Rumours of sunken structures prompt underwater survey of the Bay of Firth

A submerged Neolithic structure in the Bay of Firth?

Stories about mysterious underwater structures in the Bay of Firth have been circulating for a number of years.

But now, a sonar survey of the area hopes to answer, once and for all,what lies on the sea bed.

The week-long project came to an end last Friday. At the helm is local archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones, who was working alongside Sue Dawson, of the University of Dundee, and Fiona Stewart of Hi-Res Geo-Services.

Caroline explained that the Bay of Firth was chosen because, for a number of reasons, it was an ideal location for the project.

She said: “We know the sea levels around Orkney have changed dramatically over the years, so we have these large areas of landscape, where people once lived, that are now under water.

“The Bay of Firth is a particularly good place to study this. Firstly, from a practical point of view, the bay is sheltered and, in geographical terms, a fairly recent submerged landscape.

“Secondly, and even more exciting, were the numerous persistent rumours we were being told of submerged buildings and the like, in the bay.”

“The Bay of Firth, particularly in the sheltered, shallower areas around Damsay and the Holm of Grimbister, is particularly suitable for submerged archaeology because its a relatively sheltered environment, with no massive currents and waves to worry about. The Bay of Firth, in fact, has a lot going for it in a project like this.”

Because the water in the bay is so shallow, a very shallow-drafted boat was required to carry out the survey — a reason the area has not been extensively investigated previously.

Using a sidescan sonar probe attached to Charles-Anne, skippered by Harvey Groat, the area was surveyed in sections.

“It’s very early days yet,” said Caroline, “but we’re getting some very interesting readings. Once the results are compiled, we hope to be able to piece together a cultural history of the Bay of Firth – from the time before, and after, the sea had filled it in. This will include landscape information about what that area looked like before the sea came in.”

Just as in any archaeological work, the survey is not only providing answers, but also raising many more questions.

Caroline said: “We’re getting some very positive responses – some will be things like ballast dumps, rocks etc – but there’s others that need further investigation.

“The next stage will be in the week starting October 4, when we’ll get a ‘mosaic’ map made up of all the scans made of the area. We’ll look at that and start relating the findings to the landscape.

“What I’m hoping will come out of it in the long run is a nice little paper on the cultural landscape of the Bay of Firth.”

She added: “This has definitely been the first kind of project of its type to have taken place in Scotland and it really highlights, to me, that the sea is just a kind of ‘visual filter’. When you look at the landscape and the sea, you stop looking when you reach the water. But here in Orkney we’re needing to look through the water at the landscape beneath. A landscape where people once ran around and lived.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of sand covering anything that’s down there, but there’s been a lot of intriguing responses. What we’ve now got to do is interpret them. It’s been a different type of project but one, I feel, that has been very worthwhile.”

The project was funded by Historic Scotland and the Crown Estate.
Caroline would be grateful to hear from anyone with information about submerged objects or structures, anywhere in Orkney. Her e-mail is: c.wickham-jones@mesolithic.co.uk.

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