Conservation of the Wooden Vessel from the Cairns, Orkney

Reconstruction drawing of the Cairns bowlAOC’s conservators were delighted to undertake painstaking conservation work recently on a wooden vessel discovered at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. UHI Archaeology Institute has been carrying out out archaeological excavations of the substantial Iron Age broch and its surrounding settlement. Within a well beneath the broch floor, the team from UHI was astounded to find a beautifully preserved wooden bowl, which is thought to be approximately 2000 years old. The bowl was found in waterlogged conditions and is in a fragmentary state.

The archaeologists carefully excavated it within a large soil block, which was transferred to AOC’s Edinburgh offices for conservation assessment. It was carefully micro-excavated by a conservator under laboratory conditions (below): the soil was removed and the bowl fragments recorded as they were lifted from the block. All of the soil has been retained and will be hand sieved by AOC’s environmental archaeologist Jackaline Robertson, to find out if there are any interesting plant remains associated with the bowl and surrounding soil deposit.

Lab excavation of the bowl

The bowl fragments were carefully washed, which allowed AOC’s wood specialist Dr Anne Crone to study  them. The bowl is finely carved from alder and has a decorative circle, from which a handle would have once protruded. The outer surfaces of the bowl are highly polished giving it a beautiful lustre. Fascinatingly the bowl was damaged and repaired during use. The historic cracks have been masterfully repaired using wavy metal rivets and staples. The bowl has been painstakingly drawn by AOC's illustrator (image at top right) and undergone photogrammetry, a type of scan which produces a three dimensional image. To prevent any detrimental changes to the bowl’s condition, it has to be stored in water; however, once the programme of study is complete it will undergo a final conservation process whereby it will be pre-treated and freeze dried.