Archaeologist turns her attentions to Orkney’s neglected hillsides

Mounds at Trowie Glen, Hoy.

Although entirely coincidental, a common element in this year’s archaeological projects so far has been the focus on areas “off the beaten track”.

The latest, a pilot study by Judith Robertson, Orkney Archaeological Trust’s projects supervisor, has a revealed tantalising glimpse of what could lie on the county’s hillsides.

A quick glance at a map of recorded archaeological sites and finds in Orkney shows that the majority are from lowland areas and farmland. This doesn’t mean that there’s more archaeology there – simply that it is going to be more commonly encountered where people are living and working. To coin a phrase, absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence.

So, to counter the imbalance, Judith has completed a preliminary survey of a swathe of Hoy – covering the lowland of Cantick as well as a stretch of hill land around the Trowie Glen and the slopes of Burandie and Vowrandie.

She explained: “I really wanted to look at the hill and higher areas of Orkney because its been neglected over the years.

“Hoy is dominated by the Dwarfie Stane and the later military sites but it’s absolutely filled with archaeology. The inaccessibility of many areas has contributed to this.

“I’ve been trying to identify the nature and extent of the archaeology, filling in the gaps in existing records. My main aim was to see what’s there and, from this, hopefully highlight areas that need, or could lead to, further work.”

Picture Judith Robertson

A stone feature at Burandie, Hoy.

“It’s nice to get areas that have been virtually ignored on the map so that the locals see that Orkney’s archaeology is not just sites like Skara Brae.”

Among the possible hill sites she has identified are a series of mounds at the back of the Trowie Glen and a pair of upright “standing stones” on Burandie.

The mounds appear to be too regular to be natural, which could indicate they are part of a Bronze Age cemetery. The twin stones sit just below the summit of the hill and are possibly the remnants of a burial mound.

“Even though it’s still in the very early stage, the preliminary work has given an insight into the archaeology of the upland areas as well as demonstrating that prehistoric people actually lived and used these areas,” said Judith.

Part of the study also involved a survey of Cantick, a lowland area to contrast with her examination of the hills.

Here, Judith discovered a large area of marsh that had been completely left out of existing archaeological records. Visiting the site, she identified a circular earth feature, that could be a Bronze Age barrow, as well as a series of suspected burial mounds.

After documenting her initial findings, Judith hopes to revisit the areas to carry out geophysics surveys and possibly open exploratory test trenches.

She said: “I hope the results will not only lead into a larger project but provide information for potential heritage walks as well as local records.”

Orkney Islands Council sponsored the project.

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