Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology has been commissioned by the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme to undertake the Neolithic Landscapes of the Dead project, exploring the tombs of the isles.
The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) based at Orkney College UHI has received a grant from the North Isles Landscape Partnership scheme (NILPS) to undertake the Neolithic Landscape of the Dead project during 2020-2022.
An activities programme of research, walks, archaeological fieldwork and schools activities will investigate some of the most iconic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney as well as bring the lesser known sites into the spot light - telling the stories of island tombs. The project will also create new 3D models, interpretation, research archives and a new ‘tombs trail’. The trail will allow islanders and tourists to explore Neolithic sites in the North Isles.
Few can doubt the importance of archaeology and heritage to the community and economy of Orkney and the Neolithic sits at the heart of the imagination and identity of the islands. Beginning some 5500 years ago and spanning a staggering 2500 years, the Neolithic was when people first farmed the land, grew crops, made pottery and adopted new forms of objects such as polished axes and maceheads. The Neolithic was also a time when people’s relationship with the dead and their ancestors changed. People were buried communally in tombs, where bones and other offerings were jumbled together into one ancestral place. In Orkney, there are over 80 stone-built tombs of various architectural styles – ‘Maes Howe’, ‘Stalled’ and ‘Bookan’ types - with over 50 of these located in the North Isles.
The tombs project will support islanders to explore and tell the stories of this remarkable group of tombs in the islands, and the secrets they may hold, which can play a part in supporting island communities now and into the future. If you live in the North Isles of Orkney and would like to get involved in the project or find out more, please email: Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk
Dan Lee (ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist) said, “We are really looking forward to working with islanders to celebrate the amazing Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney, and bring some of these less-explored sites into focus. Who knows what new stories they can tell?”
Andy Golightly Programme Manager said ”This is a really good opportunity for people living in the North Isles, to work with Orkney College to learn more about the unique tombs on their Isles and possibly gain new skills and experience. Having the information produced, displayed and available locally will also benefit visitors to the Isles, opening up more of the Isles history to a wider audience.”
More information on this project can be found at: https://www.nilps.co.uk/projects/tombs-of-the-isles
A team from ORCA Archaeology has discovered an amazing series of half-metre tall stone-carved objects while completing exploratory archaeological excavations connected with the development of an electrical substation on behalf of SSEN Transmission in Orkney.
In total, nine carved stones have been unearthed in the remains of a structure revealed at the proposed Finstown substation site, after digging through sixty centimetres of midden deposits.
Some of the objects look remarkably like stylised representations of the human form, whilst others look more like stones set upright into the floor of a Bronze Age building excavated by EASE Archaeology at the Links of Noltland, Westray. These may have been used to tie mooring ropes onto, to help hold the roof on.
The archaeologists working on site uncovered the carved stones scattered around a hearth within the remains of an enigmatic structure that contained three cists, two hearths and a partial ring of holes packed with broken off upstanding stones. Three of the roughly carved figures were also important enough to the people who used the building to be incorporated within the structure of one of the hearths and in the foundations of one of the standing stones. The purpose of the building and how it was used by the inhabitants of this site four thousand years ago is still an enigma.
Dating the necked stones firmly will require further work, since they have also been found on Iron Age sites in Orkney. On initial evidence, the ones from Finstown possibly date to around the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, roughly 2000BC. Identifying the purpose of these stones, and if they are figurines, will also require further work, with a close study for abrasion, wear and any other marks on these anthropomorphic objects.
Professor Colin Richards from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute said, “This is a significant discovery in Orkney and probably within North West Europe. It is very rare to find representations of people in prehistoric Orkney and when found, they are usually individual or in very small groups. If they are figurines, to find nine figures within one structure is very exciting and together with the archaeology found at this site has the potential to add to our understanding of Orcadian society in prehistory.”
The ORCA Archaeology team were also intrigued to uncover direct signs of people working the land some four thousand years ago. In one of the trenches, long marks were found cut into the clay subsoil, which were made by ards (stone plough shares) providing us with evidence for prehistoric farming in Orkney. These forms of prehistoric ploughs were constructed of wood with a stone shaped into a rough point placed into the wood to plough the soil ready for planting. The lines cross each other at various angles further suggesting that the ground was cultivated by intensively criss-crossing with the ard point by these early Orkney farmers.
The survival of these marks together with the remnants of the Early Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement structures gives us an insight into the prehistoric use of this site over some two thousand years with people living, farming and burying their dead across this windswept hillside.
