Mapping Magnus September Update


Activities are well underway in the Mapping Magnus project with well attended workshops happening most weeks during August and September. Geophysical survey, measured survey at some noust sites and walkover survey have all engaged trainees and visitors.

Just to remind you that the Mapping Magnus project involved archaeologists from The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute who were commissioned by Orkney Islands Council to deliver a programme of community archaeology activities and events that explored the story of St Magnus and medieval Orkney. Anyway….here is a brief overview of the last month……

Geophysical survey (28/07/17)

Geophysics Birsay
Earth Resistance results from Burnside, Palace, Birsay

Earth Resistance survey (good for locating walls and buried structures) was undertaken by Dr James Moore and one trainee in the garden of Burnside, Palace village, Birsay. This is on the eastern side of the medieval Bishop’s Palace and buried structures could be expected.

  • The areas of high resistance to the east of the house relate to the paths and surfaces you can still see on the surface.
  • The very high resistance anomaly at the west is likely to relate to a wall running through the veg patch – this seems to be running roughly NNW – SSE. It could represent a building.
  • The anomalies around the flowerbed in the middle of the garden: the results are unclear, but they do seem to share a similar alignment to the wall found nearby. As a very tentative interpretation perhaps a stone built structure c. 9x5m, probably quite damaged/areas of rubble?

More geophysical survey is planned for 12-14 September

Noust Survey (15-16/08/17)

Training in plane table survey

Measured survey using a plane table and alidade was undertaken at Skipi Geo and Point of Buckquoy boat nousts. Dan Lee, Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, and the team from ORCA trained one trainee. Scaled plans, showing the slope edges and faces, were produced for both sets of nousts. We had around 50 visitors during the surveys who enjoyed learning about the survey process, nousts and the Magnus project.

Our trainee said “The course exceeded my expectations as I didn’t expect to learn so much in such a short space of time, very friendly approach to teaching”. “Fully enjoyed my experience and look forward to returning”. He rated the workshop “10 / 10”.

Village Walkover Survey (15-16/08/17)


Walkover survey was undertaken in Palace village and the area around the Man’s Well near Barony Mill, focusing on the areas and sites that are significant in the Magnus story. The survey started off with a walk around the village with 7 trainees examining a sequence of historical and modern maps, identifying changes and visiting key sites and buildings. This centred upon the Bishop’s Palace area to link in with the geophysical survey and upcoming excavations. Sites recorded in the NMRS were visited and the record updated with additional description and photos where required. This was a useful way for the group to identify potential new sites and a previously unidentified structure, perhaps an old house, was recorded. The group also recorded the location of pieces of red sandstone built into the various garden walls in the village on accurate maps. The idea was to map where this high status medieval material has ended up in order to understand the medieval core of the village in more detail. It was noted that the village core and Bishop’s Palace area sit upon a distinctive raised area.

Hen-Harrier-1The second day involved walking with 8 trainees along part of the Magnus Way from the village, recording a new site (a possible bridge pier) on the way by the burn. We also followed a young female Hen Harrier as she skittered up the burn area, which was incredible. We visited the Man’s Well site, where Magnus’s bones were supposed to have been washed, and updated the record for this key site. We then walked the neighbouring field, looking at leats and burn channels and recorded the site of a reputed click mill (horizontal mill). This consisted of a low platform edged with upright stones (although there was no evidence of a leat or walling). The day certainly had a watery theme.

20170826_133300One participant commented “I learned much about the history of Birsay and Magnus”. The most interesting/memorable thing for one participant was “seeing new things in old stones”. Another participant commented that, “The workshop exceeded expectations as I wanted to explore my local area and learn a bit about archaeological practice”. Another commented, “very enjoyable couple of days. Good instruction and good company”.

All agreed or strongly agreed that they had learned something new about archaeology and heritage. All gave the day 9 or 10 / 10.

The next event includes more geophysics on the 12, 13 and 14 September leading to an archaeological excavation in Palace Village itself on the 25 September to 6th October…more on this story to follow.

Mapping Magnus is supported by:

Community Archaeology Coastal Survey. 6,7,8th September 2017


Join a team of archaeologists, led by Dave Reay, from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, recording the eroding sites from Palace Village to Buckquoy on 6, 7 & 8th September 2017.

Numerous sites from prehistoric settlement, Viking Norse remains to more recent boat nousts were recorded in the 1970s and 1980s during the Birsay Bay Project. The remains of these sites will be identified, along with any new sites, and their current condition recorded (photographic and written record).

