South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands is home to The Cairns, an expansive archaeological site whose remains have helped to illuminate the archipelago’s Neolithic to Norse past (see CA 275). Since 2006, though, the main focus of excavations by the University of the Highlands and Islands has been an Iron Age broch, which stands at the site’s heart. There, waterlogged deposits have yielded a remarkable wealth of artefactual and environmental evidence, as well as organic finds including an intact wooden bowl so well preserved that you can see evidence of repairs (CA 347), and human and animal remains.
Over on the island known as Mainland, about a 35-mile drive from The Cairns (many of the southern islands are linked by causeways originally constructed to block enemy submarines during the Second World War), Stromness Museum is currently home to an exhibition showcasing some of the long-running project’s key finds. There, three large cases display information boards and artefacts illustrating what the site tells us about life in and around the broch, and what its inhabitants were doing. These activities included farming and hunting, as well as tool- and jewellery-making (over 60 clay moulds for making bronze ornaments have been found to date). This was not an isolated community; ‘exotic’ objects point to trade connections with the Roman world, Shetland, mainland Scotland, and the Baltic region. The wooden bowl described above is also on show for the first time since its discovery.
Other displays highlight scientific analysis that has been carried out – including fragments of whalebone speckled with small holes testifying to sampling – and aDNA and isotope studies that have been undertaken on the human remains. This latter aspect provides intriguing glimpses of more enigmatic aspects of Iron Age life. One of the project’s most significant finds, included in the exhibition, is a hollowed-out whale vertebra containing the jawbone of an elderly woman. Traces of possible food offerings, including the remains of three newborn lambs, bones from other animals and fish, and shells, were also found in this unusual receptacle, which had been placed against the outer wall of the broch c.AD 200, near its main entrance. As a finishing touch, two red-deer antlers were propped upright against it. The possible meanings behind this deposit are explored in the exhibition, together with what can be learned about the woman at its heart.
Aside from this insightful exhibition, the rest of Stromness Museum is also well worth exploring – the deceptively small building extends TARDIS-like over three floors, with atmospheric galleries and dark wood cabinets housing wonderfully eclectic collections. Display topics range from the lighthouses of Orkney, the German ships scuttled in Scapa Flow (3D models of some of the wrecks can be explored on a computer), and the life and unpleasant death of John Gow – the son of a Stromness merchant who turned mutineer and pirate in the 18th century – to the local whaling industry, the Hudson’s Bay Company (Canadian fur traders who once recruited three quarters of their workforce from the islands), and the Orkney-born Arctic explorer John Rae.
Meet the Yorkneyites
On the other side of Mainland to Stromness lies Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town. There, the Orkney Museum is also holding a temporary exhibition highlighting the island’s diverse archaeology – this time transporting visitors back to the 1960s, when excavations raced to record eroding remains at the Bay of Newark. The exposure of human bones prompted emergency investigations by anthropologist Dan Brothwell and a team of undergraduate volunteers from the University of York, and their discoveries were hugely significant, uncovering the remains of a chapel and a cemetery including over 250 burials. Subsequent radiocarbon analysis revealed that the graves spanned AD 600-1400, representing Orkney’s Iron Age, Norse, and medieval periods, and making Newark one of the earliest known Christian graveyards in the North Atlantic region. Nor did the site cease giving up its secrets in the 1960s; in 2016 it also yielded a Pictish carved stone cross-slab.
Sadly, 2016 also marked the death of Dan Brothwell, and at that time the project’s findings remained unpublished. The Newark Project set out to redress this, with new research and scientific analysis of remains recovered from the site – the exhibition running in Kirkwall tells the story so far.
In the Orkney Museum, a whole room is given over to displays including key artefacts, photographs illustrating the 1960s excavations and more recent developments (including a geophysical survey undertaken in 2020), as well as boards setting out the site’s complex chronology. Visitors can also share memories of the undergraduate excavators (who were affectionately dubbed ‘Yorkneyites’ by the local community) and explore how the immense advances in scientific techniques that have been seen in the intervening decades are revealing a wealth of information about the people buried at this site.
Rather charmingly, as well as excavated artefacts – a lignite bangle imported from mainland Scotland or Ireland, an antler comb, whetstones, a whalebone key – the display cases also include personal objects belonging to the excavation team, including kitty receipts for food orders including cheese, jam, bread, and tins of sardines. Above all, this exhibition highlights the enormous potential offered by bringing modern analytical methods to bear on decades-old digs, and a board previewing what the project has planned for the future suggests that the story of Newark will only become more detailed and interesting in the coming years.
The Cairns: living in the landscape runs at Stromness Museum until 30 October. Opening hours are 10am-1pm and 1.45pm-5pm Monday-Saturday (until 7pm on Wednesdays), and 11am-4pm on Sundays. Adult admission (which includes the exhibition) is £5, with concessions available. Visit www.stromnessmuseum.org.uk/whatson/2022/cairns-living-landscape for more details.
The Newark Project: the story so far runs at the Orkney Museum until 29 October. The museum is open Monday-Saturday, and opening hours are 10.30am-5pm in September, and 10.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-5pm in October. Admission to the museum and the exhibition is free. See www.orkneymuseum.wordpress.com/category/stories-by-room/temporary-exhibitions for more details.
All images: C Hilts.