The Cairns Day Eight – 2018

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Under the blazing sun!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice at the UHI Archaeology Institute takes up the story of Day Eight at The Cairns….

Martin here again with a today’s update, and what a cracking day today was! The sun shone down on us as we dug. In fact, it was one of those days when you feel bad about wishing it wasn’t quite so warm and dry, and sunny! In the full glare of the of the sun we made good progress across the site.

Over in the south extension Linda’s team have really started to work down the edge of the ditch, and it’s nice to see the profile start to emerge of this once very substantial enclosure. Also in this area Angus and Paul have been revealing more details of the building that crouches in the lee of the revetment. This building will, we hope, be one of the village buildings that allows us to test whether our broch village was founded at the very same time as the broch itself or sometime after.

The slab floor and hearth base in the western interior of the broch
The slab floor and hearth base in the western interior of the broch

Within the broch, Rick’s team have been recording the flag stone floor and hearth in the western area/room of the interior. This occupation level pertains to late use of the western zone and probably dates to sometime around the Mid 2nd Century AD. Soon the team will be able to lift this horizon and see what lies beneath. They strongly suspect there’ll be another hearth for one thing, but also that more rich floor deposits are awaiting our investigation.

details of the Broch wall-chamber A6 revealed
Details of the broch wall chamber A6 revealed

Colin, Anthea and Deryck have further defined the newly emerged wall cell (‘A6’) within the northern segment of broch wall. It’s looking very nice with its mixed construction of coursed masonry and upright stone panels, and it’s much better preserved than we had expected, considering the damage it had received from above during a later Iron Age stone robbing episode. There also appears to be in situ floor/occupation deposits remaining within the base of the chamber. That’s great for ultimately giving us more information about the use of the chamber.

Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation
Looking down the staircase into the well inside the broch during excavation

Also in the broch today we really started to excavate the subterranean feature in the northern interior of the broch. This type feature is known in the literature as a well, but there are various reasons for suggesting that something more is going on with these fascinating underground structures. Our ‘well’ is very nicely preserved, entirely intact in fact, and was completely sealed when we first discovered it. The entrance is very well built and flush with the broch floor level in this area. A very steep set of steps lead downwards and in an anti-clockwise direction to the partly rock cut chamber below. The structure is quite a substantial cavity about 2 metres deep in total as far as we can tell.

Today we began the arduous process of excavating and sampling (100% recovery) the deep and very silty fill. It’s very wet, loose and prone to a suction effect that makes it difficult to make headway. Nevertheless, we hope this will be a very worthwhile exercise and that we can recover pollen, and lots of other environmental information. Additionally, you never know what else may be in there in terms of artefacts. We’ll keep you posted…

Part of the long wall face in area Q-M under excavation
Part of the long wall face in area Q-M under excavation

In Area Q/M in the Northern area of the site, Bobby’s team have also been making very good progress revealing a beautiful flagstone floor associated with Structure K in one area. Meanwhile, towards the eastern end of Area Q/M various walls out the front and north of the broch exterior that have seemed quite disparate and bitty are now starting to come together very nicely, and they seem to be tracing the outline of a whopper of a building.

It looks very like one particularly long and sinuous stretch of walling represents a major building and part of the broch village complex, perhaps a type of building seen in other broch villages such as the one at Gurness in West Mainland, Orkney, which was itself an impressive and substantial structure close to the front of the broch and designed to be appreciated and to impress.

We’ll bring you updates and further images from these and other developments as they emerge!

Martin Carruthers, Site Director.

The Cairns Day Seven – 2018

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Kath Page, third year UHI Archaeology Institute student continues the story of the dig at The Cairns….

Today was a beautiful sunny day at the Cairns and the sunshine brought lots of visitors to the site, including Fiona from the Orkney News to report on how the excavations are progressing.

After several days of carefully removing shillet to a depth of almost 4ft, Colin, Anthea and Deryck have uncovered a cell beneath the rubble on the North West side of the outer broch wall. The rubble, though to be wall collapse, was lying beneath a layer of temporary paving, this discovery adds another dimension to the story of the Cairns broch and future sampling of the floor deposits may be able to tell us the purpose of this feature.

