That grey area between museums and archaeology

Museum networks are pretty strong and active in Scotland – whether an independent museum, local authority or national, a freelance curator or educator – there is a networking body for you. One such is the Scottish Museums Federation, of which I am an ordinary member, and semi-regularly write a blog post on work my work with the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF). I think of myself as being a museums person working on an archaeological project – a funny grey area where I’m not a curator, nor an archaeologist (strictly speaking). The SMF blog, then, is a really valuable way of sharing the archaeological side of my work for a museums audience, and likewise hopefully any archaeologists reading this will get an insight to a more museums-y focused project. So, this post has also been shared on the SMF blog, which you can see here.


For a number of years now, there has been a project running called Day of Archaeology, wherein people working in the myriad different fields of archaeology (excuse the pun) write a blog post of what they have been up to that day. It’s provided a great insight to a ‘life in the day of’ archaeologists, not just in the UK but spanning all corners of the globe. Sadly, today is the last ever Day of Archaeology. I thought, then, that this might be a nice opportunity for another blog post showing where my job fits into the archaeological world, being as it is in that grey area betwixt museums and archaeology.

I’ve written a couple of posts before about my project (Museums Officer for the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework) but this will give an insight to an ‘average’ day in the ScARF office.

I start by checking emails – who doesn’t – reading up on latest museum news from various mailing lists and catching up with to-do notes I’ve left myself. Much ScARF time can be taken up with meetings, events, admin and dealing with incoming requests. With a team of two part-time staff, managing our time is crucial. But, this month is uncharacteristically office-based so it is that I’m working through panel reports and research recommendations spanning all of Scottish archaeology.

 Basketry in the care of Orkney Islands Council museum service. ©Anna MacQuarrie

Basketry in the care of Orkney Islands Council museum service. ©Anna MacQuarrie

These recommendations come from the 2012 ScARF panel reports and will form the beginning of a research framework for farming and fishing, based upon the work I’m doing with museums in Aberdeenshire and Orkney. It’s a new approach for ScARF and will take into account research on museum collections in both the aforementioned regions. A favourite part of this for me is producing maps and visual aides to help me visualise just where the collections and questions cross-over, if at all. My manager, Emma, is a whiz with data and GIS so we’re able to produce some nice maps and visuals.

Whilst all this work is very archaeological, I have to remind myself at all times that the collections in each area come front-and-centre. A quick flick through the photos I’ve amassed from visit to each area helps with this at a glance, as does the paperwork I share with my colleagues in each museum service. Their collections are broad, interesting and really speak of the places they represent.

Arbuthnot Museum whaling display, Aberdeenshire Council museums service ©Anna MacQuarrie

Arbuthnot Museum whaling display, Aberdeenshire Council museums service ©Anna MacQuarrie

When I’ve finished reading as much as I can handle in one go, I turn to thinking about the skills workshops we want to deliver, helping to bridge that gap between archaeologists and museum professionals. We’re looking at what themes and skills would be appropriate, who might be able to help us deliver and so on. Logistics, asking nicely and identifying needs – three important parts of the process.

Medieval fishing hook in the care of Aberdeenshire council museums service ©Anna MacQuarrie

Medieval fishing hook in the care of Aberdeenshire council museums service ©Anna MacQuarrie

Finally, I review what details need sorted out for forthcoming visit to our project partners – travel, accommodation, making sure everyone who needs to know does know. My next SMF blog post will be from the road, as I visit colleagues in Aberdeenshire again at the end of next month. ‘Til then – happy Day of Archaeology!

Get in touch: anna@socantscot.org

For more information on ScARF go here: http://www.scottishheritagehub.com/

For more information on the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland see here: http://www.socantscot.org/

ScARF is being funded by Historic Environment Scotland and Museums Galleries Scotland.

Dispatches from Edinburgh: ScARF project & museums – part 2

A blank powerpoint presentation being presided over by Joseph Anderson FSA Scot (1916-1832)

A blank powerpoint presentation being presided over by Joseph Anderson FSA Scot (1916–1832)

Lunches had, cups of tea refreshed twice over (the only thing this office loves more than archaeology is tea – fact) I spend the first part of my afternoon doing some admin: monthly reports, target checking, timesheets etc. As the ScARF project I’m working on is funded (thank you, Historic Environment Scotland & Museums Galleries Scotland!) I need to dedicate time to considering my work in the context of outcomes and indicators. As I’ve not been in the job long (question from my boss: “when I can stop calling you ‘new’?“) this also helps me focus my work as I continue to get to grips with the wider ScARF project.