Pete Higgins ORCA Archaeology Project Manager continues, “This collaborative project with SSEN gives us the opportunity to examine an important prehistoric site that would otherwise not have been excavated. The exploratory trenches are now recorded and covered over, while the significant artefacts are now cleaned and stored for future study. Discussions will take place on the next steps for the development.”
SSEN Environmental Project Manager, Simon Hall said, “We have been working closely with ORCA Archaeology for the past 18 months while they have undertaken archaeological work at our substation site near Finstown . We are delighted that the team have been able to make such a significant find at the site, hopefully furthering the understanding of Orkney’s rich heritage. We will continue to work closely with ORCA Archaeology and all relevant bodies to ensure this find is appropriately managed for the people of Orkney.”
The substation is a critical component of the proposed network reinforcement, which is required to support renewable electricity generators across Orkney looking to connect to the main GB transmission system for the first time. Its progress, as well as that of the reinforcement programme, remains subject to all planning and regulatory approvals.
For further information on the proposals https://www.ssen-transmission.co.uk/projects/orkney/
A team from ORCA Archaeology discovered sections of wall that were part of the St Magnus Cathedral Close last week while undertaking a watching brief for an Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project in the heart of historic Kirkwall.
A series of walls, pottery and animal bones were unearthed only inches under the surface of the road near the entrance to Victoria Street. Archaeologists know from previous work that remains of structures dating back to the Iron Age exist in this area, but this is the first time that structures directly relating to the cathedral precinct have been identified in this particular area.
Comparing the walls to the 1882 map, the structure appears to be part of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Deans Manse, which were demolished in the 1930’s to make way for a car park and to allow vehicle access to Victoria Street. In common with many Cathedral precincts in the British Isles these imposing buildings would have been part of a large complex used to welcome pilgrims and house ecclesiastic staff associated with the Cathedral.
The gable wall of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Dean’s Manse was recorded standing to more than 0.9m in height directly beneath the present road surface. It was aligned East-West, running from near the top of Tankerness Lane towards the entrance to the Daily Scoop Cafe, directly underneath the new kerb line. The gable wall which was 1.35 metres thick was built with very large flagstone slabs bonded with clay.
Interestingly, although the walls appeared to be the actual house walls rather than foundations there was no sign of the gable door visible in the old pictures. The western end of the wall appears to have been demolished earlier and the door may have been lost there. There is a possibility therefore that the building demolished in the 1930s was built on top of these earlier walls of the Chaplain’s Chamber / Sub-dean’s Manse.
What was the Cathedral Precinct, why was it there and who lived in it? All the buildings from the site of the Kirkwall Community Centre South into the top of Victoria Street and East up to the Bishop’s palace formed the Cathedral Precinct. Although there would have been earlier buildings to house Cathedral staff most of the buildings, including the Chaplain’s chamber and Sub-dean’s Manse were built under bishop Robert Reid as part of a grand piece of town planning in the 1540s shortly after he became bishop of Orkney. At this time Orkney and the rest of Scotland were still predominantly Roman Catholic and the cathedral was a Catholic cathedral. Reid had previously studied law in Paris, worked as an ambassador and was the president of the Scottish College of Justice amongst other things.
On his arrival in Orkney he found the Bishop’s Palace partly ruined and the diocese in some disorder. To rectify this he appointed seven new top staff members – known as dignitaries in the church - to take responsibility for aspects of its running along with thirteen chaplains. It was within the cathedral precinct that these and other staff members lived and worked.
The Sub-dean, who lived in the manse that the ORCA Archaeology team uncovered, for example had the responsibility of the Cathedral provost when he was unavailable. This involved the management of the canons, prebends and chaplains as well as having responsibility for the vicarage of South Ronaldsay and the maintenance of the Burwick Kirk. The Sub- dean also worked as butler to the Bishop and had the parsonage of Hoy and the vicarage of Walls.
Along with the construction of the Cathedral precinct bishop Robert Reid also built the Moosie Tower and rebuilt St Olaf’s Kirk of which the archway in Olaf’s Wynd is a part. Several of the buidings of the precinct are still existing today: the old grammar school, part of a “large court of houses to be a colledge for instructing of the youth of this country in grammar and phylosophy”, is on the north east side of the Daily Scoop cafe. The Sub-chantry, Arch-deanery and residence of the chancellor are standing as parts of The Orkney Museum.
The old name for Tankerness Lane was School Wynd where you would have seen and heard the scholars of the Cathedral’s Kirkwall Grammar School running down to the shore of the Peedie Sea to play after school.
