Art & Archaeology Courses @UHI enrolling now

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Love Art? Love Archaeology? Why not study both and get an accredited undergraduate or masters-level module at the same time!

Art and Archaeology courses ENROLLING NOW for January 2019 start!

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, and the Art & Design Department, at Orkney College UHI are pleased to announce that enrolments are now open for the 2019 Art and Archaeology modules. These are available at both undergraduate or postgraduate level and can be studied either as elective modules as part of a UHI degree or masters course, or as standalone modules for Continuing Professional Development.

Both modules provide students from a range of backgrounds with a deepened understanding of the creative, practical and vocational aspects of art and archaeology and provide the transferable skills which are currently in demand in the cultural industries and heritage sector. Either module can be taken as a distance learning student, from either a UHI learning centre, or from your home anywhere in the world*.

plaster casting during workshop

New for 2019!! Art and Archaeology: Context and Practice (Level 8 / undergraduate)
This new undergraduate level 20-credit course is suitable for students who have at least 3 Scottish Highers at grade C or above / 2 A-Levels at grade C or above, or equivalent, and a strong interest in art and archaeology. This module allows students to explore the creative, practical and vocational aspects of art and archaeology in their own research and practice.

You will learn about the history of the relationship between art and archaeology, and through a series of practical assignments you will gain a deepened understanding of not only your own creative practice, but also of the processes of making and craft production in the past and how these are interpreted in the present.

Over the 14 weeks of study between January and May 2019, you will develop a portfolio of work which will lead to your final assessed project.

*International validation for the Level 8 module is awaiting confirmation

12. Drawing SF7530 (photo copyright Antonia Thomas)

Art and Archaeology: Contemporary Theory and Practice (Level 11 / postgraduate)
This 20-credit masters level course will appeal to students from a wide range of backgrounds including fine art, design and applied arts, archaeology, heritage studies, galleries and museums, and anthropology.

It provides an advanced understanding of the new interdisciplinary area of Contemporary Art and Archaeology, through discussions, seminars, and lectures on current and historical contexts and case studies. The module takes place in Semester 2 over 14 weeks (January – May 2019). Teaching is delivered via a blend of Video Conference seminar sessions, tutorials, Online teaching and resources, and self-directed study. You will document your personal creative enquiry through a reflective journal, which will form part of your final assessment, along with a research project and presentation.

13. Preparing SF7530 for photography (photo copyright Antonia Thomas)

We will research and explore Contemporary Art and Archaeology as a group, and together we will develop new thinking and understanding in this exciting area. There is an optional 4-day residential workshop in Orkney which runs at the start of this module; this is not compulsory but is strongly recommended (no additional teaching cost but students are required to fund their own travel and accommodation).

Student comments…………

“A great course, thank you! It has kick-started my art practice after a long break and introduced me to the world of archaeology. I would recommend this course.”

“A fantastic course overall, taught by tutors really engaged in their field. It has had a positive impact on my own practice and I would recommend it to anyone interested in these subjects. I felt that I was genuinely learning something new and it made me look at both art and archaeology from a fresh perspective.”

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Module fees for 2018-2019**
Accredited Level 11 module: £560
Accredited Level 8 module: £215

**Scottish / EU domiciled students only; please contact us for details of fees for students from the rest of the UK or outwith the EU

To apply or for more details about course content and entry requirements, please email studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Orkney’s Oldest Wooden Bowl Unveiled

A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left
A substantial portion of the wooden bowl lying on its side with the rim to the left

The Cairns Site Director and University of the Highlands and Islands Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, updates us on the conservation of the two thousand year old wooden bowl discovered at the site in the summer.

A remarkable, perfectly preserved, wooden bowl unearthed from a two-thousand-year-old well has been revealed during conservation work being undertaken on the artefact this week, and an extraordinary story of ancient repair of the bowl suggests it was a valued object during the Iron Age.

The Wooden Vessel Revealed: Old, Bowl-ed and Beautiful!

In July of this year, a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, based in Orkney, excavated an enigmatic underground chamber beneath the floor of an Iron Age broch at the site of The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, as part of research at the site.

