Last Friday and Saturday 29th & 30th June 2018, archaeologists from the University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute teamed up with members of the Blide Trust to learn more about the history of 54 Victoria Street, Kirkwall – the 18th Century HQ of the Trust.
The first day began with the digging of a test pit in the garden of the house and almost immediately the volunteer archaeologists began to unearth significant finds.
In fact the test pit was a great success with significant assemblages of pottery (modern and early post-medieval), animal bone (some with butchery marks), clay pipe and a possible gun flint were uncovered. Furthermore the team found evidence of undisturbed clay in the base of the trench. This was uneven and appeared to have been truncated, suggesting that the volunteers might have clipped a cut feature such as a pit or ditch (difficult to say conclusively in such a small trench).
At the lowest levels, a small piece of worked red sandstone with chisel marks and a sherd of medieval pottery were discovered suggesting medieval and early post-medieval activity on this part of the slope above the eastern side of the street.
Broadly speaking, our small trench indicates that medieval activity occurred this far south of the palace complex, situated just to the north.
Dan Lee, UHI Archaeology Institute Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist said, “Thanks to The Blide Trust for a really good couple of days last week. The set up was perfect and we have great contributions from members and lots of visitors (at least 60). The photo lab worked really well, and we followed up on some of the leads from the archive research, and photographed the building and red sandstone. Thanks for your hospitality and help.”
The project continues with staff from Orkney College UHI leading creative writing, arts and crafts sessions based on the results of the dig. It is hoped that a video will be produced and an exhibition held to explain the project and display the finds and creative work.
Today it’s Don Helfrichs turn to write the dig diary. Don is studying for MLitt Archaeological Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute….
Greetings from the ‘Land of Enchantment’ – yes that’s Orkney and The Cairns, but also my home state of New Mexico.
For myself, one of the ditch diggers in the newly exposed South extension this season, I struck it rich with what is appearing to be an articulated animal deposit (likely cow) complete with multiple vertebrae, scapula, the right side of a mandible, a shoulder joint, teeth, a femur or tibia head and either ribs or perhaps a Red Deer antler. There is more to expose. This deposit seems more special with the nearby presence of a whale tooth found last week during the uncovering process and a lovely stone Ard, which seemed to be pointing to the centre of the bone deposit. This is at the Southwest edge of the ditch extension. My nearby colleagues have continued to take ‘spits’ (sectional layers scraped downward) with more bone and teeth and the occasional piece of iron slag and pot sherd.
This is the 3rd day for the Archaeology short course run by Dan Lee and Sean Bell. Today they were digging on the eastern side of the new extension over the ditch and have likewise found bones and teeth. They have finished their test pits and seemed to have gotten a taste for the site that I’m sure has only made them hungry for more.
Further to the east, in Area Q, a wall exposed in the 2017 excavation was extended and defined further to the south showing a nice curvature and what appears to be one and possibly two nicely built piers extending into the structure. This wall has been exposed down 3 courses so far. Further east it straitens into a structure topped by ‘beech pebbles’ – large water rounded ‘pillow stones’ on one side with an exterior wall face of the more common flat courses on its outer face.
The balks on either side of this wall are nearly taken down now and the question remains as to the relationship of this wall to the structure to its North which extends further to the East and had been thought to possibly tie in to the aforementioned southern structure.
Just outside the Broch interior on the north side, the collapsed part of the Broch wall has been cleared down to the paving and a post-broch doorway opening into what may be an extension to a structure excavated previously is now visible. A wall that defines its North East side is better defined now and we are interested to see if the entrance is contiguous to the clear structure and hearth(?) adjacent on to the west. This would have been a later building after the Broch’s initial destruction / decommissioning (?).
Just outside the Broch wall to the South West, coming back round to our ditch extension, Angus proudly found an antler tine.
Working in the west area of the broch
Floor deposits carefully gridded out under excavation inside the broch
And lastly, in the Northwest quadrant of the Broch itself, Therese was excavating a floor deposit near the hearth and found a beautiful glass bead – the find of the day! Work in this quadrant revealed a second layer of paving under the hearth and more floor sampling in the NE and NW areas is on-going.
For me, a “mature” student, I have had a great time meeting and getting to know fellow students and volunteers. I wish to give a fond farewell to Paul, Angie, and Moyra who I was not able to say goodbye to on this last day of their stint. I hope to stoop, groan and chat with you all again in future!
