The return to Orkney: Our Islands, Our Past conference 14th-17th September

The return to Orkney: Our Islands, Our Past conference 14th-17th September

Last week I returned to Orkney (less than two months since I was there last!) – setting off at the crack of dawn in the northeast of England and making the epic drive to the most northerly point of mainland Scotland, before catching the shortest ferry crossing to take me over to the Northern Isles – again! I did drive over the new Queensferry Crossing, which is very impressive (I’ve now crossed all three Forth bridges in a year!). I also stopped off at Inverness to see the cathedral, have a bite to eat and a stroll along the river which was lovely. The purpose behind this exciting road trip (8 and a half hours on the road not including breaks!) was to give a paper on outlining the ideas and aims of my PhD at the Our Islands, Our Past conference, held by the Archaeological Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Kirkwall. I also wanted to see a few sites I hadn’t done on my first visit to Orkney and ambitiously hoped to see the Northern Lights if the weather conditions were right…

Driving over the Queensferry Crossing on its first full week of running

I caught the morning ferry from Gills Bay, near John ‘O Groats, to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. It was my first time on this island, so I visited the famous Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic chambered cairn 5000 years old. (I chose to “skateboard” into the cairn as it was quite muddy, and appreciated borrowing some waterproof trousers the visitor centre thoughtfully has prepared for visitors!). The coastline walk around the site has some dramatic cliffs, and I spotted a seal sunning itself in the bay, as it was incredibly bright outside (but windy!).

It’s a bit of a squeeze through the Tomb of the Eagles passageway!

Last time I was in Mainland Orkney I was a bit pressed for time as I caught a bus to see the sights, and the nice driver let us have a whistle-stop tour of the Standing Stones of Stenness before continuing back to Kirkwall. I knew the site of Barnhouse Neolithic Village was close but I didn’t want to risk missing the only bus back into town for several hours! This time, taking a car (definitely the most flexible and convenient way to travel around Orkney), I walked to the Barnhouse Neolithic village from the standing stones. It is remarkably close (literally the next field along) and I was surprised at how few visitors were there. Perhaps they too had buses to catch! I explored Stromness Museum and the town in the afternoon, which reminds me somewhat of Lerwick in Shetland with its old harbourside storehouses and narrow lanes. On the way back to Kirkwall I stopped off at Unstan Chambered Cairn, and befriended a Shire horse in the next field over…!

Not shy for the camera, this fellow came over to say hello at Unstan Cairn

The day before the conference started I managed to squeeze in some non-prehistoric sites on the mainland, including the Norse settlement on the Brough of Birsay, the Earl’s Palace at Birsay and the Earl and Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall – which is deceptively Tardis-like! I was amazed by how much of the Earl’s Palace remains and exploring the upper levels you do get a sense of how grand and complex the building was.

Find me! Overlooking the impressive remains of the Bishops Palace, Kirkwall

My last touristy thing to do was have a guided tour of Highland Park Whisky Distillery in Kirkwall. I’d never been to one before and don’t really know much about whisky making, so it was a fascinating experience (and now I know what the difference between single-malt and blended whisky is!). Nice to have a wee dram at the end of the day too!

Whisky casks ageing gracefully at Highland Park distillery

Onto the actual purpose of my visit(!) – I really enjoyed listening to the papers given at the student conference held at the St Magnus Centre on Friday by undergraduates and postgraduates at UHI. It was a great idea to combine the student event with the overall conference, encouraging students to present for the first time and giving them good practice for the future, and for visitors to hear about the research they are doing. I wish I had more practice in presenting as an undergrad – it’s a skill little taught at school but essential in academic research. I guess dressing up as a Roman and giving guided museum tours helped me out a bit, but it’s always different being up on stage (quite literally for this conference as it was held in the impressive Orkney Theatre)!

