Archaeology at Orkney College UHI is based in a friendly and vibrant department that is surrounded by some of Britain’s most important archaeological monuments and landscapes, including the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
We have growing international reputation for the quality of our teaching, and our contribution to archaeological research was recognised in the most recent UK Research Assessment Exercise.
Please explore our webpages to find out about us, our on-going research, why Orkney is such a great place to study archaeology, and how to contact us to find out more or to apply to study in this unrivalled location.
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Enrolling from September 2013 MSc in Archaeological Practice. For further details on this new taught Masters course please contact Martin Carruthers on 01856569000 or via email.
For available courses,please visit the courses section of the website.
The integration of research and teaching is a fundamental part of the departments approach to archaeology, and as such the college staff direct a wide range of projects, as well as collaborating with staff from other institutions from across Scotland and beyond.
For the first time in 2008, archaeology at the UHI made a submission in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and was recognised both for its contribution to internationally recognised research as well as one of the UHI’s centres of developing research excellence.
- Ness of Brodgar
- Mine Howe
- Knowes of Trotty
- The Cairns
- Hoy and South Walls landscape Investigations
- Eynhallow landscape project
- Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project
- Scottish Centre of Excellence for Northern Cultural Environments (ESSENCE) (link to existing page)
- Project Adair - Mapping Marine Heritage Sites in Orkney and Pentland Firth
- Siobhan Cooke - Man and Animal in Late Iron Age and Viking Scotland
- Alison Keir
- James Moore - Space and Society in Iron Age Orkney
- Antonia Thomas - Image-Making and Inscription as Social Practice: Orkney’s Rock-Art and Graffiti
Ness of Brodgar
A large Neolithic complex on the Brodgar peninsula lies on the low ridge between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
An initial geophysical survey, as part of the World Heritage Area Geophysics Programme, revealed numerous anomalies ‘indicative of settlement’ covering 2½ hectares.
In 2003 a large notched stone was ploughed up and a rescue excavation was undertaken, under the Human Remains Call-Off Contract, as the stone was thought to be from a cist. The trench revealed part of a large structure similar to Structure 2 at nearby Barnhouse Neolithic Village. This finding initiated a resistivity survey to try to define the extent of the built archaeology and complement the initial gradiometer survey.
In light of the results of the two geophysical surveys and the exploratory work further investigations were undertaken.
Initially a series of eight test-trenches was placed over the Ness of Brodgar in 2004 to examine the nature, depth and extent of the archaeological deposits. This indicates that much of the mounded ridge is artificial, comprising structures and middens all dating to the Neolithic.
A large linear grouping of anomalies was investigated in 2005 and 2006. This revealed a stratigraphic sequence of Neolithic structures. In 2006 a large oval structure was uncovered enclosed by a monumental wall.
In 2007 work continued on the oval structure and monumental wall. Test trenches revealed that the wall extended for a considerable distance across the width of the peninsula, and may have formed a barrier restricting access to the neighbouring Ring of Brodgar.
A large trench covering the location of the 2003 excavations was also opened up, revealing a symmetrical structure similar in shape to Houses Two and Eight at the Barnhouse Neolithic village.
Orkney College/Orkney Archaeological Trust excavation - Mine Howe, Tankerness, Orkney.
Director (with Nick Card, ORCA) In the investigations of this Iron Age ritual site, large scale geophysical survey, extensive excavation as well as augering and landscape survey have been utilised to reveal unparalleled evidence for in situ Iron Age metalworking (ferrous and non-ferrous) situated immediately outside the monumental stone-revetted ditch which in turn surround the complex underground structure of Mine Howe. Intensive sampling of the metalwork shop has been employed to gain an understanding of the spatial, social and ritual as well as technological aspects of metalworking and artefact manufacture at this site.
photo of Mine Howe from the top
Early (Iron Age) evidence of the creation of plaggen soils is also attested at this site. The existence of an agglomeration of the ritual sites of Mine Howe, Round Howe, and the site of an early chapel within the Mine Howe environs, together with the finding of many unusual artefacts and human remains are features which call to mind Irish royal sites, such as Tara, and Knowth, and offer rich scope for further research planned into Celtic and Nordic mythologies and affinities.
