UHI Archaeology Institute Annual Review – now online

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Annual Review is now available for download.

The document runs to 36 pages and details the staff, fieldwork, research and some of the commercial projects undertaken over the last year or so.

Download UHI Archaeology Institute Annual Review

Enjoy!

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

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Travis working in the lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Making Metal, Casting Society at The Cairns, Orkney

ring headed pin moulds with cast pin
Ring headed pin moulds with cast pin

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 remains of 'Structure K' where the jewellery-making episode ocurred
The remains of structure K where the jewellery-making occurred

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?

Two moulds for casting penannular brooches
Two moulds for casting penannular brooches

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.

The big formal hearth in Structure B under excavation- a high status bui...
The large formal hearth in Structure B under excavation

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 studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

 

Archaeology in a Day – Open Day @UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney

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Students studying the site at Barnhouse

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.

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Students on a fieldtrip to the Outer Hebrides

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
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Students at Skara Brae

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.

Check out our website for all our archaeology courses.

If you wish to attend then please contact Mary on 01856 569225, send us a message on our Facebook page , send us a message through Twitter @UHIArachaeology or e-mail Mary at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Ness to Ness: Art & Archaeology Workshop 2018

nesstoness 2018 flyer FRONT v2-page-001The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Orkney College UHI Art Department to offer the popular summer Art & Archaeology workshop for 2018.

– Dates: 5th – 8th July 2018
– Time: 9.00-5.00 each day
– Cost £250 per person (limited number of concessions at £225)
– Accommodation and food is not included
– Material and transport to and from Kirkwall during the workshop is included

Thursday 5th July Field Day Ness of Brodgar and Ness Battery

After an introduction to the workshop, we will visit the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. You will have the opportunity to enjoy a bespoke tour with Site Director Nick Card and see its unique art with Neolithic art specialist Dr Antonia Thomas. In the afternoon we will have a tour of the remarkable buildings at the Ness Battery and its unique WW2 painted murals with archaeologists Andrew Hollinrake.

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Friday 6th July Studio Day Printmaking with Charles Shearer

For today’s session, we will be based in the art studios at Orkney College UHI in Kirkwall. Inspired by the previous field day, you will develop your creative ideas through the medium of print with world-renowned printmaker Charles Shearer. You will learn the process of collagraph print production from the drawing and cutting, using a range of tools, through to the application of the textures and materials that help give this process its unique character.

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Saturday 7th July Field Day Pier Arts Centre and Warbeth Beach

For today’s field trip we will have a dedicated tour of the Pier Arts Centre and its world class collection of British Modernist paintings and sculpture, led by Education Officer and artist Carol Dunbar. The afternoon will be spent on Warbeth Beach where we explore the materials used for art making in the Neolithic, and find out how this striking landscape inspires modern and contemporary artists.

Sunday 8th July Studio Day Printmaking with Charles Shearer

You will be able to develop your ideas from the previous three days further, and continue to work on collagraph printmaking with Charles Shearer.

Formal qualifications are not required for this course.

Cost: £250 for 4 days. Limited number of concessions available at 10% discount (£225) To book, contact Jenna Harper at jenna.harper@uhi.ac.uk or telephone 01856 569000

 

Study Archaeological Science BSc (Hons) at UHI

Labwork in Perth College
Labwork in Perth College UHI

This year we are delighted to announce the start of a new archaeology degree course to add to our existing archaeology programmes at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The BSc Honours degree in Archaeological Science is designed to meet the needs of those with an interest in the scientific and forensic aspects of archaeology, as well as delivering on the fundamentals of archaeology, including excavation, survey and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping.

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Students auguring

Archaeological Science is a cornerstone of archaeological investigations and a number of analyses are regularly applied to archaeological materials recovered during excavations. Over the course of this degree programme you will be introduced to the different scientific methods that form part of archaeological study, such as osteoarchaeology (study of human bone), archaeobotany (study of plant remains), zooarchaeology (study of animal bone), together with other techniques including biomolecular archaeology (study of lipids, ancient DNA. Isotopes) and geoarchaeology (study of sediments, microfossils).

These different forms of scientific study are used to answer a number of archaeological questions such as:
• Where did we come from? – ancient DNA, isotopes
• What did people eat in the past? – archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, isotopes, lipids
• How did people live and die? – osteoarchaeology
• What impact did people have on their environment? – geoarchaeology, archaeobotany

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Excavating intertidal peat at the Bay of Ireland, Orkney

Through this course you will develop your understanding and knowledge of different scientific methods and their application to archaeology. There will be opportunities for hands-on learning within a laboratory environment in order to put your scientific knowledge into practice and these can be further developed through taking an archaeological science placement and through modules such as archaeological science project and dissertation.

