Medieval date highlights 5,000 years of activity in South Ronaldsay field

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The story of an archaeological site in South Ronaldsay has taken an unexpected twist.

For the past few years, work at The Cairns has centred around an Iron Age broch, but new radiocarbon dates have revealed that a section of the Iron Age site was in use as late as AD1020-1155.

This late date has come as something of a shock to the excavation team.

Martin Carruthers, archaeology lecture at Orkney College UHI and excavation director, explained: “We had expected dates from the early Viking Age, so were surprised when we got these medieval dates back. But what it is showing us is that this area of South Ronaldsay was in constant use for thousands of years — possibly from the Neolithic right through to the Middle Ages.

“It’s like Howe, in Stromness, and Pool, in Sanday – where we now have 5,000 years of human history in one field in South Ronaldsay.”

The dates came from barley grains recovered from the remains of a late Iron Age addition to the site – referred to by the excavators as the workshop.

The geophysics scan shows the broch in the centre, with a large anomaly to the north - perhaps a Neolithic settlement.

The geophysics scan shows the broch in the centre, with a large anomaly to the north – perhaps a Neolithic settlement?

On the opposite side of the scale, geophysics scans to the north of the broch have revealed a large anomaly that Martin thinks could be a Neolithic settlement.

Lying 20 metres directly to the north of the broch, the scans hint that the suspected settlement is “joined” to the Iron Age site by an earth bank, or walkway.

Test pits dug in the vicinity of the walkway have confirmed a Neolithic date, with pottery sherds and flint knives recovered.

While the items are, without a shadow of a doubt, late Neolithic, what isn’t clear yet — and this will require excavation to confirm — is when the bank was constructed.

Did it lead from the suspected Neolithic settlement to another stone age structure that was replaced by the broch in the Iron Age? Or did the broch builders create it to link their site to what would have been a large mound to the north? Time will tell.

The geophysics have also revealed a linear anomaly leading up to the broch. Again, it will take ground truthing to confirm the actual details, but Martin wonders whether this may well be a “ceremonial approach” leading to the entrance of the grand structure.

While at the Broch of Gurness, for example, this ceremonial approach was formed by the houses on either side, at the Cairns this suspected approach was flanked by what appear to be two parallel ditches.

But the story doesn’t end with the Viking Age reuse of the site. The entire area shows clear ridge and furrow farming from subsequent centuries.

The excavation team returned to the site on Monday, for four weeks, until July 11.

The excavation blog will be available at www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/thecairns for the duration of the dig.

The excavators would like to thank the Orkney Archaeology Society for financial support for the carbon dating and geophysics.

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