I had a very good time at the main conference. There’s such a wide range of different projects going on in the Northern Isles and it’s always nice to meet new people! Plus the stalls and extra presentations during the breaks were very interesting to see. I hope people liked my presentation. I’ve just started to process and look at the data we scanned from Mousa, so in a couple of months’ time it’ll look fantastic visually, but the audience were the first to see some of the scans registered together, so digital Mousa is being pieced together bit by bit! Many thanks to the organisers for inviting me to speak, and for such a great experience (the Orkney fudge in the conference bag was a nice treat!).

I had to catch the Pentland Ferry before the last session ended sadly, but I did manage to stop off at Doune Castle on the way down to Bradford. It’s where much of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed, and has an excellent audio tour narrated by Terry Jones. As a big Python fan, it was a fun place to see (though I do wish you could climb the battlements to re-enact John Cleese’s taunts to King Arthur as the angry Frenchman…!). Doune itself is a lovely town and the local cafe does an amazing burger!

Doune Castle, as seen in Outlander (lots of fans there on the day!) and location of “Spamalot”

Back in Bradford now, I’ve got plenty of data to be putting together over the next few weeks. It’ll be exciting seeing virtual Mousa come together!


The long way home… Return to Mainland Orkney

The long way home… Return to Mainland Orkney

How time flies! I’m aware I’m blogging two weeks late but internet access has been quite patchy, so here’s the rest of my Orkney trip summed up… from Bradford!

Me and Andy left Rousay on Friday morning to visit the Mainland on Orkney. Immediately we were able to head to the Broch of Gurness, which is visible from Midhowe on a clear day across Eynhallow Sound. Sailing between these two imposing towers must have been quite an experience in the past. The remains of the settlement at Gurness are extensive, just like at Midhowe, and it is clear that this entire area would have been thriving with activity during the Iron Age.

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After this, we travelled back in time as we headed towards the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, with a quick stop off at the Standing Stones of Stenness – the oldest part of the site, dating from 5400 – 4500 years ago (Historic Environment Scotland 2017). The size and scale of the stones only sink in when you stand right next to them!

We then made our way to the Ness of Brodgar excavations, for a site tour. It’s a very impressive place (see main blog image at the top!). The stone-built Neolithic structures that are being revealed are immense in size, with some outer walls 5 metres wide. Check out their website for updates on their work:

Andy had to return to mainland UK that day, so I made the most of the weekend to see more of Orkney’s World Heritage Sites, chatting to other visitors and staff. It’s amazing to see how enthusiastic and knowledgeable they are about Orkney’s archaeology. I certainly learned a lot! It was to the famed site of Skara Brae on Saturday (on a most scenic, relaxed bus journey from Kirkwall).

The reconstructed houses are excellent at giving a sense of how the houses would have been organised and used originally. I particularly liked the (fake!) lobster and fish kept fresh in the stone-lined tank. It was very busy at the main site, as many people like myself had decided to make the most of the sunshine and see Skara Brae and walk along the beach. I also visited Skaill House, which was included in the admission price, and was surprised at how large and grand it was! There are some interesting exhibits on the original excavations of Skara Brae inside. Next time I must go on an evening tour to see the structures up close, after hours! On the way back, the bus stopped off at the Ring of Brodgar, so I had time to walk all around the stones in the late afternoon sun, AND visit the Stones of Stenness again, with a spot of seal watching on the opposite side of the water.


The famous Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, with stone shelves


I was initially worried the main buses to the famous archaeological sites don’t run on Sunday, but with a bit of detective work and kind help from the Kirkwall Tourist Information Centre (thanks so much!!), I established a bus route to the Maeshowe visitor centre in Stenness (not the old one across the road from the cairn itself, which as of July 2017 is closed). The trick is to book early, especially if in a group, as it was amazing at how quickly tickets get snapped up for this site. After puzzling out the bus timetable (buses run once every two hours from Kirkwall to Stenness – just ask to get dropped off at the Maeshowe visitor centre), it was a pretty quick journey to get to the visitor centre (don’t go to the cairn itself as no one is there to let you in!). Once there, you get on a small bus with the tour guide, which shuttles you to Maeshowe itself. Another tip – tours run on the hour, so make sure you get to the visitor centre with time to spare, so the bus isn’t late, as it can hold up the next tour!

