Archaeologist Janis Mitchell takes us on a whistlestop tour of the archaeological digs that have taken place on Orkney during the 2008 season.
The 2008 summer archaeological season in Orkney was full of activity and spanned a number of islands and time periods.
Excavations included the continuation of investigations at Stronsay, Wyre, Ness of Brodgar, The Cairns, Notland Links and Skaill Bay and a ‘rescue excavation’ in Eday. Trenches were re-opened from a previous dig at the Ring of Brodgar and an initial investigative season at the Brough of Deerness was undertaken.
The Mesolithic site at Links House, Stronsay funded by Historic Scotland; Orkney Islands Council; Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) through field walking and excavation, has produced over 10,000 pieces of flint, including tools and evidence for on-site knapping activity.
Naomi Woodward (Site Director/ORCA) says: “The Links House flint assemblage represents the largest collection of material for this period in Orkney and also the nature and extents of the feature evidence at the site is unparalleled within this region.”
A further season of excavation is planned for 2009.
Finds from Links House, Stronsay, photo by Naomi Woodward
Excavation at the early Neolithic site on Wyre continued and Antonia Thomas (Site Director/Orkney College) describes the extent of the large site, which has yielded eight polished stone axes so far and thousands of pieces of pottery, flint and stone tools.
"Fieldwork has uncovered a series of dwellings and an extensive working area spread over several hundred square metres, all apparently dating to the Early Neolithic,” said Antonia.
“Although there are only 17 people living on Wyre today, this is the lowest the population has ever been in historic times, and it would seem that the island was home to a thriving farming community several thousands of years ago."
Finds from Wyre, photo by Dan Lee
The re-opening of previous trenches at the Ring of Brodgar (directed by Dr Jane Downes, Orkney College and Dr Colin Richards, Manchester University) provided insight into the construction of the ditch surrounding the standing stone circle. The results of scientific dating of the ring, assumed to be Neolithic, are awaited.
Nearby the Neolithic settlement at the Ness of Brodgar (directed by Nick Card, ORCA) was under continued excavation and each season adds to the understanding of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage area.
At Links of Notland on Westray an excavation (directed by Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore, EASE Archaeology) continued on the prehistoric site whilst at the Cairns excavation on South Ronaldsay, a large Iron Age settlement thought to be occupied between 400BC to AD400 was further explored.
Martin Carruthers (Site Director, Orkney College) explains: “This season's work focussed on later Iron Age buildings that have been constructed into and over the top of the remains of a very substantial ‘Atlantic roundhouse’ or broch-like building.
“These later buildings are yielding information on many aspects of Iron Age life in Orkney, including textile production, metalworking and the important role of deposition in the social and symbolic lives of the inhabitants.
“Finds have included copper alloy pins, weaving combs, spindle whorls, large pottery sherds and a stone mould for casting metal ingots.”
Elevated view of excavation at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, photo by Martin Carruthers
A Norse long house buried under sand was excavated this season near the Bay of Skaill as part of the Birsay-Skaill landscape archaeological project in Orkney (directed by David Griffiths, University of Oxford).
Meanwhile investigations at Brough of Deerness, a long-lived settlement sitting on top of a sea stack, have suggested it might have been a chief stronghold with a private chapel rather than a monastic site.
Two long houses were excavated, close to the previously excavated chapel, with finds evidence to support they were Norse domestic structures.
Dr James Barrett (Site Director, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge) says: "The site provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the social organisation and mentality of a sea people who had a major impact on the northern world in the Viking Age and early Middle Ages."
Brough of Deerness excavation, photo by Janis Mitchell
Coastal erosion is a recurring problem in Orkney and archaeology is continuously under threat. This season a small-scale excavation at the medieval site of Stackelbrae on Eday was undertaken before it is lost to the sea.
Amanda Brend (Site Director, ORCA) says: “The project provided an opportunity to explore an exciting and largely underrepresented period of Orkney’s history.
“We encountered a variety of remains along the length of the coastal section, from substantial multi-period buildings to extensive midden deposits. Artefacts included medieval pottery, a bone needle and a massive red sandstone trough quern.”
Strackelbrae, Eday excavation, photo by Janis Mitchell
The 2008 archaeology season in Orkney has been full of activity. Many excavations are ongoing and archaeologists will return in the summer of 2009 to continue digging. Each season brings more insight into the history and prehistory of the Orkney Islands.
For for more information about the heritage of Orkney see www.orkneyjar.com.