Targets, outcomes, indicators, targets, outcomes, indicators...

Targets, outcomes, indicators, targets, outcomes, indicators…

Admin duly administrated, I can focus back on preparatory work for Orkney. I’ll be giving a few talks when I’m there, spreading the ScARF and museums gospel, so I’m busy drawing up plans for what these will entail. Though I’ve mentioned Orkney already, it’s not just there that I’ll be working with museums. Later on in the project I’ll also be working with the Aberdeenshire Council museums service on their collections. While both museums services have Recognised Collections and rich archaeological landscapes around them, they are both really different. It’ll be interesting to see how each museum service benefits from our project, and how our work varies with the different museums involved.

Meeting notes, to-do lists, mind-maps. Therein lies the heart of the museum project. And tea. Always tea.

In preparing talks and any work for Orkney I need to consider how relevant it might also be to Aberdeenshire – I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to working with my colleagues there later on. The main research topics I’m looking at just now are farming and fishing, so I return to my trusty documents (the ScARF panel reports are free to view online or download here) and see how they’re referenced, and how museums might already have contributed to them.

Perhaps in a couple of months time I’d have some rather more exciting photos to share (who doesn’t love a good museum store?) but for now these will have to do. Last but not least… why not sign up to our monthly e-newsletter at http://eepurl.com/bCFibT to keep up-to-date with all things ScARF.

Of bubbles & badges: Yesnaby Art & Archaeology Research Project

Yesnaby Art & Archaeology Research Project

Fieldwork: 20–31 July 2015, Yesnaby, Orkney: www.yaarp.org.uk

The Yesnaby Art & Archaeology Research Project (YAARP) is envisaged as a multi-year art and archaeology project, based in Orkney within the Archaeology Institute University of the Highlands and Islands. The project aims to investigate the landscape of Yesnaby, in the West Mainland of Orkney, as a means of developing our understanding and public awareness of this important but comparatively unknown archaeological landscape. 2015 is the first year of fieldwork and a combination of magnetic survey alongside visual arts practice is being undertaken. The core area of interest this year are the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age landscapes, comprising settlement, field systems, and other traces of human activity, in the area of the Peerie Hill on the south side of the valley.

YAARP was devised, and is led by, Dr James Moore and Rik Hammond. James is a lecturer at the Archaeology Institute University of the Highlands and Islands, whose main research interests are in landscape archaeology, geophysical and field survey, and later British Prehistory, principally in Atlantic Scotland. He is particularly interested in the integration of traditional survey techniques, phenomenological and experiential approaches, and artistic practice in recording, interpreting and presenting archaeological landscapes. Rik is a visual artist based in Orkney who works in a wide range of media – including drawing, video, digital/data-derived media and time-based interaction/intervention. Between 2011 and 2012, he was the Orkney World Heritage Site artist-in-residence and continues to work alongside archaeologists and other heritage professionals at sites in Orkney, such as the Ness of Brodgar, The Cairns excavations and The Orkney Museum. Rik and James began collaborating in 2011 and YAARP is the culmination of a development in their shared practice and research.

This year, the YAARP fieldwork team also includes: Emma Aitken, Christopher Gee, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, Sorcha Kirker, Colin Mitchell, Julie Ritch and Holly Young – a mix of volunteers, undergraduate and post-graduate students and staff from the University of the Highlands and Islands.

On the Day of Archaeology 2015, Rik kept hand-written notes throughout the day:

6.30am: Alarm. Up to make a cup of tea, feed the cat and hens, and make a packed lunch. Forecast is for a fine day. Walking boots still a bit damp from yesterday’s wet weather, but newspaper scrunched-up inside overnight has helped. Check the YAARP Facebook page on the iPad whilst the kettle boils – 136 Likes. Take various batteries off charge and look inside the fridge to decide what to put in my buns. Banana for breakfast.


Banana for breakfast

YAARP DoA Diary 2

Preparing my packed lunch

7.00am: Make a cuppa for my partner and feed the cat (who didn’t get fed earlier and is now complaining). Put batteries in handheld Garmin GPSr, camera and video camera – and while I remember, rescue work trousers from the tumble dryer (they were also damp last night from yesterday’s rain). Finish getting dressed. Wearing much of the same clothes as yesterday – layers, ready for any weather (it is Orkney, despite being late July). Turn on GPSr (we’ve been tracking our movements all week during YAARP fieldwork, for use in developing visuals/maps etc.).