  • No previous experience required, training will be provided.
  • Please contact the team through to book your place
  • Meet at Point of Buckquoy, Brough of Birsay car park, Birsay.
  • 10am – 3pm. Booking essential.

The Mapping Magnus project involves a whole series of archaeological events in August and September 2017 (see poster below).

So….. if you want to get involved and find out more about the archaeology of St Magnus then contact the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute or 01856 569229


Community Archaeology Mapping Magnus Ad

The Mapping Magnus project is supported by:

Bay of Ireland Community Archaeology Dig – 5th & 6th September

Bay of Ireland3
The Bay of Ireland, looking across Scapa Flow to the Island of Hoy

Join the archaeology team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute on 5th & 6th September at the Bay of Ireland, Orkney investigating Late Mesolithic landscapes.

This project, led by Dr Scott Timpany and Dan Lee, invites volunteers to team up with archaeologists to open test pits on the foreshore of the Bay of Ireland to investigate the landscape of the Late Mesolithic. 

In 2013 an oak trunk was discovered within the intertidal peats at the Bay of Ireland in Stenness. Previous to this discovery it was known that such intertidal peats in coastal locations across Orkney were of an early date, often around 6000 years old! Excavation, recording and radiocarbon dating of the oak trunk took place in 2015 and it was confirmed as dating to the Late Mesolithic period with a felling date of c. 4400 cal BC; making this the only wooden artefact of Mesolithic date so far found in Orkney. A study of the pollen grains and the seeds within the peat next to the oak trunk showed that it was deposited in a reed-swamp environment fringed by woodland of willow and birch.

Excavating the oak trunk in 2015. Photo John Barber
Excavating the Oak Trunk in 2015. Photo: John Barber.

Although no tool marks have been found on the oak trunk it has been shown to be radially split, meaning it was cut in half before being placed in to the peat. The landscape information from the pollen suggests oak trees may have been present somewhere in the wider landscape but were not growing close to the Bay of Ireland. This suggests that the oak trunk was cut in half elsewhere and then deliberately placed into the reedswamp by Later Mesolithic people. But what was the oak trunk for? Was it a marker place in the landscape? Maybe an indication of a routeway to what is now the Brig O’Waithe to the Loch of Stenness? Is there other evidence of the activities of these people at the Bay of Ireland? Can we find tools or evidence of wood working?

In order to answer these questions, a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are going to be carrying out some small excavations on the foreshore at the Bay of Ireland on the 5th and 6th September and we would be delighted if people would like to come and help and see if they can find some evidence of these enigmatic former Orkney residents.

The team plan on undertaking some test pits through the peat near to the location of the oak trunk to see if further artefactual evidence can be found. Over the course of the two days we will also have the opportunity to discuss how the landscape of Orkney has changed since the Mesolithic to today as well as further details on the Bay of Ireland project and environmental archaeology.

If you would like to get involved in the dig or simply just want to come along to see the site and have a chat then please do get in touch through

*** We have some travel grants available for Orkney residents from the north and south Isles to attend the excavations. Contact above for details***

Community Archaeology – Palace Village, Birsay

20170527_134825The second phase of the exciting community archaeology and training project, Mapping Magnus, begins on the 25th and 26th August 2017.

Local volunteers are invited to team up  with archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to complete an archaeological survey in Palace Village, Birsay.

We will be meeting at Palace Village, Birsay car park opposite the Kirk at 10am, everyone is welcome to join the survey, mapping and recording…whether you have archaeological experience or not!

The area around Birsay is closely linked with the story of St Magnus and this project will give volunteers the opportunity to learn surveying and mapping techniques and add to the archaeological record relating to the Magnus story.

The Mapping Magnus project involves a whole series of archaeological events in August and September 2017 (see poster below).

So….. if you want to get involved and find out more about the archaeology of St Magnus then contact the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute or 01856 569229

Community Archaeology Mapping Magnus Ad

This project is supported by:

Exciting New Project for Stromness-Listening to the Piers

Stromness Piers_Credit Diana Leslie

Stories, Stones and Bones: Listening to the Piers – Exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers.

