Orkney’s oldest bowl unearthed?

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A detached section of the 2,000 year old wooden bowl unearthed at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay. (PHOTO: UHI Archaeology)

The latest excavation season in Orkney has uncovered a cornucopia of finds (see here). these include what may be the oldest wooden bowl yet discovered in the archipelago, unearthed at the cairns, South Ronaldsay, by a team from the UHI Archaeology Institute.

The bowl was found during excavation of the site’s Iron Age broch (see CA 275), in an area known as ‘the Well’ – a series of stone steps descending into a stone chamber. Although structures like this have traditionally been called ‘wells’, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that they were solely, or even primarily, used for everyday drinking water, particularly as the volume of water that these chambers could hold would likely not be sufficient to sustain a whole community and their livestock. Whatever its function, though, it was sealed when the broch was abandoned during the late 1st or mid-2nd century AD, so the bowl at least dates from this period. radiocarbon dating will be required to determine whether it could date to an even earlier period in the broch’s occupation.

Protected by the muddy silt that is characteristic of the site, the bowl has been extremely well preserved. Initial analysis determined that it was made of alder, measures 30cm in diameter, and has a rounded body with a splayed rim (pictured). based on this shape, Martin Carruthers, the site director and Lecturer in Archaeology at UHI Archaeology Institute, said, ‘I wouldn’t have thought that it is simply the bucket used to lift out water from the base of the “well” – for one thing it is not that large, and its shape makes it inconvenient to place down on the ground after lifting water – but if it were used to scoop smaller quantities of water from the base of the chamber and pour them out elsewhere, transferring to a larger bucket, then I think that might be closer to the mark, perhaps.’

He added, ‘It is miraculous that we have got this wooden vessel. It is really quite unprecedented preservation for a northern broch, and I still can’t believe it has turned up at the cairns.’ A video on the location of ‘the Well’ can be found at: https://youtu.be/7BTYNin5y7c. For more information on the dig, see: https://archaeologyorkney.com/category/the-cairns-dig-diary-2018/.

This article appeared in CA 343.

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