The Orkney Archaeology Review 2023…

by Bernie Bell - 09:07 on 08 May 2023

The Orkney Archaeology Review 2023…

I was wondering what to read next, when the OAR arrived – immediately solving my reading problem for at least a few days.  It’s a big one, and there’s a lot in it – diverse as always.

I must admit that I don’t often read the technical pieces – my brain doesn’t work that way – but there’s also plenty there for the not-so-scientifically inclined among us.

I’ll work through it systematically….apologies for any omissions, but – like I said – they don’t all appeal to me.  Here goes….

The Review begins with an article by Sigurd Towrie about the progress of the dig at the Ness of Brodgar, filling the reader in about this year’s excavation, finds and developments – there’s so much – I’ll pick the Ness bits which were my favourites of last year……..

What was initially called Trench T - the fine stone-work - the  mystery continues.

The human femur in a box – you need to read it for yourselves.

Steps! Steps placed at intervals along the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’.  Picture it – going up the steps to look out over the wall – as Sigurd says… “Why?  We can only speculate.”

So many questions about what’s there, what’s already been found  - no wonder the People of the Ness need to take some time to ‘take stock’ after next season’s dig.

Dr. Antonia Thomas’ Art & Archaeology courses are going from strength to strength – not surprising, as they provide an interesting combination of approaches to the past and its possible influence on the present.  I’ve mused along these lines before now…


Swandro – again, there's so much there, so much has been discovered, there’s so much that might be there and that could be lost to the sea.  The article by Julie M. Bond and Stephen Dockrill introduces the site, then take us through it in detail.  It ties in well with what’s on the Swandro website…


I’ve never been to the dig, probably never will now – age and increasing decrepitude make getting there a bit problematical, but I follow developments assiduously.

The stone with a Pictish Smith’s hand and knee prints found in 2018 still fires my imagination…

The Swandro Stone

A stone

With a hand-print

An in-advertent handprint.

There are handprints, placed,

On stones, on walls

In Ochre

And Carbon.

And the Swandro Stone

Has a carbon hand-print

Placed, yet not placed.


Through the hand-prints

We connect.

Bernie Bell



Chris Gee presents the reader with an image of the interior of Maeshowe - covered in rendering!  A completely new idea to me, but …why not?

And, maybe, rendering with painted  images using pigments produced from ground-up minerals?...


Flickering lamplight – pale walls – strong colours.  Maybe that’s why there aren’t the carvings which might be expected to be found in that setting, such as the ones in Four Knocks in the Republic of Ireland.  Maybe?.....


Rendering might affect the acoustics, too?

For me, Chris’ concept is new, and intriguing.

‘Why is Maeshowe squint?’ by Dave Craig raises some interesting questions.  I’ve come across views and theories about how Maes Howe might not be quite as it was when it was originally built, which could affect the alignment with the midwinter sun-set.  There are various ideas about this, and many measurements have been taken to illustrate what the differences might be. 

And that’s where I fell down when it came to reading this article. With the best will in the world, when it comes to intensive measurements, graphs and diagrams - these days my brain takes a break.

If you are interested in these ideas and can take in the maths and measurements, it would be worth reading the article to see what you make of the questions raised by this kind of discussion.

The article which appealed do me most was ‘Is there Archaeology in Outertown, Stromness, and is it important?’ by  Magnus Kirkpatrick, and that’s because it contains information about sites that I wasn’t previously aware of.  I’ve been to some of the places described, such as Breckness, but Leafea standing stones are news to me, as are the Brockan stone and burnt mound. 

The mounds and artefacts found near Warebeth which Magnus discusses tied in with a walk which we did….


I could go on, listing all that was new to me in Magnus’ article but, once again – best to get a copy of the Review and see for yourself!

I have to admit that I only gave a cursory reading to  ‘Investigating the Mesolithic landscape of Orkney’s first settlers’ by Sue Dyke, Scott Timpany and Martin Carruthers – mainly because there is a lot of intensive scientific information in it and my tired old brain took a break, again.  Getting old can be a drag.

Kath Page on ‘Animals As Artefact’ is more my cuppa tea.  The sub-title ‘The Importance of Animal Remains in Understanding Orcadian Pre-history’ casts more light on what it’s about.  Kath doesn’t just write about actual remains – bones and skulls  - she discusses how the presence of flints can indicate hunting activity, and even how woodland clearance could have been associated with hunting – Orkney had more trees then!

It seems likely that animals were not just hunted for food, but were also symbolic and maybe - loved – their remains being deposited in cairns such as Isbister (Tomb of the Eagles) and Cuween, along with their humans.

I’m presenting vague generalisations – Kath has the actual relevant knowledge and information.

Apologies to Ian Collins, but I find it hard to enthuse about the war sites – many, however, do, and ’Scapa Flow – Eastern Defences and Flotta’ will be of interest to them.

I’ll mention that Ian’s photographs changed my perception of the war-time structures of Orkney….



And finally, ‘The Newark Project Exhibition 2022’ by Amanda Brend.  Newark is a site which holds so much – layers and layers of history and pre-history. 

We didn’t manage to get to the exhibition, but Amanda’s description of the work carried out at Newark Bay filled in some gaps for me about a site with which I’m familiar…


It’s a fascinating place, but a sad sight after each winter’s storms have taken their toll.

That’s the Orkney Archaeology Review, reviewed for this year – I hope I’ve tempted you to buy a copy – they’re available  from the Orcadian bookshop or on-line from the OAS shop…. https://shop.orkneyarchaeologysociety.org.uk/ -  but if you join the OAS, you get one FREE!

Copies of some past editions of the Archaeology Review are available from the OAS on-line shop AT A REDUCED PRICE…


…..if they haven’t already gone….


Here’s one I made earlier…. https://theorkneynews.scot/2021/08/23/orkney-stone-balls/



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