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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 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, Jul 4 2017 08:58PM

First off - Happy 4th of July to all our American diggers – I’d like to say we gave them all the day off with lots of cake and hot dogs, but I’d be lying: we sent them down to the storm beach at Swandro and made them all slave away in the boiling hot sun all day, shifting tons & tons of stone. It’s the thought that counts though!

It has been a gloriously hot day, the kind of Orkney summer day that makes you forget all about the Atlantic gales that come hammering in with unfailing regularity, and the enthusiastic team has been making good progress in uncovering the site.

Work has also concentrated on uncovering the protective membrane over the edge of the chambered tomb and the passage way: unfortunately as we started to uncover this we’ve made a sad discovery

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