The Cairns Day Four 2017

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Today was certainly a mixed one in terms of the weather, and the team worked through very warm sunshine and some really torrential rain showers as well! But results were well worth the labour!

20170615_102947Spirit unabated progress continued in the trenches. In the broch, the team have been excavating the lowest rubble deposits from the western half of the interior, revealing patches of tantalising black organic occupation material here and there. The hope is that once some more of the rubble has been removed we will see that the greater portion of the area is taken up with this nice deposit so that we can then begin to excavate in a strategic manner on a grid, taking many soil samples for analysis.

DCYP7YlXsAIpm3VEven the rubble, though, has significant points of interest. For example, Kath, one of our degree students found a nice sizeable chunk of whalebone set in the rubble snug against the broch inner wall face. There are also other little bone finds in here too, such as a sheep jawbone, shells and occasional stone tools. It appears that even the rubble infill relating to the abandonment of the broch (about the middle of the 2nd Century AD), apparently contained deliberate little deposits of items, a phenomenon we have previously witnessed in other zones of the broch infill.

20170615_162930Meanwhile in Trench Q, during our exploration of the extramural features around the outside of the broch on the north and east side we found quite thick blankets of silty soils and light rubble that contain a lot of artefacts and environmental remains. Hannah has been finding some chunky cattle bones, for example, and there has been a lot of pottery, including a nice sherd with decoration in the form of applied diagonal pellets under a nice rolled rim. This decorated pottery is Middle Iron Age in date and therefore roughly of the period of the broch, however, in this case it probably dates to a time just after the broch was abandoned.

Articulated animal bone next to the furnace in Trench QIn the western edge of Trench Q, Charlotte and Therese have been cleaning up in our furnace area, a feature we believe is associated with iron-working. Intriguingly, they have been finding articulated animal bones on the edge of the furnace zone, and this is in an area where we previously found a large pig skull that was severed clean off its body with a substantial edged object, most likely a metal blade! It seems likely that there are also special deposits in and around the furnace!

With the bursts of heavy rain our south-west extension became effectively unworkable with its spreads of clay and thick silty soils, so the part of the team that had been working there, migrated into the broch to help the others and progress in the last part of the afternoon was good.

Tomorrow, with the help of good weather, (fingers and toes crossed!), we should be able to reach our goal of establishing the uppermost occupation deposit across the western interior of the building- then the fun begins!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director

 

 

The Cairns Day Three 2017

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Getting ready for excavation inside the broch

Today’s fine weather allowed us to get going with preparing various parts of the site for excavation, and getting stuck in to trenches Q and M.

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Slabs from the souterrain roof

I started this morning re-homing the lintel stones from the souterrain. These were taken out at the end of last season in order to allow the excavation of floor deposits within the souterrain passage this year. This morning a small team of strong-armed diggers moved them to safer pastures outside the work area. Here they’ll be out of harm’s way (and visible if you swing by for a visit!).

Our reward for this hard work was the chance to get in the broch itself – so hard hats went on and the work began to get the broch ready for the serious excavation to come. The team moved out some slabs and stony fill in order to get down to the exciting floor layers below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAElsewhere on the site Therese and Charlotte cleaned up the furnace in Trench Q, and in the process found some articulated bone – a hopeful sign of even more interesting finds in this area.  In the finds tent Kevin and Kathryn reported surprisingly large amounts of pottery coming from all areas of the site – more than has been found in previous seasons – as well as a Skaill knife (a stone blade used in butchery and scraping hides, etc.).

Thankfully the rain largely stayed off during the day, allowing the team to make some progress and build momentum on site – we’re now really getting excited for the coming weeks.

Today’s blog was written by Hannah Boyd – a recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh and a newbie to The Cairns community. This is Hannah’s first time digging at The Cairns and she’s excited to get the chance to work on a broch site – particularly such a rich and interesting site as this!

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Removing rubble from the western area of the broch

The Cairns Day Two 2017

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHi folks, Martin again, reporting on progress during day two of the project.

We spent the earlier part of the day cleaning over surfaces within the trench and generally tidying up its appearance in preparation for beginning to actually start excavating in earnest.

Indeed, it was during the general clean up, within the extension on the south-west side of the site that we made today’s star find!  Woody, who has just completed his degree studies with us, was cleaning the edge of the new trench when he made the fine.  It’s a beautiful bronze pin.  This particular type is known as a ‘Hand-pin’ because it has a head shaped like an arc or ring with three little beaded projections above.  The entire decorated head resembles a little hand.

This is a really nice find, and it’s quite chronologically suggestive as well since pins like this are an early form of the hand-pin (sometimes known as a proto-hand pin) and are thought to date to around the 3rd or 4th Centuries AD, and a little later- so about the same period as the later Roman period in Southern Britain.

The pin had come from a deposit high in the sequence of dark silty soils that we think might be the uppermost fills of the great enclosure ditch that surrounds the site.  This could be some very interesting dating evidence for the last infilling of the ditch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANearby, Kath, another of our degree students found a really nice piece of pottery with a ‘rolled’ rim, which is, again suggestive of a date in the earlier part of the Late Iron Age.

Meanwhile, as work progressed over on the northern part of the site to clean up in Trench Q, Christine, yet another UHI student found an equally chunky and impressive piece of pottery, but this time of a slightly different sort.  It had an everted (out-swinging) rim and a nice globular body.  This is more of a Middle Iron Age type- the period of the heyday of the broch itself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll, in all, considering it was a day largely given over to preliminary clean-up we have had a very nice set of finds and together with the feature and deposits we are encountering they are helping us to formulate the story of the site, yet further.

In future days, we’ll be bringing you perspectives from a range of people involved in the excavations at the site.

Please check in with us again tomorrow for more exciting developments from the trenches.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns

 

 

Test Pitting @ The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

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Charlotte and Simon excavating a test pit on the north western side of the ditched enclosure around the broch.

MSc students from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute ventured out to The Cairns last week to investigate several features around the site.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, takes up the story….

“We began by excavating test pits at The Cairns.  In glorious sunshine, our intrepid MSc students began to investigate the Neolithic midden, Iron Age soils close to the ditch surrounding the broch and the natural boulder clay in the northern part of the field; all of which help us to define the extent of the archaeological remains here.

18358843_10154675732601325_2490963565498319916_oA previously unknown, probably prehistoric site, located 180 metres to the south-east of The Cairns was brought to light in a shallow test pit containing ashy midden and a stone setting, possibly a remnant wall. Not visually spectacular at this stage but highly significant in our ever-expanding awareness of the landscape around The Cairns. Finds were few but a fragment of a saddle quern came out of the ashy soil and hints that the site is prehistoric. This ‘new’ site aligns to one end of a buried linear feature previously investigated, which turned out to be a ditch or hollow-way, maybe a track leading from the entrance of the broch village down-slope to this point in the landscape.

The image below is looking from the test pit back up-slope in the direction of The Cairns mound. The ‘hollow-way’ takes a line from here straight through the modern telegraph pole, to the mound of The Cairns beyond it.”

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The Cairns excavation starts on the 12th June 2017 and continues until 7th July 2017. Martin and the team welcome visitors during the season. The site is literally in the middle of a field so bring wellies and wet weather gear if it has been raining. One of the team would be pleased to show you round and explain the emerging features of this intriguing site.

Contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk if you require directions or more information.

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

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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:

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