Final Week Starts at Swartigill Dig

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The site in it’s landscape

Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) writes about the latest developments at Swartigill….

We are into the last week of the excavations at the Burn of Swartigill in Caithness, and we have achieved all our key objectives for this season.

We now know that the structures that were originally seen in the erosion of the burn edge pre-date the construction of the passage structure. The deposits overlaying the walls of these earlier structure have been cut into to accommodate the northern revetment wall of the passage. This is important chronological information about the development of the buildings, and ties in with our understanding of the chronology of the site from the C14 dates.

We have also, mostly, defined the extent of the main structure in the trench, which appears to be a sub-oval shape, rather than round or rectangular, with an entrance on the east side. This slightly squashed aspect could be due to the fact that this structure is respecting existing features and buildings around it, using the space that’s available.

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Aerial shot of the trench. Photo: Bobby Friel

The passageway on the north side of the main structure follows the curving alignment of the wall around to the east, and seems to be dropping down in elevation as it goes. Did I hear someone say Souterrain? Well, it’s a possibility, but there is still work to be done here to fully define this feature, as it continues out of our current excavation area to the east.

There are tantalising glimpses of some well-preserved patches of occupation deposits within the main structure. Protected and preserved under a layer of peaty soil, bright red areas of ashy deposit and very compacted surfaces with lots of charcoal are beginning to show through. We will be taking some samples from small amounts of these deposits this year, to further examine their potential in post-excavation. We will hopefully get some datable material from them too.

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A view of the sunken passage on the north side of the trench

This year we extended the trench to the south to investigate a second geophysical anomaly on the earth resistance survey, and it’s looking more and more likely that we have second large structure on the site. We have seen some interesting upright set stone in this area, which look like they have been incorporated into an interior wall face. We are also starting to see a curving alignment of rubble to the south of this, which could be overlaying a structural wall in this direction.

Thanks to the P7-9 classes from Watten and Thrumster primary schools for their hard work helping to uncover this tantalising addition to the site on Monday.

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The beautiful polished shale bangle from the sub-oval house

We have only a few days left of this season, Friday the 7th is our last day on site. There is still plenty to do, so if you would like to get involved, come along and see us.

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.

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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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Celebrating Young People in Archaeology – Work Placement at UHI Archaeology Institute

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Travis working in the lab

Celebrating the contribution young people make to Archaeology during the Year of Young People

At the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute we are developing ways to provide young people with an opportunity to experience archaeology in a workplace environment.

Travis, a 16 year old S5 pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney, is currently undertaking a work placement with us. Each week Travis works with our team at the Institute learning new skills and gaining vocational training. The emphasis is on understanding some of the processes of archaeological work, from the field to the archive.

He has the opportunity to develop skills in a wide variety of areas including finds washing, wet sieving, archiving, photography, excavation, field walking and digital archaeology. In fact as part of the archaeology team, Travis is contributing to the archaeological research taking place in the Institute and is gaining a whole range of experience that will help him develop his career path.

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Travis holding the piece of Medieval pottery he unearthed at the Mapping Magnus dig at Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney

Travis continues, ” I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and when the UHI came into the school and we helped in the archaeology at the RBS Bank (part of the Kirkwall THI project), I thought that this was something that I was interested in. So I e-mailed Dan Lee and he offered a work placement at the University. I was involved in the Mapping Magnus dig in 2017 where I joined the excavation team and found a piece of pottery. That was exciting and despite the weather I really enjoyed it. I have been asked if I would like to help at the Ness of Brodgar in the summer and I am really looking forward to that.”

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A close-up of the medieval pottery discovered by Travis at the Mapping Magnus dig

Travis went on to say that he would like to continue to study archaeology and ideally continue to work in Orkney on some of the incredible sites located on the islands.

Travis is using a BAJR Archaeology Skills Passport to document his progress and log his training. The passport has been designed by British Archaeological Jobs and Resources to help students and volunteers document the main skills that they need to gain employment as a professional archaeologist. All of our students are issued with a BAJR passport to record their practical training. They can be obtained from the skills passport website.


You can study our courses from any one of the colleges in the UHI network and that you can also study MLitt Archaeological Studies from anywhere in the world.

If you would like to chat with us and explore your options at the UHI Archaeology Institute then contact Mary on 01856 569225, e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk.  or see our website.

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Digging up the Past 2018 – Archaeology Workshops for Young People @ Ness of Brodgar

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Thanks to everyone who registered for these courses. I’m sorry but all the courses are now fully booked for this year. 

Throughout the summer, if you are aged between 12 and 16, you could be part of the dig team for one morning at the world famous Ness of Brodgar archaeology dig.

The dates are as follows:

  • 24th July 2018
  • 31st July 2018
  • 7th August 2018
  • 14th August 2018

Each session starts at 9.30am and ends at 12.30pm.