7.30am: Pack bags for the day. Two small rucksacks with packed lunch, flask, water bottles, cameras, sketchbook and pencils/pens, iPad, mini-tripod, waterproofs, hat, gloves, project paperwork, sunscreen and insect repellent – plus various bits and pieces like phone, penknife, whistle, torch, plasters etc. Oh, and three bubble making wands, our project badges (which have now arrived in the post) and a book on artists’ postcards… but more on those later.

7.45am: Head out and walk up to the top of the village (I live in St Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay, in Orkney) to meet fellow YAARP project team member Colin, who lives nearby and is driving us to Kirkwall where the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is located.

YAARP DoA Diary 3

St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

YAARP DoA Diary 4

Crossing the Churchill Barriers on the way to Kirkwall

8.20am: Arrive Archaeology Institute at Orkney College UHI and meet the rest of the fieldwork team for today: UHI archaeology students Holly and Sorcha, and co-deviser and project director Dr James Moore (we also currently comprise Emma, Christopher, Sarah Jane and Julie, who aren’t with us today). Load the site van with project equipment (a Trimble paired global positioning system and two dual sensor Bartington Grad601-2 fluxgate gradiometers, laptop, tripod, field pegs, bamboo canes, ranging poles, plus project’s camera, GPSr and iPad) and our own kit. We head off to Yesnaby via a quick stop at the Kirkwall Co-Op.

Sorcha and Holly load the van with equipment

Sorcha and Holly load the van with equipment

Our transport, library and refuge from the weather for the day

Our transport, library and refuge from the weather for the day

9.20am: We pass our colleagues at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological excavations in Stenness and give them a wave, before opening our ‘Provocations & Interventions’ envelope for the day (a random envelope each day, containing a creative task or challenge for the team to consider, develop or complete – written by me and the contents unknown to the rest of the team). Today’s intervention is to site the location of our lunch break at least 500m away from where we ordinarily eat, in order to encourage us to break habit and experience the site from a different perspective.

Passing the Ness of Brodgar

Passing the Ness of Brodgar

The Ness of Brodgar excavations

The Ness of Brodgar excavations

YAARP Provocations & Interventions - a daily, random sealed envelope with a task

YAARP Provocations & Interventions

9.35am: Arrive on site in Yesnaby – through farm gate and up track to park up by the derelict farm of Roundadee (a few hundred metres west of the fields we are surveying and just north of Peerie Hill and Cringla Fiold, aka Kringlafiold). It’s a fine, warm day out in Yesnaby and the views are glorious – west to the Atlantic and the famous Yesnaby cliffs and east towards the top of the Stenness loch, Brodgar and the Orphir hills in the distance. It’s a welcome change to the intermittent heavy rain, wind and overcast skies of the last couple of days and the team are in a bright, positive mood. We all apply sunscreen and insect repellent – the abundant horse-flies have been hungry this week and aren’t likely to leave us alone today. Before carrying the surveying equipment to the field, I pass out our new YAARP badges (plus a few I had made following The Cairns archaeological excavations last month, where we’ve also all been) and we discuss the plans for today. After a few photographs, Holly, Sorcha and James remove their badges (unwillingly), as they’re working with the gradiometers and need to be non-magnetic, otherwise it’ll distort the data being collected. Colin volunteers to be on pegging-out duty – continuing to lay out plastic stakes in a grid pattern across the field – and has also brought along his own experimental, open-source GPS, to calibrate with the station point we’ve marked in the field. Sorcha and Holly are doing the magnetic surveying today. Sorcha hasn’t used a gradiometer before, so is given instruction on how by James. Holly has had her training (and has taken to geophysics like a duck to water), so sets off to continue work. I put up the camping chairs and set the video camera up on a tripod to film some of the movement around the field. I also take the opportunity to scribble down a few notes for this diary.

YAARP DoA Diary 10

The gate to Roundadee

The new  YAARP badge

The new YAARP badge

Sorcha & Holly excited to receive their badges

Sorcha & Holly excited to receive their badges

 11.00am: It’s 11am by the time we’re properly under-way today – a bit later than usual. We’re all scattered around the large field (Field ‘1’ – our geophysics project number is ‘595’) – so we have to shout to speak to one another and it’s a bit like a giant, loud game of ‘telephone’. I spend some time photographing everyone and listening to James instructing Sorcha on how to use her gradiometer (I should be having a go next week). Weather warm and fine. Horse-flies are feasting on us.

