Coastal erosion helping fill in the historical gaps

By Sigurd Towrie

Coastal erosion — the bane of Orkney’s archaeological sites. But an ongoing project is taking advantage of the county’s notorious erosion to fill in the blanks in our understanding of Orkney’s history.

This summer, for the second year, a fieldschool run by archaeologists at Bradford University and Orkney College as part of the North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO), has targeted two coastal erosion sites in an ongoing project to investigate long-term change from the Neolithic to the present day.

The three-week Gateway to the Atlantic excavation, in Rousay, was led by Steve Dockrill, Julie Bond from the Division of AGES, University of Bradford, and Julie Gibson, Jane Downes, Ingrid Mainland and James Moore from Orkney College, UHI, with students from both Bradford University and Orkney College, as well as from City University, New York.

Steve Dockrill, best known in the Northern Isles for his work at Pool and Toftsness, in Sanday, and the Old Scatness broch, in Shetland, explained the project.

“The long term aims of this project are to study how people adapted to climate change — from the Neolithic through to the late Norse period — as well as cultural changes due to out-of-Orkney contacts and incoming settlers.

“NABO is an archaeological co-operative, whereby we’re looking at common themes. Most of the other NABO fieldschools — in Iceland and Greenland, for example — are looking at the Viking period onwards, in terms of climate change and how people reacted and adapted to it.

“What Orkney offers is the long timescale missing from other aspects of NABO work. Here you’ve got the whole range — from the first farmers in prehistory down to the historical period — and it gives an amazing viewpoint in terms of change and how people adapt. On top of this, the northerly position of the islands means the growing seasons are much shorter, so the effects of climate change are more enhanced.”

Out in Rousay, the excavators targeted two sites suffering from coastal erosion — the broch mound at South Howe and the Knowe of Swandro.

County archaeologist Julie Gibson explained: “These sites were chosen because they are under threat from coastal erosion.

“As such, they have huge research potential, and are able to provide important archaeological and scientific data which can inform us on how people confronted the marginality of these northern islands in the past.

“Landscape surveys, topographical and geophysical, together with targeted test pitting and selective excavation can answer key questions on the way the site was used and developed over time.”

Of particular interest at South Howe broch was the duration of the settlement, which appears to be a multi-period settlement mound similar to Old Scatness, in Shetland.

The mound contains an eroding Iron Age broch and houses that seems to be overlaid by late Norse buildings, both of which are overlaid by 19th century middens.

Last year’s geophysics scans confirmed the existence of a broch and settlement at North Howe — a few hundred yards away from the Midhowe broch and South Howe broch mound.

So, one of the questions being investigated by the project is how these three brochs co-existed in such close proximity within Iron Age society, not to mention what happened before and after the Norsemen arrived.

But according to Steve Dockrill, one of the main principles of the project is to make the ongoing archaeological work accessible to all.

At the end of this season’s excavations, an open day saw people of all ages flock to Midhowe. There, they were brought up to date with the ongoing excavations as well as other aspects of the county’s archaeology — with hands-on displays of Viking, Iron Age and Pictish crafts from Timezone, as well as artefacts and human and animal remains explained by Orkney Museum staff and researchers from the project.

“That’s the thing I’m really interested in,” Steve said. “Bringing the history of a place to the next generation. It’s not just the about the archaeology — it’s about making the past accessible and available to local people.”

“The community has to be involved. It is, after all, their history. In the past, research was often shut away in the archaeologists’ ‘ivory towers’ and not at all accessible to the layman. With this project, we intend to change that.”

With this in mind, an archaeology and sustainable development officer is expected to be in post soon.

The Leader-funded position will be based at Orkney College for one year, and will contribute to the Rousay project by exploring how archaeology can be made more accessible and can create a greater legacy for communities.

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