Excavation team return to South Ronaldsay to tackle archaeological jigsaw puzzle

The remains of Structure B. (Sigurd Towrie)

A high-status Iron Age site in South Ronaldsay has been under excavation again this summer.

The three-week excavation at the Cairns, led by Orkney College lecturer Martin Carruthers, focused, this year, on extending previous trenches in order to get a better understanding of the site.

Overlooking Windwick Bay, the Cairns is a massive archaeological jigsaw puzzle, with a huge sequence of buildings on site, representing centuries of use.

The first building on site was a massive broch-like roundhouse – with five metre thick solid walls forming a structure with an exterior diameter of 21.5 metres.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

The remains of Structure B. (Sigurd Towrie)

After the roundhouse went out of use, and had started to collapse in on itself, at least one secondary building were built – labelled Structure B by the archaeologists. All the evidence so far points at this been domestic.

This year’s trench extension revealed some more of this structure, but also more rubble – a rubble-field which has been mapped and will be painstakingly removed in order to see what lies underneath.

“The hope is that we can make some sense of this,” said Martin. “The building is so intriguing. In some ways we know a lot about it.

“It paints a beautiful picture of Iron Age life on the site – we’ve got the hearths, the floor deposits etc, but what’s missing is the relationship between it, and its walls, and the other buildings around here. That’s because of the mass of rubble that’s covering it extremely well.”

“It’s been a week of going more intensely into some areas to get a clearer and better look at some of the things we already had.”

Picture Sigurd Towrie

Site director Martin Carruthers at work. (Sigurd Towrie)

Among the expect Iron Age finds, came the surprise discovery of this year’s excavation – a Neolithic polished stone axe-head. This came from a trench clearing away a section of the site to the south-east, which is thought may contain the remains of an entrance to the roundhouse.

The axe-head, Martin thought could relate to a rectangular “bank” on the periphery of the excavation site and indicate that the Iron Age structures were the last in a long line of buildings on the site.

“We have this bank running down towards the bay. It’s just possible that we’ve got another, much earlier, structure – perhaps Neolithic – that out later buildings were built into. Of course, it could also be Iron Age, but the discovery of the axe-head means we have to keep an open mind.”

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