The Cairns Day Eighteen – 2018

Excavating in the western zone of the broch today
Excavating in the western zone of the broch in the gathering mist

The digging season at The Cairns is nearly over and Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, talks us through the penultimate day at the excavation.

Today we started the process of placing the covers over parts of the site. We began in the Area Q/M in the North of the site weighing down tarpaulins with tyres. Nevertheless, we remain in an active digging mode in other parts of the site.

Inside the broch the team have resumed excavating the western area on a sample grid. They are now working on floor/occupation deposits beneath the level of the two successive hearths that have been excavated and lifted. Tomorrow will be the last day when excavation occurs here, so will they find lots of lovely environmental information? And will they encounter any nice artefacts to rival the previous finds such as the Iron Age glass bead and the Roman vessel glass in this area? We’ll let you know…

The slightly wetter conditions overnight (in fact it was misty early on today!) have served to very nicely show the soil colours on the site so in the south extension we have been cleaning this area for final photography. Low and behold more animal bone has been appearing in this area, which has previously been so rich in it. Once the excavation is complete for the season, it will be interesting to take a look at all the animal bone that has been generated by the work in the ditch to try to get some idea of the nature of the processes that this bone has been involved in.

One of many trays of animal bone from site
One of the many trays of animal bone from site

Certainly, we have observed butchery marks on some of the bone but by and large the bone is present in large fragments with minimal processing and it therefore looks rather wasteful in terms of the additional calorific content that has not been exacted from these joints of meat. This has often been read off as an index of relative wealth, as poorer communities are expected to be less wasteful. However, we have also observed large parts of articulated carcasses amongst the animal bone suggesting that there may be other processes at work giving rise to at least some of this bone such as structured, or votive, deposition. The post-excavation work of looking in detail at all this bone will be very interesting, indeed.

Tomorrow will be the last day when any excavation occurs anywhere on site, and most of the site will be covered up by the end of the day, we’ll keep you posted on any last minute surprises (almost guaranteed on archaeological sites!).

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at UHI Archaeology Institute

 

A New Mexican in Orkney – MLitt student Don Helfrich

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The Cairns Broch ditch area

The MLitt Archaeological Studies course at the University of the Highlands and Islands can be undertaken from anywhere in the world – as long as you have internet access and a computer.

For the next few weeks we have the pleasure of working with Don Helfrich – one of our MLitt Archaeological Studies students, from New Mexico in the USA – in Orkney.

Don usually completes the course remotely from his home, but for the next few weeks, he is experiencing the slightly different climate of Orkney to continue his research at The Cairns excavation. I caught up with him working with Martin Carruthers and the team in the broch ditch……

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Don Helfrich at work

“This is something different for me. Although the sun is shining, the temperature is not in the high 100’s. I live in the desert of New Mexico and the landscape of Orkney is just so captivating to me. I teach Geography and Cartography part-time at Central New Mexico Community College and work part-time as a GIS/GPS Specialist at American Southwest Ichthyological Researchers. ”

Being a geographer myself, I asked Don how he arrived at Archaeology? He continued, ” This is my third time in Orkney and I have always been interested in prehistory, but after my first visit to Orkney, it became a fascination. In due course I was accepted to study the MLitt in Archaeological Studies at the UHI Archaeology Institute. ”

Don Helfrich
Don at work at The Cairns excavation, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

What happened next, I asked and Don continued…..”The course has offered me the most rewarding way to study prehistory. I began with an interest in the Iron Age of Britain and Ireland, but my first visit to the region in 2006 opened my eyes to the Neolithic. Although I have to say that I am now back in love with the Iron Age having been here at the dig at The Cairns. You couldn’t ask for a more immersive experience than to work in such a richly informative site as the Cairns, there’s so much coming to life about this impressive structure occupied at a pivotal time of world history. Realising the effort behind an excavation report, I was still struck by the complexity of this process, giving me a lot to think about regarding the skills I hope to bring to the field of Archaeology. ”

Next steps, Don?

“Well, I will be able to extend my teaching in The States from this experience and the course as I lecture on geography and cartography. This now gives me first hand experience of excavating and researching animal remains from two thousand years ago.”

Oh and what are your perceptions of Orkney?

“This is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I am used to long vistas and so the wide horizons of Orkney are to my liking. But it’s also the way of life too. Even the cattle seem happy with their lot!”


If you would like to learn more about studying the MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, see our website or drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk to find out more.

The Cairns Day Seventeen – 2018

Aerial View of The Cairns - Bobby Friel
Aerial view of The Cairns site. Thanks to Bobby Friel

University of the Highlands and Islands student Marianne Sim has written todays dig diary from the site.

Today started off very wet and dreary which had mostly cleared by mid morning – unfortunately, when the rain cleared the horse flies arrived…we had to soldier on regardless.

Most of the morning was spent photo cleaning the site in preparation for some aerial photography. This will probably be our last chance to see the whole site fully uncovered and looking pristine before the covers are put back on to protect the archaeology until next season. In some less active areas of the trench weeds and spoil from the trenches had accumulated over the year and we cleaned this up so Bobby could take some aerial photographs with his drone.

Cleaning the southeast area of the broch
Cleaning the southeast area of the broch

In the broch, the crucial job of recording and photographing the new deposits exposed in the western quadrant continued as well as the continuation of sampling and revealing more of the occupation layers in the south west area. Photo cleaning the southern part of the broch floors has really shown the vibrant red, orangey-yellow floor layers around the hearth in this area.