Now, on-going conservation work on a water-logged deposit, recovered from inside the underground chamber beneath the broch, has afforded an exceptionally rare glimpse of a stunningly well-preserved, two-thousand-year-old, wooden bowl. The nature of the bowl, and the details emerging about its life story, may help archaeologists to better understand the enigma of such subterranean chambers, leading to a fuller appreciation of their complex role within Iron Age communities.

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Looking across The Cairns Broch itself

The first stage of the conservation work was completed this week, as specialist conservators at AOC Archaeology, based in Edinburgh, have now patiently ‘micro-excavated’ the bowl from its protective soil block.

The work offers a clear view of the object for the first time in about two thousand years. The very finely carved vessel, which is nearly complete but fragmentary, is exceptionally smoothly finished, appearing almost burnished. The bowl is around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Although the object has split into two large pieces and about twenty smaller pieces at some point in the past, it is largely complete. The bowl had been skilfully hand carved from a half-log of an alder tree. Tool marks are visible in the interior of the bowl, but the exterior has been finely burnished.

Making a Mend: A History of Repair

On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about sixteen strange looking wiggly strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly-spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large ancient crack. The strips are in fact a very unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and the rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to the vessel to prolong its life.

Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple
Detail of the repair with its unique corrugated rivets and a staple

There are other examples of Iron Age bowls with visible repairs, but the distinctive special metal fasteners are unique and appear to be otherwise unknown from the British Iron Age. In form, they might be familiar to modern DIY enthusiasts or wood-workers. Sometimes referred to by building trade suppliers as: ‘saw-tooth fasteners’ or ‘corrugated edge fasteners’ they can be hammered into a cracked wooden surface to stabilise wooden objects and save them from imminent collapse.

The repair work seen on the bowl suggests clues about the importance of the bowl in an Orkney context. Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and director of The Cairns project said: “After first encountering the bowl this summer, we had wondered if wooden bowls, and other objects made from wood, might actually have been much more common than we would have previously expected for the mostly treeless environment of Iron Age Orkney. Perhaps archaeologists have been guilty of overplaying the scarcity of wood in Scotland’s Northern Isles. Maybe there were almost as many wooden vessels in circulation as there were ceramic ones, fragments of which we recover in great numbers from sites like The Cairns.

Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl
Excavation work begins to reveal the wooden bowl

Martin continues, “The bowl discovery made us ask an important question: was the survival of the bowl in the well merely an outcome of the unique quality of preservation down there, or was its presence there also reflective of other special qualities accorded that place by people in the Iron Age? I think the biography of the bowl that is emerging could well help us answer these questions”.

Dr Anne Crone, a specialist in ancient wooden artefacts with AOC Archaeology, who is providing specialist analysis of the bowl, said, “The rarity of wooden vessels in Orkney could be why they went to such lengths to repair what is a quite beautiful object”.

The Enigma of Iron Age Broch ‘Wells’

The bowl was excavated from beneath the floor of the broch inside an enigmatic type of underground chamber, traditionally known as a well. Around 20 such structures have been found during previous excavations, but many of these were 19th Century antiquarian investigations, and fairly few wells have been excavated in the modern era. Fewer still have possessed the kinds of preservation conditions now seen in the example at The Cairns.

Archaeologists used to interpret such chambers straightforwardly as ordinary wells, envisaging them as supplying the households that built them, but in recent decades, problems have been identified with this interpretation, and there is reason to doubt that these underground structures were straightforward sources and receptacles of everyday drinking water. Their difficulty of access, including constricted entrances and steep staircases, has raised doubts about their functionality, and the volume of water found within them is seldom enough to have made much contribution to the needs of the broch community and their livestock.

The Cairns chamber itself is an amazing feature, comprising a series of seven stone steps descending two metres underground into a chamber that was carefully rock-cut, with a corbelled (bee-hive shaped) roof around two metres in height. The chamber is complete and even more remarkable because, when discovered, it had remained sealed since the Iron Age, thus affording archaeologists the opportunity to excavate it carefully under modern scientific conditions. The bowl must also have been placed in the well at this time, however radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could stem from an even earlier date. Whichever is the case, it is Orkney’s oldest wooden vessel.

‘Bowled Over’!