Modules on BSc Archaeological Science include:
• Science and Archaeology
• Excavation Skills
• Wetland Archaeology
• Practical Environmental Archaeology
• Archaeology Placement
• Archaeological Science Project
• Biomolecular Archaeology
• Archaeological Science Dissertation

Together with undertaking modules from the Archaeological Science degree you will also have the option over first and second year to take modules from across the different science and humanities degrees offered by UHI in order to explore different fields of study and gain a wider breadth of module choice.

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Survey and excavation at The Cairns broch, Orkney

There will be opportunities to participate in on-site archaeological excavation at world renowned sites, such as the Ness of Brodgar through our field schools and excavation modules. You will also be able to take part in ongoing archaeological scientific research being conducted by staff, such as in palaeoenvironmental studies and zooarchaeological studies. For details see the The Scotsman article on ‘Archaelogists survey Scotland’s Forests under the Sea’.

More information and online application for a start date of September 2018 can be accessed by clicking through to our UHI course webpage. Or if you wish to talk to us contact Dr. Scott Timpany on 01856 569225 or through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

 

From Lincolnshire to Orkney – TJ’s journey into archaeology

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TJ and Leo, her companion dog, working in the lab

Terri-Jane (TJ to everyone) is an archaeology student with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. She starts the ‘Archaeology and Local Studies’ Course in January 2018.

TJ’s story is a success story and demonstrates that there is more than one route into archaeology. Having found her passion for the subject, TJ wanted to share her journey, and takes up the story from here ….

“As a child I wanted to become an archaeologist, but I was not encouraged to follow this route. I am dyslexic and in those days there was not the support in place to follow a university career that there is now. So I kept my interest alive by visiting our local museum, travelling to lectures and watching programmes on television.”

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TJ at the Mapping Magnus Community dig in Palace Village

“I became wheelchair dependent in 2013 and I thought that was the end of my idea of studying archaeology. But in 2016 I moved to Orkney and started an art class at Orkney College UHI and there I met Sorcha….the Highlands and Islands Students Association (HISA) Regional Vice President. Sorcha is an archaeology student, and we talked about my interest in the subject and how I wanted to be involved, but didn’t know how. Following a few more conversations, I was in the Archaeology Institute at Orkney College – talking to staff about volunteering, enrolling on the Archaeology and Local Studies course and accessing all areas! Everyone was so enthusiastic and ,Wow, the next thing I knew I was invited to the Mapping Magnus community dig at Birsay.”

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The Mapping Magnus community dig, Palace Village, Orkney

“Kath, one of the second year archaeology students, picked me up in her car and off we went to the Mapping Magnus dig at Palace Village, Birsay. I was so excited, but also a little bit nervous. I was about to take part in a real dig, researching the location of a medieval palace!

It was a beautiful sunny day and as we arrived at the dig Kath took me to the site over boards laid down for my wheelchair. Almost immediately I was at work with a trowel and sieving soil samples coming out of the dig. I was working at an archaeological dig!”

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Mapping Magnus Community Dig

“I was so excited to be taking part and within a few minutes I came across my first finds; a medieval fish bone, three animal bones and a collection of limpet shells. The team were so friendly and supported me through the whole process and, perhaps more importantly, I was treated like everyone else. My disability was not a hindrance.

I am now actively involved in the Archaeology Institute’s volunteer programme, volunteering for everything I can at the college in Kirkwall. Only last week I was in the lab washing bones from The Cairns broch and then cataloguing finds from the Orkney World Heritage Site field walking project. There is no stopping me now!”

TJ has signed up for the Archaeology and Local Studies course and starts in January and is on the volunteer list to take part in future community archaeology projects.


The Archaeology and Local Studies distance learning course is designed for people who are interested in learning more about the archaeology of the north of Scotland – from the mesolithic to the medieval and including the study of such incredible structures as brochs.

The course involves 2 hours a week taught classes for 10 weeks. Applicants for the course do not need experience of archaeology and the course can be studied as a standalone course worth 20 credits or used as an access course for studying at university level. As such it is a good opportunity to see if archaeology is for you and learn about the subject.

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

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

 

 

3 Day Archaeology Short Course – The Cairns, Orkney, Summer 2018

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce that the popular hands-on field-based short course is being offered once again during the summer of 2018.

