Summer of Digging – Sanday update by UHI student Ross

The landscape of Sanday
The Landscape of Sanday

From the far flung island of Sanday in Orkney, our intrepid and probably exhausted University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology MSc student Ross Drummond, reports on the digs on the island.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 3 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time focusing on several different sites on Sanday.

So not even 24 hours after I had finished my previous excavation at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay, I was on the move again. This excavation involved a longer ferry journey (three times the duration of the Rousay crossing) and was my most northern trip of my Orkney adventure. So after a night spent back on the mainland, a football match and a quick clothes wash my bags were packed again, and off I set North to join up with the excavation team.

Sanday. Gateway to the past
Sanday….Gateway to the past!

The team was a mix of both University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire staff and students. The UHI team was led by Prof Jane Downes and Prof Colin Richards, along with Chris Gee, while the majority of other students partaking in the dig came from UCLan led by Dr. Vicki Cummings; with a few students from the University of Sheffield also taking part of the dig, as well as team members from Galicia, Spain.

I spent a bit of time jumping between all three sites so the easiest way to talk about the activities on Sanday is probably just to talk site by site. Unfortunately excavation work stopped at the Tresness site by the time I had arrived on Sanday so will leave that to the end.

The first site I visited was the excavation at Loth Road. This site is being looked at as part of the Northern Exposure Project. The Northern Exposure Project which began last year, forms the first stage of a broader 5 year project examining the end/collapse of the Neolithic and beginning of Bronze Age in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and the plan involves examining sites on Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle. The overall project will also record the condition of an eroding stalled cairn on Tresness. This study forms part of The Tombs of the North Project.

Unlike the other two sites on Sanday, Loth Road was not threatened, i.e. it wasn’t coastally eroding. Two standing stones upright in a field alerted Colin & Chris to the fact there could possibly be a double house – one stone part of one door, the other stone part of another. As some of you may have already read from the blog post a few weeks ago, initial thoughts about the Loth Road site were that it could have been a kerb cairn, however this turned out not to be the case.

Solid start to the day
A good solid start to the day

My first day on site, couldn’t have started off better! It seemed like I arrived on Sanday at a good time because only just before my arrival, the Loth Road team had begun a tradition that would continue until the end of activities on Sanday, involving a fry-up breakfast and a breakfast roll. To be honest I think this should be a tradition that should be carried on and adopted by all research excavations; definitely builds up a good team morale and great way to start off the day ahead of a few hours of excavation.

As mentioned previously the first blog post about the possible kerb cairn was only released a day or two before my arrival, but probably to the annoyance of Sean (no worries Ross. Exciting developments! – Sean), it seemed like I had brought some of the Luck of the Irish I had with me on Skaill, Rousay. Because by the end of day 1 on Sanday, I had changed Colin’s original theory about Loth Road.

Colin decided I would have the honour of using the mattock that day, so after a few hours of removal, the archaeology hidden beneath the ground started to take shape. What had started out as a pile of rubble in-fill only a few hours previous, had turned into a passage with an entrance. The entrance goes with the house as they are on the same surface, and it now looks as though we have two opposed houses, instead of a kerb cairn or double-house. Within the wall of the house there are radial subdivisions just like the spokes of a wheel; so we now have established a circular house with radial subdivisions.

Loth Road The passage starting to emerge at the end of Day One
Loth Road – The passage starting to emerge at the end of Day One

The structures at the Loth Road site are thought to date to the Bronze Age to around 2000 BC. As well as the Bronze Age houses there appears to be an earlier settlement at Loth Road also, with the presence of a rectangular wall underlying the houses possibly dating back to the Early Neolithic. There were also a large amount of cup marked stones found at Loth Road which apart from the Ness of Brodgar, is a scarce form of prehistoric rock art in Orkney. There are a few examples from Shetland such as Unst and since Sanday is a northern isle in the Orkney archipelago it could indicate a possible coming together between the two island groups at this time. Prof Colin Richards described Loth Road as being the most perplexing site he has worked on, with the interpretations of the site being fluid as each day passed. Loth Road wasn’t a double house as first thought, the stones were set in a circular structure and now appears to be a circular house.

The two stones originally the only visible part of the strcuture before excavation. Also visible is one of the Bronze Age houses
The two stones shown in the centre of the photograph were the only visible parts of the structure before excavation work started. Also visible is one of the Bronze Age houses.

Colin, Jane, Chris and Vicki discovered the site on a wild winter day in 2015 and was covered in this blog back in December of that year (see link here) An evaluation of the site was undertaken in March 2016.