Chris Gee, Project Manager at ORCA Archaeology said, ”Kirkwall was quite different then from the town we know today. In the area of Bridge Street and Albert Street lay the old Royal Burgh and secular trading centre. As we have seen previously the castle stood around the southern limit of the Burgh at this time backing out onto the Peedie Sea and the main harbour of Kirkwall. It was much larger and deeper then with the plots on the west of the street backing onto its shore. There were slips and piers for unloading and loading goods from lands around the North Sea. The reformation was to come though within a couple of decades and see an end to this sacred centre with many of the manses being acquired by wealthy merchants. Some of the rivalry between these two centres may still be seen played out between the Uppies and Doonies on Christmas and New Year’s day. “
Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, lecturer specialising in medieval ecclesiastic research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute added,” We know from written sources that buildings extended from the Cathedral in the direction of present day Victoria Street. To see the physical evidence of cathedral precinct structures so close to the surface of Broad Street is very exciting and reminds us of the importance of Kirkwall being at the centre of the Cult of St Magnus in the medieval period. We can imagine pilgrims journeying from all over the medieval North Atlantic area to venerate the remains of St Magnus here at St Magnus Cathedral.”
The archaeology has now been recorded and the site carefully covered over to preserve for future generations. The Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project continued without delay.
The North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme has commissioned Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology & Orkney College UHI to undertake an exciting new project to collect an oral history of the North Isles of Orkney.
The National Lottery Heritage Funded two-year project involves ORCA Archaeology teaming up with Dr Tom Rendall from Orkney College UHI and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to interview, record and analyse the spoken history of these distinct and unique island communities.
Project Director Tom Rendall said, “The project will help us understand the detailed local events and people that have shaped the culture and heritage of these islands, and how the memories, experiences and reminiscences inform the present.”
Dr Rendall will be visiting the islands of Sanday, Westray, Eday, Papa Westray, North Ronaldsay, Shapinsay, Stronsay, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre talking with local people. The plan involves interviewing not only the older members of the community, but also, unusually for a project such as this, the younger folk and those recently moved to the islands.
Topics for discussion will include examining the evolving cultural diversity of the islands and investigating how those new to the isles help to maintain life in an island community by embracing local heritage and culture – in effect carrying on a tradition of migrants to the isles from Viking to modern times.
The project will also help to explore the connections between the isles and raise awareness of the changing and vibrant culture on these islands. The team will also help to develop skills through training in interview and archiving techniques to pass knowledge on that could be used in the future.
If you want to hear more about this exciting project then contact the ORCA Archaeology team through their email email@example.com
You can also join the conversation through Twitter on #northislesnarrative
The North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme (NILPS) is a £4.5m project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, OIC, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and LEADER that will support projects to promote the culture, heritage and landscape of the North Isles and will run until 2023.
The community archaeology excavation at the Burn of Swartigill is now nearing completion for this season.
The dig itself is organised by the Yarrows Heritage Trust in collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology. Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the finds of the week…..
We have begun our third and final week of excavation for this season at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, and it’s time for an update from week two.
The theme has been one of rubble removal and soil sampling! Much of the later rubble within our round house, Structure B (or squashed rectangle house, to be more accurate) has been removed to reveal more of the courses masonry on the north and south arcs of the building. It is rewarding to see the shape and form of this building emerge after being obscured by rubble for so long. Work along the entrance way into Structure B on the east side has revealed a threshold stone!
In the centre of the structure, we are starting to see more ashy deposits associated with tantalising hints of edge set stone underneath the later hearth feature. This could be an earlier, more formal hearth, perhaps associated with the original occupation of the building.
We have also been sampling deposits on the west side of Structure B, which we know to be rich in charred plant remains, charcoal and magnetic residues from preliminary analysis of samples from 2017. With a more extensive area of this deposit exposed, we intend to do a more detailed soil chemical analysis with the samples from this season. This could give us some insight into what sort of activities were undertaken on this surface in the Iron Age.
Whetstone unearthed at Swartigill 2019Artefacts were thin on the ground in the first week of the dig, as we focussed on removing alluvial soils and rubble deposits. This past week, the artefacts have started to appear, with a spread of pottery near the hearth in Structure B and a brace of quern stones to add to those recovered from previous years. We have also recovered two hone stones or whetstones. Unlike the previous example of this artefact discovered on the site back in 2017, which looked distinctly Viking in shape, the two found from this season appear distinctly prehistoric in form.