Located at one of Orkney’s leading excavations, The Cairns broch, this three day short course aims to provide participants with basic training and understanding of the practices and processes in Field Archaeology.

  • Date: 20-22 June 2018 (3 full days 9:30 – 16:30)
  • Venue: The Cairns Broch excavations, South Ronaldsay, Orkney
  • Cost: £200.00 per person
  • Booking: contact Mary Connolly at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

Training will cover:

  • excavation techniques
  • finds identification
  • the principles of stratigraphy
  • basic site survey and archaeological recording (drawn, written and photographic record).

Participants will be trained by professional archaeologists from the UHI Archaeology Institute and will form part of the large team at the excavation site. If you read this blog,  then you will know that The Cairns is a friendly dig situated in a breath-taking location overlooking the sea.

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The course aims to equip participants with the skills and confidence to engage with other archaeological field projects or lead onto further studies in the discipline.

We recommend that you bring steel toe boots/wellies, full waterproofs, packed lunch and flask. Toilet facilities are provided. Participants are to meet at the excavation site each day at 9:00. Accommodation, travel and lunch are not included. See the Visit Orkney website to book accommodation.

Places are limited (12 max.) so book now!


For more information about the UHI Archaeology Institute visit our website and blog.

The Ness of Brodgar- Summer 2017

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The plans for the Ness of Brodgar dig season 2018 are well under way, and with the end of the year in sight, perhaps it is time to catch up with some of the highlights of the 2017 season. 

Hints at links between the Ness of Brodgar and the Stonehenge area were unearthed this summer, during a record-breaking season at the Stenness site. Over the eight-week excavation, around 21,500 visitors made their way to the Ness, where a team of international diggers were hard at work on the Stone Age complex. At the helm, as usual, was site director Nick Card, of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Once again, the Ness lived up to its reputation of throwing up lots of new questions, but also some magnificent finds. Of particular interest this year were the two items that suggest contact between Orkney and the Stonehenge area. The first of these was a fragment of pot recovered from a trench extension over Structure Twenty-Six. This came as something of a surprise as the decoration on the sherd was very reminiscent of pottery from Durrington Walls . That said, there were also distinctly Orcadian features, which led us to wonder whether the original vessel blended decorative elements from these two world-renowned sites – but which were hundreds of miles apart.

Fragments of the 'incense' cup - only 4 others of this style are known - all from the Stonehenge-Wessex region
Fragments of the ‘Incense ‘ cup – only 4 others of this style are known – all from the Stonehenge-Wessex Region

Parallels between the Orkney and Wessex sites have been noted before — particularly when Mike Parker Pearson, who excavated at Durrington Walls, visited the Ness in 2010 and 2014 — but a second discovery in Structure Twenty-Six brought these back into the spotlight.

On the surface, it didn’t seem very significant but, thankfully, Claire Copper, who had just finished a research project on these artefacts, immediately recognised it for what it was — a beautiful little ‘incense cup’. After much checking, we were delighted when it was confirmed the cup was what we thought it was. There are only four other examples of this particular type of ‘cup’ in the UK and they all hail from the Stonehenge area.

These tiny artefacts are often highly decorated and mostly found in Early Bronze Age contexts — often associated with burials. Their use has been the subject of debate over the years. It has been suggested that they were used to carry embers to a funeral pyre, or perhaps for the burning of incense during burial ceremonies.

Tracing the walls

Elsewhere on site, it seems likely that the “Great Wall of Brodgar” was one of the first constructions on site. The four-metre-thick wall was unearthed in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the discovery of a second wall — to the south-east of the site — prompted the theory that the complex was completely enclosed.

Trench J in 2008 - red shows GWB and yellow, Structure 5
Trench J in 2008 – red shows Great Wall of Brodgar and yellow Structure 5

Last year, a trench was extended down towards the Stenness Loch looking for evidence that the wall sections were once connected. Unfortunately, nothing was found. This year, however, close examination of an aerial photograph from 2016 revealed very faint, but definite, marks on the landscape around the site. Not only did these “crop marks” clearly show the location of the two known wall sections but highlighted the layout of the enclosing side walls. The difference was that the wall running along the side of the Stenness Loch was closer to the water than originally thought.

We were disappointed last year when there were no upstanding traces of the connecting wall, but it now seems we had been digging in the wrong place. We had tried geophysics on the Stenness loch side, but overhead power lines and a fence line scrambled the results. With no scans to worth with, we had to extend the trench based on our suspicions and it now seems we did not taken the extension far enough down towards the water. Hopefully next year we’ll open a small exploratory trench over the revised location and see what comes up.