As the excavation of the well commenced, it quickly became clear that it did indeed contain very intriguing remains. Martin Carruthers again takes up the story: “Underground features, especially sealed and damp ones, can yield astonishing survivals in preservation terms, but I was still amazed when perfectly preserved organic items started to turn up as we began to excavate the silt within the chamber at the foot of the staircase. We began to find a lot of plant material – grasses, moss, plant stems from heather and wetland type species – as well as insect remains. Then we found a carved wooden object, some sort of peg, made from willow, again a type of tree frequently present on the edges of wetlands. Frankly, all of this was sufficiently dramatic, and very significant for our understanding of the Iron Age environment. I was already well-satisfied with these findings, but then when the wooden bowl began to emerge…that was simply a spine-tingling moment!”.

Conservation work progressing on the bowl
Conservation work progressing on the bowl

“It was obvious that this was something really very special, a miraculous survival from the Iron Age – a whole wooden bowl! It was still upright and in a level position within the sediments, as though it had been simply placed down on the base of the well the day before. But we knew it was about two thousand years old! During the fieldwork season, the bowl was nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. Throughout the excavation we retained the bowl in its silty matrix, and we recovered it, still in this soil block, to try to keep it together and promote good preservation conditions until we could get it to a specialist conservator. That meant that we hadn’t really clearly seen the full object until the conservation work occurred this week”.

Understanding the Well and the Bowl

The work on the bowl is providing lots of new and forthcoming information and it is hoped that will shed more light on the broch ‘wells’, and more for the project team to weigh up.

Carruthers reflected: “If the bowl was used within the well, and not just placed there at the end of its life, then perhaps this is telling us something about the nature of the well, and how it was used. The great care that was taken over the repair of the wooden bowl to extend its life tends to suggest that such items were not actually common, and the Cairns bowl seems to have been highly valued. Prior to the conservation work and witnessing the fully revealed bowl and its repair work, we weren’t sure whether to think of the bowl as merely the device for drawing off water from the well, or whether to see it as something more significant, perhaps related to the special nature of the underground chamber. The former possibility already seemed unlikely due to what we observed of the bowl during excavation.”

Essentially, the bowl didn’t have a huge carrying capacity, and its rather fine nature and unstable round base wouldn’t be very convenient for routinely handling water or placing the vessel on the ground when it was full. The bowl might have been used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring the liquid to a larger bucket, but alternatively it could have been poured as a libation, or used to perform ablutions within the well, perhaps even, within a ceremonial context.

A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile
A fragment of the wooden bowl showing the rim profile

The extended life of the bowl makes it seem even more special, an object that was highly prized, perhaps with a well-known and important history, even a valued relic, curated, if you will, as an heirloom of the broch household. Presumably, that broch household finally placed the bowl in the underground structure at the deepest, innermost end of the chamber, towards the end of the life of both the bowl and the well sometime in the mid- to late-2nd Century AD.

If the bowl was used within the underground chamber for periods before that final deposition and abandonment, then, as well as reflecting the wonderful preservation, it suggests these subterranean chambers also had special qualities for the Iron Age people who constructed and used them. If that’s borne out, then this is an important step towards establishing what the Iron Age subterranean structures are all about.

Next Steps: Restoring Ancient Repairs

Now that the wooden bowl has been excavated from its protective soil block, the first stage of the conservation work has been successfully completed. The next stages will involve recording the object through illustration and scanning work, and then the crucially important, and time consuming, process of soaking the object in consolidant so that it can be stabilised and, ultimately, go on public display. Then it may be possible to restore the bowl to whole again, but this will very much depend on how it behaves during the soaking and stabilisation process.

In addition to consolidating the bowl, there is much more that may be learned about it. Further scientific analysis may reveal more important hidden details. Research questions include: are there any residues present within the bowl that might give further clues to its use? As the bowl appears to have been a curated item, just how much earlier than its final resting place could it be? Radiocarbon dating the bowl will hopefully shed light on this.

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Dr Anne Crone & Alex Wood examining the bowl in the lab

In addition to the bowl itself, there are many other well-preserved organic materials and items from the well, which will also be studied, and which may give further clues to the status of the well. As well as all the plant material, there are preserved insects, and coprolites (fossilised faeces!), and the astonishing survival of hair, which may well be human.

All the conservation work and the scientific analysis costs a fair amount of money and the UHI project team will shortly be launching a crowd-funding initiative to help meet the costs.

