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Swandro Dig Diary: Racing Against Time and Tide


Please click here for the contents list and links to all our dig diary entries

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

By Team Swandro, Dec 4 2017 03:41PM

Didn't you always hate the thought of going back to school after the summer holidays because you knew that the first thing you'd have to do when you got back was write an essay on 'What I did in my summer holidays'? Now of course I realise that the teachers hated being back at school as much as we did & set us the standard essay to keep us quiet for a bit – anyway here's the Swandro version of that essay – enjoy!

Chambered tomb

The chambered tomb at Swandro is suffering badly from ongoing coastal erosion, with more and more of the tomb walls on the seaward side disappearing every year. This year we concentrated on the entrance passageway, located at the top of the storm beach, the upper levels of which had been disturbed probably in the Viking period, since a coin of EANRED, King of Northumbria 810-840 AD, were found there in a previous season, along with the bones of several cats (cats are an Iron Age introduction to Orkney, so can't relate to the Neolithic use of the tomb).

Work this year showed that there's another building, not part of the chambered tomb, built up against its entrance. This may possibly be a souterrain (or earthhouse as they're known in Orkney - confusingly, neither a house nor built of earth), an underground building that everyone assumes is ritual/religious. They turn up surprisingly often inserted into chambered tombs, and most of the excavated examples are Iron Age. It may however also be another type of Iron Age building - for example the chambered tomb at Quanterness, just outside Kirkwall, had an Iron Age roundhouse built across its entrance in a similar way.

By Team Swandro, Nov 22 2017 04:58PM

The observant amongst you may have noticed that our website now has a shop, selling a print of our Pictish Smithy, produced from an original reconstruction drawing by our very own multi-talented Alan Braby, a professional archaeological illustrator – if you’ve read any book on Scottish archaeology in the last 30 years you can pretty much guarantee that you’re seen some of his illustrations.

Alan started with a pencil drawing based on the excavated archaeological evidence, which went to they-who-must-be-obeyed aka site directors Steve & Julie for their comments, here's the first draft:

This first drawing then went back to Alan along with some further input from Dr Gerry McDonnell (our archaeometallurgist), and Alan duly sharpened his pencils and got to work again, resulting in an altered version heading off for comment:

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