The inner face of the Great wall of Brodgar once again see the light of day

Meanwhile, the trench containing the corner of the ”Great Wall” — and the adjacent building, Structure Five — was re-opened this year for the first time since 2008. Nick suspected that Structure Five was was an early Neolithic building and this proved correct. The building is very reminiscent of the early house at the Knap of Howar (3600BC), in Papa Westray. But, in true Ness of Brodgar fashion, is much bigger.

It also became clear that the “Great Wall” not only curved to follow a path along the shore of the Harray Loch, but curled closely around Structure Five — suggesting that it, too, was a very early element in the history of the site. This was confirmed by excavation, which showed nothing lay beneath the wall section except the natural boulder clay on which it was built.

It may be possible to date the construction of the wall using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) — a technique that could provide the last date on which the ground beneath the wall’s foundation was exposed to sunlight — something that may be explored in the future.

Frustration and delight in Trench T

While work progressed and questions answered, Trench T — to the south-east of the main site — proved particularly obstinate. Here, work to excavate a huge midden mound began in 2013. At first it was thought this was nothing more than a “monumental pile of rubbish” — a visible example of conspicuous, Stone Age consumption, and a reflection of the status and affluence of the Ness, left there for all to see. In 2014, however, the stump of a standing stone turned up at the foot of the mound, hinting there might be more to it.

In 2015, sections of walling and orthostats were found at the bottom of the trench, followed, last year, by massive stone slabs in the remains of a puzzling structure. We felt these structural remnants represented a chambered cairn, similar to the one he had excavated at Bookan, at the other end of the Ness, in 2002.

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But, as the weeks passed, the sheer scale of the building — dubbed Structure Twenty-Seven by the archaeologists — became clearer. The building was huge and the stone slabs so big that it was suggested they were re-purposed standing stones. These massive megaliths were used to support orthostats that clad the structure’s less-than-perfect interior wall face.Given its position, it Structure Twenty-Seven is also likely to pre-date many of the other buildings on the Ness.

Describing the trench as a “source of frustration and delight”, Nick had hoped to reveal more of Structure Twenty-Seven this season, but progress was slowed by the discovery of pits and fragments of walling.

“Everything about Trench T is just different,” he said. “This year we extended it, hoping to quickly expose more of the structure — whatever it is — but, as usual, you should always expect the unexpected and we came down upon intermediary structural elements that had to be dealt with and recorded. Some of these may relate to Structure Twenty-Seven but I think there’s other things happening in this area and this has really muddied the waters.”

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He added that more of the building’s south end was uncovered and that there are also hints of what might be its entrance. “We had also thought that Structure Twenty-Seven had been substantially dismantled in the Neolithic — its stone plundered for use elsewhere and that not much of it had survived. But this summer, we found another section of nicely built drain, that may have been underneath a flagged passageway around the exterior of the building — somewhat similar to that around Structure Ten in the main trench.”

In addition, more of the building’s 2.3-metre-thick back wall was uncovered and found to be in a better state of repair, with several courses surviving. All we can hope for now is that work in 2018 will bring us a clear idea of the layout of this puzzling building.

Back to the Iron Age

Meanwhile, at the top of Trench T, another fragment of pottery, added to the evidence that the Neolithic midden mound was remodelled in the Iron Age, thousands of years after the site was abandoned. Not only was a ditch cut into the mound, but a revetment wall, on the upslope side, was enhanced by a large bank, itself held at the rear by another revetment wall.

“If these structures ran right round the crest of the mound — with the ditch open and highly visible on the downslope and the bank above — the visual effect would have been striking in the extreme,” said Nick. “Indeed, because of the height of the midden mound it was built on, the structure would have been visible for miles around. No doubt this was the intention of the Iron Age builders, as there are many other examples in Orkney of their willingness to alter the landscape and any older structures visible within it.”

Public Interest

Over 14 years since the discovery of the Ness complex, the site continues to produce stunning artefacts and discoveries on a daily basis. But on a site where the extraordinary has become the norm — and with it the expectations of the public — is Nick concerned there is a danger interest could wane?