Background Notes

• Preservation conditions: The basal silts within the ‘well’ had been sealed in an anaerobic or anoxic state (without oxygen), and this means that the usual litany of micro-bacteria have not had an opportunity to eat away at the items. It is a circumstance usually only seen in the rare conditions of wetland sites such as those at the ongoing excavations, by AOC archaeology, at Black Loch of Myrton, in Dumfries and Galloway, a prehistoric loch village, which also yielded an Iron Age wooden bowl earlier this summer.

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

 

UHI Student Ross Drummond and the #Skaillsaga

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Skaill Farmstead, Rousay

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Skaill Farmstead dig, Rousay, Orkney.

Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! This time reporting about Pt. 2 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay. The project at Skaill has been running since 2015, with this season’s activities (July 9th-24th) being the fourth year on site.

The main basis for the project when it was begun was to explore the Viking, Norse and post-medieval archaeology on the Westness Estate. The present farm on the site dates to the 18-19th centuries and was involved in the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga as the home of the Powerful Earl Sigurd, so there is a high possibility of a Viking site on Rousay somewhere along the coastline and Skaill may possibly be it; which was right up my street as the Viking-Norse period is my preferred time period in terms of archaeology.

Midden Galore
Midden galore found on Day One

The main aims for this year’s project were: to excavate the test pit transects, investigate and put trenches over the earthworks, investigate the farm mound, locate post-medieval midden and characterise the Norse horizon. SPOILER ALERT!!! We were pretty successful in accomplishing all these aims!

The team consisted of four site co-ordinators: Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons (all lectures at UHI Archaeology Institute Orkney), ORCA Project Officer Sean Bell (for week one, Bobby Friel took over for second half of project), students from various years of UHI Archaeology and local volunteers (Anthony, Chrissie and Ewan). Not to mention a solid young archaeological workforce in the form of some of the lecturer’s kids, who were very proactive in getting involved over the course of the two and a half week excavation.

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The team at lunch on the beach below the site

Arrival on the first day started off with a tour of the site and a discussion of the plans for the upcoming excavation season by UHI Lifelong Learning and Outreach Officer Dan Lee. Following the introduction we got our hands dirty straight away and began working on opening up three of the main trenches for this seasons activities: Trench 19 (outside farmhouse in courtyard), Trench 4 (at back of house extending on a previous year’s trench) and Trench 23 (side of the farmstead). These were chosen based on previous geophysics and earthworks surveys which showed these as locations with high archaeological potential.

The first day ended in success as one of the project’s main aims for the season was accomplished early on in Trench 19, with post-medieval midden being found in abundance (pretty much as soon as I used a mattock to loosen up the soil after de-turfing). This was collected as bulk samples for later analysis, however, by day three the initial excitement would fade as midden material would end up in the spoil heap – there was just that much of it!

My role for this excavation would take up a slightly more hands on approach in dealing with outreach and social media as I was given several tasks. As well as being responsible for the social media activities for the site on various media platforms (#SkaillSaga), I also was given more outreach experience in giving site tours to any visitors to the site over the excavation period.

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The Digging for Britain camera crew being ‘helped’ by Ross

This season at Skaill also saw a wider interest in the site, as Digging For Britain sent a camcorder to site for a possible feature in the upcoming series of the show due to air later this year (so stay tuned for that). So Dan and I took turns filming footage of the excavation over the course of the two weeks.

Dan ‘very kindly’ gave me the ‘special honour’ of taking responsibility of activities in Trench 22, which involved possibly one of the worst de-turfings I have ever done; the ground was rock hard with stones and roots all over the place, the spade would barely even make a dint in the ground. However, I’d have the last laugh as Trench 22 would turn up trumps in the end; just had to endure a lot of struggle the first few days.I was joined in trench 22 by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons and Jen’s son Callum (who would become my little protégé and remain by my side in the trench for the remainder of the project).

Following the first few days in the trench early theories were that the area where Trench 22 was located was used as a dump of structural materials as buildings were knocked down and re-used over time on the site (due to a large amount of lime mortar, stone with attached mortar and red sandstone). However, fortunes changed towards the end of the week as it seemed the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was on our side with my presence, as I found a coin in the SE corner of the trench just before pack up.

