The Cairns Broch Continues to Amaze Archaeologists


Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were astonished last week when they unearthed a two thousand year old wooden bowl from an underground chamber beneath The Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

Cairns wooden bowl

the rim of the 2000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Cairns Broch, Orkney still encased in the silt from The Well

The vessel itself is the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney and will give the team from the UHI Archaeology Institute a unique insight into life in an Iron Age broch in Northern Scotland.

The beautifully preserved object is a complete wood-turned bowl around 30 centimetres in diameter, with an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and rounded base.  Although the object has split at some point in the past, it is complete and was being held together and protected by the muddy silts of the excavation.

The bowl has been confirmed to be made from alder and the dating is known from the location within the subterranean chamber which the archaeologists on site have termed, ‘The Well’

This amazing underground feature, consists of a series of stone cut steps descending into a carefully constructed stone chamber and was sealed when the broch went out of use and abandoned sometime between the Later 1st and Mid-2nd Century AD. It is assumed that the bowl dates from this period also, however, radiocarbon dating will be required to see if it could be even earlier than this time.

In addition to the bowl, there are preserved plant fibres, some of which appear to be woven together by human hands, and at least two other wooden objects, which seem to be pegs or stakes, similar in cross section to modern tent pegs.  Substantial quantities of other waterlogged plant material including grasses, heather, and seeds, are also present.  There appears to be more waterlogged objects waiting to be lifted from the silt.  Ancient insect remains and probably a host of other tiny items, perhaps including parasite eggs and coprolites (fossilised faeces), may even be found.

Site Director, Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said:

The Cairns Martin Carruthers FG

Martin Carruthers

‘It’s miraculous that we’ve got this wooden vessel.  It’s really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at The Cairns!

“In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink.

“Its round base makes you think that it would have been required to be constantly held when full, and perhaps used socially, passed around from hand to hand, person to person.

“It’s already been nicknamed the ‘Cairns Quaich’ or the ‘Cairns Cog’* by the team. “

“I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of the ‘well’, for one thing it’s not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water, but if it were used to gently scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket or, dare I say it, poured as a libation, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps”.

There is still much work to do in the well, and there are other amazing remains to be recovered from the silts there, as well as across the site.

The excavations are on-going and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time.   The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects.  It is hoped that funds can be raised as soon as possible to pay for specialist conservation.

For more information please visit The Cairns Dig Diary

Related stories:

The Cairns: The Broch Continues to Reveal its Secrets

Iron Age Orkney: Evidence of a New Social Structure?

Bernie Bell: The Cairns – the story of a broch


Orkney cog*In Orkney a cog is a traditional alcoholic drink consumed in a wooden vessel at weddings and passed around to celebrate the marriage.

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