You will be involved in workshops on archaeological techniques and finds….. and you will have the opportunity to dig at the world renowned Ness of Brodgar dig. This is your chance to get hands on and learn some new stuff about archaeology!

 

We advise that you wear stout boots, warm clothes, bring a water bottle or drink and waterproofs – just in case there is a passing rain shower. Lunch is not provided, so bring along a snack too. All sessions will be under the supervision of Historic Environment Scotland rangers and archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

There is no charge for the sessions.

These ‘Digging up the Past’ sessions are very popular so booking is essential. If you want to take part then please contact the rangers on 01856 841732 or e-mail orkneyrangers@hes.scot

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Mapping Magnus: Summing up the Palace Village Excavations

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are celebrating the success of the Mapping Magnus community archaeology excavations in Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney.

The team, including archaeologists, students and community volunteers discovered tantalising new evidence of medieval activity to the south of the kirk in Palace Village. We know that this area was the location of an early medieval Bishop’s residence and that there was a Bishop’s palace there in the 15th century – known as ‘Mons Bellus.’ But what evidence for these buildings did the team find in the trenches?

This blog is brought to you by Charlotte Hunter who is a University of the Highlands and Islands MSc student on professional placement with the UHI Archaeology Institute. Charlotte is working with Marketing and Communications at The Institute as part of her work placement MSc Archaeological Practice module.

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Trench 1: The main trench contained a variety of finds below a layer of windblown sand, layers of demolition rubble and midden – including quantities of fish and animal bone, vast amounts of shell and two pieces of Medieval pottery. Surprisingly, these pieces of pot were the only Medieval fragments found within the whole of the excavation.

As the excavation progressed more of the rubble was lifted revealing a rough pathed surface and potential wall. At this stage, the surface, midden and rubble appear to be 12th or 13th century in date, although more analysis needs to be done on the assemblages. Are we finding different assemblages because this was a high status ecclesiastical centre?

Trench A unearthed possibly the most intriguing piece of evidence from the excavation. Originally the team had not expected to excavate in this location until the homeowners decided to lift and resurface their rear path.

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Excavation revealed a 1m wide wall that continued below their house! At each side of the wall there were layers of midden, which may suggest that this wall is Medieval in date. Could this wall be part of the Bishop’s Palace complex or is this part of another structure relating to the Earl’s Palace barns and stables, known to have been built here in the 16th or 17th century ?

726_B4_206As the excavation was coming to a close a pundler weight was lifted from within the rubble next to the pipe that runs through the wall. A pundler weight was used when taxes and rent was paid in grain and kind. This instrument is known to have primarily being used in Orkney and Shetland. The age of this weight is unknown but could date as far back as the 14th century and used until the early 19th century. This intriguing find was a wonderful way of demonstrating the use of this area throughout different periods of history.

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Test Pit 2 was opened in the garden behind the location of the wall discovered in Trench A to investigate the direction of the wall. When first opened, stone flooring was discovered but this appeared to be 19th century in date. After recording the floor the slabs were lifted and excavation continued. Within the last couple of days of the excavation a wall of similar dimensions and build to that in Trench A started to appear in Test Pit Two, suggesting that this was the continuation of the same wall.

The new wall stood three courses high on the north face, however, the size on the opposing side was unclear. It has been suggested that this may have been due to stone robbing or had been partially destroyed.  Additionally this test pit contained fish bones of a variety sizes, animal bone and ‘packages’ of winkle shells throughout.

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Throughout the 2 weeks of the excavation there were 4 other test pits opened in homeowners’ gardens to investigate geophysical anomalies and understand the Bishop’s Palace area of the village. These test pits located other walls – perhaps relating to the Bishop’s Palace – and land surfaces, and helped define the medieval core of the village.

Each test pit shared a common factor – they all contained a large amount of wind-blown sand from the nearby beach. The vast quantity of sand may be an indicator of hiatus of activity within the former ecclesiastical centre, perhaps in the 14th century and prior to the construction of the Earl’s Palace and development of the post-medieval village.

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Despite the adverse weather conditions, the two weeks of the Mapping Magnus excavation were views by all concerned as a great success. The community volunteers and school children who visited the site not only gained new skills through the training they received from the archaeologist team, but learned about the exciting history hidden beneath their village.

The Mapping Magnus Project is not complete yet and further research is planned which will help us understand the history of Palace Village, Birsay the story of Magnus and his legacy in the parish.

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute team would like to thank all of the volunteers on site, pupils from all of the primary schools, the homeowners for allowing the team to dig in their gardens and for everyone that kept up to date with the dig.

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If you would also like to be part of the Mapping Magnus Community Archaeology Project then please contact us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk . Future activities include geophysical survey and walkover survey at Manse Stone sites and noust survey at Marwick.

Team led by Dan Lee, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, Chris Gee, Bobby Friel (ORCA), Colin Mitchell (ORCA), students Jim Bright (Digital Archaeologist) and Charolotte Hunter.

Follow the conversation #Mappingmagnus