Post excavation being undertaken by Orkney College, Bradford University, Sheffield University, Stirling University, National Museums Scotland and individual specialists. Funded by Historic Scotland/Orkney Enterprise/Orkney Islands Council/Time Team.
Harray, Mainland, Orkney
Large scale geophysical and topographic survey of this Bronze Age burial cemetery, the only one of its kind in northern Britain. In 2005 excavations focussed on the re-opening of the largest mound from which gold and amber artefacts had been found in 19th century – as a result there first radiocarbon date associated with an amber necklace in Britain has been obtained.
2005-6 excavations also revealed an early Neolithic house with a very rare find of an associated pottery kiln. Further investigation of pottery kiln planned. Funded by Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council.
Orkney College UHI have recently been awarded funding to examine the feasibility of establishing the Scottish Centre of Excellence for Northern Cultural Environments (ESSENCE). ESSENCE is the creation of Dr Jane Downes, Head of the Archaeology Department at Orkney College, and aims to examine the role of Scotland in leading archaeological research into cultural environments of the North Atlantic.
This exciting new study will be run from Orkney throughout 2007 and will involve meetings with academics and experts from as far afield as Nova Scotia, Iceland and Finland, as well as from across Britain. The geographical area of the North Atlantic is proposed for its millennia of cultural interactions, diaspora, shared materiality and traditions.
(Picture © 2006 Frank Bradford, 59degreesNorth)
ESSENCE will look at innovative ways of researching and developing the heritage of the region, bridging gaps that exist between research into the ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ aspects of the environment. Archaeology is fundamentally the historical study of humanity’s place in ecological and cultural systems; as such, it is best served to act as the focal discipline to bridge those gaps and contributing to the development of appropriate management strategies and sustainability. Archaeology has a long tradition of developing from and working with many other disciplines, within both the humanities and the sciences, and ESSENCE will build on this tradition to create a project that is truly inter-disciplinary.
Professor Christopher Morris, renowned for his work on Viking sites such as the Brough of Birsay, is acting as the Senior Consultant for ESSENCE, and Antonia Thomas has been employed as the Research Assistant for the project.
The ESSENCE project has been funded by Scottish Funding Council for Further and Higher Education through their Strategic Research Development Grants scheme.
This research aims to shed light on the small, uninhabited island, of Eynhallow and help to place the monastic ruins in their historical and landscape context.
This project has received funding from the Hunter Archaeological and Historical Trust, Orkney Archaeological Trust and The Viking Society for Northern Research.
Project to investigate funerary rites, and improved management of Bronze Age burial mounds in Orkney. The project has involved landscape survey of all Bronze Age burial mounds in Orkney and excavation of several burial cemeteries including the major excavation of Linga Fiold.
This work has been of national and wider significance in informing us about cemetery architecture, and the nature of burial rites and burial technologies. Publication of this research will include backlog excavations of various cists and barrows. Funded by Historic Scotland.
The Windwick Bay Field Project
Director: Martin Carruthers
This project seeks to investigate Late Bronze Age and Iron Age landscapes in an area of South Ronaldsay. This has included the survey and excavation of several souterrains and settlements as well as a massive Iron Age roundhouse and settlement complex known as The Cairns.
Orkney Islands Council largely funds the project, with contributions from Glasgow University, Manchester University, Orkney Archaeological Trust and ORCA and it seeks to explore the relationships of Orcadian souterrains to other built forms of materiality, and to landscape.
