The Whale, The Well and the Fate of the Late, Great Roundhouse  

The Extraordinary Closure of the Cairns Broch

By Bernie Bell

The Whale and The Well

An intriguing title, for a talk about an intriguing place – and who better to give the talk, than Martin Carruthers – Broch-man Extraordinaire.  He’s the man as knows, when it comes to the Cairns broch, and, well, the Iron Age in general!

The talk was scheduled to be in the St. Magnus Centre Kirkwall, on Tuesday 17th March, but, due to the situation with Coronavirus, Orkney Archaeology Society  decided to  postpone it. A difficult, but wise, choice to make.

If we had gone to it, I would have taken photos and written something for The Orkney News, as I know how much it matters to keep the Cairns and Orkney archaeology in general, in the minds of the public.

It’s all a bit ‘up in the air’ now – when talks will be able to happen.  Keep an eye on the OAS website and Facebook

We’ll all have to just wait and see.  There will be a lot of that in the coming months – wait and see.

I was wracking my brains for a way to keep archaeology in the public eye, as some OAS events and talks have had to be postponed – note – postponed, not cancelled!!! – and hit on the idea of writing something based around the idea of Martin’s talk (even though it didn’t happen!) – add some general archaeology associated bits & pieces, and…make something!  Bits & pieces – but better than ‘nowt!

Sean Page’s UHI blog, recently featured a very full and interesting exploration of the animal bone groups found at the Cairns,  including various whale bones……

A stunning find, was a wooden bowl, plus other bits of wood from the Iron Age, which were found in what is referred to as the ‘Well’.  Possibly the conditions there, helped to preserve the wood – a truly exceptional find, from so long ago.  For more information on the bowl from the well….

Mark Newton has made a 3-D copy of the bowl .  I have to admit, that don’t quite understand how these 3-D things are made. It has been explained to me, and I can understand the how, but not the why of the how!  I can see the ‘how’ of the mechanics of the process, but not the why of how data can take solid form.  I  suppose that’s why I’m a scribbler, not a scientist!   I don’t need to understand it, as others do, and can make all kinds of things, using this method.  These replicas are more readily affordable to the interested public, than the hand crafted copies – so, I would say, are a good thing.

Orkney wood-turner, Michael Sinclair  made an absolutely beautiful wooden replica of the Cairns bowl, and makes wooden replicas of other archaeology related objects – my favourites are the carved stone balls.

Casting my net wider than the Cairns – local artist Joan Rodwell makes ceramic copies of the EOASSK  I’d like one made of Basalt, but we can’t always get what we want.

UHI Archaeologist Chris Gee makes carved stone objects – some are replicas of ancient ‘finds’, and some that are his own forms

Simant Bostock makes copies of the Ball of Towie,  made of resin – again, a stone one would be nice, but imagine the time and work that would take, so – I got one of Simant’s resin ones, at the Callanish Visitor Centre.

The less expensive copies definitely serve a purpose – they show the object as it was, and can be available for folk to take a copy home, without too much pressure on the wallet.

The digging season would normally have been fast approaching, but the Ness dig has been postponed until 2021.

Even if the digs don’t happen, there is still on-going  follow up conservation and scientific research from previous years, for example  This doesn’t come cheap, so, if the digs aren’t happening, or if you can’t get to them, but you would still like to help towards a fuller understanding of the work already done, please donate, through the Orkney Archaeology Society , either for a specific excavation, or a general donation to Orkney Archaeology would also be very much appreciated.

donations bucket The Cairns Bell

And, just for fun – A Whalebone Xylophone? – Auskerry…..

whale bone Auskerry B Bell

You never know what the ancient folk might have used the bones for…

Ed’s note: Readers may be interested in further articles about The Cairns and archaeology in Orkney – use the search engine on the site to find out more. Like this one:

The Cairns Broch and a Fin Whale – The End of Two Giants

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2 replies »

  1. Since I wrote the above, the situation has escalated.
    Sean Page presents the current position re. on-going Orkney archaeology very clearly in the UHI blog –

    “If you are a volunteer, professional archaeologists or community archaeologist who was planning to work with us on our projects this year then you should have received an email stating our position as far as the present Covid-19 situation is concerned.
    The present situation (24th March 2020) is as follows:
    • Ness of Brodgar dig is postponed until 2021. See website for more details.
    • The Cairns is also postponed until 2021
    • Skaill, Rousay July 2020 – excavations are postponed. Updates soon on rescheduling.
    • Tombs of the Isles, Neolithic Landscapes of the Dead NILPS project – launch and community archive research is postponed, updates soon.
    • Orkney Energy Landscapes Project – Burgar Hill and Costa Head survey days are postponed, updates soon.
    Also please note that the Scottish Government has stated that you cannot travel to Orkney unless you are a key responder (24th March 2020). These travel restrictions are in place for the next three weeks and will be reviewed weekly. See Pentland Ferries & North Link Ferries websites for more information on travel.
    In these unprecedented times we wish you well and hope to see you very soon.”

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