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In the cold November rain

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

Autumn, that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, is when it starts to get a bit blowy in Orkney and we've had a fair few gales already. The met office names gales in alphabetical order to get people to take them seriously (so far this year we've had Storms Ali, Bronagh & Calum), but they only get a name if they impact large areas, so the bulk of ours are just 'the storm with no name' - just as well or we'd run out of names by January. The winter storms are always a big worry and digging an eroding site makes for a nerve wracking winter, we never know how much of the site is going to be left when we get back!

High tide at Swandro, Orkney - the perils of archaeology on the beach!

If you've been following our online dig diary you may remember that Orkney's summer drought caused Rousay's boreholes to dry up, meaning that all the environmental samples had to be brought back to Swandro HQ in Birsay for processing.  With the November rain sweeping in off the Atlantic the drought's a thing of the past, and thanks to the heroic self-sacrifice and devotion to duty of Dr Dave - not to mention his faithful hounds - all the samples have been successfully flotted, and the wonderful organic components shipped off to Bradford to be analysed and suitable samples selected for radiocarbon dating.

Flotting for Swandro, Orkney Dr Dave & faithful hounds

The story doesn't end there though - the next stage is the mindnumbingly boring task of sorting of the residues. This means going through all the stuff from the sample that doesn't float and doesn't dissolve in the water, and using tweezers and a magnifying glass to search though and pick out out any fragments of pottery, bone, slag, crucible etc etc that went in when the sample was taken. This really is dull - even the cat only comes past to give you disbelieving looks on the way to a nice snooze in front of the stove:

Sorting the residues at Swandro, Orkney

The final phase of this routine - once all the big bits are picked out - is to go over it with a magnet. Not something you need to do for samples from Neolithic contexts obviously, but very important with samples from the Iron Age levels and in particular the Pictish smithy, because these are packed full of hammerscale & the easiest way to get all the bits out is with a magnet. (Hammerscale is all the flakes that fly off when the smith whaps some red-hot iron really, really hard).

Magnetic residues at Swandro, Orkney

The crucial thing to remember here is always wrap a bit of paper around your magnet when doing this - it's very easy to get hammerscale to stick to a magnet, but not to get it to unstick!

This is what you want - hammerscale stuck to the card not the magnet

All you have to do then is take the magnet away from the card and tip the hammerscale onto a clean sheet of paper. It can then be carefully packaged up and sent off to the archaeometallurgist for analysis, and eventually gets its own little section in the final publication, and may even reach the dizzy heights of a PhD thesis all of its own. 

Hammerscale from Swandro, Orkney

In other news your humble blogger/newsletter author/secretary/fundraiser-in-chief/webmaster/general dogsbody etc., took one for the team and attended the Scottish Fundraiser's Conference in Glasgow (thanks to a bursary from the conference organisers to cover the fees, together with sponsorship of the flights/hotel by local business Orkney Archaeology Tours). Yours truly is easy to spot - front row, second left, only one not smiling.

Think I was smiling at one point but they took about a million pics of the folk who'd been given bursaries to attend & my knees were hurting on account of having walked all the way out to the Glasgow Necropolis the day before & I'm not used to walking on pavements (sounds daft I know, but when all you ever usually walk on is turf or beaches, cities are a nightmare). The Necropolis is well worth a visit, full of completely over the top monuments everyone who was anyone in Glasgow:  50,000 folk buried there amazingly, they had to blast the rock to get them all in, and despite the grandeur of the monuments  you've never heard of most of them - you can't help but have that line from of Ozymandius going through your head. Handy for St Mungo's cathedral with their very own bridge and grand gateway to get the horse drawn hearses in - must've been quite a sight.

Glasgow Necropolis

Anyway I digress, back to the conference: had high hopes but  quickly realised  it wasn't really aimed at tiny little charities like ours, the first clue was in session 1 when the speaker said:  'we're a very small charity, our annual income is only £1.25 million so we decided to limit our Facebook advertising budget to £60,000'  and I was the only one in the audience who fell off their chair (don't worry - only bruised, no lasting harm!).We did have some great publicity in September though, with the New York Times article on Orkney sites threatened by climate change  The NYT featured both a photo and a link to our dig diary entry of our Pictish Anvil with the handprints of the smith and as a result that diary entry has now been read by 2,216 people - way better than the 300 or so we usually get and led to a flurry of donations to the dig fund - thank you to all who donated as a result of the article and thank you to the NYT for producing it. 

Whilst we're on the subject we want to say a really big thank you to everyone worldwide who has sent us donations this year, we couldn't do what we do without your generous and often repeated support and we really do appreciate it.

You can also support us for free if you shop on Amazon in the UK via Amazon Smile - we get 0.5% of what you spend without it costing you anything, simply click here to go to the Amazon Smile page and follow the instructions to select Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust as your charity - every little helps to put a smile on the face of our happy Swandro Vikings!

Happy Vikings at Swandro, Orkney



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