Fascinating Finds from The Cairns

Seal Tooth

Enigmatic finds continue to emerge from The Cairns during post-excavation work being carried out by Kevin Kerr – one of our MSc students from 2016.

The picture above shows a seal tooth that was unearthed last summer at The Cairns. It was found in the metal working area that may post-date the broch.

Part of the tooth is highly polished and, despite having been buried for nearly 2000 years, still glistens when held up to the light. To add to the enigma, there is also slight wear on one side which could have resulted from its use as a tool or perhaps it is an item of discarded jewellery?

It is also interesting to note that the wide bay and beach that The Cairns overlooks is still used by seals who regularly snooze on the rocks and sand at the base of the cliff. It is also the site where seal cubs are born and, in autumn, Windwick Bay echoes to the haunting sound of seals calling to their new offspring.

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A seal relaxing in Windwick Bay – just below The Cairns site.

Kevin Kerr (one of our MSc students from 2017) has the monumental task of recording and cataloguing the hundreds of finds unearthed at The Cairns. He can be found most days, when not working elsewhere, entering data, surrounded by boxes of artefacts stacked in the Finds Rooms at the Institute. While discussing some of the finer points of broch life with Martin Carruthers, Kevin showed me a further small find that on the face of it looked like many other finds unearthed at The Cairns, until two tiny crosses were pointed out. Marks that had obviously been scratched into the bone by a very sharp blade.

They were regular and so cannot be butchery marks, but what was their use? Why did one the of inhabitants of The Cairns broch scratch two tiny regular crosses into a broken animal bone? Do they have significance? Are they just a mark of someone’s boredom? Were they used for counting and recording? I guess we will never know….but the object does represent another reminder of the small things that made up the life of the people living in the broch.

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Two tiny marks scratched into an animal bone

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

The Mystery of Iron Age Burials


The research by Dr Mary Macleod Rivett raised several questions from a number of people on social media, concerning burial in Iron Age Britain generally and more specifically the significance of the face down burial.

The following is a brief synopsis of a conversation between Mary Macleod Rivett and Martin Carruthers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and raises some interesting points about the role of the dead in Iron Age society. 

In terms of Iron Age face-down burials, I’m not aware of very many.  There’s one adult male from the in-fill of a souterrain at Bu, near Stromness in Orkney where he was buried on his front with his hands apparently behind him, head slightly tilted to one side.  He was also accompanied by a further half a dozen or so human individuals, in the same souterrain back-fill, of a range of sexes and ages, including some quite young children.  I wouldn’t want to jump to any sinister conclusion about what this configuration means, but it is interesting that the in-fill of the souterrain also seems to have been one of the final acts during the Iron Age period on this particular site.  It’s probably different from the burial described by Mary Macleod, I would suggest, as it doesn’t carry the same formality and the fascinating grave goods.

I suppose one of the things that is often thought to limit what we can say about burials from this period is that there are so relatively few of them (and traces of human remains more generally) and therefore it’s very uncertain how representative any of the burials actually are, in terms of a ‘normal’ or normative burial tradition as such.  The Early and Middle Iron Age burials that have been found are very diverse in terms of the treatment of the deceased.  There are inhumations like this one, cremations, semi-articulated portions of bodies, and completely disarticulated pieces of human bone (like the jaw found at The Cairns recently).

There are even pieces of modified human bone like the pierced femur heads from some sites where they seem to have been used as spindle whorls, or the pierced skull plates that seem to have been hung on strings for display.

And although there have been more Iron Age burials discovered in recent years, most regions of the UK (except parts of East Yorkshire, or the South East) still stubbornly refuse to give up anything like the volume of burials that we know must have gone with the relatively large population size during the Iron Age.

We still have a very long way to go to start putting these burials in a better contextual understanding.  However, that does actually mean that each and every new Iron Age period burial is very significant as they are such a relatively rare resource for understanding the treatment of the dead during the period.

Mary adds, “I also dug a prone, male, IA burial (no C14 date) several years ago at A’Cheardach Ruadh, Baile Sear, North Uist, but the body there had a twisted spine (scoliosis), and there may have been practical reasons for that one…”

Sounds like a good subject for a PhD!!!