Loth Road. The passage fully exposed on the last day of excavation
The passage fully exposed on the last day of excavations

In 2017 a few weeks of excavation work summer took place; which revealed more walls and hearths, leading to thoughts it was an Early Neolithic site like the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray, as they have a very similar layout – a longhouse with a rectangular hearth. There was also the discovery of several whale pits dating to the 19th century relating to a whale drive in 1875, the whales were culled and buried without heads to get rid of the smell. Although this is interesting and gives us some information about the more recent history of Sanday, the pits unfortunately take away from the archaeology and have left a hearth and one side of the house fairly damaged.

The Cata Sand site showing its proximity to the sea
The Cata Sand site showing the close proximity to the sea

That brings us on to this year’s activities and discoveries, where the team looked to build on information and the work done in the previous year. There are 3 hearths at Cata Sand, the central hearth survives, is made of stone and was re-modelled after starting out as a scoop hearth. The midden at the site contained animal remains and shell. The biggest discovery of this year was aided by the sea in revealing the presence of an orthostat in the newly discovered hearth. The newly uncovered hearth was orientated N-S, whereas the other two hearths were orientated E-W. This may suggest that the house originally started out with an N-S orientation (more common of earlier settlement pattern), before switching to an E-W orientation.

Aerial view of Cata Sand excavation
An aerial view of the Cata Sand site

There were also evidence for pits & postholes, possibly indicating the earliest structure was a timber building; with stone later replacing the timber structures. This could be a very significant finding as it may give us an insight into the past environment of the area, with the possibility of wood being available to the people at the time. The Cata Sand site is very complex, with so much rebuilding and remodelling of houses. The main puzzle is to try identify and understand the restructuring, which will involve the team returning to site again next year. Some soil samples which were charcoal rich need a radiocarbon date, and hopefully will be obtained before the start of next season. Hugo Anderson-Whymark also did some did some photogrammetry and will be creating 3D models of the site. The New York Times also paid a visit to the site for an upcoming article about coastally eroding archaeological sites in Orkney, which also includes Skara Brae and Swandro, Rousay so it was great that a site as small as Cata Sand is getting major media attention and coverage. So that is something to look out for over the coming months for sure!

The Cata Sand site showing the wall of the house on teh right and one of the hearths in the centre
The Cata Sand site showing the wall of the house on the right and one of the hearths (centre)

My own experience of the site was great, if you haven’t been to Cata Sand before I would definitely recommend it! As well as having great archaeology, the scenery is absolutely stunning! It was like somewhere out of the Caribbean and is probably the most beautifully located archaeological site I have worked at to date. Of course I went for a daily dip at lunchtime every day I was on the Cata Sand site, mostly to the disbelief of many of my fellow team members who thought I was mental. As I always say though, “I’m not crazy, I’m just Irish”. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 I suppose, although the setting is stunning it is also damaging the archaeology as the constant battle against the rising tide is one we cannot win. That’s why this site is so important in trying to understand the lives of past societies at this time as sometime in the future the archaeology will be washed away for good, and future generations will only have our records and findings to go on to understand the story of Cata Sand.

The ocean beckons
The ocean beckons

The Tresness site is located on the southern tip of the Tresness peninsula, Sanday. The site has only been worked on the past two years in 2017 and then again this year; and the main component of the site is a chambered tomb. Tresness is part of a wider project to look at early Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney, which looks to build on Audrey Henshall’s work on chambered cairns of Orkney in the 1960s. The tomb is well preserved even though there is the significant threat of coastal erosion.

2017 involved the opening of a small trench, for a preliminary investigation. The side eroding into the sea had walling which looked to be early Neolithic and also had the presence of protruding orthostats, again suggesting an early Neolithic date. There was also a second stall on other side of the tomb.

2018 saw the opening of a larger trench to try find out more about the tomb. However, as the site is a scheduled monument the team had to negotiate with Historic Environment Scotland what could be dug and what couldn’t. Again Hugo did some photogrammetry and will be creating 3D models of the site. There was also a chamber area present at the side of the tomb. The team were given permission to enter the chamber and discovered that it was well preserved, with the presence of stalls (vertical upright stones) and a back slab. Towards the seaward side the walls stop. The wall runs E-W with the monument altered later on with what looks to be a possible Iron Age souterrain. The Tresness site is similar to Knowe of Rowiegar and there is also a broch close to Tresness. In summary the Tresness site is half chambered tomb, half Iron Age souterrain at the front, with the two best parallels for the site being the Holm of Papa Westray North and the Calf of Eday.

The souterrain at Tresness, also showing the stalls.
The souterrain at Tresness. Also showing the stalls.

