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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, 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:

By Team Swandro, Nov 7 2017 08:09PM

In a tribute to environmental archaeologists everywhere - especially our revered and esteemed site director Julie whose birthday it is today – we will in this diary entry attempt the impossible – to make sorting environmental residues sound interesting!

The late Janet Ambers once sent a copy of 'the Ambers ready letter for overworked archaeologists' to the dig at Pool in Sanday (a version of the cards that were issued to troops in the 1st World War, cross out the lines that don't apply e.g. 'I am well/slightly wounded/ in hospital; please send socks/soap/chocolate etc). I remember a couple of sections which went something along the lines of:

Wish you were here/ here instead of me/ Harrison Ford

Please send wine/whisky/Harrison Ford

(This was back in 1983 – Raiders of the Lost Ark had been a big hit & Mr Ford was a lot younger & better looking then –we also had a site van with a broken wing mirror with a photo of Harrison Ford taped on there in its place).

There was also a bit of an in-joke:

We have found F**k all/treasure/some extremely interesting environmental remains

By Team Swandro, Oct 20 2017 03:13PM

Welcome back for Part 2 of our occasional series on the background to the dig – this week: how to dig a chambered tomb the James Farrer way.

James Farrer (MP for South Durham) was an antiquarian very active in Orkney in the mid-19th century, which is to say he was an enthusiastic mound-howker. Nowadays of course you can't just go around hacking holes in unsuspecting mounds on a whim, but back then there was nothing to stop you, all you needed was the landowner's permission and off you went. Sadly, although Farrer was an enthusiastic excavator, this wasn't matched by an enthusiasm for publication, and we have no idea of the final total of mounds he opened without record.

By Team Swandro, Aug 19 2017 05:42PM

Since we’re not digging at the moment I thought this might be a good time to catch you all up on some of the background to the dig, so that when we come back (hopefully – subject to funding) next July you’ll all be up to speed and ready to dive right in to the regular dig diary.

If we were still on site we wouldn’t be digging today anyway as it’s a Saturday, so if it helps you can pretend we’re still digging but this is our day off – puts me in mind of seeing a Motörhead gig many years ago when they’d just had The Bomber stolen - the inimitable Lemmy announced that even if the Bomber hadn’t been stolen they wouldn’t have been able to get it in as the hall as was too small, so we should just imagine that it was parked up on the lorry outside:

You may need to work with me on this one!

Anyway back to the archaeology – as regular readers will know one of the most threatened parts of the site is our Neolithic chambered tomb

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