Rousay’s heritage snatched from the sea

Archaeologists use latest technology to record the exciting finds of prehistoric and Viking remains at Swandro, in Rousay, before the site disappears into the sea.

Students removing beach stones to reveal the site

Students removing beach stones to reveal the site. (Frank Bradford)

A team of archaeologists from Bradford University and Orkney College UHI are investigating eroding archaeological remains along the coast of Rousay, as part of the international Islands of Change research project – which involves researchers and students from City University New York and other partners from the Global Human Ecodynamics Alliance.

The University of Bradford’s Steve Dockrill described the archaeological potential of the of the island as being outstanding.

He said: “It will allow us to look at important issues such as the longevity of settlements and resilience against climatic and environmental change. The past is providing information relevant to present day problems associated with global warming.”

Rousay is the focus of the Orkney fieldwork, with geophysical survey and recording of the coastal sections of the brochs at Midhowe, North Howe and South Howe being undertaken in previous years.

The sheer density and quality of archaeological remains in Rousay make it a magnet for both tourists and researchers, with the number of tombs, such as the magnificent Midhowe cairn, causing it to be dubbed “the Egypt of the North”.

The team had not expected that there was so much more to be discovered; when attention shifted from the brochs to the Viking Age hall and cemetery area, and the enigmatic mound at Swandro, eagle-eyed team member, Dr Julie Bond, of Bradford University, saw upright stones poking up through the storm beach.

Through clearing a lot of storm beach, the archaeologists have now detected a huge building, lying partly under the sea, which may be an Iron Age broch.

The site has the potential to shed light on the interaction between the native, Pictish, population and the vikings – both of whom are buried in the nearby Westness cemetery.

Viking specialist Julie Gibson is particularly intrigued by this possibility, saying: “Hidden beneath the sand here could be the evidence of the first contact between Scandinavian immigrants and Pictish folk.”

Picture: Frank Bradford

Discussing possible tourism developments (left to right) Jane Downes, Julie Bond, Barbara Foulkes, Steve Dockrill, and Ally Keir. (Frank Bradford)

The site will also tell us a lot about sea level changes in the past, and what can be done to preserve, or record, sites that are being rapidly eroded by the sea due to climate change.

A 3D laser scanner was brought into use by ORCA Marine archaeologist, Mark Littlewood, producing remarkable, accurate images of the site and, as Julie Bond said, shows “the way ahead for recording this world-class archaeology in the face of sea level rises”.

Orkney College archaeologists, Dr Jane Downes and Rousay-born Dr Ingrid Mainland, are particularly interested in how these coastal sites can be made more accessible to all. With this in mind, an on-site meeting with VisitOrkney’s islands manager, Barbara Foulkes, gave the ideal opportunity to discuss cultural heritage and tourism developments.

The team is grateful for support from Orkney Islands Council.