James instructing Sorcha in the use of a gradiometer

James instructing Sorcha in the use of a gradiometer

Sorcha & Holly conducting geophysics in Field 1

Field 1: Sorcha & Holly conducting geophysics – James & Colin in the distance

1.00pm: We break for lunch just before 1 and decide to eat in the field today (as it’s around 500m away from where we usually break by the van). During lunch Sorcha proposes we discuss her idea for a YAARP themed board-game (an idea which came from creative discussions the previous day around mapping, landscape interpretation, the history of Yesnaby, possible project postcards and heritage merchandising). James had also proposed we develop avatars or symbolic pictograms representing ourselves and this ties in with possible fictional board-game characters or superheroes. We come up with names for our alternate personae. I show Sorcha and Holly the book on artists’ postcards (we put together an idea yesterday for a YAARP one, using GPS tracks to create a map of the site, and including ourselves and named locations in the area). Most of our breaks have been group discussions about art and archaeology – where there’s cross-over and comparisons. Having a small, tight-knit fieldwork team has aided this. We watch James download the data from the gradiometers to the laptop, while he eats his sandwiches and we all have a look at the results via the Geoplot software. Colin shows us his home-made, kit form GPS and connects it up via Bluetooth to his smartphone and tablet, linking it into Google Earth and QGIS software. We talk about the comparisons between low-cost tech solutions, potentially suitable for community archaeology projects etc. and expensive, professional gear. He picks up a signal on his smartphone and checks the YAARP Facebook page where we have a message from a page follower who remembers the derelict farm Roundadee when it was inhabited. We learn about an outbuilding’s roof which was covered in toy doll’s heads! On the way back to the van – heading out to Skaill, beside Skara Brae, to use the public toilets – we glance over to the ruins of the outbuilding, now overgrown with thistles and nettles. Perhaps later…

The derelict farm of Roundadee

The derelict farm of Roundadee

Colin photographing his GPS set-up for the project Facebook page

Colin photographing his GPS set-up for the project Facebook page

2.30pm: We’re all back in the field by now (it takes a while to drive out to Skaill and back and due to the size of our team, follow the ‘if one person needs to go, we all go’ approach, for safety). Colin’s dutifully pulling out field pegs, in lines up and down the field, and Holly and Sorcha are determined to attempt to finish surveying the (rather large) field today. It’s all been about ‘lines’ today. I must bring in Tim Ingold’s book ‘Lines: A Brief History’ to add to the project library we have in the back of the site van (which includes Colin Renfrew’s ‘Figuring It Out: What Are We? Where Do We Come From? The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists’, ‘Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory’ by Lucy Lippard, Merlin Coverley’s ‘Psychogeography’, ‘Stone Worlds: Narratives and Reflexivity in Landscape Archaeology’ by Barbara Bender, Sue Hamilton and Christopher Tilley and ‘Counter-tourism: The Handbook’ by Crab Man (aka Phil Smith), amongst others). Despite not having much time in the field to read, the idea of the project library/reading list is to encourage discussions and further research by the team.

Field 1

Field 1

4.00pm: As it’s Friday, the end of our first week (and still sunny and warm), I bring out the bubble-making wands. James has a go (despite naming himself ‘The Beard’ in our alternate persona project, we begin to call him ‘Bubble Boy’) before we get Colin up from the bottom of the field to help fill the air around Holly and Sorcha with bubbles as they continue to survey with the gradiometers. It’s slightly surreal, but great fun – the idea being to get some photographs with the landscape around us altered in some way. We all agree that we need more and bigger bubbles in the future (e.g. the huge white bubble in the 60s TV series The Prisoner)! Sorcha finishes her work and joins in with the bubble making – and for a moment we witness an interesting psychogeographic moment where Holly is continuing to walk around following the strict grid pattern (at a steady, controlled pace) as she surveys with her gradiometer… combined with Sorcha, drifting about, lost in bubbles – with no idea where she is going or where she is. It’s still and almost silent up in the field beside Peerie Hill. The only sounds are the birds, the odd moo and bleet from livestock nearby and our laughing.



Holly & Sorcha - with bubbles

Holly & Sorcha – with bubbles

Colin & James - with bubbles

Colin & James – with bubbles

Sorcha drifting with bubbles - Holly surveying

Sorcha drifting with bubbles – Holly surveying

5.30pm: It’s probably gone 5 by the time we leave site and head back to Orkney College UHI to unpack the van and head our different ways home. James and I are meeting up tonight, with our partners, for a regular tabletop gaming session (maybe one day we’ll be play-testing a YAARP board-game). Until Monday…

Geoplot data of Field 1 (24 July 2015)

Geoplot data of Field 1 (24 July 2015)


Moving a site on Sanday – Bronze Age buildings, a well with steps, and much, much more.

