Oxford archaeologists focus on Birsay mound

A badly deteriorating settlement mound on the south side of Marwick Bay, in Birsay, has been under investigation by a team of archaeologists from Oxford University this week.

Led by Dr David Griffiths, the archaeologists have taken a year out from their ongoing work at Snusgar in Sandwick, to record and document the archaeology

The area under investigation contains three scheduled monuments — the Knowe of Flaws, the Marwick ‘chapel’ and a settlement mound which is suffering from the effects of coastal erosion and an incursion of wild rabbits.

The work will add to Dr Griffith’s Birsay-Skaill Landscape Archaeology project, which has been running since 2003.

The main focus of the excavation work is a settlement mound right by the shore, adjacent to the roadway. Within hours of beginning work, the team had uncovered what appeared to be a multi-phased settlement — with a well-preserved section of walling, overlain by a shell midden and a later phase of occupation.

Lying in the seaward facing bank, the archaeology was literally dropping on to the shore.

Dr Griffiths explained:“Our main objective here is to record what remains of the mound. In addition, we’ll be taking soil samples from which we’ll hopefully get environmental information and we’ll be able to, we hope, fix some part of this building sequence in time. We’re trying to build on what little is known about this site. It’s a rescue archaeological and salvage project really, on a site that’s really in quite a bad way.”

The mound was scheduled in the 1970s, but like many coastal archaeological sites in the county, has suffered from severe erosion. Back then, the site was described as Viking age buildings. However, until Dr Griffiths’ team get dating evidence, this description must remain as conjecture.

Speaking on Monday, the excavators had uncovered evidence of burning on the site, as well as possible metalworking. Beside a reasonably well-preserved section of early walling lies a beautifully constructed, and remarkably well-preserved, section of a stone drainage channel. Although the date of the drain is unclear at present, Dr Griffiths said: “It’s at least historic, if not ancient.”

From the evidence uncovered so far, it would appear that an early structure, or structures, was built on the site. This fell out of use, the area being covered over by shell midden, before a later series of buildings was constructed on top.

“What we’ve got, at the moment, is a long period of activity on this site, where people were building on top of earlier buildings.”

According to Dr Griffiths, the pattern of settlement at Marwick fits with the evidence he has collected from Skaill and Birsay Bay.

He added: “The earlier settlements seem to have clustered around Marwick Bay. But at some point, probably in the 13th century, we get this creep away from the bay to land further inland. The same thing is seen in Birsay Bay and at Skaill.

“It seems to be particularly as a result of climatic change, where wind-blown sand was coming in and covering up what was formerly a viable farming landscape. As a result, the areas of settlement were forced back into higher ground – areas which were less attractive previously.”

This theory ties in with soil sampling work carried out by Ian Simpson, from the University of Stirling, in 1995. This showed that from the late 1200s, the inland soils around Marwick were intensely worked and manured, to improve the top soil.

Away from the excavation work, the team, working with Orkney College geophysics units have carried out surveys of the land surrounding the mound — in particular the areas surrounding the Knowe of Flaws and the nearby “chapel” site.

These have revealed some interesting results — in particular that the so-called chapel site might actually have once housed a chapel.

Dr Griffiths said: “If we look first at the magnetometry survey results, we can see strong evidence of a run rig cultivation system running right up to the boundary of the ‘chapel’. This cultivation respects the position of the chapel and we can see a clear, circular zone around the structure.”

So, whatever was standing on the chapel site, was so much a feature of the landscape that those working around it took care to avoid it.

The results of the resistivity scans, however, are the most stunning. These show the “chapel” structure extremely clearly, and in particular what appears to be an enclosing wall (pictured left).

The work was funded by Orkney Islands Council and Historic Scotland. The excavation team would also like to thank the family of East Howe, Birsay, for their assistance with the project.