The Cairns - Windwick Bay Field Project


Director: Martin Carruthers

The Cairns, Windwick Bay Field Project dig

The Cairns Research Project

Excavation Aims of the Project

  • Investigate the circumstances of the construction, multi-phase use, and abandonment of a major Iron Age broch/Atlantic roundhouse and its associated complex of buildings and feature areas
  • To understand the relationship between the site of The Cairns and its landscape at a variety of levels, and the relationship between the site and the other ancient built places within that landscape
  • To investigate later prehistoric subterranean structures to obtain fresh evidence for how and why these structures were built and used and to make a useful comparison with the souterrain that we have previously excavated at Windwick around 500 metres to the Southeast of The Cairns.

Research Aims and themes of the project

  • Building Iron Age Society, A Broch Biography: We want to investigate the social, political, ritual and economic role of brochs in Orkney and beyond, and we wish to contribute to the understanding of their role(s) more broadly in Atlantic Iron Age Scotland. In the first instance this will be pursued through the full excavation of the entire suite of floor and occupation deposits present within the broch from its inception to the end of its life (a rare occurrence in the modern period). We will also address the role of the broch through substantial, but partial, excavation of extramural deposits, buildings and features relating to periods before, during and after the broch. The project seeks to investigate the phenomenon of the broch as a social project that involved past social practices, performances and processes. Essentially, an Iron Age community built the broch, and through that building project, the community and its social relations were themselves shaped. The wider examination of the landscape is also being used to gauge the impact of broch-building and inhabitation upon the environs of the site in social, environmental and material terms. Key Research Question: What was the societal role of brochs?
  • Living in the Iron Age, Villages and Brochs: In order to understand the broader social context of brochs we want to investigate the phenomenon of broch villages (or extramural complexes) that surround many brochs in Orkney, Caithness, and Shetland. Debate surrounds the precise dating of the villages and whether they were built as absolutely contemporary with the establishment of brochs. If broch villages are primarily contemporary with their brochs, and not due to subsequent aggregation, then the societal forces that led to this development require considerable consideration. If fully contemporary from the outset, then the establishment of possibly more than 100 nucleated broch villages across Orkney suggests the broch phenomenon would have been the result of tremendous change in society and in turn will have brought about an even greater, further impact upon society and the landscape. The broch-village complexes can be seen as a major watershed in the prehistoric trajectory of Orkney, Caithness and Shetland.   Key Research Question: Where villages/extramural complexes built at the same time as brochs were constructed?
  • Power, Status and Households: Beyond the chronology of the villages, a consensus has evolved within Scottish Iron Age studies that the broch villages were composed of families or other social groups who were subservient to a dominant household that was resident within the physically dominant broch. This consensus is reliant on very little actual excavated evidence, beyond architectural layouts, and it is not well established for areas of Atlantic Scotland beyond the Outer Hebrides. Alternative social models for the relationship between brochs and the villages are available, and power relations across the broch villages will likely have been both more complex and fluid through time. The Cairns research project seeks to investigate the relationship between broch and village on a number of fronts, including investigation of relative differences in household food-cultures, artefactual signatures, tasks, labour, and architectural, depositional and spatial patterning in order to provide a more rounded analysis of the broch-village relationship. Key Research Question: Was there a relationship of social difference and power between extramural complexes (villages) and brochs?
  • ‘Deep Histories’, Subterranean Structures and Society: A key part of the research is to investigate the so-called souterrains and wells. These enigmatic subterranean structures have languished in the margins of syntheses for the Atlantic European Iron Age without a great deal of original investigation and interpretation, beyond functionalist analyses. This research project seeks to place these underground architectures at the centre of the excavation work and to contextualise them using the suites of above and belowground remains available at The Cairns. The project seeks to establish whether these structures were more significant to the construction and maintenance of Iron Age societies and communities than previous syntheses have allowed for. Key Research Question: What was the societal role of souterrains and wells?
  • Archaeologies of the Social and Political: We want to use the opportunity of The Cairns to substantially explore the important role that social practices, and political and ritual discourse played in the generation, regeneration and transformation of Iron Age society. We can identify special deposits in the form of: ‘structured-deposition’, and ‘Animal Bone Groups’ (ABG’s). These are just two of the phenomena, present on site, which indicate that recurrent practices such as construction-performances, and deposition of formal, expressive and aesthetic character helped the community mediate and negotiate their place in the world, and their relationships with each other. The ‘odd’ deposits often found across Iron Age sites have only infrequently been properly recorded and investigated, but they are a crucial resource in understanding the social, and cosmological foundations of the agrarian sociology. With notable exceptions most previous excavation-derived analyses of brochs have either elected to concentrate upon architectural-typological aspects, or the socio-economic aspects of brochs with the emphasis firmly upon economics and subsistence as underpinning social formations. The Cairns project seeks to turn this partly on its head to suggest that social relations and ritual practices were both the medium and the outcome of the agrarian and economic activity.  Key Research Question: To what extent can we identify the material residues of social, political and ritual discourse at The Cairns, and do these offer new insights into social and cultural life during the Orcadian Iron Age?

For updates on the excavation at The Cairns see our blog