Never assume you know what you’re going to find – sites always throw up surprises. SCAPE’s project with the Sanday Archaeology Group in Orkney is a perfect example… who thought we’d find a Bronze Age well during a reconstruction project!

Steps down into the well, with water at the bottom. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Steps down into the well ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Our Day of Archaeology 2014 was very eventful, and to get an idea of the hive of activity, see a time lapse film of the first two hours on site. The Day came half way through our project on Sanday, where we were working with the local group to relocate a previously excavated Bronze Age site. Local residents had reported structures revealed on a beach after a storm, leading to an emergency evaluation (it was thought that there might be a burial within the stone tank). The excavation had showed the site to be one of only a handful of burnt mounds with surviving structures within them. After the excavation, the sea continued to attack the stone tank, orthostats and a corbelled cell, and the local group wanted to preserve something of the site by moving some of the stones to their newly opened Heritage Centre, away from the sea. The group contacted SCAPE’s Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project – and a plan to relocate the stonework was devised as a ShoreDig project.

The Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk logo  ©SCAPE

The Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk logo ©SCAPE

Before we could transfer the large stone slabs to the Heritage Centre, we had to reveal the masonry from under the beach cobbles. The original excavation had located a corbelled cell buried in the coastal section, but health and safety concerns had prevented full excavation. By the time we started digging in early July, the sea had eroded back the coast edge, allowing access the cell. After getting our Shetland stonemasons, Jim Keddie and Rick Barton, to check the structure, we excavated demolition and backfill material to reveal six steps leading down to an underground chamber.

Excavating the Bronze Age well on Sanday ©SCAPE

Excavating the Bronze Age well on Sanday ©SCAPE

The prehistoric structure stood three metres high to the top of its corbelled roof. The lower chamber was full of water; and the silt at the bottom of the well was full of remarkably well-preserved organic material (I’ve never seen Bronze Age seaweed before). Part of our Day of Archaeology was spent sampling the organic silts, bagging 100% of the material for future analysis.

Bronze Age seaweed from the well excavated on a beach, Sanday, Orkney. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Bronze Age seaweed from the well excavated on a beach, Sanday, Orkney. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Burnt mounds often have a large trough or tank, and in Scotland, some of these tanks are made of large, flat slabs of stone. We excavated the cut for the stone tank, finding that the base was far larger than the size of the tank – and that the four side-stones had been placed on the flat slab at the bottom.

Preparing to move the base slab of the stone tank.©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Preparing to move the base slab of the stone tank. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Much of our Day of Archaeology was spent moving the last of the stones to the reconstruction site. We plotted the relative positions of the stones with an EDM; and photographed, numbered and drew all the stones before lifting them. Jo and Ellie from SCAPE worked with Sanday Archaeology Group members to prepare the site so that the stones could be lifted. A second team of local volunteers were ready with tractors, trailers, digger and slings to move the stones off site.

Moving stones from the site at Meur ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Moving stones from the site at Meur ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Once the base slab was lifted, we saw that it had been built over an earlier, possibly corbelled, structure, perhaps explaining why such a large stone was used. This was very unexpected, and we managed to capture the moment as part of the filming we were doing for possible inclusion in the next series of Digging for Britain.

Jo filming Tom while stones are moved in the background. ©Ellie Graham/SCAPE

Jo filming Tom on site. ©Ellie Graham/SCAPE

Our Day of Archaeology was a great success – to learn more about what we found, (and what was under the slab) visit our Facebook page; or follow us on Twitter.

How to Tell Scotland’s Stories in Just Twelve Months

It’s a busy day here in the Dig It! 2015 office and we can’t wait to share it with you. Just because we’re in an office and not knee deep in mud, doesn’t mean that our jobs are any less exciting! Trust me.

OpeningIn case you haven’t heard of us, Dig It! 2015 is a year-long celebration of Scottish archaeology, co-ordinated by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Archaeology Scotland. Two fantastic organisations, which are definitely worth checking out.

From kids taking over museums, and people exploring the story of their own local area, to digs, festivals, competitions, there are so many ways for people to get involved. We will also be exploring our past through song, art, performance and story-telling. It will be exciting, fun, grassroots and messy – just like archaeology and archaeologists.