Whale Tooth and Metal Working at The Cairns

img_0430As each day passes, post-excavation work at The Cairns broch site in South Ronaldsay provides us with more clues concerning the working lives of the people who lived there two thousand years ago.

Jim Bright is one of our Masters students working with some of the objects unearthed at the site. He is investigating the Iron Age landscape in Orkney and has created 3D images of objects found at the site for his ongoing research. One of the fascinating objects he is working on was found during last year’s excavation…..a 6cm long whale tooth.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, sheds light on the object and the working life of the broch….

“The whale tooth was found in a context associated with metalworking in one of the trenches at The Cairns. Whale-tooth is fairly often used in the production of quite complex composite items during the Iron Age, such as pommels or hilt guards for iron blades like cairns-2016-schematic-page-001swords and knives. It’s possible that this was such a composite part of that kind of object, but any kind of diagnostic feature is missing due to the breakage pattern. It might have been part of a composite object that’s been stripped down for recycling the metal and the whale tooth was discarded, or it may have been destined for such an object but broke before it could be finished. A third possibility is that it was intentionally deposited as part of the ending of the metalworking phase in Trench M.”

You can view the 3d model by clicking the link below:


Every Stone has a Story-The Scarcement Level at The Cairns

It doesn’t matter how many times you visit an archaeology excavation such as The Cairns, there is always something new to see.

As part of the pre-season planning, Martin Carruthers Site Director, together with a masters student and myself visited The Cairns dig site overlooking Windwick Bay.

The site is in good order, despite the ravages of several winter storms, and while clambering over the earth mounds surrounding the site, Martin stopped and pointed out an assemblage of large, worked stones.

Initially, the stones had formed one side of a passageway in one of the later Iron Age buildings on the site. When the blocks were examined closely the archaeologists realised that they were looking at worked stone that would have formed a scarcement level in the broch structure – before re-use in the later Iron Age building.

Looking across The Cairns broch showing the scarcement level stones in situ at ‘A’

A scarcement level is in effect a line of massive blocks that were built into the inner wall face of a structure. Their sole function was to hold up timbers that would, in turn, hold up a wooden floor.  If you visit The Cairns broch then you will see  a line of huge stones positioned along the top of the existing wall (A in the photograph above). The stone scarcement-levelarrangement is also visible at Gurness Broch, but there is a difference at The Cairns….the scarcement level blocks are supported below by the wall and do not just “jut out” from the interior structure. The rough field sketch should help to clarify the role of the stones at The Cairns broch.

Martin explains more in this video clip…………..

Becoming a Digital Coppersmith


Iron Age Pin Cast for the First Time in Two Thousand Years. Research student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute uses 21st Century technology to unlock the secrets of Iron Age jewellery.

 This summer has been an exciting season for the archaeologists working at The Cairns archaeological site on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. For the first time in two thousand years the full extent of an Iron Age broch has been unearthed and further exciting insights into the people who lived there have been discovered.

Initial evidence pointing to metal working on the site was confirmed when around 60 clay mould fragments used for casting bronze jewellery were discovered, scattered in a matrix of rubble in Trench M over a five to six metre area. These objects dated from the First Century to the Third Century AD and were present in a roughly made structure that was used only briefly – judging by the thin layer of deposit present in the trench. These objects were extremely fragile, but after cleaning, it was clear that a negative image of a delicate, ring headed pin was present in the clay of one mould.

How wonderful would it be if we could re-create this Iron Age pin? To see it as the people who lived in the broch two thousand years ago would have seen it? To experiment and use it as those people would have used it? But further, to use the object in research and teaching, knowing that it was cast from an original mould? But there was a problem…the moulds were too delicate to use in any metal working process.

However, following much discussion, Ben Price – a postgraduate student studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute – decided to accept the challenge and use his expertise in computer modelling to re-create the pin in bronze; the original metal used to create these objects. After further discussion and guidance from Martin Carruthers, Master Programme Leader, Ben decided to use the opportunity to make the re-creation of the pin the subject of his Masters Degree dissertation and so use the research to feed back into the teaching at The Archaeology Institute – a particular strength of The Institute.

normal-wholeUsing 21st Century 3D rendering technology, Ben photographed and scanned the original Iron Age clay moulds into a computer and created a digital 3D image on the screen. This in itself was exciting as the delicate details of the projecting ring headed pin could be clearly seen emerging from the screen. A 3D model of the resultant pin was created on screen by using the detailed surfaces of the moulds.