Excavations At The Braes Of Ha’breck, Wyre
Director: Antonia Thomas
Orkney is world famous for its Neolithic settlements, like Skara Brae and Barnhouse, and it often seems that hardly a year goes by without another one being discovered. Most of the these sites, however, date to the Later Neolithic – the period associated with Grooved Ware pottery, clustered villages and the massive monumental architecture of sites like Maeshowe and the Stones of Stenness. Settlements from the Earlier Neolithic (i.e. the fourth millennium BC) have been altogether rarer, or at least, until recently. Although earlier phases of occupation were known on Later Neolithic settlement sites like Rinyo on Rousay, Skara Brae, and Pool on Sanday, very few of these had been excavated by modern standards and until recently, the structures at the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray were the only Early Neolithic settlement remains that had been properly investigated. Since the 1970s, however, many more Neolithic dwellings have been discovered and excavated, including the Links of Noltland, Howe, Barnhouse, Pool, Tofts Ness, Crossiecrown, Stove, Stonehall and Wideford. It now appears that a wide variety of different styles characterised the entire Neolithic period in Orkney and that the once apparent uncomplicated evolution from single, dispersed farmsteads in the early Neolithic to nucleated villages in the later Neolithic can no longer be take for granted. And now a new site at the Braes of Ha’Breck, Wyre, is contributing even more to our picture of life in Neolithic Orkney.
In 2006, Helen Bradley and I undertook a walkover survey of Wyre. We had only intended to survey and record sites of archaeological potential visible above-ground, the various ‘lumps and bumps’ of past occupation so favoured by landscape archaeologists.
The Braes of Ha’Breck site was initially identified as several areas of darker, stonier material in the topsoil in a recently ploughed field during a walkover survey of Wyre in 2006. This field, in the west of the island, contained concentrations of shattered building stone and discrete patches of midden-enhanced soil. Closer examination revealed a large surface scatter of, coarse stone tools, polished stone axes and maceheads – a classic Neolithic assemblage! The discovery of these artefacts finds allowed for the expansion of the original survey project to include systematic fieldwalking and a gradiometry survey by Orkney College Geophysics Unit.
In 2007 we investigated some of the anomalies identified by the geophysics and excavated two evaluation trenches and a series of test pits across the site. The archaeology was considerably plough-truncated, but discrete features and structural remains survived. In the final few days of excavation in Trench A, a sondage revealed a linear arrangement of large, well-laid flagstones, overlain by secure deposits containing Early Neolithic pottery, flint and stone tools. Trench B revealed a rammed stone floor, interpreted as a work area, showing several phases of occupation. Amongst the finds recovered from this trench were several pieces of worked flint, cobble stone tools and a decorated sherd of Unstan Ware pottery. One of the test pits was subsequently extended to create Trench C. This small trench revealed negative features cut into the natural glacial till; these represent internal structural elements such as post holes and orthostat slots and several phases of hearth settings.
In 2008, we enlarged Trenches A and C to focus upon these two areas. In Trench A, further paving, consisting of slabs up to 1.5m in length was found underlying a thick layer of black midden that was rich in Skaill knives, Early Neolithic pottery and flint tools. As we were excavating this midden, it became clear that the paving slabs that we started to expose in 2007 also extended further across the trench. The sheer size of these slabs was astonishing; some are well over a metre in length and would have been serious hard work to quarry and transport. The midden and paving are all reminiscent of a sort of yard area, as you might find outside of a house, and right enough, the slabs lead up to the straight stone wall of a building. The wall is constructed from neatly-laid stone courses and we were lucky enough to hit right on an entrance, complete with a threshold stone, worn through countless years of use. Whilst the base of the wall hasn’t been revealed yet, there are at least two rows of stonework remaining and we are hopeful that some original floor deposits may survive in this house.
Entranceway into house in Trench A
Meanwhile, some 50m or so to the north, work in Trench C has been uncovering a very different-looking sort of archaeology. The level of plough damage on this part of the field is staggering, with deep gouges in the natural clay where the plough has scarred the ground.
Plough scarred natural in Trench C
Excavation in Trench C amounted to real ‘rescue’ archaeology and it is miraculous that anything survived at all. The plough truncation was more severe than initially thought, and there was also a heavy iron pan across the trench. Nevertheless, at least two phases of dwelling, comprising a timber structure overlain by a stone built dwelling, were identified. Both of these structures are built in the ‘longhouse’ style associated with the Early Neolithic. Hearths associated with both phases were well-preserved and a small but significant ceramic and flint assemblage was recovered from this trench.
