Oxford team bid to solve mystery of Sandwick mound

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The Castle o’ Snusgar, to the north-east of the Bay o’ Skaill, in Sandwick.

What lies at the heart of a massive mound by the Bay of Skaill, in Sandwick?

That is the question that Dr David Griffiths, of Oxford University, hopes to answer, when his second year of excavation on the Castle o’ Snusgar draws to a close next week.

Working in conjunction with Sue Ovenden, the head of Orkney College’s geophysics department, the mound, and the surrounding area, is under scrutiny again. The visiting team of archaeologists’ intention is to try and clarify what is there, and how it fits into the long history of human settlement around the bay.

Visiting on Monday, the start of the second week of excavations, a large, narrow trench had been dug into the south-eastern slope of the Castle.

Dr Griffiths explained: “The tactic last year was to open a large trench that covered the top of the mound. This year we’re taking a look at the side of the mound, and how it is made up.

Geophysics surveys of the area have shown what appears to be a coherent band of anomalies surrounding the mound.

“Part of what we want to do is find out what this band was,” he said. “Was there a bank and ditch here, for example?

“Using ground penetrating radar, we plan to do a cross-transect of the mound, which should ultimately tell us what’s at the heart of this enormous accretion in the landscape.”

“At the moment, it could possibly be a stone structure, which has then, over the years, acted as a trap for the sand blowing around the bay.”

On Monday, the trench down the Castle’s slope had revealed the beginnings of what appeared to be a densely packed stone layer. This stone lay beneath tow layers of sand, accrued over two distinct episodes.

This is intriguing, and if it turns out there is a building at the centre of the mound, it may shed some light on the feature’s name. The site of the Skaill Viking treasure hoard in 1858, the Castle o’ Snusgar is generally thought to refer to the “remains of a large building”, recorded in 1795 and again 1868. However, nothing of this building remains visible today.

Finds from the trench have included animal bones, a bronze ring, which is possibly medieval, and a small spindle whorl.

Directly to the east of the Castle o’ Snusgar is another mound, which, if early results are anything to go on, could be very promising.

On Monday afternoon, a series of stone features were beginning to be revealed, released from a thick layer of wind-blown sand that had cocooned, and protected, them over the years.

The discovery came as a pleasant surprise to Dr Griffiths, who hadn’t been convinced anything would turn up.

“Originally, I thought this was the least promising area,” he said. “Geophysics didn’t show much, but there’s some very obvious stonework here.”

At the time of writing, not enough of the stonework had been uncovered to allow an estimated date, or even a guess at what it represents. However, by the time of a planned open-day at the weekend, it is hoped that much more of the site will have been excavated and some questions answered.

The project has been supported by Historic Scotland and the University of Oxford. Thanks go to Mrs Edna Brass, Mid Stove, Sandwick, for permission to dig on her land.

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