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Why are we digging at the Knowe of Swandro?

The site at Swandro survives (just!) under the storm beach on the west coast of the island of Rousay. The mound on the beach section of Swandro has been eaten away by the sea to form a series of terraced steps. These provide a ‘journey in time’ from the Neolithic, in the form of a probably undisturbed Maeshowe-type chambered tomb, through the Iron Age and at the top of the terraced sequence are the remains of buildings and paving belonging to the late Pictish and Norse periods.

The chambered tomb at Swandro
The chambered tomb revealed for the first time in 2012

After several years of small-scale excavation it has become clear that without major intervention the site will be swept away by the Atlantic Ocean. It is already possible to see the difference in just a few years.

This picture of the concentric ring walls of the chambered tomb on the beach was taken in 2012:

The chambered tomb revealed for the first time in 2012
Concentric rings of the chambered tomb walls in 2012

And this picture was taken from a similar angle in 2016:

Damage caused by coastal erosion if the tomb at Swandro
Damage done to the outer wall of the chambered tomb by the sea

You can see a big chunk of the tomb wall in missing in the second picture, just below the red-and-white- striped pole, which is a 2-metre scale.

That’s a lot of damage in just four years – and no, we don’t leave the site open when we’re not digging. At the end of the digging season the site is carefully covered with a special geotextile membrane, and then the storm beach rocks are carefully carried (by hand) back into position. Nothing however will stop the Atlantic – that’s why the unofficial slogan of the dig team at Swandro is ‘Racing against Time & Tide’ – if we ever get around to having T-shirts printed that’ll be what they say!



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