International excavation team tackle 4,000 years of Rousay archaeology under threat from coastal erosion
You would think that the thought of an archaeological site not surviving the winter would be enough to put off most excavators.
But work on such at-risk sites is the key element of an ongoing research project in Rousay.
We’ve all heard about coastal erosion and the threat it poses to our heritage sites. But it takes a visit to an eroding site to really drive home the seriousness of the situation.
Watching thousands of years of history being reduced to rubble and being powerless to do anything is a frustrating experience.
As such, you can’t help but admire the dedication and tenacity of the experts trying to make sense of decaying archaeology before it’s gone forever.
The four-week excavation drew to a close last week. All the archaeologists can do now is pray that the fragile structures on the shore of the Bay of Swandro will survive until they return.
Back on the island again, along with an international team of archaeologists and students, were Steve Dockrill and Dr Julie Bond, from Bradford University. The focus of their attention was a badly eroding stretch of coastline at the Bay of Swandro.
Here, with the high tide lapping at their backs, the excavators were in a frustrating race against time — what they excavated this year could well be gone before they return in twelve months’ time — trying to make sense of, and record, 4,000 years of archaeology.
This year’s work was part of the Orkney Gateway to the Atlantic project which, since 2009, has been investigating sites in danger of being lost to the sea.
As well as a research programme, the project incorporates a field school, with students from the University of Bradford, Orkney College UHI, City University New York and William Paterson University, New Jersey.
The long-term aims of the project are to see how people adapted to climate change in the past, as well as cultural change due to out-of-Orkney contact and incoming settlers, for example, the Pictish/viking interchange.
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: “Investigating monuments at risk is allowing us to develop a clearer understanding of how Rousay developed — from the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers, through to the Iron Age and the later settlement of Scandinavians.
“We’re not just looking at how earlier islanders shaped their environment, but also at how that environment shaped them. Seeing how people adapted and responded to climatic change is an essential element of this.
“Rousay is perfect for this study. 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 magnified.”
Previous seasons have seen the excavators investigate sites at South Howe and Yorville, but the focus this year was again an area around the Knowe of Swandro.
The knowe, a huge mound behind a boulder beach, had long been assumed to be a broch, and the discovery of Iron Age buildings nearby seemed to support that idea.
Focusing on some oddly shaped stone visible among the pebbles on the beach below the mound, the excavators discovered that these stones were part of a prehistoric building lying at the high-tide mark and partly buried by the boulder beach.
Animal bone and pottery suggested an Iron Age date — something confirmed by the radiocarbon dating of barley, which gave a date range of between 25BC and AD130.
Surely a broch?
But no. Last year, the team were in for a surprise.
After a Herculean task to clear beach material from around the base of the knowe, it gradually became clear that there were a number of outer wall faces, each of which was backed by a stone and midden core. Rather than a broch, the structure was looking more and more like a Neolithic chambered tomb.
This meant that this small section of eroding beach, measuring a few hundred yards, contained evidence of human activity from the Neolithic through to the viking period.
But there lies the problem.
Not only is there an incredible amount of archaeology in a small space, but the effects of coastal erosion have seriously muddied the waters.
Usually on an archaeological site it’s relatively easy to distinguish different phases of occupation and use. The most recent activity tends to overlie the earlier. But, around the Knowe of Swandro, the archaeology has taken quite a battering over the centuries — by the sea and the constantly mobile boulder beach.
As a result, the remains have truncated in to terraces. What the archaeologists on site are facing is a frustrating situation where each level represents a different period in time. As you climb the beach you are actually climbing through time. And the work to unpick all of this is going to be long and painstaking.
Despite being pounded by the sea for millennia, the suspected chambered tomb is intact, and, because bone preservation at the site is good, the chances that the structure contains in situ human remains is high.
But fully excavating a chambered tomb is a massive undertaking, not to mention expensive, so the knowe will be left alone until funding to excavate it is secured — another frustrating problem, as in a few years’ time the structure could be completely lost to the power of the sea.
Julie Bond said: “Although we’re not touching the main structure, we’ve got the edge of this suspected tomb, so we’ve been looking at how it relates to the later, Iron Age structures on site.
“I think — I hope — it will survive a bit longer, but even in the past year the sea has taken a good bit of it away.”
Steve added: “We’re very hopeful that we will be able, in the future, to look into the tomb. We’ve got great hopes for it, and now is the time to do something because archaeological techniques have advanced so much.”
There are examples elsewhere in the county where Iron Age builders sought to reuse elements of Neolithic tombs — which, it must be remembered, would have been ancient to them, too. These episodes of reuse or incorporation into later buildings tend to point to the fact that the Stone Age structures were treated with a degree of respect, or reverence.
The situation seems to be the same at Swandro, although the relationship is not entirely clear yet.
Julie explained: “We’re not certain how the tomb structure was treated in the Iron Age, but there are some strange features up against its side that might be evidence that these later Orcadians might have gone in through the structure’s original entrance.”
Steve added: “Although we know that at some point in later history someone was robbing dressed stone from the knowe, perhaps for building material, there’s an awful lot of the structure surviving, and I just wonder if they treated the Neolithic structure with some respect, at least initially.
“What we don’t know is who was responsible for the robbing episode,” said Julie; “whether it was in the Iron Age or whether it was later, in the Pictish or viking periods.
“But I think it’s quite late. We’ve got no artefacts from the area that’s been robbed but we do have some bone, so, with any luck, we’ll get a date from that. Some of that bone has really sharp chop marks on it, which suggests something big, a cleaver or the like, and that tends to be much later on in history.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised if the robbing is much later on in the life of the mound and that in the Early Iron Age it was respected.”
Away from the possible tomb, the excavators have built up an interesting picture of Iron Age life by the bay.
Julie explained: “We had a lot of really nice stuff coming out in terms of midden — a lot of animal bone, particularly red deer, and quite a few pieces of antler.
“Ingrid Mainland, from Orkney College UHI, will be looking at the animal bones, and I’m quite interested in the plant remains. With the barley, for example, we can look at how healthy it was, and what farming processes were being used in the Iron Age.
“This, together with information collected from other sites, is providing quite a detailed picture of life on Rousay.”
Steve added: “I think what’s interesting is that both in the Neolithic and the Iron Age contemporary sites can be quite different. For example, at Pool and Toftsness, in Sanday, you’ve got two sites that were in use at exactly the same time but with two distinctly different levels of economy.
“Toftsness were very poor people, and that is evident in the fact that discarded bones were really fragmented because they were smashing them up to get at the marrow. And they were having to exploit other resources to survive, such as seabirds, freshwater fowl from the loch, and deep-sea fishing — a high-risk activity that you wouldn’t undertake unless absolutely necessary.
“At Pool, in complete contrast, they didn’t have to resort to smashing up bones at all, and were not having to harvest their crops early. There was definitely a hierarchy in the Neolithic that we were previously not aware of.
“Here in Rousay, we know, for example with Midhowe and South Howe, that they must have been high status Iron Age sites, and we’re guessing that, at one time, Swandro must also have been an extensive, probably quite wealthy site.”
Julie added: “At Swandro, we’ve had evidence of Iron Age metalworking. There’s quite a few things now, including a lot of copper alloy slag, bits of crucible and a piece of furnace lining.
“So we’ve definitely got metalworking, and that tends to be an activity found on a high-status site.”
● The project heads would like to thank Orkney Islands Council for their grant support, together with the University of Bradford, Orkney College UHI, the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), and the Orkney Archaeology Society for funding the radar survey of the landward portion of the chambered cairn.