The pin model was then sent off to be 3D printed in wax and then used to cast in bronze using the lost wax method.

Archaeologists are used to examining metal objects that have been in the ground for thousands of years, but this process gave archaeologists a view that would have only been available to the original pin maker.

No-one was prepared for the wonderful object that emerged from the casting process. It was an object of wonder, and left everyone speechless for a few moments. It was bright and heavy and extremely tactile. It was an object that would obviously have been treasured and would have been striking as a piece of jewellery.

Martin Carruthers, Masters Degree Programme Leader, said, “This process gives us a unique and exciting insight into the objects that the people of The Cairns actually experienced and used over two thousand years ago. You can see the imperfections and the work involved and it also proves that moulds were made using an object. The process also opens up many possibilities in terms of experimental archaeology in addition to educating the public at large. The object also in a way opens up the possibility that the Iron Age was full of colour and bright objects that were treasured….perhaps they were not so dissimilar to people of today!”


The Cairns 2016 Season

IMG_0704It has been a hugely successful season at The Cairns. The site is now largely cleared showing the broch outline in totality, finds have shed more light on the social and economic life of the site and of course it would appear that we may have found the remains of an actual inhabitant.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, continues…….

The site is firmly put to bed now and it’s time to take stock, a little, of what the season has been like.

Well, lots of people who have visited the site this year have commented very positively on our progress, noting how different the site looks to previous visits! But how did we really do set against the original aims for the field season this year?

Inside the broch

The bronze pin found inside the broch today.

It was our aim to remove the last chunk of rubble infill from the broch interior – covering about a fifth of the interior space – and get into a position where we could begin to excavate the floor layers and occupation deposits across the whole of the broch.

After waiting for some time for the pied wagtail chicks to fledge, and leave the rubble that they were nesting in, we did, in the end, manage to remove all of the remaining rubble infill from the broch and open up the entire interior.

It looks splendid! We can now really appreciate what a monumental building it really was.

A big surprise that emerged from this process was the discovery of an impressively complete –  still fully roofed – and pristine wall chamber and its well-preserved doorway, opening off of the western wall face of the broch interior.

In the end we were able to excavate the rubble down to the uppermost occupation activity inside the western zone of the broch.

Some of the contents of just one bag of charcoal from one of the hundreds of broch-floor samples. The tiny oval pieces are barley grains.

Across the rest of the base of the broch, we continued to excavate the occupation deposits in the south-eastern and southern rooms of the interior.We resolved how people had accessed these rooms via a corridor space and we found occupation deposits across the whole of this sector. The floors were seen to be every bit as rich as those seen in the north-eastern room in the previous season.

Importantly, we could see that the same cycle of floor creation seems to be at work – where, essentially, a clean clay floor was laid down, then occupation detritus built up on it and then, after a time, this was covered up by another clean clay floor.And so on for a, currently, unknown number of times.

This is great news as it confirms that we will have a depth of floor deposits here with which to assess what was happening inside the broch over a long period of time – hopefully from its very beginning to its end. Students have been sieving and sorting the materials from the floor deposits this year, we can begin to see what kind of material is present. The occupation deposits have yielded vast quantities of charred plant material, especially cereal grains and other charred straw, chaff, and sundry other plants.

There is burnt bone, small stone and bone tools (such as the immaculate needle that came out of the broch entrance passage); the tiny bones of microfauna, such as mice and voles; there’s bird bone and fishbone and there are pottery fragments.Of course, we had a tiny glass bead from the sieving of these deposits a few months ago. We have even got rather a lot of coprolites, i.e. fossilised poo!

The prodigious quantities of cereal grain matches what has previously been found at well-excavated broch sites such as the Howe, in West Mainland, and Scalloway in Shetland, and emphasises that one of the likely roles of brochs was as major collection points for agricultural produce. The volume of charred grain from any archaeological context is always a tiny fraction of that which was lost through complete combustion and this, therefore, tells us that there was at one time a vast quantity of grain likely being stored inside the broch at The Cairns.

