Today it’s Don Helfrichs turn to write the dig diary. Don is studying for MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute….
Greetings from the ‘Land of Enchantment’ – yes that’s Orkney and The Cairns, but also my home state of New Mexico.
For myself, one of the ditch diggers in the newly exposed South extension this season, I struck it rich with what is appearing to be an articulated animal deposit (likely cow) complete with multiple vertebrae, scapula, the right side of a mandible, a shoulder joint, teeth, a femur or tibia head and either ribs or perhaps a Red Deer antler. There is more to expose. This deposit seems more special with the nearby presence of a whale tooth found last week during the uncovering process and a lovely stone Ard, which seemed to be pointing to the centre of the bone deposit. This is at the Southwest edge of the ditch extension. My nearby colleagues have continued to take ‘spits’ (sectional layers scraped downward) with more bone and teeth and the occasional piece of iron slag and pot sherd.
This is the 3rd day for the Archaeology short course run by Dan Lee and Sean Bell. Today they were digging on the eastern side of the new extension over the ditch and have likewise found bones and teeth. They have finished their test pits and seemed to have gotten a taste for the site that I’m sure has only made them hungry for more.
Further to the east, in Area Q, a wall exposed in the 2017 excavation was extended and defined further to the south showing a nice curvature and what appears to be one and possibly two nicely built piers extending into the structure. This wall has been exposed down 3 courses so far. Further east it straitens into a structure topped by ‘beech pebbles’ – large water rounded ‘pillow stones’ on one side with an exterior wall face of the more common flat courses on its outer face.
The balks on either side of this wall are nearly taken down now and the question remains as to the relationship of this wall to the structure to its North which extends further to the East and had been thought to possibly tie in to the aforementioned southern structure.
Just outside the Broch interior on the north side, the collapsed part of the Broch wall has been cleared down to the paving and a post-broch doorway opening into what may be an extension to a structure excavated previously is now visible. A wall that defines its North East side is better defined now and we are interested to see if the entrance is contiguous to the clear structure and hearth(?) adjacent on to the west. This would have been a later building after the Broch’s initial destruction / decommissioning (?).
Just outside the Broch wall to the South West, coming back round to our ditch extension, Angus proudly found an antler tine.
Working in the west area of the broch
Floor deposits carefully gridded out under excavation inside the broch
And lastly, in the Northwest quadrant of the Broch itself, Therese was excavating a floor deposit near the hearth and found a beautiful glass bead – the find of the day! Work in this quadrant revealed a second layer of paving under the hearth and more floor sampling in the NE and NW areas is on-going.
For me, a “mature” student, I have had a great time meeting and getting to know fellow students and volunteers. I wish to give a fond farewell to Paul, Angie, and Moyra who I was not able to say goodbye to on this last day of their stint. I hope to stoop, groan and chat with you all again in future!
Don Helfrich (M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, UHI)
Stop press! Tentatively we can say that the glass bead looks like it’s a ‘North Scottish decorated annular bead’. These beads are usually reckoned to be produced in the region of Moray and particularly at Culbin Sands, and a few are known from Orkney and the Scottish Isles. This would be a 1st or 2nd Century AD type of bead, which would fit very well with the age of the deposits currently being excavated within the broch that the bead came from (Martin).
Kim Ranger M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands has kindly volunteered to write todays dig diary. So over to Kim….
“Greetings from The Cairns excavation, its day two! In the South extension our enthusiastic volunteers and students supervised by Linda, have been working on uncovering more of the external broch wall to further define its features, reveal village buildings close to the broch wall, and also uncovering the big enclosure ditch that cuts through the extension. The team have only dug some of the initial soil layers so far and have found lots of animal bone in the fills. As they work down we expect to encounter more artefacts.
Within the amazing broch, the team led by Rick, have been cleaning up the sensitive but beautiful earthen floors of the building, in preparation for more intensive excavation to come. The occupation horizons are looking very colourful and detailed. In one place just towards the end of the day a very nice spindle whorl (a spinning tool) began to emerge from the floors. This will excite Masters Student Amber, who is undertaking a dissertation study on the textile tools from the site!
Over on the western edge of the site, the northern end of Structure B (a later Iron Age longhouse) lies partly on top of the broch wall, and here a small team have been working to define the stonework a little more. The team were very excited to discover a beautiful whetstone with nice wear.
In trench Area Q a team has been working on two little projects. Firstly, to clean up the entire area, and define it more. They’ve been excavating a broad strip of deposits that were deliberately left high some time ago (this is called a baulk), as it’s now time for the baulk to go, having done its job of allowing us to see the deposits in their vertical order of formation.
The team continued to dig down through the layers of a midden packed full of animal bones which form the remains of a huge feast by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Within the general mass of animal bone there was a particular dense concentration of bone related to a large mandible amongst others, which may represent a loosely articulated carcass. Other finds included a nice hammer stone.