The Stromness Museum celebrates £9700.00 Heritage Lottery Fund grant as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017

IMG_1907The Orkney Natural History Society Museum, Stromness, has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant. This exciting project, Listening to the Piers – Exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers is led by Stromness Museum in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute. The programme involves organising arts and science workshops for the public and local schools and is aimed at exploring the history of Stromness through the town piers. This project is part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

The Stromness Museum is teaming up with the UHI Archaeology Institute, local artists, and marine scientists from the International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT) Orkney Campus to give the local community a chance to learn about life on and around the town’s stone-built piers, past and present. The events form part of the ‘Per Mare’ during 2017 when Stromness celebrates the 200 year anniversary of becoming a Burgh of Barony. The project will provide the opportunity for all ages of the community to explore different ways of seeing and interpreting the piers using innovative science and arts workshops held on a ‘Piers Day’ (Tuesday 25th July) during the Per Mare week (24-30th July).

The project team will work with local school children and residents to record stories,IMG_1894 memories and the history of the piers during May and June. Workshops on Piers Day will include archaeological test pit excavation on the town beaches to explore what the town threw away, sea life in the piers and intertidal zone, drawing (5-minute sketches), photography (artefacts and sea life) and time-lapse filming. Participants will learn new science and arts-based skills and help create new insights into the piers. These events are free and open to all ages.

The project will culminate in a temporary exhibition this autumn at the Stromness Museum, including artefacts, drawings, photographs and a new listening post with stories collected during the sound recording workshops.

Commenting on the award, Janette Park (Honorary Curator) said: “The museum is delighted to be able to run such a ground breaking project during such an important year as the 200th anniversary of Stromness becoming a Burgh of Barony. The piers of Stromness are a hugely important part of the shared community history of the town. The opportunity to explore and document the piers for the future will be a lasting legacy.”

Dan Lee (Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, UHI Archaeology Institute) added: “We are really looking forward to exploring these iconic piers and the history of Stromness with such exciting arts/science workshops; combined they will help us all learn about the piers and understand them in new ways”.


Credits: Stromness Piers artwork: Diana Leslie, Photographs: UHI Archaeology.

Stories, Stones and Bones is designed for any not-for-profit group wanting to engage more people with the heritage and take part in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Stories, Stones and Bones grants between £3,000 and £10,000 are available to groups who want to discover their local heritage. Projects can cover a wide spectrum of subject matter from exploring local archaeology and a community’s cultures and traditions to identifying and recording local wildlife and protecting the surrounding environment to managing and training volunteers and holding festivals and events to commemorate the past.

The Stromness Museum is an independent museum maintained and managed by a committee of volunteers elected from the members of the Orkney Natural History Society Museum SCIO. The Stromness Museum exists to promote natural science, to preserve local history and to offer an enjoyable educational and informative experience to as large a range of people as possible. The museum contains natural and cultural history with galleries focussing upon Canada and the Arctic, maritime history and models, natural history, wartime Orkney and ethnographic material.

See their website for more information:

Archaeological Building Survey Opportunity, Kirkwall

Rear 10 Victoria Street 2

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will be completing a further Archaeological Building Survey Workshop on Friday 19th and Saturday 20th May 2017 (10am – 3pm).

This continues on from the work completed at Parliament Square in April and the town centre excavations, surveys and gardens digs last year in the Kirkwall THI Archaeology Programme. The workshop will include basic training in building survey techniques, mapping, photography and a trip to the archives.

The work will commence in the court yard to the rear of Finns former shop (10-12 Victoria Street), opposite RBS bank. Access is through the gate to the right of Spence’s Newsagents. The day will include training in scale drawing, photography, written records and how to look at buildings archaeologically. The building itself contains large amounts of re-used medieval stone.

Further workshops will also be recording the Old Castle on Main Street the following weekend (26-27 May, with some laser scanning the day after on the 28th).

For further information on the project see our previous blog post.

If you would like to take part in these free archaeology workshops then please contact Dan Lee on

Swartigill Day One


Sunday 23rd April dawned with an early ferry crossing as the team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute bounced over the Pentland Firth en-route to Caithness and the Swartigill archaeological excavation.

The crossing itself was followed by a short overland trip through Wick to a section of road which seemed to be surrounded by bog, heather, a small forest of pine trees and little else. Martin Carruthers, Site Director, pointed over a small hill to the site and suggested that I clothe myself from head to foot in wet weather gear…despite the fact it wasn’t raining.

The reason for this soon hit me as a trudged through long grass interspersed with the occasional stretches of bog in which my boots momentarily and rather alarmingly disappeared for a few moments. After about five minutes we were looking down into a shallow valley of Swartigill Burn.


Within a few more minutes the equipment was unloaded from our backs and we were joined by an excavator. There was no trace of last year’s test pits, but with the help of GPS and under the expert direction of Rick Barton (Project Officer), the machine soon cleared the top soil for our new extended trench. This paved the way for the rest of the team, including local volunteers, to start working.