Inside the broch, students from UHI Archaeology Institute and Therese are continuing to retrieve geochemical samples. Therese and I are collecting 100% of the floor deposits around the hearth in the North West part of the broch interior, once retrieved, the area will be planned and eventually the flags will be lifted, hopefully revealing some more amazing finds. In the North West quadrant, Ross is collecting geochemical samples, and excavating a post hole setting and in the South West quadrant, Sue and Kathryn have begun the process of gridding out to enable them to collect geochemical samples from this area also. Gary has continued to clear rubble to further define the pit boundary in the North East quadrant of the broch and stabilise the stone work around the corbelled cell.

Work continues apace in the broch interior by Sue, Kathryn, Gary and Ross
Work continues apace in the broch interior. Pictured are Sue, Kathryn and Gary

In the South West extension, UHI Archaeology students Angus and Paul have discovered a possible wall feature and uncovered an up turned saddle quern today. Elsewhere in this large trench, work has continued to define the edge of the ditch running around the broch and Don has removed the animal bone deposit he discovered earlier this week.

Upturned saddle quern from the SW Extension trench
Upturned saddle quern from the SW Extension trench

Sorcha, Marianne and Michael have discovered an unusual feature in Area Q. Two upright orthostats are protruding from the trench and they have discovered some deer antler, fire cracked stone, cramp and a sharpening stone. Further investigation in the coming weeks will help us to understand exactly what this feature is. In Trench M, a wall area has been defined and stone tools discovered close by, further along, in Henrik and Vicky’s section, some large flat flag stones have been uncovered. Continued excavation of the trench should be able to tell us how these features relate to each other.

Area Q Feature
Area Q Feature

The Cairns is an important placement for both undergraduate and post graduate students from the University of the Highlands and Islands and as well as universities further afield such as Stirling, Oxford and Trondheim! Today Rick gave a tool box talk to students on how to plan a feature and MLitt students George and Amber had the opportunity to plan a section of the hearth situated on top of the North East section of broch wall. Rick also gave tuition on the use of the EDM Total station to record small finds across the site – all important skills that will be required for any budding field archaeologist.

Work continues apace in the broch interior by Sue, Kathryn, Gary and Ross2
Ross in the broch interior

The weather forecast tomorrow is for more sunny weather, I may regret saying this, but I hope there is a breeze too as the broch interior is somewhat of a suntrap!

Kath Page 3rd year UHI Archaeology Student

The Cairns Day Six – 2018

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Hi everyone, its Martin here and today was the start of Week 2 of the project, so I thought I’d give a little round up of things on site.

In the south extension of the trench the digging caries on apace led by Linda. The upper ditch fills here are coming into ever more crisp focus, and the animal bone in Don’s area just keeps getting more extensive in the area it covers as well as the number of very large bone fragments.

There are semi-articulated bone groups and enough elements from the same species and from the same region of the animal body to suggest we have large portions of carcass being introduced into these upper fills. This is, in some ways, to be expected in the ditch as several Iron Age period ditches that have been excavated on Northern Isles sites have been similarly rich, and seem to show that ditches were important places for meaningful deposition as well as simply the disposal of waste products.

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Don excavating the animal bone in the south extension

Meanwhile, still within the south extension, but slightly to the north, the area snug against the broch outer wall is changing rapidly, as well as throwing up some interesting finds. Large voids are appearing in the soils here and seem to hold out the promise of rubble and stonework just a little further down. Indeed, hopefully soon we’ll be able to reveal the connectedness of several hitherto disparate pieces of walling and show them to be all part of an entire building that we think should be roughly contemporary with the broch, essentially one of the village buildings that we call Structure J. The finds form this building today included several fairly well-preserved iron objects and two bone pins.

Inside the broch today
Inside the broch today

Inside the broch itself, the little team of Rick, Therese, Gary, Kath and Ross have been steadily excavating the floor in the western and south-eastern zones of the building. Last Friday’s glass bead found close to the hearth was a highlight, but hopefully there will be many more interesting items from these floors before we finish this season. The floor deposits are being excavated on a sample grid that allows us to control exactly where everything came from within the broch and allows us to build up a picture of distribution patterns across the floor. Hopefully, this will give us very good information about the range and location of activities within the broch during the Iron Age.