The coin was identified as a George III half-penny dating to 1806! I was delighted as it made the struggle during the original de-turfing of the trench worth it. But this find came at a cost… Despite the obvious associations of possibly being a Leprechaun (those of you familiar with American Gods can just call me Mad Sweeney), Irish readers will be able to relate to the fact that ‘th’ words provide a difficulty in our pronunciation of certain words, especially in addition to an ‘r’ in third. You can see where I’m going with this…. So basically if Skaill does manage to make it onto Digging For Britain in the future remember I’m saying ‘George the Third’ and I am not talking about poo hahaha. This has since provided many with a laugh including myself, and probably will for some time to come (it’s not my fault I’m Irish!!!).

Following my find and pose with the coin Dan jokingly referred to me as the ‘Poster Boy for UHI Archaeology’ on film for Digging For Britain and after that the name kinda stuck around site (could be worse nicknames I guess).

On our return to site in the second week Trench 22 began to turn up some more surprises as we took the level down bit by bit, with an assemblage of medieval pottery being found near the same corner as the coin. Unfortunately the pottery was in pretty poor condition and was not able to be lifted as one piece, but several pieces were scattered all over the one area. These were excavated carefully and collected by myself and Callum and by the end of it we had the remains of the biggest collection of medieval pottery belonging to a single vessel found at the site thus far.

Following the removal of medieval pottery we noticed a pig’s jaw beneath where the majority of pieces had been collected, and meticulously began investigating the area further. After a day or so of careful excavation, our patience and attentiveness paid off as the ‘Luck of the Irish’ struck again. A finds deposit of medieval pottery, a pot lid and a piece of garnet mica schist were found around the pig skull.

Pig skull, pot lid and garnet mica schist
Pig skull, pot lid and garnet mica schist in situ

The garnet mica schist was part of a rotary quern and is of high significance as although it can be found in parts of Western Scotland, it is a common find from Shetland and possibly even Norway and usually associated with Norse activity. The garnet mica schist was a great find because it’s dating to Norse time suggests that the other finds within the deposits may also date to that period, and it tied in with other Norse materials and structures found at other parts of the site.

Close up of garnet mica schist
Close up of the garnet mica schist – part of a rotary quern

The lifting of the pig skull was also a success as I managed to lift it in one piece under the watchful eye of Callum (it was a team effort).

Ross Drummond with the pig skull following lifting
Ross with the pig skull intact following lifting

The Open Weekend was also a great success with steady number of visitors over both days despite varying weather conditions. I missed the Open Day on the Saturday myself (had a football final with Kirkwall Accies, we lost, less said about it the better; but we’ll get the last laugh!). I returned to site on Sunday morning in high spirits until Dan came to ‘commiserate’ with the loss (reminding of me his own past triumph’s in football and vandalizing one of the site open day posters I had made dedicating a special shout out to myself). But the rest of the day went off really well, in between doing several site tours I managed to catch up on all the paperwork for Trench 22 with the end of the excavation fast approaching.

My final day on site involved working with UHI photographer Tim Winterburn who took some portraits of the students and lecturers involved on the dig for college profiles. I also managed to draw a plan of Trench 22 before catching the afternoon ferry back to Mainland in preparation for my travel to Sanday the following day for my next excavation.

The two structures in Trench 19
The two structures in Trench 19

Successful results were also achieved in the other trenches over the two week season. In Trench 23, Ingrid and Steve’s work revealed two structures (walls extending N-S) which seemed similar to Trench 19 just over the wall. These structures were joined by another structure, possibly a temporary wall; with a further feature in the NW corner – function at present unclear but may possibly have been an animal pen. Finds were mostly post-medieval in date such as thin plate and thick glass which would be post 1700s, as well as some animal bone in the SW corner.


Trench 4 was worked on by the team of Jen, Sam and Chrissie and findings this season will prompt a return to this trench again next year. A substantial wall was found running E-W which has a high possibility of dating to the Norse period and could form part of a Norse longhouse. In the south area of the trench a secondary lower wall was exposed, which looks like an early feature (possibly Norse or Viking), and will be investigated further next year.

Finds included post medieval pottery and glass, metal objects, unglazed pottery, whetstones; and also a large quantity of slag. Gerry McDonnell archaeometallurgist at the nearby Swandro dig examined some of the slag and suggested they showed evidence for the smelting of bog iron as well as smithing. These pieces of slag may possibly be the earliest evidence of smelting in Viking Age Orkney, could mean there is a possibility of a nearby smithy building, which could be hidden somewhere on the Skaill site awaiting to be discovered in the future.

