Archaeologists in Race Against Time to Save Ancient Handprints

A team of archaeologists are in a race against time to save ancient handprints on the Island of Rousay.  The archaeologists are battling against the tide to complete the documentation and excavation of the remains of a Pictish copper smith’s workshop located on an Iron Age settlement on Rousay.  The site, an important archaeological focus on the Orkney Islands, has revealed a sooty imprint of what is believed to be the smith’s hands and knees.  The archaeologists could have uncovered evidence of a person’s everyday activity, which could potentially be 1500 years old.

The Stone Preserves Evidence of Human Activity (Carbon Smudges)

Carbon smudges of the hand of a Pictish Smith

Black smudges of a person’s hand can be made out on the stone.

Picture Credit: Bradford University

Dr Stephen Dockrill, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bradford commented:

“Analysis of crucible fragments and the floor deposits demonstrated that a copper smith worked in the building.  The analysis of the floor enables us to say with confidence where the smith worked, next to a hearth and two stone anvils.  The biggest surprise came when we lifted the larger stone anvil and cleaned it; we could see carbon imprints of the smith’s knees and hands.”

An Amazing and Extremely Exciting Scottish Discovery

Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Dr Julie Bond (University of Bradford), outlined the significance of this chance discovery stating:

“This is an extremely exciting find and we are doing all we can to gather as much information on the site before it is destroyed by the sea.  A handprint is so personal and individual that you can almost feel the presence of the copper smith and imagine what it must have been like working in there all those years ago.”

The dig site consists of the remains of a small, cellular building dating to a period between the 6th and 9th Century AD.  It was semi-subterranean.  The building was entered via steps and a curved corridor, which would have minimised the amount of light entering the smithy, permitting the smith to assess the temperature of the hot metal based on its colouration in the fire.  A door would have separated the workshop from the corridor.  Many of the stone fittings, the pivot stone, door jamb and bar hole, for example, remained intact.  The centre was dominated by the hearth, with a set upright stone on the doorward side protecting the hearth fire from drafts.  Scientific analysis at Bradford University should reveal what was on the smith’s hands to produce the prints and explore the reasons for their remarkable preservation.

Everything Dinosaur team members might be well-versed in mapping and recording trace fossils, but this insight into the life and daily work of a person on the Island of Rousay is quite remarkable.  A spokesperson for Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Let’s hope that the archaeologists can win the race against the tide and the elements and preserve this amazing discovery for the benefit of science.”

The Remains of the Pictish Workshop

Remains of the Pictish workshop on Rousay.

The Pictish workshop dig site on the Island of Rousay.

Picture Credit: Bradford University

Working in Collaboration with the City University of New York

The Pictish smithy is part of an excavation project directed by Dr Julie Bond and Dr Stephen Dockrill.  The site is being excavated by staff and students from the University of Bradford in collaboration with the City University of New York.  The building is part of a substantial Iron Age settlement which is being rapidly destroyed by the sea.  It is expected that with the onset of autumn, the damage to the site from wind and waves will be increased.  Work this year has centred on the Pictish workshop and a Neolithic Chambered Cairn which is also being eroded.

The project is funded by the Swandro Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, National Lottery, University of Bradford, Orkney Islands Council, Rousay Development Trust and the Orkney Archaeological Society.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a press release from the University of Bradford in the compilation of this article.

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