We have been helped out by school children from Lybster, Dunbeath, Thrumster and Watten primary schools, who have been doing sterling work on site to help uncover Structure C on the south side of the dig. This is an area we have only partially exposed in previous seasons, so we are delighted to have to have had the children lend a hand in exploring this building.
We bade farewell to the majority of our stalwart student volunteers on Thursday, they have worked extremely hard and, we hope, have learned a lot about archaeological excavation and the North of Scotland Iron Age. Thanks to Leia Tilley from the University of Durham, Kenny McElroy from the University of Glasgow, Iona Cargill from Oxford University, Sierra Renna from Willamette College in the USA and Calum Hall and Mary Renshaw from the University of the Highlands and Islands. We hope to see you all again next year!
Thanks also to all the volunteers and visitors who have contributed their time and efforts to the dig so far. If you haven’t seen the site yet or still want to come and take part, there is still plenty of time!
We will be working on site every day until Sunday the 8th of September, though Saturday the 7th will be out last full day of digging as we need to spend some time on Sunday putting the covers back over the site and making sure its secure for the winter. Come along to see our progress any time this week, and even join in the excavation! No previous experience is required.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, in partnership with the Yarrows Heritage Trust and ORCA Archaeology, have completed their first week of excavation at the community dig, near the Burn of Swartigill.
Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the first week at this intriguing dig in Caithness, Scotland
We are at the end of the first week of excavation at the Burn of Swartigill. The covers and tyres came off to reveal that the site had survived well over the winter. The team wasted no time, extending the trench to the east and west to further explore the extent of the structural features present.
So far, we have made some interesting discoveries about the nature of the site. Structure A, the passage around the north side of the site, widens out on the east side, while to the west, it terminates in a small rubble filled cell.
In the centre of the trench, we are further defining the shape and form of Structure B, which appears to be a squashed rectangle in shape. The hearth in the centre of the structure, initially encountered during last year’s excavation, appears to be a later feature. The hearth setting overlays rubble, which appears to be the post abandonment infill of the building.
The ashy deposits from the hearth mingle with peaty layers within the structure, suggesting that after the building was abandoned, it was open to the elements and people still used the shell of the building as a shelter - perhaps as a seasonal shieling, a temporary shelter used while pasturing animals. The remains of the structure continued to gradually collapse around them. This may also account for the presence of a distinctly Viking or Medieval looking whetstone, recovered in a previous year’s excavation on the site form rubble overlying this structure.
The site was then inundated with alluvial soils, deposited by the adjacent watercourse over several centuries, covering the structures. On the east side of the site, this overlays a paved surface, which may represent a yard outside Structure B.
Elsewhere in the trench we are preparing to sample more of a deposit that appears very rich in charred organic material. Hopefully the analysis of this deposits will give us some valuable information about the sort of activities undertaken on the site during the Iron Age, and the lives of the people who lived there.
Drone video footage by kind permission: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview
The Archaeologists will be on site until Thursday the 29th of August and then back on site from Tuesday the 3rd of September until Sunday the 8th.Come along to the see the site, and even have a go at excavation – no experience is required.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology teamed up with Robert Gordon University to begin a series of collaborative projects using advanced digital technology to record heritage across Orkney.
On the suggestion of pupils from Kirkwall Grammar School from a heritage workshop last year, the team decided that part of the initial pilot project would involve laser scanning the Big Tree in the centre of Kirkwall.
The Big Tree is something of an icon in Orkney and is in fact a 200 year old sycamore tree that has been a meeting place in the town for generations. The tree itself won the accolade of ‘Scotland’s Tree of the Year in 2017 and looks as if it will remain standing sentinel over the comings and goings in the town centre for a good while yet.
The Big Tree project involved the use of advanced digital data capture techniques and forms the trial run for a whole series of collaborative projects between UHI, ORCA Archaeology and RGU.
The wider project involves recording the built environment in Stromness and Kirkwall and will utilise the laser scanning expertise developed by the team at RGU together with the archaeological, architectural and social history expertise of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The results so far have been stunning and the scans can be viewed in this video produced by RGU……
The work will also be on show at The Architecture Exhibition ‘An Orcadian Caravanserai’ at The Stromness Community Centre from the 17th – 21st June 2019.
Final year students from the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture will present an exhibition exploring the social and cultural connotations of an ever growing tourism industry through a series of architectural interventions.
Newark Bay is the site of an early medieval chapel and extensive cemetery and was the focus of rescue excavations by the late Professor Brothwell between 1968 and 1972.
