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Shell-mounds and limpet-leftovers: debris of the past


Images: Jo Naden


Portable Limpetarium 1

The island of Rousey, Orkney, July 2021

Skaill Farm archaeological dig


Venturing north again, I return to the ruined complex of Skaill Farm where my fascination with limpets began, repurposing my wooden sewing box into a portable research cabinet. The process of unearthing and collecting material, creating watercolour studies, filming and conversing with archaeologists over a few days reveals a glimpse of limpet history in this place.


I am very grateful to Dan Lee and the Skaill Farm team for welcoming me to the site and for the vocal contributions of Christopher Gee, Ragnhild Ljosland, Holly Young and Jo Naden.

Below is an excerpt from my Skaill Farm diary which describes my experience of excavating:

...Bringing my gaze closer in, narrowing my depth of field I become aware that my feet are balanced on the brink of a sharp-edged hole in the ground. “Come down” says the archaeologist, “I have a spare trowel you can try”. Using a protruding slab as a step I gingerly lower myself into the earth. It takes a few moments to adjust to this close-up-ness. Gone are the open vistas and air-borne sounds, the wider terrain vanishes from view and like a human microscope I  zoom in on the detailed section of soil, stone and shell. It’s warmer down here, the air is close, dusty, intimate. From where I crouch the space feels slightly claustrophobic, enveloping, confined. But this rectangular domain slowly starts to impart its myriad secrets, my senses honing in on the intricacies of a shrunken world. Shrivelled looking grass roots pierce the upper most surface, penetrating the farm’s rich garden soil in their downward quest for water and nutrients. Intertwined within them, creeping nettle rhizomes, lovers of disturbed places anchor themselves deeper down. Cantilevered stones jut out of the side-walls, some balanced precariously on the edge of falling, others extend horizontally into the surrounding ground. White, powdery cones, likely to be many hundreds of years old shine out from the lower strata, limpet shells out of place, disarranged underground. 

Skaill Farm: Sound of people & placeHelen Garbett & Bill Laybourne
00:00 / 05:42

Medieval limpet shells unearthed from trench 5 by Holly


Limpet collecting basket or 'cubbie' made for the project by Caroline Dear


Limpet and Stone at Skaill Geo


In 2021 artist Selma Makela corresponded with me by letter for a while, sending me this fascinating account relating to the island of Inishlacken in County Galway, Ireland and these beautiful  "limpet-shell shadows".

Portable Limpetarium 5

The island of Rousey, Orkney, July 2022

Skaill Farm archaeological dig


I spent another week at Skaill Farm in July 2022, inviting a group of archaeologists, their children and artists to work with me to co-create an installation within the standing remains of the farm's dairy. We spent a day on the local beach, observing, collecting shells and talking about limpets in this landscape.

Over the following days we assembled the shells within the moss-covered stone walls of the dairy, using the inbuilt ledges, niches and window recesses to carefully display our finds. Using cotton thread and other materials transported to the site in the Portable Limpetarium 5, we suspended many hundreds of limpet rings, creating a curtain of cones which twirled and tinkled in the wind.

This sensory installation engaged passers by who were walking the coastal archaeological trail and we discussed the significance of shell middens, seafood diets of the past and the practice of combining art and archaeology to create a 'site of enchantment' (Bennett, 2001). Such sites can bring about a sense of wonder and charm, enhancing visitors experience of a place. Many people commented on the therapeutic nature of the work explaining how they found the encounter both visually and sonically soothing.

Limpet cones broadcast their song as archaeologists work at Skaill Farm.

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