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  Minehowe - The Underground Enigma

2000 excavation - the artefacts

Early finds

From the first day of the 2000 Minehowe excavation, the quantity and quality of the finds had the archaeologists spellbound.

Pottery, bones, shells were all unearthed around the mound and a small bronze and enamel button, unearthed at the start of the dig, hinted at the things to come.

As each day passed, what became immediately clear was that the Minehowe area was once the "residence" of someone of prestige and power. The items being uncovered were clearly once owned by someone of high authority and power who could afford such luxury.


The excavation soon revealed that the site had once had a very active metalworking area. The ore, furnace bases, crucibles, moulds, bits of metalwork and whetstones all pointed to the significant production of metal artefacts.

Quantities of deer antler, for example, a substance used for items such as combs, was also known to have been used for the handles of knives and daggers. This fact that tied in nicely with the sheer quantity of metalworking finds uncovered around Minehowe.

Perhaps one of the most important finds came about entirely by accident following a series of visits to the site by local schoolchildren.

In charge of showing the young visitors around, and letting them experience a mock dig, was Tom Muir of the Orkney Museum. Tom was also part of the excavation team working on the site.

He explained: "We had been taking around school parties from St Andrews primary school mornings and afternoons. We were showing them the around site, taking them down the chamber, showing them some of the things we'd been discovering and letting them do a bit of digging. Then they got a pencil and a rubber and away they went, fairly happy.

"Then on the Friday, the last afternoon the bairns were visiting, they were accompanied by Jackie Clouston, the school janitor. They were all digging away as usual and I was going back and fore and saying 'this is something' or 'this isn't something' when Jackie says 'What's this?' and holds up a piece of fired clay. It was a very light coloured, buff sort of clay and it had a scoop out of it which was blackened. It was very obvious smooth scoop and I initially thought that it was a piece of a crucible for melting metal in."

Tom carried the find over to the dig supervisor who agreed that Jackie's discovery was indeed a piece of crucible. Satisfied, Tom headed back over to where the school party were digging.

"But by the time I went back to Jackie he had already turned up more of this - and there was actually a big chunk of it there! So at that point I took over and started excavating very carefully." he said.

Spear butt mould

Working meticulously around the object, Tom cleared away all the surrounding soil and debris and eventually lifted it to reveal a complete section of a mould for casting decorated bronze spear butts.

"It was rounded at the top and square at the bottom so it was a very obviously man-made thing." he explained.

"We carefully cleaned around it until we had uncovered all the sides of it and so the whole thing was just sitting on a peedie lump of ash. When we lifted it the whole thing came up just beautifully in one piece with some of the ash still sticking to it.

"There was this shaft with a couple of rings around it and then this knob at the top from that we could tell that it was what is known as a door-knob spear butt. There was great excitement but unfortunately the bairns had had to leave before that was discovered."

"The nice thing about this was the fact that the bairns had come down to have a shot seeing as it was an excavation in their own parish.

"They'd come down wanting to have a go at digging and the area they were working in was just a piece of midden deposit beside the buildings. Work was being concentrated on the buildings at the time so this area was really finished and wasn't going to be looked at again. If it wasn't for the fact that the bairns were there that would never have been touched and it wouldn't have been found."

The Roman connection

The discovery of artefacts with a distinctly Roman origin - a fibula brooch, pottery fragments and glass - also caused great excitement during the excavation.

Although these discoveries do not necessarily mean that Iron Age Orcadians had direct contact with the Roman Empire, it does show that they knew, or had contact, with someone who did.

What the Roman find did show, however, was the link between Minehowe and Orkney's brochs. Other Roman finds in Orkney have generally been connected to brochs, Gurness, for example, and seems to indicate that a trading network of some sort was in place at the time.

The large quantity of these high quality trading goods unearthed at Minehowe added weight to the idea that the settlement was a prosperous and powerful one.

The "selkie spoon"

After the main excavations at Minehowe were completed, funding was acquired to continue excavating the area around the ditch.

For three weeks the archaeologists worked extending the original ditch trench, uncovering a wealth of artefacts as they worked.

Perhaps the most impressive find of the extended excavation was a small bone "spoon" with what was declared as one of the earliest finds of representative art in Orkney.

Etched into the surface of the delicate little spoon was the distinct outline of a seal.

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