Racing Against Time and Tide at the Knowe of Swandro
The Knowe of Swandro, in the Orkney island of Rousay, is being destroyed by coastal erosion. This unique archaeological site includes a 5,000-year-old Neolithic chambered tomb, Iron Age roundhouses, Pictish buildings, a Viking settlement and a Norse Long Hall. Sadly, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we were forced to cancel our 2020 excavation, but we will be back in 2021, when our priority will be the rescue excavation of the chambered tomb and of the Iron Age buildings which overlie the tomb. The burial chamber is currently undisturbed by the sea and is likely to hold Neolithic burials, but the outer walls of the tomb are being steadily eroded and limited time remains before the chamber itself is destroyed. Our 2019 excavation showed that there is a complex sequence of buildings including a massive Iron Age roundhouse built into the tomb mound, which must be excavated before the chambered tomb can be reached.
The Knowe of Swandro represents an important opportunity to totally excavate a Neolithic chambered tomb using modern scientific techniques, a first for Orkney. Once the tomb has been excavated attention can focus on the Iron Age, Pictish and Viking/Norse buildings. Results so far suggest that Swandro was a high-status settlement in the Pictish period, and this importance continued into the Viking/Norse era when it was part of the estate of Sigurd of Westness, featuring in the Orkneyinga Saga as the site of Earl Paul’s kidnapping by the notorious Viking Sveinn Ásleifarson. Doing nothing is not an option - much of this important site has already been irrevocably destroyed by the sea and the rest will follow in the not-too-distant future.
The concentric stone walls chambered tomb on the beach at Swandro looking south east across the site