The entrance to the broch chamber with photgrammetry targets in place
The entrance to the broch chamber with photogrammetry targets in place

In the meantime this afternoon we recorded the opening into the cell within the broch’s western area. The lintels immediately over the entrance to the chamber have been destabilised in antiquity and we need to remove these in order to work safely inside the broch in this area. One way of recording these is through photogrammetry, where we place little targets on the masonry in order to act as reference points, and then we can create a very accurate rectified image and drawing based on this. You can see a photo of the cell doorway, the crooked lintels that we need to remove, and the photogrammetry targets in this blog.

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Area Q under excavation

In Area Q, Bobby and his team have been doing sterling work revealing several walls. In fact, these, are becoming very extensive, and I am beginning to hope that we are finally seeing some major stretches of wall reflecting big village buildings around this north-eastern side of the broch. Time will tell, but in the meantime the team are enjoying a rich array of animal bone from this area, including lots of red deer antler.

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For the rest of the week we will be exploring the ditch, the broch interior, and the village buildings of Area Q further, whilst recommencing some areas from previous seasons including the souterrain passage immediately outside the broch. We’ll keep you updated as to how we get on.

The Cairns Day Five 2018

Possible North Scottish decorated annular bead
Possible North Scottish decorated annular bead found at The Cairns today

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.

Excavating the new wall and passage in Structure B
Excavating the new wall and passsage in Structure B

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.

New walls emerging in Area Q
New walls emerging in Area Q

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.

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).

The Cairns Day Four 2018

Tony, Vicky and Catherine digging back from the revetmnet wall in Area Q
Tony, Vicky and Catherine digging back from the revetment wall in Area Q

Sue Dyke, volunteer archaeologist at The Cairns and soon to be student at UHI Archaeology Institute, describes the exciting day on site….

We start with a quick tour around the site! Over in the South extension (the area most exposed to today’s high winds and therefore coldest corner of the site!) our stalwart diggers have started to take a section through the broch-period ditch. Excavations of previous broch ditches have often proved rich with deposits, sometimes deliberate deposits associated with perhaps a decommissioning/closure events… so expectations are high for the ‘ditch to be rich’!

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The team in the south extension excavating the upper ditch deposits that slope down to the corner of the trench

Today’s haul of finds included animal bone and pot sherds. The section has revealed a few bands of stone high up which may be indicative of 19th Century rig-and-furrow (a post-medieval cultivation technique) in this area which fits nicely with a copper coin found by one of our summer school students here. In another part of this section though a massive cattle scapula turned up. Carefully working the soil around it Don managed to reveal most of it by the end of the day, and there seemed to be other bones associate with it also.

Don's cattle shoulder blade
Don’s cattle shoulder blade

The other group working in the south corner are extending a sondage (the word is from the French ‘to take a sounding’) and continuing to remove deposits against the south side outer broch wall, the stratification in this area is complicated and so the team are proceeding carefully one layer at a time. Finds today consisted of some slag and bone.

Moving around the broch clockwise (hard going today as that’s directly into the wind!) we come across the team excavating the northern part of Structure B. This area revealed an area of paving which appears to indicate further later Iron Age structure including a nice wall pier, just outside the north edge of the broch. Finds included a small amount of bone.

Colin and his team in Structure B north, the paving is to Colin's left
Colin and his team in Structure B. The paving is to Colin’s left.

Meanwhile today’s ‘intra-broch action’ takes place in the north-west quadrant of the interior. Therese has been sampling the ashy rake-out deposits from the hearth, while Gary and Ole have been recording the section through a very large pit in the north -west quadrant. Ross has started sampling floor surfaces and Kath has her planning square laid out in the centre of the broch. Analysis of the bone/charcoal/seed/charred grain/microfauna/whatever contained in samples from the excavation will be taking place at a later date.

Marc revealing more of the boulder topped wall in Area Q as the baulk gets excavated
Marc revealing more of the boulder topped wall in Area Q as the baulk is excavated

Saving the best till last (my home trench!), Bobby’s Chain Gang have worked tirelessly to continue to remove the baulk between area’s Q and M (these are situated downhill towards the end of the site … more sheltered from the wind than the other trenches). Removing the baulk will clarify the site and further define the wall features that are emerging. A lovely wall with large beach cobbles lining the top looks to be curving in a south easterly direction. In the area just behind the baulk (nearer the broch) there’s a possible revetment wall of a later building and work today has nicely revealed the shape and form of this.

The ‘find of the day’ made late in the afternoon by Catherine from the group of Masters students from Stirling University definitely goes to Trench Q. Excavating in the aforementioned later revetment wall building, Catherine found a very well-preserved beautiful bronze ring!

