The Broch of Gurness: Brochtoberfest III

“A splendid example of a broch, most intelligently well preserved”

Soaked to the skin with driving rain the Brochtoberfest III audience was not put off an expert guided tour of the Broch of Gurness, Evie, Orkney on Sunday the 21st of October.

Broch of Gurness Octoberfest N Morrison

The tour was led by Martin Carruthers of the Archaeology Institute of Orkney College UHI.

broch of Gurness FG

The Broch of Gurness was discovered by accident in the 1930s and excavated over the next few years with a gap during World War II. The aim of the early excavation, overseen by the then Ministry of Works was to present the site to the public so that they would better understand the broch as a building. In terms of today that excavation of such a complex and multi layered site was quite quick. As a result of those techniques much that was not considered of ‘significance’ was simply dumped.

broch of Gurness 2 FG

The artefacts which were kept have little to signify where they were found – both their location in/out of the broch and the chronological layer in which they were unearthed. The site was used for thousands of years not just by the broch builders.

Out of Place and Out of Time

The ‘shamrock’ house was one of perhaps 6 found in a layer most likely described as ‘Pictish’. The only one remaining today was in such a good state of repair  that it was moved, stone by stone and relocated nearby so that the broch could be further investigated.

shamrock house Broch of Gurness FG

Also discovered was the Viking grave of a high status woman with her grave goods. It is to the seaward side of the site.

Viking grave Broch of Gurness FG

Martin Carruthers described the broch as “a superlative example of what a broch looks like.

“A splendid example of a broch, most intelligently well preserved”

It is possible to say how people moved about within the broch with the arrangement of the doorways.

Unknown is what the social status of the broch was and of the village. Indeed it is now being questioned that the village was present when the broch was first built. It may be that over generations as the broch itself changed then the settlement of small houses and other structures around it evolved.

village at Broch of Gurness FG

Today Martin Carruthers explained that we are increasingly interested in what was actually happening at the broch.

“What were people doing in them and how did they relate to one another.”

The old premise that these were purely defensive structures with small communities living in isolation is being refuted as evidence emerges from more recent digs, as at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay. Finds that show the inhabitants were trading extensively – tin from the south of England and reworking Roman metal objects.

It is not known how much has been lost to the sea of the broch site, however, Martin Carruthers suggests that looking at the line of the outside ditches it is likely that 80% or more of it is still present.

The adjacent field has been surveyed using geophysics and nothing has shown up in it.

The people of the broch were engaged in intensive farming. Cattle, sheep and pigs and providing their community with not just meat products but also dairy. Despite being on the coast they are not fishing.

At Orkney during this period of the Iron Age it is estimated that the population of the islands would number perhaps 10,000+ with the broch and its village supporting 100 -150 people.

Brochs may not have been the only forms of settlement but nothing has yet been found of other structures which may have supported communities at this time in Orkney.

Inside the broch itself there are many interesting features to suggest how people may have used it. It would have been quite dark, having no windows, but lit by lamps. The lamps would have oil from various animals.

There are 2 hearths – a large central one and another one off in a side cell.

side hearth at Broch of Gurness FG

There is a well, now with a metal mesh over it, but which is located between the doorway and the hearth. Set within the floor and flush with the level of it are tanks which many have been lined with clay. This would make them water tight. Stone lids indicate that these could be covered over.

steps Broch of Gurness FGIn the walls of the broch a circling edge signifies that there was an upper mezzanine. This could have been reached by internal ladders. It is now being proposed that the stone steps between the inner and outer walls were used during the building process and not to access upper levels during habitation.

Roofed most likely with some form of thatch/wood construction which would span the whole building and overlapping it the broch would accommodate many people. There were 60 in it for Brochtoberfest and there was still space to move around.

New interpretation boards and an information leaflet are being produced by Historic Environment Scotland as our understanding of how brochs were used is being reassessed.

The visit was arranged by the Orkney Archaeological Society as part of Brochtoberfest III.

Broch of Gurness N Morrison

Reporters: Fiona Grahame and Nick Morrison

4 replies »

  1. “In terms of today that excavation of such a complex and multi layered site was quite quick. As a result of those techniques much that was not considered of ‘significance’ was simply dumped.”

    Doesn’t this make us appreciate the painstaking work which is done, now, on a site such as The Cairns, or, of course, The Ness of Brodgar, where every little thing, every little trace, is fully investigated.
    We are presented with the Broch of Gruness in its entirety – but we can see The Cairns, rising from the earth, with all its layers and levels. And the same is true, of the Ness of Brodgar.

    I wonder where all the material which was excavated from Skara Brae was ‘dumped’, and what that might still tell us, if we could locate it?
    Here’s an extract from this article ………….

    “In Antonia Thomas’ book, in the chapter about Skara Brae, Antonia mentions that there had been a photographic record taken of the site before the big storm of 1924. Seeing Skara Brae as it is now – all manicured – I thought how good it would be for folk to see these images from when it was first discovered. And, Antonia, being that wonderful thing, an approachable archaeologist, was good enough to send me a link to the relevant archive images.


    The museum exhibition also takes us back to the early discovery of Skara Brae, and the resulting ‘finds’, including dear old Buddo, who went into retirement for a while, and then made a ’come back’ recently! It’s interesting, and refreshing, to see Skara Brae as it was when it was first revealed – I know it couldn’t have been left like that, as it would have deteriorated terribly, but, even in the mess it was in then, it looked more ‘lived in’ – had more of a link with when it was lived in, to me, than it does now. I know….it’s needed for it to be as it is – but….it’s just all so tidy – you can get some sense of the lives lived there, but – no one, apart from people in some kind of ‘Stepford Wives’ scenario, lives so tidily. Some kind of level between the earliest images, and how it is now, might be something like how it was lived in.

    This got me thinking about the Ness of Brodgar, and thinking I hope it won’t be tidied up too much. One day, when the dig is complete (when might that be? – like Topsy, it just grows and grows), it might be handed over to The Powers That Be, who might insist, for example, that it was covered over to ‘protect’ it, thereby losing all the links with the surrounding area. No more standing and looking over to Hoy Hills, no more standing and looking over to Staneyhill ( I particularly like it that I can go up on the viewing platform, and look way over to Staneyhill). And….a big THING, imposed on the landscape. I wouldn’t put it past them!
    We’ll have to wait and see. I suppose once the digging is done, there will have to be a plan for the site which will protect it – but……….there’s ways and ways! We’ll have trust to the good sense of all the archaeologists involved, to make sure that the place is treated right when it comes to the time to make decisions about its maintenance and conservation.”

    And that takes me back to The Cairns – and how lucky we are to be able to see it emerging. The Broch of Gurness is a great place to be – we sometimes eat our sandwiches there, sitting on a wall, looking about us and appreciating – and it also tells us so much about life back then, especially when that information is illuminated by the knowledge of folk such as Martin Carruthers.
    Combine the two – The Broch of Gurness, as it is, and what it presents to us, and The Cairns and how it is slowly revealing more and more about that time. Goodness me!

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