Orkney bowl shows signs of repair

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An Iron Age wooden bowl, recovered from the Cairns site in Orkney, shows signs of having been repaired no fewer than four times, suggesting that it was a highly valued object. (IMAGE: UHI Archaeology Institute)

Post-excavation analysis of the oldest wooden bowl yet found in Orkney (see CA 343), has revealed details of its Iron Age use.

Found by a team from UHI Archaeology Institute, during last summer’s excavation at the Cairns site in South Ronaldsay, the bowl was discovered in a stone chamber known as the ‘The Well’, beneath an Iron Age broch. As little is known about the function of this ‘well’, it was hoped that the bowl could provide some clues.

Since then, AOC Archaeology conservators in Edinburgh have carefully ‘micro-excavated’ the bowl from its surrounding soil, allowing a clean view of the vessel and all its details for the first time in 2,000 years. Although the bowl had fragmented in antiquity, its two main halves remained largely intact. This analysis also revealed that the bowl was carved in one piece, possibly from a half-log of an alder tree, and that its outer surface was smoothly burnished, but with toolmarks visible on the inside of the vessel.

In addition to these marks, the bowl appears to have been well-used in other ways, as evidenced by no fewer than four repairs that have been made to it. A series of 16 ‘wiggly’ bronze strips have been riveted into it – flush with its surface – in a vertical column to repair what seems to have been a large crack. There is also a bronze ‘staple’ running across the other end of the break, and a folded piece of bronze on the rim, holding it together. It seems likely that these repairs were made to prolong the life of the vessel – something that may have been a necessity in prehistoric Orkney, where it is thought that wood was a scarce commodity.

‘If the bowl was used within the well, and not just placed there at the end of its life, then perhaps this is telling us something about the nature of the well, and how it was used,’ said Martin Carruthers, the site director and Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute. ‘The great care that was taken over the repair of the wooden bowl to extend its life tends to suggest that such items were not actually common, and the Cairns bowl seems to have been highly valued.’

This article appeared in CA 347.

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