Post-dig roundup

Here at Swandro HQ we've now recovered from the 2018 dig, hung up our trowels and digging boots for another year and have had time to take stock. As you know if you've been following the dig diary, this year we were concentrating on the chambered tomb, but also opening up our Pictish smithy for our archaeometalurgist Dr Gerry McDonnell. It was the smithy that produced the most exciting find of the season, the hand-and-knee-prints of the Pictish smith preserved on the stone anvil: 



This was quite a surprise, the anvil had been clearly visible in the smithy for two seasons, but it wasn't until it was lifted (quite a feat as it's incredibly heavy - the smith sensibly picked an extremely solid, dense stone, since it was going to take a battering in use) and cleaned that we could see the prints. The anvil has now been photographed in detail and 3-D modelled,  well worth a look.

The prints seem to be made by greasy, sooty hands and knees, which you might expect in a smithy, but this is not unlike the method used to deliberately mark Pictish painted pebbles, which serendipitously we also found this year at Swandro:  



Pictish painted pebbles are odd little things, found mainly in Orkney, Caithness and Shetland, they're quartz pebbles that have been decorated with patterns for no obvious reason. They're often dots, circles and lines, and recent research has shown that the 'paint' used is likely to be peat tar, a residue found on stone flues  where peat fires have burnt. 

Turning to the chambered tomb, a curious little corbelled cell with a cist-like structure built into the side of it appeared, just on the edge of the erosion line on the beach. In this pic the 'cist' is to the left, and the entrance to the cell to the right:


We're wondering if the corbelled cell is an original side cell of the chambered tomb, with a possible later Bronze Age cist built into it. This wouldn't be unknown, there is evidence at other Orkney Neolithic tombs for burial activity during the Bronze Age, but sadly the sea had already scoured out the contents of the 'cist', leaving only sandy gravelly beach material where any burial might have been. Circumstantial evidence that the 'cist' might have contained a Bronze Age burial came from the find nearby of a large chunky piece of steatite, of a type which may have come from a steatite or soapstone burial urn. These were popular in the Bronze Age - when all the very best people in Orkney were cremated and buried in a Shetland steatite urn. Here it is in all its glory:  


OK, maybe not that glorious, but if you like the Bronze Age it's pretty exciting, and as we've not had much evidence for a Bronze Age presence at Swandro, every little counts. The corbelled cell itself is very well built but difficult to both excavate and photograph:


We ran out of time in 2018 to finish the excavation of the cell, so we don't yet know if it is indeed a side cell to the chambered tomb, and, if it is, if  there are any preserved human remains. It was heavily sandbagged to (hopefully!) provide  protection against the winter storms and then backfilled along with the rest of the site to wait for our 2019 season.

The excavation of the area above the main passageway of the chambered tomb proceeded apace, but the Neolithic levels haven't yet been reached due to the complex sequence of Iron Age buildings built into the top of the tomb and butting up against the main wall faces. We do know however that the lower wall faces of the chambered tomb were destroyed over the course of the last winter, so the lower concentric tomb walls in this composite photo (the light brown bits) below the 2018 excavation area (shaded light grey) are no longer there:


In the composite above the Iron Age building is in the middle of the pic and is built into the top of the tomb. This doesn't mean that the chamber of the tomb has been destroyed - for example at Quanterness, near Kirkwall, Colin Renfrew's 1970s excavation discovered an Iron Age roundhouse built into the tomb, but the Neolithic burials were still there. We hope that's the case with Swandro too, but we'll need to wait until 2019 to find out. We would like to thank everyone who supported the 2018 excavation and we're hoping to be back on site for 8 weeks in 2019, subject to successful fundraising, so watch this space!  

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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk