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…

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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!).

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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…!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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Laser scan processing at The Engine Shed, Stirling

Laser scan processing at The Engine Shed, Stirling

Last week I’ve been in Stirling to work on my Shetland laser scans at Historic Environment Scotland’s shiny, new Conservation Centre: The Engine Shed! I had a play with the interactive virtual and augmented reality displays that give you a background on the specialist work that goes on here, digital documentation being one of them. The huge map of Scotland comes alive with AR – you can borrow an iPad and see models of historic sites placed in the landscape and find out more about them. Maybe my work can add to the Shetland sites!

Model of Mousa Broch that appears when the iPad is aimed over Shetland

I’ve been registering the laser scan data from Mousa for a week, which has given me a good amount of time to practice doing this with the data from the Z+F 5016 scanner (with kind help from HES colleagues!). I’m looking forward to putting all of it together and seeing the broch in a completely new way – already seeing the way the cells’ beehive-shaped ceilings and how the spiral staircase winds up the sides looks brilliant, but this data needs a bit more tidying up before I can show it! When I’m back from Orkney next week this’ll be my next step.

Exploring Lerwick and the Shetland Museum and Archive

Exploring Lerwick and the Shetland Museum and Archive

I had a calm and very pleasant weekend in Lerwick, exploring the town. Got a bit soggy at times but still very scenic, especially the old harbour, but I picked up a knitted souvenir (I’m the proud new owner of a Shetland fisherman’s cap – now my project hat!). I had time to process some initial data and back up and organise so much of it – many many scans and images to keep me busy this autumn and I need to keep track of it all in an organised system!

On Monday I travelled to the Shetland Museum and Archive to have a meeting and a quick stop at the Shetland Amenity Trust’s impressive headquarters. I walked around the museum’s excellent exhibits for quite some time. It’s really well worth a visit and has a great restaurant upstairs – their seafood chowder is sublime. Also I always get excited when I see any merchandise depicting anything Iron Age (unfortunately the period really doesn’t seem to be promoted as well as the Roman or Norse times), so I had a shopping spree buying Mousa and Old Scatness memorabilia to add to my collection! (Thanks Andy for the bottle of Old Scatness ale, by Valhalla Brewery!)

Late afternoon I had a chance to get a quick wander around Clickimin broch, which was just wondrous, exploring the interior with no other visitors about. Even though it is close to the main road, being surrounded by water and a protective wall, it really feels isolated and eerie.

 

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The entrance to Clickimin broch

 

The ferry crossing to Kirkwall in the evening got a bit choppy but I slept through much of it, fortunately! It was an interesting procedure to reverse onto the ferry, and one that me and Andy went through again on Tuesday morning, to catch the ferry from Tingwall over to the island of Rousay. A brief stop at the delightful Betty’s Reading Room and we were off to Swandro!

First visits to Old Scatness Broch and Jarlshof

First visits to Old Scatness Broch and Jarlshof

On Thursday I visited Old Scatness and Jarlshof for the first time. Compared to Mousa, the scale of these archaeological sites are staggering: many roundhouses of different periods surround the central broch at both. As my supervisor Dr Val Turner showed me and colleagues around Old Scatness, James was busy getting laser scans around the site (once you start, you can’t stop scanning)!

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Val interviewed me, Lyn and Andy for Radio Scotland about my PhD project and the vision for all three of these amazing Iron Age sites. Her recording was broadcast later that day and on Friday – first claim to fame! I’ll post here and on Twitter when I find out the exact time her more in-depth interview is broadcast.

After data swapping and backing up during lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel, we headed to Jarlshof. The HES team even had time to take a few initial laser scans around the site, following the permanent survey markers that Mike recently installed so the condition of the site can be monitored with accuracy in the future. The long history of Jarlshof is amazing (much more detailed info here: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/jarlshof-prehistoric-and-norse-settlement/), but the fact that just half of the broch has survived to present highlights just how under threat many archaeological sites are from coastal erosion. The defences put in place at Jarlshof are strong, but it will be useful to monitor them over time and laser scanning can do this with great detail.

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After our Historic Environment Scotland colleagues departed on Thursday, me and Andy returned to Old Scatness on Friday to acquire some more scans and take photography for SFM photogrammetry. I laser scanned areas of Old Scatness with the FARO Focus X330 that the long range Leica P40 may not have covered, and by the end of the day much of the site has been scanned and recorded. With permission from Sumburgh Air Traffic Control and DJI, Andy piloted the DJI Mavic SUA over Old Scatness to take aerial photos across the site, giving us excellent coverage which will help to feed into the terrestrial scan data and photos for photogrammetry.

Overall the amount of data acquired on this fieldtrip has exceeded all my expectations! It’s going to look amazing once it’s all been processed (my next major step in the PhD). Tomorrow I’ll be visiting Shetland’s Archives and Museum, run by my external partner Shetland Amenity Trust (https://www.shetlandmuseumandarchives.org.uk/) to investigate historic records of my three sites. I’m hoping to get a better sense of their history from past researchers and their notes and images.

 

Days 2 and 3 at Mousa

Days 2 and 3 at Mousa

Things stepped up a gear in the last few days. We were able to safely access the intra-mural galleries inside Mousa broch – certainly not something to do without hard hats and safety gear! Deep in the heart of the broch you are very up close and personal with the meeting storm petrels – you can hear the chicks tweet within the walls.

Team photo (top): James Hepher, Mike Jack, Marta Pilarska, Dr Lyn Wilson, Li Sou, Dr Val Turner, Dr Andy Wilson

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The path to Mousa broch (wheeled trolley in the distance!)

 

Me and Lyn recorded the broch interior with the Z+F 5016 – a scanner with intergrated lighting and HDR imaging, which made it ideal for recording in dark areas, like the intra-mural cells built into the base of the broch, and for very clear colour data of the wall tops (bottom right). James and Marta took many exterior scans of Mousa using the Leica P40 while Andy and Mike scanned the galleries and passageways. We also used a giant tripod to scan from high inside the broch ( below left).

We were all glad we brought our “on-site vehicles” (aka garden trollies) for moving kit across Mousa. It’s less than half a kilometre away from the ferry drop off point and a very leisurely stroll for those exploring the island without survey equipment, but we had the true “Shetland pony” experience of pulling and pushing our carts along with full loads of tripods, cameras and scanners! Many thanks to the kind staff of the Mousa Boat (https://www.mousa.co.uk/) for helping us with moving kit, taking us over to the island over the last few days and for sharing the fascinating history of Mousa.

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Taking survey kit to site on wheels

On the final day at Mousa my PhD supervisor at Shetland Amenity Trust, Dr Val Turner, visited to see us in action. It was great to discuss this exciting project together, and the next day she showed us around one of the other Iron Age sites I am researching: Old Scatness (I’ll talk about this in my next post!). In the evening we visited St Ninian’s Isle and Sumburgh Head, where we saw many puffins (we might have taken as many photos of puffins as of the broch… they seem to love being photographed!!).

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PhD surveys begin!

PhD surveys begin!

It’s the end of my very busy but absolutely fantastic first day (and first ever visit) in Shetland for my PhD fieldwork. Together with Andy from University of Bradford (who took the photo above of me pulling our equipment trolley!) and Lyn, James, Marta and Mike from Historic Environment Scotland, we crossed to Mousa with much kind help from the staff of the Mousa Ferry. Instantly we were greeted by Arctic terns and a curious seal! I’m crossing my fingers that we might spot an orca, dolphin or whale over the next few days on site, but the birds that nest within the walls of Mousa broch are delightful!

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Island of Mousa from the Shetland mainland.

Nothing prepared me for the ridiculously dramatic landscape. As Mousa broch loomed ever closer, it’s sheer size and age really struck me. It’s an architectural marvel and the 3D data we’re collecting will be fascinating to investigate. We’ve already done quite a lot of scanning, which will continue over the next few days. Maybe with time to hire a Shetland pony to carry our scanning kit over the track to the broch! Fingers crossed the lovely weather continues too.

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Mousa broch’s entraceway and west face being scanned by the Leica P40. Photo by James Hepher

One day more! (until I’m going up to Shetland)

One day more! (until I’m going up to Shetland)

The bags are all packed and the survey kit is charged up and ready to go! Tomorrow I’ll be setting off for Shetland with supervisor Dr Andy Wilson, catching the ferry from Aberdeen and due to arrive into Lerwick early on Monday morning. We’ll be meeting up with colleagues from Historic Environment Scotland on the ferry and begin scanning of Mousa broch together in two days’ time! After that, the plan is to visit the other two broch sites I’m surveying for my PhD: Old Scatness and Jarlshof, and to visit the Shetland Museum and Archive to explore the collections the Shetland Amenity Trust holds. Hopefully there’ll be time to see some more brochs (after all there are over 100 of them in Shetland according to Canmore)!

From then on, me and Andy will be travelling to Orkney, to visit the excavations at Swandro on Rousay to help survey. The Knowe of Swandro encompasses a Neolithic chambered tomb, Iron Age roundhouses and later Pictish buildings and is under constant threat of coastal erosion, so it’s very important the Swandro – Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust are recording the archaeology before it is washed away. This year’s excavation season just started this week. See http://www.swandro.co.uk/ for more details – they are blogging and tweeting every day from site! I hope there’ll be time for me to see more fantastic archaeology in the Northern Isles before I travel southbound to Lindisfarne, where a new season of excavations is starting soon… but I’ll save that for another blog post!

I’m aiming to keep track of our progress through daily blog posts or tweets (follow me @LZSou for Twitter updates), though I’ll have to see how good my internet access is first… Posts might end up shorter than my usual ones, as we’ll be busy checking and processing the data in the evenings, but I’ll see how things go.