Skeletal remains rescued from eroding Medieval cemetery

Skull erodes from Medieval cemetery in Orkney (Picture: Sigurd Towrie)

The skull of one of the burials slowly emerges.

Orkney’s ongoing battle against severe coastal erosion is something I have been aware of since childhood.

But it took a visit to an emergency excavation in Rendall today, to drive home just how serious this is to our archaeology.

Watching centuries old structures being reduced to rubble, the remains of medieval burials being washed out to sea, and being powerless to do anything, is a frustrating experience. And to make matters worse, the Rendall site is just one of many endangered archaeological sites across Orkney.

Fortunately, in this case, a rapid response archaeology team was brought in to the site, which lies on the foreshore below the barely-visible remains of St Thomas ‘ Kirk, or Tammaskirk, to the north of the Hall of Rendall. Their task was to excavate, record and assess the damage.

After being notified of the damage by local man, Christopher Gee, Orkney Archaeological Trust (OAT) had been monitoring the damage. They contacted Historic Scotland after the severe storms in January.

The erosion affecting the coastline has meant the site has suffered greatly over recent years.

But when it became clear that skeletal remains of burials were being exposed and deposited on the shore, it was decided the archaeologists should act before valuable information was lost forever.

Emergency excavation

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Work continues removing one of the skeletons from its endangered grave.

Work continues removing one of the skeletons from its endangered grave. As a result, the decision was taken to bring forward a Historic Scotland funded excavation planned for this summer.

A team from AOC Archaeology, who had been in Sanday the previous week investigating Bronze Age structures also exposed by the January storms, were called in.

Patrick Ashmore, head of archaeology with Historic Scotland said: “Historic Scotland has a Human Remains call-off contract with the archaeological company AOC Scotland.

“This contract is designed to allow AOC to rapidly assess fresh discoveries of buried human remains, and so with the agreement of Orkney Archaeological Trust, and the kind permission of the landowner Mr Ronald Cook of the Hall of Rendall , we were able to instruct AOC to send out a team of archaeologists to excavated the most vulnerable burials and assess the situation.

He added: “Rescuing these burials before the sea destroyed them will give us unique information about the people who lived and worshipped here. And we need information about the site to consider whether anything can be done to save the rest of it or whether we have to think about more excavation in advance of its destruction.”

The archaeologists, along with a group of local volunteers, led by AOC’s Ronan Toolis, unearthed the remains of 21 burials on the foreshore overlooking the sea between the Orkney Mainland and Gairsay.

The AOC team arrived on site on Friday, February 18, where they cleared four areas of shingle and found several burials quickly.

More were then located below a shallow layer of rubble from storm-driven collapse of a wall, and below a very shallow underlying layer of shingle. By February 22, the excavators had identified about 18 graves, at least one of which held more than one skeleton.

All the burials were close to the east end of the kirk and all were aligned east-west. Stone “head covers” were found over the remains, with stone “pillows” also used to prop up the corpses heads.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

AOC team leader Ronan Toolis

At the time of burial – which could be anywhere from the 1100 to 1400 – the final resting place of the medieval Christians would have been distance from the shore. But centuries of erosion have seen the shoreline creep gradually inward.

Six skeletons had been scientifically excavated by the end of February 22, with another four or five expected to follow.

AOC excavation team leader, Ronan Toolis said: “It looks as if the sea has destroyed the burials further out from where the team is digging.”

He added: “We’re only excavating the most threatened burials, about ten graves, and they seem to belong, broadly speaking, to themedieval period.

“The skeletons will be studied by specialists looking for evidence about how old they were when they died, if they had any diseases and the skeletal changes caused by particular kinds of work.”

After scientific examination, the remains will return home to Orkney where they will receive a Christian reburial.

Of the graves revealed on the foreshore, eight had been affected by erosion, with bones from the lower legs lost to the sea. These burials, and surviving remains, however, were considered to be in no further immediate danger and were due to be covered over.

Tammaskirk, Storer Clouston and the Ultimate Viking

Picture Sigurd Towrie

Continuing erosion of the broch mound, near Tammaskirk, has exposed a jumble of masonry, pottery and midden material. A bone weaving comb of Iron Age type was also found in this area.

All the burials appeared to be part of a cemetery relating to the remains of the nearby Tammaskirk, which was excavated in 1931 by local antiquarian, J. Storer Clouston.

Based on the layout of the kirk, which had been long abandoned in the 1930s, and which now appears only as a raised area in the grass, it was Storer Clouston who suggested it dated from the 12th century.

But the structure’s proximity to a nearby broch mound, which is also suffering badly from erosion, has prompted the idea that the site was once home to an earlier Christian structure. And if there was an earlier church, it is very possible that there are earlier burials.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The badly eroded broch mound, close to the cemetery.

Storer Clouston went so far as to connect Tammaskirk with the 12th century Viking chieftain, Sweyn Asleifsson, who was based directly across the Sound at Langskaill in Gairsay.

“This fortified church,” he wrote in a paper on the subject, “within plain view and easy reach of Langskaill was the very refuge he would require if he was ever attacked while on the Mainland.”

Was it the church? Who knows? Although the Orkneyinga Saga does include an intriguing reference in which the followers of Sweyn fled “to Rendall” where they awaited their leader.

But although we can’t say that Sweyn Asleifsson was responsible for the erection of the little kirk by the shore, it remains an intriguing possibility – a possibility that makes the ongoing erosion damage all the more disturbing.

Are those anonymous skeletal remains being lost to time and tide on the Rendall shore, those of the ancestors of Orkney’s “Ultimate Viking”, one of the most colourful characters in the Orkneyinga Saga?

Is so, it doubles the sense of frustration to see elements of Orkney’s archaeology ripped from the soil and lost forever.

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