The Cairns, On A Sunny Sunny Open Day!

By Bernie Bell

This is what happens – you go to a dig, which you’ve been to each year, and you think you’ll be stuck for something to add to what has been said, and photographed, already. Then, you get proved wrong. The Cairns broch and village at Windwick, South Ronaldsay, is rising from the earth, year by year.

Last year, this wall

The Cairns 2019 Bell 1

was there, it’s been there for a few thousand years, but, this year, we can see it – the neat, smart, well balanced stonework. I purposely  included the tyres in the pic, because, without the covers and the tyres to weigh them down, that lovely stonework could be damaged by the winter storms – and we do get some storms, in Orkney!  The tyres, are part of the process, too.

You can’t get much fresher than this, when it comes to archaeology. One of the diggers, a lass from the Netherlands, name Mickey ( “as in Mouse”), kindly took these photos for me

This is the top part of a shell midden, which has been revealed as they dig deeper in that particular area.  This shell midden was deposited just outside the entrance to the broch. Then, when the broch ceased to be lived in, and became a place of reverence, a souterrian was constructed, allowing limited access to the inside of the broch.  By this souterrain, a whale bone, with a man’s jaw bone,  and various animal bones were deposited . And….they were deposited on the cover of this shell midden.

Here in one place, all the foodstuffs and provisions found in the area, are represented – the sea, deer from the hills, domestic animals.  A VERY SPECIAL PLACE.

More especial still – goodness me – how special – is what is being referred to as ‘The Well’.  This was thoroughly explored last year, and offered up some exceptional objects, including a wonderful wooden bowl and some human hair!!!

well The Cairns Bell

And it’s not just the really extra-ordinary finds, such as wooden objects and human hair ( some black, some red – seriously  – some black, some red – people – cutting their hair and leaving it among the other offerings).  Also,  a lot of insects were found, including many beetles.  The thing is – these insects aren’t ones which dropped down there, over the millennia.  They are understood to have been placed  there purposely, before the structure was sealed.

So, certain objects, chosen with care and thought, and placed, then the structure was sealed, so carefully, so well, that nothing else got in there. And then, when it was opened, it becomes a window onto life at that time.

It’s hard to tell from the photo, but there are steps going down into the Well, and Martin (Carruthers), Director of the dig, tells us that they go anti-clockwise – against the sun, as in Mine Howe.

There  are definitely similarities between the Well at The Cairns, and Mine Howe, very possibly similarities in what took place in the two structures, but, for me, the big difference is in the feel of the two places.  At Mine Howe, my belief is that the place was used very specifically, by certain people, on certain occasions, and that the Spirit of Place was not at all pleased about people traipsing up and down, willy-nilly, these days.  This feeling was so strong that I couldn’t descend the steps.

At the Well in The Cairns, the feeling was much different. I felt that the place embraced me. I didn’t go down into it!  I’m not an archaeologist, so, this time, I wasn’t allowed, by the incarnate, not the disincarnate!  But, standing looking at it, down it, I felt it to be a welcoming space. I would have liked to have left something there, inside it – but that wouldn’t be allowed either – confuseanarchaeologist!

My impression is, that Mine Howe was built to impress.  The Well in The Cairns, is more…human, more for the folk living there – part of their lives – maybe like the Neolithic cairns are?  Not just for burial, but for all the human things – hatchings, matchings, and dispatchings. They didn’t bury folk in the brochs! But, were the well structures found in many brochs, centres for the marking of the big steps in a human life?

Standing, looking around, I felt that the Spirit of Place of the broch, welcomes the people there, is pleased that there is life there again.  Only for a few weeks each year, but life, and young life too.  Many of the diggers are young students – keen, eager, interested, wanting to learn. A lot of good energy, being poured into the broch, into that place and space.

Similarities with Mine Howe, and differences too.

