Orkney Field Trip

After yesterday’s paper session and civic reception in the church hall, I’ve had an amazing bus excursion today. The weather’s been perfect, sunny and with little wind, and I’ve been shown great sites by some very knowledgeable people. And the landscape… Unbelievable.

Brough/broch is a Norse loan word around here, corresponding to Swedish borg. As in older Swedish, this word has two meanings in Orcadian place names: either a high headland or promontory on the coast, or ancient fortifications — perhaps on a high headland. And today I’ve visited three such sites, the Broughs of Deerness, Gurness and Birsay, all with spectacular architectural remains from the centuries either side of AD 1000. I have some pretty amazing pictures to show you guys. We also checked out the early churchyard of Newark (!) where dead people are eroding out of the scarp toward the sea at a steady pace.

There is a conflict at Newark with an earlier excavator who hasn’t made his results publically available. At Birsay, the people who never wrote up their digs are all dead. (So was a porpoise that was lying around on the beach pebbles in a narrow cove.) As I learned during my work with the Barshalder cemetery, a good archaeologist is a dead archaeologist. Only then can you get hold of their material.

Shoreline erosion is a constant theme for archaeology here in Orkney. It seems they should actually do something similar to a highway excavation project all around each island, clearing the 50 meters closest to the sea from archaeological remains. This would of course be extremely expensive. But the richness of the archaeological record is astounding. On the way back we drove past Stenness with the henges of Ring o’ Brodgar and Stones of Stenness and the passage tomb of Maeshowe. Being Viking/Medieval scholars, we didn’t stop to look closer at the sites this time.

I’m in the nice new library and archive centre, and the post-field-trip dinner is in 20 minutes. Gotta go!


  1. #1 Dayna
    June 4, 2008

    Orkney is one of those Places I Want To See Before I Expire. I’m living vicariously through your posts about it.

  2. #2 jenjen1352
    June 4, 2008

    I’m really enjoying these Despatches from Orkney. You sound like you’re having a great time, and your enthusiasm is rubbing off!

  3. #3 ArchAsa
    June 5, 2008

    Pictures man, PICTURES!!!
    So envious…

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