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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 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, 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

By Team Swandro, Jul 25 2017 07:18PM

Firstly apologies for the absence of a dig diary yesterday: we had lots of Open Day pictures ready to go but we had no internet connection. This is a bit of an occupational hazard here – Orkney has the dubious distinction of being top of the list of places in Scotland with the slowest internet connection (Shetland came second), and when you’re a long way from the telephone exchange like we are, the problems can be worse. We’ve got a very patchy connection tonight so I’m writing this fast before it goes down again.

We had a great Open Day and thank you so much to everyone who came out to visit us –the 10.45am boat from Tingwall on Sunday was full, and most of them were coming over to visit us and a lot of folk from Rousay too – we had about 180 folk down to see us.

It was a great day for it too, dry & warm and the site looked great

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