This is an important clue as to the role of the broch, which will be followed up and amplified in future work. As well as all the environmental material, the floors also yielded a very nice range of artefacts this year, including pottery, lots of stone tools, a beautiful bronze pin and two tiny bronze rings or chain-links!

The souterrain

The souterrain passage.

For the souterrain, our aims were to reveal the main roof lintels and then remove these and excavate floor deposits inside the underground passageway.

After spending an unexpectedly considerable time revealing no fewer than three layers of superimposed roof slabs, and the soily deposits between them, as well as working out the relationships between these deposits and everything else nearby, we did indeed manage to remove the big lower lintels. Not much time was left to fully excavate the floor deposits, but a selective investigation of the floor appears to confirm that we have likely got two main phases to the souterrain, as it was extended in length at one stage.

A final nice surprise was the discovery of a fragment of a tiny amber bead from the deposit inside the souterrain passage!

Trench M

Trench M - the metalworking area.

Trench M is the metalworking area to the north of the broch.

We had set ourselves the general aim of simply learning more about the nature of the production under way during the Iron Age.

We fully excavated the remains of the clay furnace and found that rather than representing a copper-smelting furnace, as we had previously thought, this feature looks very much like it was for iron smelting.

The slag and other residues indicated that there was heavy processing of iron ores under way.

There were distinctive and diagnostic features uncovered indicating where the tuyere, or nozzle betwixt the base of the furnace and blow-pipes, or bellows, would have sat, assisting in the supercharging of the heat inside the furnace.

Just a small part of the team left at the very end of this season's excavation.

It’s fascinating that we therefore seem to have bronze-working – as evidenced by the large assemblage of pin and brooch moulds, crucibles and copper alloy waste previously encountered here –  as well as iron-working going on at the same time and place.

This is reminiscent of the Iron Age workshop excavated at Minehowe, in Tankerness, and it may be that the complex pyrotechnical processes and skills required for both types of metal production were complementary, and mutually served in a shared facility.

Another important thing learned this year from Trench M was that this rich episode of metalworking was not the only one to have occurred in the area. As we nudged into deposits further into the depth of the building in the trench we found lots of iron slag, bog ore and cakes of iron furnace bases, indicating that metalworking had been a hallmark of the northern part of the site for a longer time.

Indeed, a surprise discovery was the emergence of what appears to be another, possibly better-preserved, iron-working furnace to the south of the original one! We’ll learn more about this next season.

The new extension trench

In Trench Q, the walls of the village buildings surrounding the broch begin to emerge.

Trench Q was our extension trench this year. We removed a big spoil heap and broke new ground in order to link through the metalworking area of Trench M to the broch and in so doing hoped also to reveal a sector of the putative extramural village surrounding the broch.

This went well and although its early days for this trench, we nevertheless were able to reveal substantial wall-heads and faces, which were obviously double-faced and therefore free-standing walls of substantial buildings rather than the single-skinned, revetted walls (walls that are dug down into, and against deposits that predate them), that are usually the hallmark of later Iron Age buildings.

We were able to add to these architectural observations aspects of the artefacts, as the pottery from both above, and against, these walls appeared to be of the Middle Iron Age type (the period of the broch) which have “everted” (splaying-out) rims and nice rounded, globular bodies.

Indeed, in one place, up against one of the walls, we found the greater part of a whole vessel that had likely fallen apart when in use, as five heat-affected rocks (“pot-boilers”) and a pot lid were found inside the remains of the vessel as though it had accidentally split apart due to the thermal shock.

Trench Q, therefore, has demonstrated that we do appear to have a substantial village surviving surrounding the broch and in future seasons we will be able to learn a great deal more about it. Many important questions will hopefully then be able to be addressed.

Is the village absolutely contemporary with the construction of the broch? Did its inhabitants have the same lifestyle as whoever was resident inside the broch? What was the precise social and political relationship between villagers and broch occupants?

Middens and houses

One way we hope to address the question of different social status among the different houses and households of the settlement is through analysing their middens. They do say that you are what you eat after all! Our aim is to be able to match specific buildings to their waste products, discarded midden, and the like, so that we gain a window into their cycles of production, consumption and waste.