In the southern extension the day has been spent excavating more of the ditch fill deposits in spits with some nice pot sherds and bone being recovered, including a scapula.

The little yellow glass bead from Area Q
The little yellow bead from Area Q

As with the rest of the site most of the day in Trench Q and M was spent tidying and prepping the site for Bobby’s drone shenanigans! However, as is often the way, when you least expect it, just before lunch we found a beautiful delicate beige-yellow glass bead beside a wall which I can tell you is not Roman but still very nice! There were also two red deer antler tines in the Q area.

Marianne Sim, UHI BA (Hons) Archaeology 

 

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

The Cairns Day Twelve – 2018

Roundwood from the well today- possibly birch
Roundwood from the well today – possibly birch

Day Twelve at The Cairns and UHI Archaeology Institute student Gary Lloyd has unearthed something very special so I shall hand over to him to continue the story.

To this point the weather has been extremely cooperative and today was another beautiful day. Though with the sunshine the temptation is to play hooky and go to the beach, work at the site goes on.

For me the day began learning to use the EDM to get reference points for all of the small finds (artefacts) collected today and ended with a real surprise. But for now, I’ll talk about the rest of team.

Beginning at the south extension the team excavating the area of the ditch fill continues to expose animal bone and pottery fragments with Gary uncovering a large fragment of salmon coloured pottery. To the north of the ditch area Sam has been excavating and has now revealed the clearly defined arc of a wall in structure J along with a cache of animal bone.

Area Q-M on site with its myriad walls
Area Q-M on site with its myriad walls

Having spent most of my time in the Broch I hadn’t noticed, until today, the amount of work Bobby’s team has accomplished on the NE side of the site in the Q and M trenches. The maze of wall features is relatively complex and sorting rubble from wall has been quite a challenge. Dagmar, Hannah, Ruby, and Marianne, are working to expose walls at the north side of the trenches. Lindsay and Charlie are drawing back layer 1401 to determine if walls continue from trench M into trench Q and distinct structures are now coming into view including the large Structure (O) just outside the Broch entrance where Henrik has been working.

Multi-coloured ashy occupation deposits inside the broch
Multi-coloured ashy occupation deposits inside the broch

Inside the Broch the deliberate work of sampling the grids laid out on the floors is being carried out by Conal, Caitlin, Ross, and Hamish with samples collected for both chemical and environmental analysis. The floor area Ross has been working on is particularly rich in contrast, promising some valuable data. Martin’s daily expedition down into the well has yielded even more organic material from the silt, including another piece of wood with some bark still intact. The complexity of the hearth area in the NW quadrant is being carefully recorded by Therese.

Roman Glass
Possible Roman glass

Between the hearth and the pit, I had the pleasure of finding a beautiful piece of blue-green, potentially Roman, glass. This glass was discovered in the same layer as the glass bead found by Therese last week. I have to admit it’s the biggest thrill excavating I’ve had to date.

Gary Lloyd, BA (Hons) Archaeology student, UHI, Orkney.

The Cairns Day Ten – 2018

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Today was day 10 on site and therefore we approach the midway point of the project season. What a couple of weeks it has been!

There’s been quite major progress in areas like the broch interior and the extramural building complex on the Northern side of the site.

Meanwhile the artefacts turning up across the site have been stunning from glass bead to whalebone chopping bock and bronze ring to antler mount. Obviously, in the last few days, in particular, the site has produced items which are just astonishing! I’m referring to the contents of the ‘well’ structure.

The existence of the wooden bowl is just well-nigh miraculous. Its hard to convey how unusual and rare this sort of preservation is in a Scottish context and particularly away from a crannog, or wetland site, such as the wonderful on-going excavations at Black Loch of Myrton in Dumfries and Galloway. Indeed, it seems to have been a weird time in Scottish Iron Age studies recently with sites yielding up this kind of normally exceptionally rare preservation!

Plant material- what appears to be heather or grass twisted in a simple weave
Plant material – possible heather or grass twisted in a simple weave

Today as we took stock of that particularly dramatic situation, there was minimal work in the well structure itself, however, we did inspect the deposit at the base of the well again and I can reveal that a third substantial wooden object is present. It appears, at this stage, to be another peg-like piece and possibly driven into the deposit like the previous one, but it appears to be larger and firmer than the first. There is also evidence of other organics including what looks like twisted plant fibres here and there, which may be a simple grass or heather weave, possiby the remains of a net, a mat or a bag! We’ll keep up with the updates over the rest of the work in the well.

Elsewhere on site, Linda’s time with us as supervisor for the South area of the site drew to an end today and so we bid her farewell for now, and reflect on the great progress made even today in revealing the building (Structure J) tucked into the lee of the terrace revetment.

Down slope from the broch on the Northern side of the site in Bobby’s area things have changed dramatically with lots of new walls and new understandings of existing walls coming into evermore sharper focus, and the fascinating thing is that these seem to reflect substantial structures of a likely contemporary date with the broch itself.

Here’ a few pictures, some to remind us of what we’ve seen so far and a few new ones of recent finds and features on site.  I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you…


I look forward to sharing the news from Week 3 with you over the next few days.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns.

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!