What we did in our summer holidays: update on the 2017 dig

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.


The entrance passageway to our chambered tomb, with a possible souterrain or earthhouse built into the entrance

Peedie Iron Age Roundhouse (Structure 2)


The Late Iron Age roundhouse is also badly damaged by coastal erosion with most of the walling on the seaward side already destroyed. This building had a flagged floor with a large stone tank set into it, and produced this year's star find, a Roman coin: to be precise a Nummus of Constans dating to 348 – 350 AD. This caused quite a flurry of interest with worldwide media coverage – if you Google 'Swandro Roman Coin' you'll see what I mean, but one of the best pieces was on the BBC news website.


The Peedie Roundhouse at Swandro, complete with stone lined tank

Pictish Smithy (Structure 3)


The Pictish Smithy continued to provide evidence of high-status metalworking which got our archaeometallurgist Dr Gerry McDonnell very excited. The smithy was being used for fire-welding, which is a sophisticated and skilled iron working technique, and leaves behind distinctive traces in the form of spheroidal slag.


The crucible fragments and slag from the Pictish smithy at Swandro are really interesting and unusual: the Picts are known for making copper alloys (or to the non-specialist, bronze), specifically tin/copper alloy and tin/lead/copper alloys. This is NOT what's going on in the Pictish period (which is roughly about AD200 – AD800) at Swandro – what we have is the production of brass (zinc/copper alloy) which isn't supposed to occur until the Viking period, when zinc was reintroduced into Britain, as a result of reopening trade routes to the east.


Pictish Smithy at Swandro, looking towards the entrance

The smithy also produced hammerscale, which is all the bits that flake off a bit of hot iron when you’re whacking it with a hammer, proof that the smithy was used for forging iron, corroborated by the star find from the smithy, a large beach cobble that had been set upright next to the hearth to form an anvil:



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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