Don Helfrich (M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, UHI)
Stop press! Tentatively we can say that the glass bead looks like it’s a ‘North Scottish decorated annular bead’. These beads are usually reckoned to be produced in the region of Moray and particularly at Culbin Sands, and a few are known from Orkney and the Scottish Isles. This would be a 1st or 2nd Century AD type of bead, which would fit very well with the age of the deposits currently being excavated within the broch that the bead came from (Martin).
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’!
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.
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.
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.
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!
The bronze ring in close up
The bronze ring in situ
A happy Catherine moments after discovering the bronze ring. You can see it next to the tip of her ‘leaf’ trowel
Sue Dyke, Volunteer at site and soon to be student of archaeology with UHI!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 Drummond, MSc Archaeological Practice, University of the Highlands and Islands.
Kim Ranger M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands has kindly volunteered to write todays dig diary. So over to Kim….
“Greetings from The Cairns excavation, its day two! In the South extension our enthusiastic volunteers and students supervised by Linda, have been working on uncovering more of the external broch wall to further define its features, reveal village buildings close to the broch wall, and also uncovering the big enclosure ditch that cuts through the extension. The team have only dug some of the initial soil layers so far and have found lots of animal bone in the fills. As they work down we expect to encounter more artefacts.
Within the amazing broch, the team led by Rick, have been cleaning up the sensitive but beautiful earthen floors of the building, in preparation for more intensive excavation to come. The occupation horizons are looking very colourful and detailed. In one place just towards the end of the day a very nice spindle whorl (a spinning tool) began to emerge from the floors. This will excite Masters Student Amber, who is undertaking a dissertation study on the textile tools from the site!
Over on the western edge of the site, the northern end of Structure B (a later Iron Age longhouse) lies partly on top of the broch wall, and here a small team have been working to define the stonework a little more. The team were very excited to discover a beautiful whetstone with nice wear.
In trench Area Q a team has been working on two little projects. Firstly, to clean up the entire area, and define it more. They’ve been excavating a broad strip of deposits that were deliberately left high some time ago (this is called a baulk), as it’s now time for the baulk to go, having done its job of allowing us to see the deposits in their vertical order of formation.
The team continued to dig down through the layers of a midden packed full of animal bones which form the remains of a huge feast by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Within the general mass of animal bone there was a particular dense concentration of bone related to a large mandible amongst others, which may represent a loosely articulated carcass. Other finds included a nice hammer stone.
Today the site was visited by tourists and historians who were given a personalised tour of the site by our experts. We welcome all visitors and hope that more people take advantage of the fine weather to come out and visit us, the area is easy to navigate and there is much being discovered about Iron Age Orkney.
Spindle whorl appearing in the floor of the broch
Some of the animal bone from the midden in the baulk
Trowelling over the south extension and looking out to Windwick Bay
If you do visit the site and you are arriving by vehicle from the direction of the Windwick road near to the war memorial, then please don’t park in the drive of the private house near the entrance to the field that the site sits in, or in the drive leading up to the site itself- thank you!”
Kim Ranger, M.Litt. Archaeological Studies Student, University of the Highlands and Islands.
At the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute we are developing ways to provide young people with an opportunity to experience archaeology in a workplace environment.
Travis, a 16 year old S5 pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney, is currently undertaking a work placement with us. Each week Travis works with our team at the Institute learning new skills and gaining vocational training. The emphasis is on understanding some of the processes of archaeological work, from the field to the archive.
He has the opportunity to develop skills in a wide variety of areas including finds washing, wet sieving, archiving, photography, excavation, field walking and digital archaeology. In fact as part of the archaeology team, Travis is contributing to the archaeological research taking place in the Institute and is gaining a whole range of experience that will help him develop his career path.
Travis continues, ” I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and when the UHI came into the school and we helped in the archaeology at the RBS Bank (part of the Kirkwall THI project), I thought that this was something that I was interested in. So I e-mailed Dan Lee and he offered a work placement at the University. I was involved in the Mapping Magnus dig in 2017 where I joined the excavation team and found a piece of pottery. That was exciting and despite the weather I really enjoyed it. I have been asked if I would like to help at the Ness of Brodgar in the summer and I am really looking forward to that.”
Travis went on to say that he would like to continue to study archaeology and ideally continue to work in Orkney on some of the incredible sites located on the islands.
Travis is using a BAJR Archaeology Skills Passport to document his progress and log his training. The passport has been designed by British Archaeological Jobs and Resources to help students and volunteers document the main skills that they need to gain employment as a professional archaeologist. All of our students are issued with a BAJR passport to record their practical training. They can be obtained from the skills passport website.