Sue Dyke, Volunteer at site and soon to be student of archaeology with UHI!

The Cairns Day Three 2018

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Looking south from the site

Today it’s the turn of Ross Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice student from UHI Archaeology institute to write the dig diary……….

Conas atá tú? (Irish for how are you?). Welcome to Day 3 of The Cairns excavation.
The team’s first task of the day was to tackle the facilities for this season’s excavation, which involved pitching the tent for crew members to use.

Despite wet and windy conditions, through teamwork and perseverance the tent was raised and secured into the ground; following a bit of help from some masking tape along the way. My team’s activities for the day took place within the broch structure, under the careful guidance and supervision of Rick. The first job for the team was to clean up and remove any excess water on the floor surfaces, which had accumulated from the morning showers. Once this was done the central area of the broch in between the orthostats was trowelled back and cleaned, this continued on from work done the previous day. The completion of this area marked the final step in the initial cleaning of the broch interior.

Following lunch the grid feature in the north-west quadrant of the broch was re-stringed and laid out in 50cm squares. Bulk samples and geochem samples were taken from each of the separate squares and bagged up. A fairly large assemblage of bone was also recovered and collected from this grid area.

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Gary and Therese working in the broch

In the South extension Linda’s team continued working on defining the ditch area. The edge so far remains elusive but we are hopeful of uncovering it in the coming days. Finds from the area included stone artefacts and a few examples of iron slag. In the upper to mid ditch area, the team also worked on extending the sondage; removing rubble and exposing more of the broch wall. A wall of one of the village buildings on the exterior of the broch was further exposed and early signs suggest it could possibly be linked to another structure further along the exterior of the broch structure; but this requires additional investigation and soil removal before we can establish this. Also towards the end of the day an exciting find was discovered by one of the team members, as what we believe could be a possible pivot stone was found. This could potentially be a doorway with accompanying steps leading down to a lower level village building, but this feature has yet to be fully explored and at the moment is too early to tell. We will keep you up to date with this exciting possibility as excavations progress.

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Pivot stone

On the north exterior of the broch, Colin’s team continued excavations below structure C. During today’s operations a semi-circular structure enclosing rough paving was discovered, and the team will carry on examining this as the week progresses. Finds from the area today included good quality stone tools and some mid-Iron Age pottery.

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Colin’s team at work outside the broch

Bobby’s team continued working on the baulk between trenches Q and M, planning to unify the two trenches in the coming days. The team are also advanced in exposing the wall and defining the stonework in trench Q. The main finds of the day from this area were some worked bone, mid-late Iron Age pottery and even some whale bone turned up. Bobby also added that the team morale was “sky high”. Always good to have happy workers!

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Bobby’s team working on the baulk

In the finds corner Kev gave a lowdown of all of the day’s finds. These included: some worked bone artefacts such as a pin and some notched bone, which were all found in the same area. There was also a lovely example of a rimmed pot. There were also many examples of animal bones, all coming from various different animals. When asked to sum up today’s finds Kev exclaimed “Bones galore!”, thanks Kev!

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Rimmed pot find

In addition to several tourists and visitors, the excavation team were also joined by members of the 3 day Summer Short Course offered by The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. The group were welcomed with a detailed talk and summary of The Cairns site by site director Martin Carruthers. Following this the course attendants were introduced to the practices and processes involved in field archaeology by the Archaeology Institutes trained staff (Dan Lee and Sean Bell), before starting their own test pits. The group are a very welcome addition to the site; great to see the interest and excitement amongst the group.

Anyway that’s about it for today’s summary of activities. Following this morning’s wet and windy start, the day really picked up as the team basked in the Orkney sun for the majority of the day. If the Archaeology Gods allow it, a few of the team may even be able to work on a nice tan before the week is out; as for me and my pasty Irish complexion, I just hope to avoid a bad burn…

Slán go fóill (Irish for ‘goodbye for now’),
Ross

Ross Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands.

 

The Cairns Day Two 2018

A fine view of the broch outer wall on the south side
A view of the broch outer wall on the south side

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.

Close up of a little animal bone group from the baulk
Close up of a little animal bone group from the baulk (see later for explanation)

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!

Cleaning up the broch interior
Cleaning up the broch interior

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.

Excavating the baulk in Area Q
Excavating the baulk in Area Q

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.

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.