V Gordon Childe at Skara Brae: flappers, cloche hats & cloth caps!

Updated: Apr 20, 2018

Can't believe it's March already and Spring is just around the corner – although with some of the recent snowy weather that's hard to believe! Here in Orkney we've been lucky and it's been fairly calm weather, although a bit chilly: important since it's the big winter gales that do the most catastrophic damage to the coastal archaeology. This is getting worse: for example Skara Brae has just been named by Historic Environment Scotland in a list of sites threatened with climate change – the list didn't include our site at Swandro, they were dealing only with the sites that have been excavated and are in state care. Although Skara Brae is protected by a seawall the coastal erosion is continuing around the site, and even building that seawall in the 1920s was a major undertaking that you'd not get the funding for today, as you can see in this contemporary photo by Tom Kent (© and courtesy Orkney Photographic Archive, as are all the other Skara Brae photos below):


Thinking about the sea wall prompted me to have a look at some more of the Tom Kent photos of Skara Brae, they show a side of the excavation that you don’t usually see. Everyone knows of course that the excavation in the 1920s was directed by the great V Gordon Childe, Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, but there's very little detail recorded about the men who did the digging, but they do appear in some of the photos:


They would have been employed by HM Ministry of Public Buildings & Works, the forerunner of our modern conservation bodies. In Childe's day it was customary to have supervision from a gentleman, but digging was the preserve of poorly paid labourers … although come to think of it, that's not that different from our lives on the digging circuit back in the 1980s!

Childe did keep meticulous records of his excavations, with detailed notebooks and the site was quickly published. I came across a couple of Childe's original site notebooks that have been digitised and put online as pdf downloads and are well worth a look:


Notebook 1 covers the excavations of June-August 1929 and May 1930,


Notebook 2 continues the 1930 excavation.


Childe also took photographs of his excavations, but I'm not sure he would have been able to cope with modern health & safety requirements - I dread to think how many tons of stone is being held up by the stone lintel in this pic:


And of course Skara Brae was excavated with the intent of putting the site on display to the public, and Childe obviously encouraged visitors during the excavation, as we do of course at Swandro, although most people visiting digs don't dress up for the occasion – standards have obviously slipped since Childe's day:


We're counting down to our 2018 season, which is looking likely to be from late June to possibly early August 2018, but we're still finalising plans and funding. We have a particular problem at Swandro of getting access to the site for basic site equipment such as portacabins to use as site offices for finds and records etc. It's customary to hire portacabins, they arrive on the back of a lorry and are hoisted into site. Unfortunately that's not an option at Swandro for logistical reasons, all we can get down to site are small trailers, which you can't hire in Orkney. You may remember last year that due to the generosity of the public we were able to buy a second-hand trailer for finds processing: here it is leaving site last year behind a volunteer's Landy:


We really need another similar trailer, one end space for a chemical toilet for the diggers (we have tried a toilet tent in previous years but it blew away with unfortunate consequences - don't ask!) and the other end as a first aid station/site plans/records office. We can't get one second-hand, so we're hoping to buy new, which delivered to Orkney will cost us £5,844. This is a huge amount of money but we're hoping that our supporters might rally round and help us out once again, and if you'd like to make a donation you can do so using the buttons on this page. We've also been dragged kicking & screaming into the 21st century and have our own text donation code:


I'm thinking of having it tattooed on all our diggers foreheads ... or perhaps I should just go with putting it on T-shirts?

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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