The Cairns, is full of life – different spaces within the broch, where different activities will have taken place – people, living – you can easily imagine it, as a working, living place.  And not just working, maybe celebrating too – being human – maybe dancing.  Several beads have been found in the broch, many in one particular area.  Just a thought , but…I like to wear bangles of beads. I like to dance.  How many times, has my dancing with a rather vigorous partner, meant that a bead bangle, has broken – the beads scattering around?  Did that happen here too?

As Martin mentioned, folk tend to see the Iron Age as being a bit grim – grey – iron. That’s the association we have with iron, now – The Iron Lady – but, at The Cairns, as at the Mid Howe  broch on Rousay , there is a strong impression of activity, life, being lived, maybe colour was there too.

I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if they found some painted stone, as at the Ness of Brodgar?  Then, I thought maybe the colour was in textiles, as shown by Amber’s Iron Age Weaving at the Brochtoberfest last year . Or, wall–hangings to add warmth and colour to the big rooms?

OK, Maybe I’m getting carried away there, but…but…but….I can picture it.  Dark hair and red hair, glinting bronze jewellery and glass beads – warm, vibrant textile colours. Not such a grim time to live in, after all.

Around the Well area, there are – I was going to write ‘subsidiary’, but who’s to say they were? – let’s say……other interesting things.  Just along from the Well, there is a chamber in the wall, which you would need to step up, to get into. The other chambers in the wall of the broch, need to be stepped up to, too, but this one – is next to the Well, between the Well and the entrance to the broch, and…there is a lot of ash deposit in front of it. Think about it – Hmmmmmmm

The Cairns 2019 Bell 2

Before we leave the broch – a daisy – a little bit of life, a little sun-symbol, growing between two stones, at the top of the wall, above the Well.

daisy The Cairns Bell

There is much evidence of metal working in the area around the broch – one digger passed by us, muttering “Slag, slag, all I’ve found today is slag”.  One of the archaeology students, funded by the Carnegie Trust, has been doing experimental archaeology with a wee furnace…

experimental furnace The Cairns Bell

He hasn’t produced any metal-work yet, but he has got the furnace working, and I was told that it smells great!

The fact is, next day, writing this, I’m still in a daze from my visit to The Cairns. There is so much there – so much to see, and feel,  and so many stories to be told.

The Cairns dig finishes for this year on Friday 12th July.  If you manage to get there, please donate and help the dig to keep going,

donations bucket The Cairns Bell

and if you don’t manage to get there, please donate anyway – possibly through the Orkney Archaeology Society

Thank you!

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7 replies »

  1. I’ve been thinking some more about this…….I believe the Neolithic cairns to have been, not just tombs, but places for all the big human life markers – where people went to name their children, get joined together, or mark the passing of someone from this life. The ceremonies may have taken place outside the cairn, or, in the case of ceremonies associated with death and internment, partly inside too.
    So, move forward in time, to the Iron Age – folk are no longer commonly buried in cairns, or in barrows, as in the Bronze Age……by the Iron Age, they are often just buried, or cremated. That’s a big generalization, but I’m trying to keep this brief – just to get an idea across.
    So, where were the ceremonies carried out, for burial? I’m not aware of places being found, which would fit this purpose?
    Were the brochs, not only living spaces, but also centres for the community? If you have a baby, do you take it to the broch, to the well ( precursor of the font?), and one of the high status members of the broch inhabitants, names the baby. Same with a wedding. And, if someone has passed from this life, does the community gather in the broch, at the well, for the ‘rites of passage’, before the burial, outside?
    This makes sense to me – where are the structures, places, where Iron Age ceremonies were carried out? To me, a broch fits the bill. Central to the community – a joint effort by the community, to serve the community.
    Just some thoughts.

  2. Bernie, must try and get back to Orkney as it seems a lot has been added since my last visit. I’ll give you a wave tonight from Haston as I head off for my Nieces wedding in Cork on Saturday. Might get back in about a week, you know Irish weddings, LOL.

  3. Hi Charlie – my nephew’s wedding in West Cork ( Glengarriff), lasted four days! It was a hoot!

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