Although my time spent at the Tresness site was for two days of backfilling, it didn’t mean my keen archaeological eye wouldn’t find something interesting on site. One day while checking out the coastal cliffs for easy access to the sea for a lunchtime dip only two minutes away from the Tresness site, myself and Connor (UCLan student) came across a few holes in the ground. On closer inspection it turned out these were not just random holes in the ground, but look like they could possibly be cists. At present it is hard to know if the cists are associated with the Tresness monument but they are something that may be looked at on return to site next season. So it just goes to show that you don’t need to be researching for hours on end in an office to make an archaeological discovery, sometimes you just need someone who is a bit crazy enough to go for a swim! Also if you are to go swimming on Sanday, I probably wouldn’t recommend going in at Tressness, it’s a fairly wild and exposed part of the coastline. So for safety’s sake wouldn’t recommend it to others, but I had a laugh and survived it so c’est la vie.

One of the possible cists close to the Tresness site
One of the possible cists – just two minutes from the Tresness site

Following a few days of hard and tiring work completing the backfill and returfing, the team celebrated the great excavation season by having a BBQ at the Ayre’s Rock Hostel, followed by a gathering around a fire at the nearby beach. It was a great way to end everyone’s time on Sanday with the whole group singing sea shanties and just having a communal sense of celebration and accomplishment.

To sum up the Sanday excavations……the landscape of Sanday as well as the rest of Orkney is completely different in the present day to what it was in the Neolithic. Cata  Sand would have been on a little finger of land pointing out into the sea and there would have been no sand dunes at the time. There is a possibility that both Tresness and Cata Sand could be contemporary, leading to theories that Tresness could possibly be a burial place for those living at Cata Sand. But it will take more work during next year’s season to investigate these ideas further. The complexity of the Loth Road site made it a very interesting site to be a part of, and no doubt Colin will already be counting down the days until next year when he can start trying to unravel the confusing conundrum thrown up during this year’s work. Also the sites at Cata Sand and Tresness gave me an insight into just how vulnerable archaeological sites in coastal areas are (especially up here in Orkney) and that we must do as much as we can to record and gain any information we can from the sites before the sites are inevitably lost to the sea forever.

End of dig celebrations
End of dig celebrations

It was also great to see so many people interested in the work we were doing on Sanday. Over 10% of the island’s 500 count population both visited our sites for the Open Day and attended the Public Talk on our findings. It might not sound like much but 10% of a whole island’s population just to see and hear about archaeology was really gratifying for all the team and it was great to get our findings ‘out there’ into the public.

Just a few comments on my own experience…….it was an absolutely fantastic excavation to be a part of. It was a great team of students who made me feel welcome from the start even though I was a late arrival, and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed their experience. It was also great to work with experts in prehistory and the Neolithic periods such as Colin, Jane and Vicki, and really interesting to see how their archaeological minds worked as each site developed and changed over the few weeks. Having been lectured by Colin for two modules over the previous semesters it was great to see that the enthusiasm and wonder he delivers in his lectures within the classroom is carried with him out into the field as well; he’d probably still be digging at Loth Road if he had his way.

It was also good to catch up and work alongside my classmate Katie again, who played a major role at the Loth Road site for the duration of the 4 week excavations, and I’m sure will have a long and successful career in archaeology in the future. Also a shout out to the other students who eventually joined me for a swim at the beach at Cata, may have taken until the last day but eventually convinced them!

Just want to say a massive thanks to Paul and Julie at the Ayre’s Rock Hostel for being so accommodating and basically putting up with us taking over the hostel for the few weeks. Also to all the inhabitants of Sanday….thank you for showing such an interest in our work. It was great to see the numbers and turnout at both the Open Day and the Public Talk, just to see and hear about archaeology; so it means a lot to the whole team that the work we were doing captivated so much of yer attentions. Also to those of you living on Sanday I am extremely jealous of your surroundings! I probably arrived on the island for the best two weeks of the summer weather-wise and it was great to be able to explore and experience your island in such fantastic weather. The setting of Cata Sand was absolutely stunning and the memories and pictures are one’s I will keep with me to get me through the cold and dark winter months that are slowly encroaching upon us.

Views of the beach from the dunes...only 2 minutes stroll from the Cata Sand excavation
Cata Sand

Also I can’t sign off without giving a mention to Kirkwall Accies Football Club. I went back to the mainland briefly overnight at the end of the first week before returning back to Sanday the following day, as we had a top of the table clash. We won the match ending the season with a 100% winning record and it is the club’s first promotion in over 12 years. So A-League Here We Come! Hon Accies!

Sanday Sunset
Sanday Sunset

Anyway I’ll leave it there for Sanday excavations. Next you’ll hear from myself will be taking on the monster which is the Ness of Brodgar, so make sure to keep an eye out for how I got on with Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer!

Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeology student


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

Surprise in Sanday – Loth Road Archaeology Dig Update

Loth Road1

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.

Loth Road2

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?

Loth Road 3

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!