Excavating one of the hearths in Trench C
Five polished stone axes were recovered this season, bringing the total to eight from the site. These are in addition to the hundreds of fragments of pottery, flint and coarse stone tools, making the Braes of Ha’Breck assemblage one of the largest and most significant from an Early Neolithic domestic context in Orkney.
The axe collection from Wyre
The architecture and artefacts from across the site are consistent with an Early Neolithic date and suggest that largely contemporary activity and occupation is spread over a considerable area at Ha’Breck. This refutes the long-held assumption that domestic life in the Early Neolithic was carried out in isolated farmhouses like that seen at the Knap of Howar in Papay. But whilst all the excavated areas of the site contain Early Neolithic material, occupation in the different areas may still have been separated by several generations’. Families and groups may have occupied different parts of the field and may have shifted their settlement over time, as new homes were built and old ones were renovated or fell out of use.
Richard Jones of Glasgow University has examined the pottery and has made comparisons with the assemblage from Wideford, Stonehall and the Knap of Howar. Carla Cassidy, who undertook the MA Archaeological Practice at Orkney College last year, analysed the pottery assemblage form Wyre for her dissertation and discovered many more examples of decoration than we had identified in the field.
So, what has 2009 got in store for us? We will be focusing on Trench A, in an effort to uncover and record as much of the house structure as possible. We will be back on the 31st August of this year for three and a half weeks. An Open Day is planned for Sunday 20th September, but visitors to the site are most welcome any other time between Monday and Friday during the dig.
The excavations at the Braes of Ha’Breck are funded by Orkney Islands Council, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Orkney College and ORCA. The continued support of the landowner, Mr Toofie Flaws, and the kindness of the Flaws family and the people of Wyre has allowed these excavations to go ahead and I would like to once again wholeheartedly thank them for all of their support, assistance and hospitality.
Monumental Visions: Art and Archaeology in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site
Research funded by a Small Research Grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Whilst both archaeology and visual art have been long-accepted as essential components of and responses to the Orcadian landscape at different points in time, the relationship between the two has not been fully interrogated. Over the next year therefore, with the help of a Small Research Grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, I am going to explore the reflexive relationship between the two disciplines and lines of thought in relation to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
The long tradition of both archaeological investigation and the visual arts in Orkney opens up considerable scope to explore the relationship between the two in a World Heritage context.
Nevertheless, this has been little studied, and those studies that have taken place have tended to focus upon historical periods excluding the relationship of contemporary art to the HNOWHS. Over the next year, I am going to catalogue and research images of the World Heritage Site, ranging from the earliest antiquarian watercolours and sketches held in museum collections, to contemporary visual art pieces held in private and public collections. I will use this information to then identify research themes from the pieces, and through discussions with artists and archaeologists, develop a research framework for future collaborations and projects in the HNOWHS.
Can you help?
I am interested in seeing any old depictions (including old postcards, photographs, paintings etc) of the World Heritage Area, or related archaeological sites outwith the World Heritage Area, such as antiquarian drawings or paintings of prehistoric sites. Any images will be scanned or photographed as appropriate and returned to the owners; their support will be acknowledged and copies of the material will, with the owner’s permission, be deposited in the Orkney Archives. A small exhibition will be shown of the images early next year. I am also interested in hearing from contemporary artists who feel that their work is in some way a response to the experience of the monuments within the World Heritage Area, whether directly or indirectly. The study is not going to be limited to representational art and I anticipate that one of the more interesting aspects of the research will be to see how the monuments have inspired abstract and conceptual forms of visual art in a range of different media.
Future research directions arising from this stage of work will be developed through the year, but it is hoped that this will lead onto bigger, collaborative research projects involving archaeologists and artists. There is, for example, the potential for parallel research threads looking at the relationship between the literary arts and archaeology, or music and archaeology.
A collaborative research seminar exploring some of the themes that arise from this project and involving both artists and archaeologists will be held at Orkney College in the autumn – more details will be announced in the coming months.
Keep checking back on this site for updates and information on the project, or for more information, contact Antonia on 01856 569344 or by email