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Swandro Dig Diary


By Team Swandro, Mar 8 2018 03:36PM

Can't believe it's March already and Spring is just around the corner – although with some of the recent snowy weather that's hard to believe! Here in Orkney we've been lucky and it's been fairly calm weather, although a bit chilly: important since it's the big winter gales that do the most catastrophic damage to the coastal archaeology. This is getting worse: for example Skara Brae has just been named by Historic Environment Scotland in a list of sites threatened with climate change – the list didn't include our site at Swandro, they were dealing only with the sites that have been excavated and are in state care. Although Skara Brae is protected by a seawall the coastal erosion is continuing around the site, and even building that seawall in the 1920s was a major undertaking that you'd not get the funding for today, as you can see in this contemporary photo by Tom Kent (© and courtesy Orkney Photographic Archive, as are all the other Skara Brae photos below):

Thinking about the sea wall prompted me to have a look at some more of the Tom Kent photos of Skara Brae, they show a side of the excavation that you don’t usually see.

By Team Swandro, Jan 28 2018 04:09PM

We have just received a report, kindly prepared for us by Dr Alison Sheridan of National Museums Scotland (NMS), on a very interesting find from our 2015 season, a broken roughout of a bead or pendant made from a jet-like material. It was found in the midden deposits near to the entrance of the chamber tomb in an area that lies beneath the Iron Age levels but is otherwise as yet undated, hence it could be either Neolithic or possibly Chalcolithic or Bronze Age, since there is evidence for post-Neolithic activity at a number of Neolithic chamber tombs in Orkney. To read Dr Sheridan's full report please click here.

By Team Swandro, Jan 7 2018 03:41PM

Coastal erosion is a big problem all over Orkney – we have over 950km of coastline and get battered by both the Atlantic and the North Sea, not to mention all the tidal races between the islands. The Westness shore in Rousay is particularly exposed, with the tidal races of Eynhallow Sound noted for their ferocity. Many of Orkney's around 135 brochs are now situated right on the shore and actively eroding. I say 'around 135' because no-one's ever agreed on the exact numbers of brochs in Orkney, or for that matter agreed on the exact definition of a broch anywhere. George Petrie did the first survey of Orkney's brochs in 1866 and he managed to list 70 in his Notice of the Brocks or Large Round Towers of Orkney (in Archaeologia Scotia Vol 5, which is something of a broch special and can helpfully be accessed online).

The broch/roundhouse debate all gets a bit technical – broch tower, hollow-walled, ground galleried broch; Atlantic/complex/ massive roundhouse etc. etc. It's easier just to use the term broch as in ‘a big roondie thing from the Iron Age’. I'm definitely with the late Graham Ritchie on this one: 'Even if they are not all Mousa, they are there in the countryside, whatever you call them'.

Mousa is exceptional, whether other brochs were as tall is another of the issues that folk still don’t agree on, but if you are ever in Shetland you really should make the effort to get to it, it's not every day that you get to climb to the top of a tower that's been standing 2,000 years, and even though it's in Shetland it does have an Orkney connection, better still with the Norse earls of Orkney.

By Team Swandro, Dec 30 2017 03:02PM

Since it's Christmas, or at least that bit between Christmas & New Year when everyone's feeling slightly sick on account of all the mince pies, turkey and chocolates they've been stuffing themselves with, the weather's awful, there's nothing on the telly and everyone's bored, this is a traditional time for the family to gather round and play board games. It always used to be Monopoly in our house, enlivened at least by the occasional pounce by the cat who like to steal the little plastic houses – I've still got that set, complete with teeth marks of a long dead moggy! Things weren't so different in the past, and, although the gaming pieces weren't made out of plastic, examples made from stone, bone and glass do survive archaeologically. We also have some passing references to game playing in the Norse sagas - usually in typical Viking fashion, associated with violence.

If you've got teenage boys you may be familiar with this scenario: they're playing a game, one wants to take his move back, the other won't let him, they quarrel. Mum or Dad says: "Play nicely boys, it's only a game, don't argue." Hopefully you've got very well-behaved boys and at this point they both apologise and get on with the game … but in one Saga account the fight carries on, with one of the boys sweeping the pieces from the board and whacking the other round the head before storming off, leaving his opponent in a pool of blood – different times! This seems to be a true story, from the Icelandic Thorgils Skarthi Saga in about AD 1242, a period of great feuding (although as far as I can tell from the Icelandic Sagas, all periods in Iceland were a period of great feuding!). The boys were called Thorgils Skarthi (the whacker) and Sam Magnusson (the whackee); the game they were fighting over was called tafl – the Viking game also known as Hnefatafl.

Here in Orkney we have several examples of hnefatafl gaming pieces and boards, often from graves, including one set from a grave at the Westness cemetery just 100 metres away from our site at the Knowe of Swandro, shown here as displayed in the National Museums Scotland,the hnefatafl pieces can be seen on the right and the other grave goods included a shield boss, arrowheads and a sickle:

By Team Swandro, Dec 23 2017 04:04PM

Christmas is almost upon us and In the run up to all the festive excess (hic!) it's appropriate that Neolithic feasting at Durrington Walls hit the headlines recently with the launch of a new exhibition at Stonehenge. It appears likely that our Neolithic farming ancestors had some sort of midwinter celebration, especially in Orkney: faced with filthy weather, howling gales and 6 hours 20 minutes daylight at midwinter they'd need something to get them through the darkest days the same as we do, only without all the plastic tack 'n tinsel!

There's no definitive evidence for it, but the technology to brew ale was certainly available in Neolithic Orkney – malting ovens, barley, big Grooved Ware pots – and nothing gets you through an Orkney winter better than a couple of drinks (always drink responsibly of course guys – we at Team Swandro wouldn't want to encourage riotous behaviour – we're too old for that these days!). We do have Iron Age ovens at Swandro and V Gordon Childe had Neolithic ovens at Rinyo In Rousay – more info here

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