Today the site was visited by tourists and historians who were given a personalised tour of the site by our experts. We welcome all visitors and hope that more people take advantage of the fine weather to come out and visit us, the area is easy to navigate and there is much being discovered about Iron Age Orkney.
Spindle whorl appearing in the floor of the broch
Some of the animal bone from the midden in the baulk
Trowelling over the south extension and looking out to Windwick Bay
If you do visit the site and you are arriving by vehicle from the direction of the Windwick road near to the war memorial, then please don’t park in the drive of the private house near the entrance to the field that the site sits in, or in the drive leading up to the site itself- thank you!”
Kim Ranger, M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands.
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.
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….
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.
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.”
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.
New radiocarbon dates from The Cairns archaeological excavation shed light on the possible structure of society in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD in Orkney.
Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research excavation at The Cairns, Orkney, talks about the latest research findings from the site.
“We have been very lucky at The Cairns over the years of the excavations to find a substantial set of remains and residues that relate to Iron Age metalworking. This includes at least two iron-working furnaces, and many other features and artefacts, but there is one particularly big and concentrated event that took place beyond the broch in the northern part of the site, in the area we call Trench M. The remains of this episode include furnaces, bronze waste; bronze splashes and droplets, crucibles, and very significantly: moulds for casting fine bronze objects. Over sixty moulds and mould fragments have been recovered. These were used to cast a variety of objects ranging from simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches.
The volume and nature of the items being produced suggests that this was a socially significant collection of prestigious items aimed at denoting the identity, and status of those who were to wear the items; badges of their belonging and importance within the community. Importantly, it is the entire suite of materials found together, as well as their precise distribution pattern within the trench, that indicates strongly that this material relates to an in situ metalworking event, rather than a secondary event, such as merely the refuse disposal of old moulds, or even their ritual deposition. This is important because the closer we can get to the actual context of the metalworking events the clearer and more direct our picture of the process becomes.
The moulds for casting the bronze jewellery were found in an area several metres in diameter, scattered within and across the remains of an Iron Age building (Structure K) that was already ruinous and unroofed by the time the metalworking was happening. That building was itself found to overly the partially in-filled remains of a large enclosure ditch that had originally surrounded the broch period settlement. We therefore knew from the assessment of the layers (the stratigraphy) on site that the metalworking episode did not occur very early on in the sequence of events and buildings on site but it remained to be seen if it was going on towards the end of the monumental broch period on site, or if it was actually occurring after the broch was put out of use, which we know occurred around the mid-Second Century AD based on previously obtained radiocarbon dates. The calendar date of the metalworking was therefore of great interest. Did the jewellery-making episode date to the period late in the life of the broch, or was it happening after the broch itself was decommissioned and put out of use?
Craft and Chronology
Newly obtained radiocarbon dates make it clear which of these scenarios is correct. The new dates show that the jewellery-making occurred sometime between the AD240’s and the mid AD300’s. This places the metalworking very definitively after the end of the broch. Now, with this enhanced understanding of the chronological and structural context of the metalworking we can begin to consider the social context of this episode of metalworking. It is happening at a period of quite dramatic change in the material circumstances of Northern Iron Age communities in Scotland, at the end of the conventional Middle Iron Age and the beginning of the Later Iron Age periods, and contemporary with the mid to later Roman period further South.
It is very interesting that this episode therefore occurred after the culmination of the monumental phase of the site; after the demise of the massive broch at the heart of the community. One prominent British Iron Age scholar (Professor Niall Sharples from Cardiff University) has previously suggested that across Atlantic Scotland a pattern can be observed in which, around the time of the end of the brochs, when monumental domestic architecture is on the wane, there is a very substantial rise in the volume of items that reflect the presentation of the individual through personal adornment. This phenomenon seems to be reflected at The Cairns also.
Jewellery as social currency: Feasting, and gift-giving?
At the end of the bronze-casting event a fairly thick, very rich animal bone midden was laid down in the vicinity and slightly overlying the metalworking area. The close relationship between the metalworking and the animal bone is shown by the presence of a few of the crucibles and mould fragments amongst the midden also. What’s in this midden?
Well lots of domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep and pig, especially large cattle long bones. In addition, there were other mammal bones such as red deer, otter, and even a small quantity of horse. The midden also contained carbonised soils, ash and broken fragments of pottery. Many fire-cracked beach cobbles were also excavated, and these represent the exploded remains of ‘pot-boilers’, heated cobbles that were immersed in vessels to heat up water and cook some of the food. It seems that the people gathered at our feast were consuming beef on the bone, boiled pork, and roasted mutton and venison, some of which may have been washed down by beverages drunk from many pottery vessels.
The close stratigraphic association between the fine metalworking and the feasting raises the question of what exactly was going on here. One possibility that I like very much is that the feasting could be the spectacular social event at which the products of the jewellery-making were handed out, or gifted, to their intended recipients by those who had sponsored the metalworking in the first place. We may therefore be peering into the social circumstances of the jewellery-making and the distribution of its products amongst the community at The Cairns. If this is so, then it is a fascinating insight into the moment at which objects like the pins, brooches and rings started off on their biographies, their journey through people’s lives.
