ECR Case Study: Memory and reuse in Iron Age Orkney and Caithness

Sheridan Clements, Cardiff University


The ‘present’ as we know it is like an old house; created, remodelled, and changed over time. Various stories, histories, and pieces of architecture are either lost to time or projected into the future depending on the needs, desires, and activities of the latest population. In this way, the past is always with us, whether we are archaeologists, heritage workers, historians, farmers, or even just pedestrians walking down the High Street. We all encounter, pass by, and hear stories or memories of the past in some form every day. By extension, the past would also have been present and influencing life in the pasts that archaeologists investigate, whether it be the presence of Neolithic tombs in the Bronze Age landscape, or myths and tales preserved and passed down to be included in early medieval manuscripts.

My PhD research focuses on this ‘presence of the past’ in Iron Age contexts in Britain and Ireland, attempting to understand how these peoples may have conceptualized and interacted with their various pasts. One of the areas upon which I concentrate is Orkney and Caithness, expanding upon Sharples’ (2006; 2021) and Hingley’s (1992; 1996; 1999) discussions of the reuse of Neolithic chambered tombs and their mentions of Neolithic-like decoration on Iron Age ceramics in the region.

View of Gurness Broch © Sheridan Clements

Memory Studies

French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs can be considered the ‘grandfather’ of studies of memory and the past such as this. In the 1920s he published ‘On Collective Memory’ (English translation: Halbwachs 1992), expanding the concept of memory to include both the social aspects of individual memory as well as acknowledging a type of memory – collective memory – which exists beyond the individual. Collective memory is the shared ‘memory’ or understanding of the past within a group. This can include a wide range of things from mythical origin stories to shared family histories or genealogies.

Whilst Halbwachs primarily focused upon the historical, written, and oral, the following century has seen the expansion of the concept into a number of diverse directions. In archaeology, and particularly in prehistoric archaeology, the investigation of concepts of the past and collective memory are restricted to examination of their material expressions, like the changing use of structures or objects over time.

Within the last 50 years there have been many historical and archaeological examinations of monuments as prominent examples of structures which last long periods of time and are variously used and interpreted by different generations. There are other areas in which memory practices may be materially visible, such as in the reuse of material culture – like collecting old paintings for display in a museum – or the treatment of the dead. By looking at these other contexts as well, we can gain even deeper insight into the reasons behind the reuse or avoidance of older materials and practices, as well as begin to understand how these peoples may have understood the past and their positions within the world, despite their lack of written expression of such.

Orkney and Caithness

In Orkney and Caithness, the archaeological record is dominated by a prolific number of visible sites such as burial mounds, tombs, standing stones, and brochs. This high visibility and persistence of past architecture for long periods of time lends itself well to the study of site use changing over time, as demonstrated by projects such as The Cairns Project directed by Martin Carruthers. Additionally, the vulnerability of many of these sites to erosion and decay has led to more detailed programs of rescue excavation, providing an array of new evidence to consider.

Excavations at Pierowall Quarry, where a roundhouse was built into the remains of a Neolithic tomb © Niall Sharples

During the Iron Age, monumental dry-stone roundhouses (brochs and broch-like structures) and surrounding villages were constructed in the area, and a number of these have been observed to have relationships with pre-Iron Age features, such as Neolithic chambered tombs, using these structures as foundational features, altered and added to throughout the Iron Age.

Analyses such as those by Sharples (2006; 2021) and Hingley (1992; 1996; 1999) look at the possible reasons behind the reuse of chambered tombs for the sites of monumental roundhouses, such as The Howe and Quanterness, explaining these as attempts to connect to ancestors/the dead and to legitimise authority. My research aims to expand upon these discussions by also considering evidence outside of this monumental reuse.

Simplified plan of the Quanterness chambered tomb and roundhouse (edited from Renfrew et al. 1976)

My research examines the ways memories or concepts of the past may have been materially expressed in categories such as landscape use and placemaking, structures and organization, material culture, ritual or religious activities, and treatment of the dead during the Iron Age. With this wider lens, possible ways the inhabitants may have understood their pasts can be proposed, rather than solely explaining the reuse of a monument.

This research uses a combination of published excavation materials and interim reports from a range of Iron Age sites across Orkney and Caithness with various histories and trajectories. These include brochs, broch villages, proto-brochs, and a few more ambiguous sites such as the so-far unique site of Mine Howe to provide a wide range of comparative material for the period in the area. Whilst some of these sites saw even longer histories of use beyond the Iron Age, others did not.

Additionally, there appears to be a noticeable difference between sites from Orkney and Caithness; whereas the Iron Age sites from Orkney (particularly in the Early Iron Age) appear to prefer relationships with Neolithic chambered tombs, often building directly on top of these and using the chamber as either a well or souterrain structure, in Caithness this does not seem to have happened. While this may be the result of differential research and excavation, it may also indicate a conceptual difference in the understanding of the earlier monuments between the two areas, despite their closely related archaeological records.

Further Research

Other case study areas being included within the research are the English Fens and a wide-area focus on Ireland. These vastly different case study areas have been chosen to provide a wide array of types of archaeological evidence and enquiry, and to show the variable uses of this multi-faceted approach to memory and the ‘past in the past’ in archaeology. Additionally, a general geographic and chronological stability throughout the project is provided by a focus on the Iron Age of Britain and Ireland

Further discussion of this Orkney and Caithness case study and its preliminary results will be the subject of a paper given by the author at the annual European Association of Archaeologists conference held in Belfast, August 2023.


I would like to thank the SIRFA team and ScARF for providing me with a bursary and enabling my travel to the SIRFA symposium in Orkney in 2023. This wonderful opportunity allowed me to see the area that I have been researching first-hand, to network within the research community, and to actively engage in the future of the field.


Halbwachs, M 1992 On Collective Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hingley, R 1992 ‘Society in Scotland from 700 BC to AD 200’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 122, 7-53.

Hingley, R 1996 ‘Ancestors and Identity in the Later Prehistory of Atlantic Scotland: The Reuse and Reinvention of Neolithic Monuments and Material Culture’, World Archaeology 28(2), 231-243. Available at:

Hingley, R 1999 ‘The Creation of Later Prehistoric Landscapes and the Context of the Reuse of Neolithic and Earlier Bronze Age Monuments in Britain and Irelan’, in Bevan, B (ed), Northern Exposure: Interpretative Devolution and the Iron Ages in Britain, Leicester: University of Leicester, School of Archaeological Studies, 233-251.

Renfrew, C, Harkness, D and Switsur, R 1976 ‘Quanterness, Radiocarbon, and the Orkney Cairns’, Antiquity 50(199-200), 194–204. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00071179

Sharples, N M 2006 ‘The First (Permanent) Houses: An Interpretation of the Monumental Domestic Architecture of Iron Age Orkney’, Journal of Iberian Archaeology 8, 281-305.

Sharples, N M 2021 ‘The Reuse of Monuments in Atlantic Scotland: Variation Between Practices in the Hebrides and Orkney’, in: Stoddart, S, Aines, E D and Malone, C (eds), Gardening Time: Monuments and Landscape from Sardinia, Scotland and Central Europe in the Very Long Iron Age, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 141-150.