Dig diary 11th July: set phasers on stun

Damp day on site but nothing deterred our archaeometallurgist Dr Gerry McDonnell who leapt into our Pictish smithy with his phaser set on stun - OK with his portable X-Ray Fluorescence machine but you have to admit it does look like something you'd see on Star Trek & 'phaser' is a lot easier to spell than 'fluorescence':

Dr Gerry McDonnell & his portable XRF machine

Gerry's phaser - sorry XRF machine - is a neat little box of tricks that can give you instant readings on site and tell you what exactly is going on in each part of the smithy in metalworking terms.

Our smithy is unique for two reasons, one is that they're working entirely in copper alloy at this level of the smithy, there's no iron working at all going on. Apparently usually smiths would work in both iron and copper in the same place, but this is all copper. The other feature that makes it unique is that the copper is being alloyed with zinc, which is not found at this period in Britain. You get zinc alloys in Roman Britain and also later, when the Vikings opened up the trade routes to the east, but not at this period - we think at the moment that the smithy is around 500AD, and so is several hundred years too early for the Vikings.


Our big problem at the moment is that we don't have any radiocarbon dates for the smithy, and these are vital to closely date the sequence and find out exactly what is happening with this use of zinc at the wrong period. We are appealing for donations towards radiocarbon dates for the site so hope to be able to resolve this in future.


The smithy has also got a couple of nice little anvils just next to the hearth, a long slab and a small square cushion shaped one, seen here in front of Gerry's boots:


Pair of anvils in our smithy

Gerry reckons that the moulds would be laid out on the larger slab, with the molten metal taken from the hearth directly next to it, so used as a kind of fireproof workbench, and then the finer working done on smaller anvil next to that.

The smithy also has the sweetest little pivot stone for the door - a stone with a rounded out hole in it for a wooden door to swing in, here it is with Gerry's boot for scale:


There's lots of finds coming out of the floor levels of the smithy as you would expect, crucibles, slag, tuyeres etc and it's a race against time to get everything recorded before it's claimed by the sea, which won't be very long. The wider angle shot of Gerry at work nicely shows the hearth, anvils, pivot stone and walls, but also shows the edge of the storm beach under the roll of black plastic - our smithy is basically on the edge of the beach:


I've got a short video of Gerry explaining the smithy which I will upload to our youtube channel but owing to the pathetically useless nature of our internet connection this may take some considerable time, but it will be there eventually - beam me up Scotty!

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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk