Winter digging in Orkney

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

Thinking about archaeological digs in Orkney conjures up images of spectacular finds in an idyllic setting, such as the chambered tomb at Swandro in Rousay or of course the amazing site at the Ness of Brodgar in the West Mainland, all taking place in the context of research archaeology, so in the summer months when the weather's better.

However a lot of archaeology - even in Orkney - is of the rather more mundane variety known as commercial or contract archaeology, involving routine evaluations, watching briefs and excavations in advance of construction work. Since construction is an all year round activity it follows that, although winter weather here at 59 degrees North can be best described as inclement, the archaeologists have to be out in all weathers too.

An evaluation requires targeted trenches to be dug, usually across areas identified by geophysical survey as possibly having archaeology, whilst a watching brief usually follows on, requiring construction activity that might disturb buried archaeology to be monitored by an archaeologist.

This would be fine, except that, unlike the digger drivers, the archaeologist doesn't have the protection of the cab of the digger from the elements so it can get pretty unpleasant. Not to mention wet, as this pic from an evaluation that Caz did in January 2008 - this pic was taken on one of the days that it wasn't snowing:

Evaluation trench on Hatson Industrial Estate winter 2008
Evaluation trench on Hatson Industrial Estate winter 2008

These trenches were being dug in the area around a known site, a Bronze Age burnt mound, with the idea of defining the area and checking that there were no other features that might be disturbed by construction. The burnt mound was quite fun but wasn't excavated, just the edges defined:

Burnt mound on Hatston, Kirkwall
Burnt mound on Hatston, Kirkwall

If you want to know more about burnt mounds and Bronze Age Orkney in general then you could have a look at Caz's PhD thesis or at least read the abstract!

The Hatston evaluation might have been cold, wet and not at all glamorous but it did achieve all its aims, and of course left a nice water feature behind:

Water filled trench at Hatston Kirkwall
Water feature anyone?