We hope that will represent a better, more detailed, and thorough index of the status of these buildings than simply plotting the status of the artefacts from within the buildings. We hope this will form the basis for comparison of each house against the others.

The very good news is, therefore, that this season we think we may have begun to uncover some of the midden that goes with the broch itself. Just outside the front door of the broch, and snug against the outer wall face, we have uncovered a thick, rich, organic soil, full of shell midden, animal bone and charcoal, that is a likely contender for having come from inside the broch itself.

The further exploration of this deposit in future years will hopefully mean we gain a direct access to the waste product of the broch household, which, taken in tandem with the occupation deposits from inside the broch, will be incredibly informative about the role and status of the broch.

The human remains

The whalebone vessel that contained the human jawbone, with the red deer antlers snug against it.

Finally, one thing that was not a part of our original research agenda and aims for the site this season was possibly the most surprising discovery of all!

This was the human remains – a jawbone and some other fragments that had been placed inside the upper fill of the whalebone vertebra vessel, with two deer antlers and a saddle quern snug against the whalebone.This is a remarkable set-piece depositional event! There will be far more post-ex work required to elucidate the details of what this may mean, but already there are some very interesting issues to contemplate.

First of all, this deposit or cache of items have been placed on the top of the broch midden that I have just described. Immediately after their placement, they were buried in substantial rubble that appears to mark the end of the broch as a free-standing building in the same manner and at the same time as the rubble fill in the interior of the broch.

So we may be looking at an act of closure and abandonment or decommissioning of the broch, which was given a heightened significance or drama through the use of human remains. Many questions therefore stem from this.

How old were the human remains at the point when they were placed in the whalebone vessel and buried? Do they date to the time of the deposition or are they much older remains, possibly held over, curated, as an heirloom or a relic? Maybe even perceived as relating to the ancestral generation who founded the broch several centuries earlier?

Are the remains, in fact, even older than this?

They might even be fragments of human skeleton, found during the Iron Age, within the low mound just to the north of the main trench, which we know is a Neolithic site!

Well, before we get too carried away with the many possibilities, I should simply reflect on the fact that we will hopefully begin to answer at least some of these questions in the next few months as we undertake post-excavation analysis.

I look forward to sharing the results with you.

Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and Orkneyjar


The Final Days at The Cairns


The four week dig at The Cairns is now coming to a close. The tremendous hard work of all the students and volunteers has resulted in some amazing finds and has shed a little more light on the life of the people who lived there 2000 years ago.

Before the site was cleaned and covered for another year, the whalebone and red deer antler deposit had to be lifted. Martin Carruthers Site Director takes up the story….

One thing to sort out was just the small matter of recovering the whalebone and red deer antler deposit from the ground! The day progressed well and Carolina and John were able to lift the antlers first.

They are very beautiful and appear to have been shed and not from a butchered deer, so they were probably picked up somewhere in the hill-land to the north of the site and were not from an animal that was hunted and killed.

The whalebone, quern and antlers shortly before being recovered. The ruler gives an indication of the size of the whalebone

The whalebone itself then had to be lifted carefully.We had feared for the integrity of this large, fragile item after seeing that it had some large cracks running up it. But, in the end, we were able to recover it successfully, in three large chunks.It will now be conserved and the pieces put back together in the lab.

Finally, it was the turn of the saddle quern.This very large, beautifully worn stone was a heavy thing to ease out of the ground, even though we had worked around the edges freeing it up from its soily matrix.

The soil, by the way, was a very rich, dark, organic material, profuse with charcoal lumps and almost as greasy and rich as the floor deposits we have worked on inside the broch.

This, perhaps, means we have incipient water-logging on the outside of the broch as well, and can perhaps expect quite spectacular preservation conditions when we excavate more of this area, and further down.

For now, we are simply delighted to have dealt with the items and recovered them safely to study in more detail soon, along with the human remains found with them.

Elsewhere on site, I was busy taking final elevated photographs of the trenches as the rest of the team began the process of spreading out plastic tarps and tyres over the trench to bed it down until next season.

Looking across Trench M – the metalworking area – to the broch in the background

The above area has also been transformed into a photogrammatical record which can be accessed through clicking the picture below (Thanks to Ben Price):