This is a very rare opportunity to see more clearly the initial nature of the social and political significance of these objects from their start-point. It would mean that the sharing or gifting of the jewellery was surrounded in the circumstances of a big social occasion, a massive party, if you like. We are seeing their birth and the important role they played in the power-play and social strategies of Iron Age groups and individuals. With the circumstances of the jewellery-making we are able, for once, to investigate the intended status and significance of these items within the context of their birth, rather than depending on the information we usually get, which is based on the discovery of these objects much later in their lives, in fact at the end of their lives, when they went in the ground, perhaps many decades, or more, after they were originally made and worn. Most theories about the brooches and pins and their role in society have been based on what we glean from them in this end-state, but the assemblage of metalworking evidence from The Cairns; the moulds, crucibles, and other items, together with the massive remains of the feasting allows us to grasp what was going on at the point in time when these jewellery items were instigated.
Jewellery, Society and the wider Northern Scottish Iron Age
It is highly intriguing that the birth of these prestigious pieces of jewellery appears to have been accompanied by communal, outdoor feasting and judging by the volume of animal bone it involved a large part, if not all, of the community. In the absence of the big spacious monumental buildings, such as the brochs, which may have previously served to gather large numbers of people under one roof at important times in the life of the community, we can ponder whether feasting events like this were the new arena for expressing the identity and solidarity of the community.
If we now recall Professor Sharples’ aforementioned thesis that the changes at the end of the Middle Iron Age to late Iron Age involved a major transformation of the way people expressed their social identity, from the communal to the individual then this evidence for big community feasting in the early part of the Later Iron Age is very interesting. Perhaps this serves to somewhat modify that concept, because in the post-broch era at The Cairns, for one, the community appears to have retained ways of expressing their greater collective identity. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that everyone was singled-out and gifted one of the pieces of fine jewellery that were produced.
At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period. If so, the excavations are really coming up trumps in terms of allowing us to peer into the social circumstances of Iron Age communities.
New dates for Structure B1: Have we found the elite sponsors of the metalworking?
The period of the jewellery-making is after the end of the broch and we were previously unclear which buildings amongst the many post-broch structures were occupied at the time of the bronze-working. The new dates also allow us to pin-point whereabouts on site, at least some of, the community were living at the time the jewellery-making was taking place. Armed with the new radiocarbon dates, it turns out, that one of the large rectangular post-broch buildings (perhaps a Wag-like building of the type found in Caithness and at The Howe in Orkney) known to us as Structure B1, located about 30 metres to the south-west of the jewellery-making area was first constructed and occupied between the Mid-3rd to 4th Centuries AD, and therefore at the same time as the metalworking.
Structure B1 lies directly over the reduced and in-filled remains of the broch. One of the most remarkable aspects of this building is its very large, formal and complex central hearth, which was over 3 metres in length in its fully developed form. This hearth and the central location of the building directly juxtaposed with the remains of the abandoned broch almost co-opting its former position and grandeur have always made us wonder if it was one of the key buildings in the immediate post-broch period at The Cairns, quite possibly the highest status building on site at that time, and may be the successor to the central broch in socio-political terms.
It is intriguing therefore to now know unambiguously that Structure B1 was contemporary with whoever was managing the wealth required to sponsor the lavish jewellery-making on site. Pushing this further, it is tempting to speculate that it was the important and powerful household resident in Structure B1 who instigated and organised the production of the jewellery, and the feasting, with all the capacity that those remarkable objects and events had for the creation and maintenance of the post-broch Iron Age community at The Cairns.”
Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
Martin would like to thank Professor Dave Barclay, Forensic Consultant, and Professor Emeritus, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen for the very kind and helpful donation, which made it possible to fund the most recent radiocarbon dates discussed in this piece.
If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or see our website.
Join us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Open Day on the 28th March 2018.
Venue: The Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI, East Road, Kirkwall KW15 1LX
Date: Wednesday 28th March 2018
Time: 10am to 4.30pm
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is located in one of the most exciting archaeology areas in the world – Orkney in Northern Scotland. Surrounded by thousands of archaeology sites ranging from the Neolithic to World War II, the Archaeology Institute is well placed as a world-class teaching and research organisation to advance our understanding of the historic environment.
So, come along and experience hands on archaeology, talk to staff and students and discover what studying Archaeology at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has to offer. You will also have the opportunity to take part in workshops on aspects of practical archaeology, including:
using microscopes to analyse pollen and charcoal unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar
examining finds from The Cairns excavation
exploring 4000 year old ceramics
examining the whale bones unearthed at Cata Sands
creating a 3D image from a laser scanner
You will also see how we use the unique archaeological landscape of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to further your studies. The event is open to anyone who is considering studying Archaeology at undergraduate or post graduate level in addition to anyone who is considering one of our short courses.