The first tour of the season is shepherded by site dog Bryn

“We have still got stunning finds coming up on a daily basis that, ten years ago, or at any other site, would hit the headlines across the country. 2017 saw more artwork, stunning stone tools and — in a first for the Ness — a beautiful example of an Early Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged flint arrowhead, recovered from the exterior of Structure Ten. I think that these days people are looking beyond the initial ‘wow’ factor and are just as interested in how finds — no matter how small — fit into the story of the site as a whole. The arrowhead, for example, was a lovely find and a delight to behold, but just as important is its role in interpreting the life, and death, of the Ness.”

Close up of the arrowhead - a first for the Ness

It was found in a lump of midden filling the outer passage of Structure Ten — the so-called ‘cathedral’ — which overlaid the animal bone we think was the result of a decommissioning feast. Elsewhere in this passage, in the same context, we found a distinctive piece of Beaker pottery from the same period. These finds, together with the dating evidence so far, are key to the idea that the start of the Bronze Age heralded the demise of the Ness. And perhaps more importantly, shows that Bronze Age influences had made it this far north.

But it is not just the artefacts that draws people to the Ness. It is the whole package of seeing an excavation under way; the trenches; the archaeologists…With visitor numbers for 2017 up by 63 per cent and the daily online dig diary recording a 30 per cent increase in traffic it is clear that public interest — local, national and international — continues apace.

“Since we started work, one of our main aims was to take the archaeology and share it with as many people as we can,” said Nick. “Going on the visitor figures, this seems to be working, and we’re looking at other ways to improve things, online and on-site.”

He added: “Overall, it’s heartening to see that interest continues to grow because over 75 per cent of our funding comes from the general public and without that support the Ness just wouldn’t happen.”

You can support the excavations by making a donation or buying a copy of the excellent guidebook at www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk.


The site is supported by the Ness of Brodgar Trust (www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk), American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney Islands Council and the Orkney LEADER Programme 2014-2020.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate archaeology students at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are given the opportunity to be involved with the archaeological investigation at the Ness of Brodgar in addition to The Cairns and other archaeological excavations across Orkney and Scotland. If you want to study archaeology and be involved with the research taking place at UHI Archaeology Institute then contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

 

 

 

Archaeologists for a Day – School Children help out at Mapping Magnus Dig

Mapping Magnus 1a

Over the past couple of weeks, the University of the Highlands and Islands team at the Mapping Magnus excavation have involved local school children in the exciting excavations at Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney.

On 2nd to 4th October, children and teachers from Dounby Primary School, Stenness Primary School, Stromness Primary School, Evie Primary School, Firth Primary School and the Pathways to Independence Group were involved in an archaeology day at the site – building on work that they had completed in the classroom in the previous week.

The budding archaeologists arrived early on site at Palace Village, Birsay, Orkney and were keen and ready to get started. The weather tried its best to intervene, but the children were well wrapped up and enthusiastically looked forward to the first task.

Mapping Magnus 2a

This involved the children in a decision making exercise in which they searched for any existing clues in Palace Village that may help us as archaeologists narrow down the potential site of the medieval Bishop’s Palace. The children set off looking for sandstone blocks and other features that could have originated in the old medieval palace in the walls of the present settlement.

Mapping Magnus 3a

After exploring the area our volunteers then began examining some of the drawings and maps of the Palace Village alongside Dr Sarah-Jane Gibbon, Lecturer in  Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, and Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist at UHI Archaeology Institute, to identify any clues that may help us identify the position of the old medieval palace. This exercise was completed in the The Orkney Archaeology Society trailer which provided welcome refuge against particularly heavy rain showers….many thanks to OAS who helped make this happen.

Mapping Magnus 7a

After exploring the area and studying the documented evidence, our helpers headed to the main trench. The children were split into teams who then started washing some of the finds that had come out of our trenches, sieving deposits, excavating in the main trench and working in the smaller test pits. The teams rotated around, giving each child experience of the different aspects of field archaeology.

The day itself was very enjoyable and the team want to shout out a big thank you to all of our volunteers from Dounby Primary School, Stenness Primary School, Stromness Primary School, Evie Primary School, Firth Primary School and to the Pathways to Independence Group. Your hard work was greatly appreciated by the team and hope to see you at another excavation in the future.

Mapping Magnus 5a

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

Thanks to Charlotte Hunter for contributing to the blog post and photographs. Charlotte is a MSc student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and is on professional placement with us, helping with the communication of archaeology across the media.

Get involved in the conversation #MappingMagnus


The Mapping Magnus project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Orkney Islands council and the UHI Archaeology Institute as part of Magnus 900, commemorating the 900th anniversary year of the death of St Magnus during 2017.