As for Maeshowe itself… wow. Seeing images and videos of the interior cannot match the experience of really being there! The guide was very knowledgeable and talked about the history of the site, showing us some of the key runic inscriptions and the famous Maeshowe “dragon” carving. There’s a swallow nest inside too, and it’s cute to see the adult birds swooping through the entrance passageway to reach the chicks inside, although they do dive-bomb dramatically (I may have worn a hat to cover myself!).

Back at the visitor centre, there’s a Samsung Gear VR headset you can try on, to view the Maeshowe virtual reality app which was created by Historic Environment Scotland and Glasgow School of Art. It uses laser scanning data conducted as part of the Scottish Ten project and is available on iOS and Android (click here for link). I liked seeing the English translations of some of the runes placed in 3D beside the location of the carvings! It would be fantastic if something similar can be designed for the three brochs I am researching… perhaps?


Maeshowe in virtual reality, courtesy of data from the Scottish Ten project


Monday was my last day in Kirkwall, so I headed to the Orkney Museum, which has some great exhibits on display, featuring artefacts from the Norse burial from the Broch of Gurness, beautiful Pictish carvings and a great many prehistoric finds, including stone maceheads and those mysterious carved stone balls. I also explored the impressive red sandstone St Magnus’ Cathedral, the most northerly in the UK, which dates back to the 12th century and was founded by the Viking Earl Rognvald. The town takes its name from the Norse Kirkjuvágr, which is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. I thought its large round columns look very similar to those at Durham Cathedral, also founded in the Norman period. Both are free to visit and well worth a look to get a good understanding of the history of Kirkwall and Orkney!


Pictish carvings at the Museum of Orkney, including an eagle, mirror and more abstract symbols


It was farewell to the Northern Isles late that evening as I caught the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. I had a wonderful time here, got even more survey data than I expected and the weather has been (mostly) absolutely fantastic (apparently it’s been more sunny than Cornwall this July!). I’m looking forward to heading back up next month for the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held by the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands.


Surveying Swandro excavations and the archaeology of Rousay

Surveying Swandro excavations and the archaeology of Rousay

Last Monday we arrived late into Kirkwall, so had an overnight stop before heading across to the island of Rousay on the local ferry. The site was abuzz with media coverage from the exciting news of a Roman coin being discovered in a trench over the weekend (only the fourth ever found in Orkney). Here’s the BBC article (click).

Over two days me and Andy helped to scan the newly revealed contexts inside the trenches as well as wide-ranging contextual laser scans of the complete site at Swandro, with its Neolithic chambered tomb, Iron Age roundhouses and Pictish buildings. The stony shore made for some interesting stability challenges in finding secure places for tripod legs! Our latest scans are important as they are a record of the present condition of the site. The Knowe of Swandro is greatly under threat of coastal erosion, which is why the Swandro – Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust are excavating and recording the site before it is completely claimed by the sea. Their great website has a daily blog as the season continues:


transporting the anvil
On Wednesday this stone anvil was lifted from Structure 3. The Bradford Visualisation trolley makes a good lithics transporting device! Julie looks pleased!


It will be very interesting to examine the extent of erosion over the last few years by comparing this season’s scans to those of previous years (many thanks to Mark Littlewood for sharing his previous scans at Swandro with me).


scanning from photo platform
Setting up a long range scan from the top of the photography platform at Swandro


Even though we were rained off site on Thursday, me and Andy made a determined attempt to see a lot of the archaeology of the island up close, only after we were finally torn away from the lovely local arts and crafts (and ice cream) sold at The Craft Hub. I’m now the proud owner of a locally made “Rousay” souvenir mug complete with Viking longship!

