A research team, which discovered stone remains on the seabed in the Bay of Firth, has been awarded additional funding to continue its research.
The project began in 2006, with a study of past sea level change. Late in 2009 experts from the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, St Andrews and Lampeter uncovered structures, including stone tables and walling, and what they believe is a graveyard, near the island of Damsay.
The findings – some of which could date back thousands of years — are providing new insights into the UK’s archaeological history.
They are also helping to further understanding of how people dealt with climate change in the past. Now, new funding from the Russell Trust and Historic Scotland will allow a fresh round of dives and remote sensing work to begin this week.
Orkney resident and University of Aberdeen archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones, one of the scientists leading the investigation, said: “Orkney is known for its rich archaeology, but the remains which we see on land only tell us half the story.
“When people began to inhabit the island over 10,000 years ago the sea would have been up to 40 metres lower than it is now.
“This means that there is a vast potential for submerged archaeology to exist on the seabed around Orkney – and the findings we made last year only scratch the surface of what could be there.”
According to Caroline, previous work has shown that sea level around Orkney only reached its present height about 2000 BC — long after people first settled in the islands, and about a thousand years after work began building the great stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.
Orkney was originally one large island, and its inhabitants have had to learn to cope with rising sea levels through much of their history. As such, many traces of this early settlement may now lie on the seabed.
Caroline added: “The new funding will allow us to undertake dives to discover new sites for investigation and further examine sites we have already identified.
“It will also allow us to continue to examine the rate of sea level change which Orkney has experienced since the Ice Age for clues as to what this can tell us about how people may have adapted to climate change in the past.”
One of the reasons the Bay of Firth was chosen for the project was that a number of stories about mysterious underwater structures on the seabed had been circulating for years.
“The Bay of Firth is an ideal location for the project. 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 it’s a relatively sheltered environment, with no massive currents and waves to worry about.”
One particular focus for the new investigation will be the seabed just offshore from the remains of St Mary’s Chapel, on Damsay.
All that remains of the chapel is a mound, which is currently being eroded by the sea, but records suggest that a much larger complex once existed around the building, which dates back to the 12th century and became a focus for pilgrimages.
Ms Wickham-Jones said: “We have found some intriguing stone remains on the seabed beside the remains of St Mary’s Chapel, including walling, a massive tabular structure and a number of small upright sandstone slabs that look just like gravestones.
“The area of seabed next to the chapel is somewhere we will be looking for further remains. It’s crucial that we work to identify and carefully examine what can be found on sites such as this whilst the remains are preserved and sea levels make our investigations accessible.”
In additional to the academic benefits of the project, Caroline feels the underwater discoveries could open up a new industry of “underwater tourism” to Orkney.
“A whole new world is opening up to us,” said Caroline, “a new world that could bring serious economic benefits to Orkney. There’s the potential, for example, in the Bay of Firth to be taking visitors out using glass-bottomed boats to allow them to view the remains. And that is not to mention the possibility that dive trails could be set up for recreational divers to explore these sites.”
Vikings and pilgrims
Damsay is a small, flat island in the Bay of Firth, two miles east of Finstown.
In the 12th century, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, it was the site of a Norse stronghold, to which Sweyn Asleifarson fled after the murder of Sweyn Breastrope, in Orphir. Then, around 1154, Erlend Haraldsson, joint earl of Orkney, was killed off Damsay by his rival earls, Rognvald Kali Kolsson and Harald Maddadsson.
Damsay has a number of traditions attached to it, the best-known being that it was once a place of pilgrimage.
The chapel site of St Mary’s was the focus of these visits, and, like other sites across Orkney, saw the church taking steps to reprimand parishioners for their “idolatry”.
One winter Sunday, in 1741, for example, a party of one man and four women made their way to Damsay, by boat, because one Elspet Bews had, in a vision, been told she would “get her health” there. Whether or not she was cured of her ailments, she did end up being chastised by the kirk session.
Local tradition maintains that there was once a nunnery on the island. Although the existence of an “ancient” nunnery was first recorded in 1711, in Robert Monteith’s Description of the islands of Orkney and Zetland, there is, at present, no archaeological evidence to back up the statement.
There is also no direct mention of a nunnery in Jo Ben’s Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum, supposedly written in 1529.
He wrote: “The church in this island is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to which many pregnant women make visits in style.
The women here are sterile, and if they do become pregnant never bring forth with life.”
Jo Ben’s identity remains unknown. Where he came from, and his reasons for being in Orkney, are not known.
However, his short segment on Damsay, written in Latin and printed in Barry’s History of Orkney in the early 19th century, has prompted theories that the chapel site was either visited by barren women seeking “divine” help, or by pregnant women seeking abortions. It has also been suggested that the “sterile” women in Ben’s text is an indirect reference to celibate nuns. But the jury remains out on the subject.
The island’s perceived sanctity is hinted at by Ben’s statement: “No frogs, toads, or other noxious terrestrial animals whatever are ever found here.”
The current investigations around Damsay do seem to shed some light on Ben’s closing statement: “It is related that sometimes the [ridge(s)] are carried away for the space of one hour, but truly afterwards restored.”
It has long been thought that statement referred to a tidal causeway that once allowed access to Damsay from the Mainland — something the archaeologists now think is likely, with a suspected causeway leading from the Rendall shore, possibly surviving as late as the 16th century.