A Personal Memory Of Caroline Wickham-Jones

By Bernie Bell

I read on the  Ness of Brodgar website of the passing of Caroline Wickham-Jones   https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/the-passing-of-a-great-archaeologist/.  I’m not an archaeologist – could be said to be on the fringes of the Orkney archaeology world, and didn’t know Caroline well, but had some dealings with her. 

We had discussions about the skerry across from the Hall of Rendall in light of the possibility of water levels having risen in that area since the Neolithic, and from there we discussed the grassy mounds heading down into Stenness Loch from near Unstan Cairn.

She was interested – that was the thing about her – receptive to ideas from outside Academia, and inside Academia too.

I’m not sure if it’s right for me to write about her, but I would like to say something in appreciation of the fact that she was a very knowledgeable archaeologist, who had time for less knowledgeable non-archaeologists.

She also made weird little felted standing stones, which I said looked like willy-warmers – and she saw the joke.

So, this is just my appreciation of the knowledge, receptiveness, and sense of humour of Caroline Wickham-Jones, written with all good thoughts to her family and friends and those who really did know her.

Holm of Rendall in the Mist

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  1. Howie Firth asked me to include one of his personal memories of Caroline……

    “What a huge miss she will be.
    first met her around 1981 or so, when I was working for Radio Orkney and she identified a small piece of flint from the Shetland seabed as mesolithic. I visited her in Edinburgh, and saw the flint itself and heard the story from her and the geologist who had found it in a seabed core.

    Later in the 1980s I took her to the farm of my good friend Eoin Scott at Redland, where he opened a small tin of flints that he had come across when ploughing – and it was a great moment when she identified one of them as mesolithic.

    There is so much that she did for archaeology and for Orkney – this is so very sad.
    ………..You’ve highlighted a key aspect, how receptive she was to non-archaeologists and willing to discuss ideas.”


    Here is an OAS recorded talk by Caroline Wickham-Jones. This was an two hander with County Archaeologist Julie Gibson, Summer 2019. On the impact of rising seas on the Orkney coast and archaeology.

  2. She will definitely be missed! What I liked about her was that she was so approachable and willing to discuss even almost ‘heretic’ theories about the functions of ancient structures (in my case deliberations about brochs in the context of catastrophic flooding i.e. tsunami) with people from other disciplines. She took the time to read a lengthy paper which was submitted without prior invitation (and hence no obligation) and provide feedback and opinion, which was very much appreciated.

    Very sad news indeed.

    • Here’s an example – something of the discussion between myself and Caroline after a talk she gave in 2012 about rising sea levels….

      Me – to Caroline….

      “I live in Gorseness, just up and over the hill from the Hall of Rendall (of Doocot fame). Out in the sea across from the Hall of Rendall is a skerry called the Holm of Rendall. On the O.S. map it says that there’s a cairn of this skerry.
      When I go for walks I look at this skerry and have thought that it just doesn’t make sense to have your cairn on a skerry which you have to cross the sea to get to. Imagine the trouble building it, and the risk of in-undation. I know, people will do all sorts of extreme things for their beliefs, but this just didn’t make sense.
      If, however the sea wasn’t there and this was land, it would be a convenient little mound in the landscape, on which to place your cairn. It makes sense now.
      This is just ’round the corner’ from the Bay of Firth, and just down from the cairn on Gairsay, across from the cairn on Rousay, etc. I suppose folks might go to all that trouble to put their cairn on a tiny skerry in the sea, but the lower sea level makes a lot more sense.

      Still with the same little skerry and cairn……you mentioned vague stories of a cairn which folk could get into. Could this be the one? You know how folk muddle up stories. I’m not saying this is the case, it’s just a thought – that there was an awareness of a cairn which folk could get into, and this may be the one, as it’s pretty near. Maybe there is another one right under the sea now, I don’t know, I’m just playing with ideas.”

      Her response…..

      “I’ve checked the Holm of Rendall cairn and there is nothing on it in the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments.
      When I have a moment I’ll check the bathymetry around it and see how deep it gets, but it might be worth trying to get out and having a look because you are right, if there are sites underwater, there will be the odd site that is just above and that would be well worthwhile examining.
      While on RCAHMS I noticed that they have a nice aerial photo of the Holm of Boray just over towards Gairsay – showing a cairnlike accumulation of stone too…”

      Me again…..

      “Glad that was of interest. If you look on the map you’ll see the position of the little cairn on the skerry in relation to the other sites in the area, but it’s also good to see it all from the land. I
      f you walk down the track behind a house called North Aittit, you’ll come to a T junction, in the track. To the left you go down to the Hall of Rendall, to the right you go down to the Bay of Hinderayre. Standing at the T junction, you can see a fine array of sites, sweeping round from Rousay, across Gairsay, round to Wideford, and finally, the cairn on Enya’s Hill, behind you. Not unusual for Orkney, but a lot of sites in and from one place, and the wee skerry cairn, fits in with it nicely. From our house you can almost picture the landscape with the sea farther out.”

  3. Sorry to hear that she had passed. She came on one of my feltingvworkshops with a couple of friends in 2019 I think.
    They were a lovely group. And I have got some of her books. Very easy to read and digest.
    A very clever and interesting lady indeed.

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