In the afternoon we drove around the island and walked along the Westness coast, stopping by Midhowe Chambered Cairn – a monumentally-sized Neolithic cairn that is now housed inside a protective structure. There is a walkway directly over the exposed interior, which is quite an experience. I recommend stout boots with good grip walking down there from the car park – it’s quite steep and slippery! Very close by is Midhowe Broch, which is very well-preserved and in a dramatic setting between two steep-sided creeks right along the coast. The buttresses are a very quirky feature of the broch. They had to be added soon after construction as the walls began to slump. Unfortunately the weather meant it wasn’t possible to take many recording shots of the site, but it is very unusual as huge stone slabs had been installed at a later date within the broch, to form partitions.

We walked past the Skaill excavations being run by the University of the Highlands and Islands and the site of ruined farm buildings, a Norse hall and burial site, before heading down the road to Blackhammer Cairn and Taversoe Tuick Cairn, both of which date to the Neolithic period. The latter is really unusual as it has two storeys!

I’ll post photos when I can take them off my camera.

Many thanks to Dr Steve Dockrill and Dr Julie Bond for their kind hospitality and arranging our stay on Rousay, and to the site staff and volunteers for all your help, advice and witty banter (especially the crew at Cedarlee – Bronwyn, Alice and Joe)! I really enjoyed being on this little island for the last week and hope to come back soon. Next time I’ll bring windproofs!

Field trip to Ilkley Moor – prehistoric rock art and monuments

Field trip to Ilkley Moor – prehistoric rock art and monuments

I had an excellent guided trip out to the wild and windy Ilkley Moor on Tuesday, kindly arranged and shown some of the fantastic prehistoric archaeology by Richard Stroud, who has coordinated several rock art surveying projects across the country over the last few years,connected to the England’s Rock Art initiative (see for more details and lots of good info on these fascinating ancient carvings).

Ilkley Moor was surveyed by a team of volunteers as part of the Rombalds Moor Carved Stone Investigations project, run by Richard between 2011-13. He showed me a fraction of the examples that were recorded by the dedicated team, including many of the familiar cup and ring marks, in addition to some more unusual markings. The precise dates of such carvings are very uncertain, as they were produced for a considerable period of time, between the Neolithic and Iron Age.

A cup and ring mark is to the centre left of the rock ledge, and rainbow in the background overlooking Ilkley town!

We walked through several prehistoric enclosures, of either Bronze Age or Iron Age date, much of which are still clearly defined by low stone walls and embankments, and explored cairn fields, including the spectacularly vast (and disproportionately named) Little Skirtful of Stones (see top image with me for scale) and the even larger Great Skirtful of Stones cairns. It is amazing to think that so little of this landscape has been excavated, though it is full of ancient monuments.


A very unusual rock art panel. A group of cups and curvilinear lines surrounding it.

20160301_114838It struck me how at risk and exposed some of these sites are, and how visitors must be particularly careful when examining rock art, as several panels we saw were deliberately uncovered from the protective layer of vegetation that has kept them in a stable condition for many years. It is known that even seemingly small changes like this can have adverse effects on the way water affects the stone, making them more susceptible to weathering.




A smaller cairn, with others in the distance (far right)
Lines of cup marks

Ilkley Moor is a dramatic landscape to explore, and I do recommend going to explore it, but we all need to take care of the site and its archaeology to make sure it survives so it can still be enjoyed in the future.


Stonehenge environs excavations at West Amesbury Farm – laser scanning the trenches

Stonehenge environs excavations at West Amesbury Farm – laser scanning the trenches

An exciting programme of new archaeological investigations into the less well understood southern area of the Stonehenge landscape has been taking place over this winter. As I’m particularly fascinated by prehistoric archaeology, it was a brilliant opportunity for me to travel down to Wiltshire with Geospatial Imaging officer David Andrews to laser scan some of the excavated trenches (and to now proudly state I have worked on the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, on a wild and windy day!).

The research is still ongoing after all the digging is over, and there’s much survey data to be processed, so it’ll be great to find out what has been discovered after the post-excavation analyses have been completed, around June. Follow Historic England’s website, Twitter and Facebook page for future updates!