-oval or circular in plan in its original form, while Structure E was more straight-sided with a rounded gable end. Both structures have yielded evidence for formal hearths in their interiors and, in the case of Structure C, a set of stone-settings and laid clay features indicate the remains of a grain dryer. In addition, there seem to be high temperature hearth stones present and a large quantity of heat affected materials. This and the presence of moulds, bog ore, and fragments of tuyeres (nozzles or sockets used as the interface between furnace features and the bellows) indicate that the building had an industrial or craft-working role, at least during one stage in its life.

Archaeomagnetic dates obtained from these heat-affected features, which themselves seem to represent later activities in the building, indicate that it was abandoned some time before c.AD600. The story of the very final acts inside this building is a very intriguing one. It seems there was a substantial episode of burning within the building. Currently this is interpreted as a deliberate act of decommissioning, which may have involved setting light to the building roof.

Cache of long handled combs inside Structure C
Cache of long handled combs found inside Structure C

Several iron items (surviving to us as rusted, corroded objects) were apparently left on the floor of the building as it was nearing the end. Recent assessment of these indicates that they are several knife blades, one of which appears clad in mineralised organics which is probably a sheath. Also, in the closing stages of the building a remarkable cache of twelve long-handled decorated combs, six of them carefully decorated with incised lines, were deposited in a pot and placed close to the entrance of the building. These combs were themselves caught up in the burning episode, as their fire-cracked, warped and fragmented state reveals.

Structure K: Even More Metalworking Evidence

Structure K Scene of bronze jewellery making AD 240-300
Structure K: Scene of bronze jewellery making

Located in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M, Structure K is an important part of the story of the site. There are the impressive remains of an episode of metalworking that include furnaces; bronze waste, bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze jewellery items.

Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a
variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches. The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community.
Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, their condition and their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.

The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overlay the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement.

Radiocarbon dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. In radiocarbon terms, this makes the jewellery-making directly contemporary with the large post-broch house complex B on the southwestern part of the site. Perhaps it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the later Iron Age community at The Cairns.

The understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking allows us to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.

It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.

Structure F: The Souterrain or “Earthhouse” 

Structure F The Souterrain
Structure F: The Souterrain

Structure F represents the very well-preserved remains of an underground building or passageway. This souterrain or ‘earthhouse’ was constructed after the broch was disused and filled in with rubble, but it appears to make use of the 5 metre long entrance-passage of the old broch for its chamber.

The discovery of the Structure F souterrain at The Cairns is very good news for us as it allows us to examine another example of a souterrain that is (mostly) undisturbed. One of the aims of the project is to explore and investigate these underground buildings in more detail and to try to offer a firmer basis for their interpretation. At Structure F a remarkable feature had been set up on the roof lintels of the building which was composed of two deliberately broken rotary querns (grinding stones), one on top of the other poised over a gap in the lintels. Was the aperture this provided through the roof of the souterrain intended to allow communication to be uttered between above and below, or were substances or libations poured in? This year the complete excavation of the occupation deposits inside the structure may provide answers.

While we were assessing the interior of the souterrain for future full excavation a shaped whale tooth was found, which may originally have been a pommel for an item like a sword. The souterrain will be one of the principal areas for excavation attention this season, and we wait with anticipation to see what further exciting discoveries are made!

Check out The Cairns Dig Diary 2018.


Visitors are welcome to visit the site and chat with Martin and the team. For the location and more information on our digs see our calendar page here

Year of Young People – Summer Events in Orkney

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Workshop at Skaill Farm Open Day 2017

Each year we receive requests from young people around the world to volunteer at our summer archaeology digs in addition to the many students who work with us.

Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning & Outreach Archaeologist The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has been working with the Orkney Community Learning and Development team to formulate an exciting archaeology programme tailored to these young people.

The calendar of events forms part of the Year of Young People programme, aimed at inspiring Scotland through its young people – celebrating their achievements and valuing their contribution to communities, and creating new opportunities for them to shine locally, nationally and globally.

Opening The Cairns 2017
The Cairns Excavation, Windwick, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

We now have the largest number of young people volunteering at our excavations than at any time in the last ten years – whether as students from the University of the Highlands and Islands, other national and international universities, voluntary organisations, pupils from local schools or young people interested in archaeology living in Orkney and further afield.

  • 18th June – 13th July. The Cairns Excavations, Windwick, South Ronaldsay
  • 4th July – 22nd August. The Ness of Brodgar, Stenness
  • 6th July.  The Cairns Open Day
  • 7th July – 4th August. Cata Sand Excavations, Tresness and Loth Road, Sanday
  • 9th July – 22nd July. Skaill Farmstead Excavations, Westness, Rousay
  • 15th July. Ness of Brodgar Open Day
  • 21st & 22nd July. Skaill Farmstead Open Weekend, Westness, Rousay
  • 24th & 31st July. Ness of Brodgar. Digging Up The Past workshops. Booking if required for this event. Book here.
  • 7th & 14th August. Ness of Brodgar Digging Up The Past workshops. . Booking if required for this event. Book here.
  • 19th August. Ness of Brodgar Open Day

The full Orkney calendar of events is available here….

If you wish to attend any events as a young (or not so young) person then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

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