Due to various circumstances, the work never came to publication. ORCA Archaeology is part of an Historic Environment Scotland funded project to address this with the local community. Check out our earlier blog for more details on the project.
Like so many sites in Orkney, coastal erosion is a significant problem and has caused structural and human remains to have been lost over the years since Professor Brothwell's original excavation.
The local community, including the Friends of St Ninians, 12 volunteers, 1 tractor, 2 dogs and 250 already filled sandbags gathered at Newark over the last weekend to continue work on protecting the site, The team had an hour to put sandbags and rocks in place to protect the eroding archaeology at the site.
By 12 noon the team viewed the 250 sandbags and many large rocks that had been put in place through sheer hard work. The sandbags will protect the archaeology for a little while and will be monitored as the first phase of the project gets under way.
The team, including Mansie the black Labrador, were very pleased with their efforts and more than one member commented that it was, "Amazing what you can do in one hour on a fine day in Orkney."
The ORCA Archaeology team are continuing work this week at the proposed SSEN Transmission sub-station in Finstown, Orkney.
The area of the dig is continuing to grow as more of the archaeology is uncovered. Trenches excavated last week have been extended to make one large area, while test trenches have discovered extensive midden (rubbish) deposits up to a depth of 0.6 metres.
Meanwhile the cist and associated features unearthed two weeks ago is the subject of detailed excavation by one of the team. The possible Bronze Age cist itself appears to be empty with no obvious contents, but the material partly filling the stone box has been packaged for later analysis.
Intriguing archaeology is also beginning to emerge across the whole area, with two possible domestic prehistoric structures being excavated on one of the mound summits. The full extent of the structures has been exposed, showing large flags and a sunken central area. Hand excavation of the occupation deposits and identification of the internal stonework is underway and should shed some light on the age and use of this possible prehistoric settlement.
The team have also been investigating the thick midden layers around the north and east sides of the mound. Midden is in effect an ancient rubbish dump and usually holds great interest for archaeologists as they contain a treasure trove (sometimes literally!) of items and remains which can give the team an understanding of every-day life at the site. The midden material at this site is very complex and close to the structures, which means that this area was occupied for a considerable length of time.
Even more interesting for the team was the discovery of pottery with Beaker-style decoration in one of the middens. The vessel was broken, but was recognisable as a style known in Orkney from other excavations and is always associated with domestic rather than funerary or ritual sites. These vessels date to the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age across Orkney.
Other members of the team have completed hand-dug trenches across the low earth bank apparently overlying a cobbled surface that runs around the ridge in the boggy, peaty ‘valley’ between the mounds. There will be more information on this extensive cobbled area as the dig progresses.
Further excavation has also revealed small stone heaps near the cist, with evidence of in situ burning under one of the stone heaps. Working out what this means in terms of what was going on around the cist is just one of the puzzles confronting the team.
The initial geophysical survey undertaken by ORCA Archaeology last year indicated that this site would contain extensive archaeological remains. The excavation phase of the investigation has more than confirmed this, and that the area contains possible archaeology dating back to the early Neolithic – the time of the first farmers in Orkney.
ORCA Archaeology were commissioned by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) to commence archaeology excavation at the site of the proposed new sub-station at Finstown.
Orkney is recognised to be at the forefront of the rapidly expanding renewable sector in the UK. The proposed Finstown Substation will form part of the multi-million pound Orkney Transmission Connection and Infrastructure project which aims to reinforce the electricity transmission connection between the renewable energy providers on the islands and the mainland of Scotland.
ORCA Archaeology, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Historic Environment Scotland and the Scotland's Urban Past team have organised five Building Recording Days in historic Kirkwall and Stromness.
These are community archaeology events to which everyone is invited - experience is not required as full training will be given - but we ask that you book a place as below.
The team have set dates in Kirkwall during May and June (book to attend these events by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Scotland’s Urban Past team are coming up again to run a one day workshop in Stromness (you will have to book to attend this event through the Scotland's Urban Past Eventbrite page)
These days are designed to follow on from our training in March, and archive day in April, but feel free to come along if you missed these, we can easily get you up to speed. We’ve set up a regular survey afternoon, with the aim of conducting rapid recording and taking photos for properties in the Kirkwall conservation area.
The Scotland’s Urban Past team will run a workshop in Stromness on the 4th June, and will show us how to add the results of all our surveys onto the national record online.
This project is supported by:
This blog has been created by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology in beautiful Orkney. We aim to add features and news about our work on the islands and further afield on a regular basis.