The substantial wall in Trench 20
The substantial wall in Trench 20

Trench 20 was worked on by Dan and Conal, and originally started out as a 1 × 1m trench, but was extended upon the discovery of a very substantial wall (1m long by 80cm high) at the back of the farm buildings; and probably has a post-medieval date. Buried substantial buildings across the site like this one explain the ground level rise, answering more questions we had before excavating but still leaving a very complex story to unpick.

Trench 19 showing earlier building
Trench 19 showing earlier building

Trench 19 worked on by Bobby, Sean, Anthony, Jan and Sue showed that the most recent farmhouse building was built on an earlier one (similar to Trench 1 2 years ago). It is post medieval, possibly dating to late medieval in date, with the gable end having a 1m wall, similar to that found in Trench 20. There was also a blocked doorway found and it looks as though the structure may have extended south at some stage. The floor surface was covered in post-medieval midden, and there are plans to extend the trench next year to find out more on the diet and farming habits of the people who lived on the site.

It was a great dig to be a part of, very different to The Cairns in both time period and set up. The involvement of members of the local community as well as some of the lecturer’s children made it a really family friendly and relaxed environment. Little things like lunch breaks spent on the beach were an added bonus with great coastal views on clear days. Can’t leave without giving a shout out to my boy Callum, or claim that the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was the reason purely on the great results from Trench 22, it also involved teamwork from the Dream Team! There are talks of the Dream Team being re-united in late August at Islay so we’ll see what possible finds that excavations turns up. Only downside to the dig was the annoying presence of klegs and horsefly’s on site, so my admiration to the Rousay natives who probably deal with this problem on a regular basis (managed to survive without any bad bites or marks though thankfully!).

Next you’ll hear from myself will be from Sanday, where it’ll be an exploration of prehistoric and coastal erosion sites.
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross

P.S. Again keep in mind the ‘th’ problem for us Irish if those clips of me with the coin ever make it to air on BBC, and please do not ask me to say ‘George the Third’ for your own amusement, everyone will just end up laughing! Hopefully it won’t come back to haunt me in any future archaeological career I might have.

For any further info on Skaill and to follow my own archaeological adventures over the summer, make sure to check out our social media.


If you want to join the research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete a postgraduate qualification in archaeology then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our student section on this blog.

MSc Student contributes to research at The Ness of Brodgar

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Justin working in the lab at The University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute at Orkney College UHI

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute works with a number of other universities across the world on collaborative research projects and student exchanges.

Last month we welcomed Justine Ayres, Masters student from Sheffield University, who joined us to work on the Smart Fauna Structure 10 project at the Ness of Brodgar with Dr Ingrid Mainland from the UHI Archaeology Institute.

As usual I was intrigued by the motivation of Justin to visit and work in Orkney and asked him about his journey to study archaeology in general and how he arrived in Orkney in particular.

Justin replied, ” I have been interested in archaeology from around the age of fifteen or sixteen, but went into engineering. When I returned to Derbyshire to work in the family green grocers business I spent my free time wondering around the Peak District looking at Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. I started life-long learning modules in archaeology and then an undergraduate degree at Sheffield University. At a dig in Wales I met Professor Colin Richards and this led to an opportunity to dig at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Cata Sand archaeology excavation last year, where I met Dr Ingrid Mainland.

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Archaeologists working on a section of the main trench at the Ness of Brodgar

“I e-mailed Ingrid earlier this year in regard to analysing the faunal remains from Cata Sand, but it had already been completed, so she offered me the opportunity to undertake research with material from the Ness of Brodgar excavation for my dissertation. So here I am working on this incredible site collecting data for my Masters dissertation and collaborating on an important research project….in such a beautiful part of the world. ”

Next steps?……” I am now undertaking a Masters degree and wish to pursue a career in zooarchaeology. I will just keep learning and see what other opportunities present themselves in archaeology. I don’t think I would have thought ten years ago that I would be working on such a research project, so we will see how things go over the next few years.”


If you want to join the research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete a postgraduate qualification in archaeology then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our student section on this blog.

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Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar

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

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The Cairns Broch site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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