Within a few hours, a linear stone feature emerged from the soil together with a fragment of Iron Age degraded ceramic pottery. The latter was discovered by one of the volunteers who was more than pleased with her find.


The work carried on relentlessly as the wind increasingly buffeted the team. Jammy doughnuts and sandwiches provided by Yarrows Heritage Trust gave us extra energy to address the feature located in the test pit during 2015 – a possible drain feature. The capping stone was removed in 2015 to reveal this enigmatic tunnel which seemed to extend to the watercourse.

This feature will be the focus of our work over the next week.

Sean Page

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The Swartigill excavation is a joint community venture between the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.

Ness of Brodgar Excavation Dates Confirmed


The Ness of Brodgar has quite rightly attracted a great deal of attention over the last few months, especially with the new BBC2 documentary series, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney hitting the screen.

Nick Card and the team can now confirm the schedule for this season’s introductory talk, the excavation itself and Open Days.

  • The Orkney Archaeology Society Ness of Brodgar talk will take place on 15th June at 19.00 in the Orkney Theatre.
  • The excavation will be open from Wednesday 5th July to Wednesday 23rd August.
  • Tours are available and will be conducted by team members at 11 and 1 Mon-Fri and by Historic Environment Scotland Rangers at 3 pm each day. Archaeologists will be on site most weekdays. However please check the Ness of Brodgar Trust website for up to date information as the weather has a habit of intervening at times!
  • Tours are also conducted at 1100 & 1500 on Saturday and Sunday during the dig season, but there will be no archaeologists on site during the weekend.
  • Open Days are being held on Sunday 16th July and Sunday 20th August. Last year over 1200 people attended each event and we are hoping for more this year. All are welcome…and there will be activities for the whole family, so bring along the children for a Neolithic Day out!

On seeing the sheer scale of the excavation visitors to the site frequently ask,”Who pays for all this?” We do not charge for admission and the tours are also free. You can stay as long as you wish. You can ask the archaeologists questions. You can even bring along activities and spend all day there. You will be made most welcome.

So who funds all the work?? Well, the answer is that the project is mainly supported by public donation through the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar  with support from a plethora of other people who give their money or their time or both to help.  This includes Orkney Islands Council (who recognise the economic and cultural importance of archaeology in Orkney), Orkney Archaeology Society (who amongst other things organise the running of the massively important on-site shop), and the UHI Archaeology Institute.


However, the whole project could not happen without donations from the public….from you reading this, all the other people who visit the website and donate a few pounds or indeed on some occasions thousands of pounds, the people who visit the site and buy a few items from the shop or sponsor a square. This funding is what makes it happen.

Nick and the team would also like to thank all the volunteers who give up their time to work on the site and make the whole project work like clockwork.

If you wish to help support the project then please go to the Ness of Brodgar website and if you can, donate a few quid. Many thanks from the Ness of Brodgar team.

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

Kirkwall Garden Dig Success

The Kirkwall Garden Dig held over the weekend was a great success. Over 300 people visited the BBC site and residents learned the basics about archaeological investigation.

The project was a collaborative community archaeology programme in which Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Scotland’s Urban Past worked together to bring an archaeological extravaganza to Kirkwall. The Kirkwall Garden Dig project is part of The Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative Archaeology Programme ‘Discover Hidden Kirkwall’. This community archaeology initiative has already uncovered parts of the medieval shoreline of the town in a previous excavation held in May 2016.

The project included BBC Radio Orkney together with 4 other residents of Kirkwall town centre who invited archaeologists to dig small exploratory test pits in their gardens. The public saw archaeology in action in the BBC Radio Orkney garden by visiting in person or linking through to a live stream on their Facebook page. Updates were also broadcast on BBC radio throughout the fieldwork.

The excavations were accompanied by workshops in which members of the public tried archaeological techniques such as sieving, finds washing, digging and surveying. Scotland’s Urban Past team also helped budding ‘Urban Detectives’ record their built environment, focusing on the areas around each of the trenches, contributing to the national record.


An astonishing number of finds were unearthed, ranging from prehistoric flint to artefacts from the last few hundred years. Finds included large numbers of animal bones, including a huge pig’s jaw bone discovered in the BBC Radio Orkney garden – probably dating back to when the area was part of the Flesh Market in the 17th and 18th centuries. Remains relating to the former Kirkwall Castle were not reached, however sherds of medieval pottery were recovered. Test pits along the west side of the street relieved deep sequences of layers and evidence for the old shoreline. Other finds included a bone chess piece, a decorated clay pipe bowl and a rather intriguing loom or fishing weight. These finds will be be further analysed, adding to the evolving story of ‘Hidden Kirkwall’.

