Painting a picture of Scapa Flow, 10,000 years ago

Scapa Flow in 8,000BC — a landlocked bay accessible only by a narrow passage between what would become Stanger Head, on Flotta, and Hoxa Head.

A reconstruction of what Scapa Flow looked 10,000 years ago is beginning to paint a picture of how Orkney appeared to the first settlers who came here at the end of the last Ice Age.

The culmination of a year’s work by The Rising Tide Project The Submerged Landscape of Orkney — with funding from the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme and the Leverhulme Trust —  a map of the area was produced by taking sediment samples from sites around Scapa Flow and combining the information with bathymetric data.

With sea levels estimated to be 30 metres lower than today, the first settlers approaching Orkney from the south would have experienced a landscape unrecognisable to modern eyes.

Orkney-based archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, is leading this part of the project — a collaboration between the universities of St Andrews, Wales, Dundee, Bangor and Aberdeen.

She said: “We’ve managed to create a totally different world. What I want to show people is just how much Orkney has changed.

“Ten thousand years ago, the first exploratory groups were moving into Orkney at the end of the Ice Age. The sea level would have been about 30 metres lower, so the map is trying to think about what the landscape would have looked like then and how they would have experienced it.”

Three thousand years later, around 5,000BC, rising sea levels have submerged the islands and headlands in the middle of the Flow.

The map shows a more constricted entrance into Scapa Flow as Flotta, Fara and Cava amalgamate with Hoy and Longhope to form a solid landmass.

Gone, too, are the stretches of water between the linked South Isles, Widewall Bay in South Ronaldsay, and Water Sound to the south of Burray.

In the Flow itself, land extends to the west, then south, of where Lambholm and Glimps Holm now exist, down to Hunda, and a narrow stretch of water separates this from another significant island which has since been submerged.

Towards the west, Hoy Sound becomes dry land, making Scapa Flow a landlocked bay.

There are also numerous other islets and skerries which today lie under water.

Ms Wickham-Jones said: “Access into Scapa Flow by the first settlers 10,000 years ago would have been through a narrow entrance between Hoxa and Stanger Head — there would have been no entrance through Hoy Sound.

“If you consider that you’d be in a low skin boat — I think it would have been quite spectacular, with massive cliffs towering over you on either side.”

Ms Wickham-Jones added that Orkney at that time, with its many sheltered bays and inlets, would have been an inviting place for the first settlers here — people of whom little trace remains. Fresh water, a sheltered shore with access to the sea, and somewhere to fish and hunt, would have all been priorities for these people — and it seems Orkney provided these in abundance.

“The map does answer the question why there is so little evidence of the first people that came to Orkney, and that is because what survives is likely to be under water,” Ms Wickham-Jones continued. “There are the odd sites on land, but we’ve probably lost half of Orkney since the first settlers came here.”

Although the map represents a landmark in the project, Ms Wickham-Jones said she hoped to continue refining it, and start to analyse in more detail how the first settlers experienced the landscape, and what it can tell us about them.

“What I want to do is develop this map a bit and try and look at where people might have been living and how they might have used the landscape, and also look at how many people could have lived here — what size of a community it could have supported. Did they live in Orkney or migrate back and forth to Caithness? Did they fish in Scapa Flow at certain times of the year, then move into the hills at other times of the year to hunt? — these are all interesting questions.”

Ms Wickham-Jones said she now hopes to produce a three-dimensional version of the map and then create a computer generated ‘fly-through.’

She added that the research methods and technology employed by the project could be applied to Doggerland — a former landmass in the North Sea that connected Great Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age.

“We have been collaborating with colleagues in Birmingham who are working on Doggerland — what we can offer is some of the detail that they are lacking from their own studies, which are more broadscale in nature. I’m interested in areas out in the North Sea to see if we can apply what we have learned in Orkney to the heartland of Doggerland — perhaps where the first settlers to Orkney came from,” she said.

Another map detailing how Scapa Flow would have looked 7,000 years ago has also been produced.

After the melting of the ice, as sea levels rose, the sounds of Gutter, Weddel, Switha and Cantick began to appear between the South Isles, with the inner Flow opening up and bearing a closer resemblance to how we see it today.

Ms Wickham-Jones said: “Britain only became an island about 8,000 years ago, and for most of history was joined to the continent.”

Previous work has shown that sea level around Orkney only reached its present height about 4,000 years ago — long after people first settled in the islands, and about a thousand years after work began on building the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.

“The map from 7,000 years ago is designed to show how much change there was in 3,000 years — a relatively short time,” Ms Wickham-Jones added.

“It is interesting to me how these first inhabitants of Orkney, people just like ourselves, had to deal with some of the issues still facing us, such as sea-level change.”