But somebody has to set it all up! This means that the Dig It! 2015 team is always running around, meeting with organisations and individuals and coming up with fantastical new ideas to celebrate Scottish archaeology. Yup, “fantastical”. You heard me.

Today, wGlasgowe started off by catching up from yesterday’s meeting in Glasgow. Two members of the team met with a Scots Language Development Officer at Education Scotland to discuss how they could get involved in Dig It! 2015.  The resulting idea was the “Archaeology of Language” using two of our themes – Identities and Arrivals – to explore how the people who have settled in Scotland have left their mark on our language, through the words we use, the placenames we have and even our own surnames. 

We also have a very interesting meeting next week, where we will start to combine archaeology with gaming, so we made sure that everyone was caught up on all of the details. This could be a great way to engage with young people who might not have thought about archaeology before now. What will come from the meeting? A game? An app? A lecture? Who knows!?


For lunch, we walked through the Meadows to Summerhall, which is a creative hub for the arts. We’re currently working with various artists and theatre companies, and we are always looking to add something new to the programme. Again, this is a great way to engage with new audiences. After all, archaeology is for everyone!

Finally, we booked our tickets to Orkney. Orkney is pretty much bursting at the seams with Scottish archaeology, so we can’t wait to visit! We’ll be meeting with various organisations in order to find out what we can do for them. By helping them to raise awareness of their efforts, these organisations should be able to reach a wider audience, which will enable them to continue their important work.

Then it was time to head out, but even on our days off, we always have our eyes open for any potential project tie-ins. On Sunday, for example, one of our team members will be hosting an archaeology Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. An archaeologist’s work is never done!

If any of you would like to get involved with Dig It! 2015, please do not hesitate to contact us at info@digit2015.com. It’s going to be a great year!

Dorothy Graves McEwan (RCAHMS) – Orkney

Orkney ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Orkney ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’


My name is Dr Dorothy Graves McEwan and I am the Skara Brae Project Cataloguer at RCAHMS. Skara Brae is the best preserved Neolithic settlement site in Western Europe, and through this distinction has become a World Heritage site beloved by many people the world over. This unique site captured the imagination of antiquarians in the 19th century. It continues to fascinate archaeologists, myself included, to this very day.

My first ferry ride to Orkney. Copyright the author

My first ferry ride to Orkney. Copyright the author

My reasons for loving Skara Brae are entirely personal. In 2004, in the early days of research for my PhD, I took a trip up with my boyfriend (now husband) to visit archaeological sites in the Highlands.  Eventually, we pointed the car north and just kept driving until we came to John o’Groats. We looked at each other and said, “Why not?”

Onto the ferry we went, and the next thing I knew, I was staring at the glorious remains of a settlement that reminded me so much of The Flintstones that I had to laugh. At that moment, standing above House 7, I realised I was entranced by the Scottish Neolithic. It has since become a research passion.

Skara Brae; house 7. Copyright RCAHMS (SC346480)

Skara Brae; house 7. Copyright RCAHMS (SC346480)

An average day of my work currently consists of delving into containers of archive material that was created by archaeologists Dr David V Clarke and Dr Alexandra Shepherd, who in the 1970s excavated material from Skara Brae’s middens. A midden can be considered a fancy archaeological word for the ‘trash’ heap, where literally anything and everything can be found deposited. It is by excavating the midden so carefully that Clarke and Shepherd have been able to open a door into the past that might have otherwise remained closed forever.  By combining their work with Prof V Gordon Childe’s iconic excavations in the 1930s, we know so much more about the daily life of the people who built and lived at Skara Brae.

Skara Brae: Vere Gordon Childe in hut 8. Copyright RCAHMS (SC372285)

Skara Brae: Vere Gordon Childe in hut 8. Copyright RCAHMS (SC372285)

The midden has revealed an extensive diet including plants, shellfish, fish, wild birds, deer, and pigs. They created stone, wooden and bone objects and tools. They even possessed artwork: beautiful pieces such as carved stone balls and incised decorations that appear on some of the stonework.

Skara Brae Finds Photograph: Bone and stone objects, including mattocks and carved stone objects. Copyright  Historic Scotland (SC1165931)

Skara Brae Finds Photograph: Bone and stone objects, including mattocks and carved stone objects. Copyright Historic Scotland (SC1165931)





All of this and so much more will be forthcoming in a final report by Dr Clarke and Dr Shepherd. In the meantime, it is my job to catalogue the material into a singular Collection that any member of the public can easily consult online or in person at RCAHMS.

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.