To become an ‘Urban Detective’ and help record some of your local heritage visit

Many thanks to BBC Radio Orkney for their help and local residents for taking part.

The Kirkwall Garden Dig is supported by:

The Ness of Brodgar – The Site that Keeps on Giving.

The excavation season at The Ness of Brodgar has just a few weeks to run. So it is a good time to take stock.  Site Director Nick Card talks about the findings so far….

There are usually a few minutes in the day when there is time to muse on the continuing discoveries made at The Ness of Brodgar. Nick Card, Site Director, sat on the small, battered, wooden bench next to Structure 10 and, leaning back on the tyre wall, talked about the discoveries that were emerging this season.

Nick started by saying that he is always amazed by the continued interest in this site. Despite the worst that an Orkney summer can throw at people, they still come.

Last weekend was a case in point. Over 1000 people turned up to the Ness of Brodgar Open Day on one of those Orkney summer days when the rain drives in horizontally and visibility is down to a few yards. Keep in mind that only 20,000 people actually live on Orkney (smaller than the average sized UK town) and you can see the attraction that the Ness holds for people.

We discussed the reasons behind this and came to the conclusion that the dig at the Ness of Brodgar shows archaeology in action. People from around the world can witness Neolithic society being unwrapped before their very eyes. Nick went on to talk about a visitor from the USA who stated, when viewing the site, that he had “finally made it here”. The visitor had seen the coverage in The National Geographic and had travelled over 8,000 miles to see the site. It was a destination for him and a reason to visit our small island in the North Atlantic. Nick added, “We are also very lucky because we have an experienced team of supervisors who come back year after year. We are also lucky in our volunteers. They travel here under their own expense and work hard to unearth the story of this site.”

Nick went on to outline the salient points that for him stand out this season. The first must be the discovery of human bone under the rebuild of  Structure 10. The discovery of human remains is always tinged with emotion. At some point this bone was part of a person with the same hopes and fears that we all possess in daily lives. Their surroundings were different to ours in a way that we can only imagine, but they surely possessed those same feelings of doubt, fear and hope that we all experience on a daily basis. The remains are of course treated with care and reverence, and on initial examination we can deduce a few features about this individual’s life.

The bone formed part of a human arm and is disarticulated with no signs of injury or de-fleshing. There are no other human remains situated around the deposit. It is never certain how an individual may look from a single bone, but there is evidence of muscle attachment that indicates the person was used to hard physical labour. This was not unusual even in higher echelons of Neolithic society and so we cannot surmise on this individuals social standing by this evidence alone. However, we can suggest that this person was slender, tall, but experienced arthritis.

So where did this isolated bone come from? It was situated under re-used roof slates together with an assemblage of cattle bone under one of the corner buttresses that formed the later remodelling of Structure 10. Could it come from a possible chambered tomb in Trench T? Was the bone a revered ancestral relic that was buried here; perhaps in an attempt to resist the subsidence that was obviously evident in previous buildings? Perhaps it was the Neolithic equivalent of a lucky charm? We cannot possibly know for certain, but this discovery opens just a small window onto Neolithic society and gives us a glimpse into the minds of the people who built this site.

We concluded our discussion on the salient points of the Ness of Brodgar by talking about Trench T. This trench is not as yet open to the public, but is already full of surprises. The trench seems to be digging into a monumental midden, the size of which is unprecedented in Neolithic Britain. There appears to be a substantial (possibly 12m in width!), demolished early Neolithic structure which may pre-date the main site buildings. This in itself is worthy of further discussion, but when combined with the find of a very large animal, possibly even an auroch, makes this area all the more interesting. Has Nick and the team discovered the very earliest structures at The Ness? Structures that are even older than the main structures found so far? Only time and further research will find the answer to that question.

Donations of any amount welcome – thank you!

The Ness of Brodgar Trust (Registered Scottish Charity No: SC044890) exists to support all aspects of the excavation of the massive Neolithic ceremonial complex at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Please help us to continue the work at this amazing site by making either a one-off single donation or a regular monthly donation (UK bank direct debit only), which helps us to budget for future season’s work. UK taxpayers please Gift Aid your donation to give us 25% more at no extra cost to you.

To donate please click through to