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Knowe of Swandro: the archaeological background

The Knowe of Swandro is in Rousay, Orkney (HY 3753 2966 ) and consists of a large mound situated immediately behind a boulder beach on the Bay of Swandro. We would like to thank the landowners Russell and Kathryn Marwick, who have been very helpful from the start of the project and have freely given us permission access the site and dig on their land, without whose support the project could not proceed. The Knowe provides the immediate focus for the work of the Trust due to the imminent threat of total destruction by the Atlantic Ocean. On the eastern flank of the Knowe is the Norse settlement site known as Westness, excavated by the Norwegian archaeologist Sigrid Kaland in the 1970’s.  Described by RCAHMS in 1946 as ‘the much disturbed remains of a stony mound’, this knowe has generally been considered to be the remains of an Iron Age broch.  At the top of the mound a crescent-shaped wall or ridge faces towards the sea, which looked like the disturbed remains of a curving wall, surrounding an area which had large tumbled stones visible in the grass. Ordnance Survey records suggested it had been investigated at some point in the past but there is no published record.  The mound may have been disturbed during Radford’s investigation of the nearby Westness Norse houses in the 1950’s or 60’s.


As part of the Gateway to the Atlantic Project a number of coastal erosion sites were selected for investigation on the Island of Rousay. Due to the vulnerability of the remains at Swandro, work has concentrated on the investigation of this site.

Looking across the site at Swandro to the north, the surveyor is standing on top of the chambered tomb

Looking across the site to the north, the surveyor is standing on top of the chambered tomb


This research builds on the site and landscape studies undertaken at Tofts Ness, Sanday, Orkney and  Old Scatness, Jarlshof, and the Viking Unst project, all in Shetland by project directors Steve Dockrill & Julie Bond.

The key research questions for the Knowe of Swandro project are:


1.What is the extent of the Iron Age settlement and how does this change over time? The understanding of the Iron Age settlement sequence in cultural and economic terms by the excavation and sampling of these truncated archaeological surfaces will provide a current and informed understanding for people living on Rousay in the Iron Age and how this changes over time.


2.What is the stratigraphic association with the Norse settlement and how does this inform on the question of the Pictish/Viking cultural interface? The taking of existing estates by Scandinavian settlers is still a contentious issue in terms of its nature and date. Only with more detailed excavation will it be possible to gain an insight into this important transition on what increasingly seems to be a vital site for this transition period.


3.What is the potential of the Chambered Cairn in providing new data to complement the burial monuments excavated previously in Orkney? The site has the potential to establish the relationship of this monument form to the later Iron Age settlement, a phenomenon observed at a number of sites in Orkney, as well as providing an unique opportunity to investigate the construction of the mound due to the erosion.


4.The investigation of this eroding site takes place within a research framework, which also demonstrates the relevance of the disappearing record. The long settlement history or “biography” revealed by the erosion enables the study of human behaviour in this particular place through major changes in culture, climate and environment.


This would facilitate the following:


1. To provide an understanding of the erosion processes and the archaeological survival and to develop recording methods so as to inform future management of such sites.


2. A definition of the extent and nature of the archaeological survival (structural elements and sampling the in situ midden deposits) on the eroding beach with the sampling strategy informing on the economic and environmental exploitation and change, the site’s chronological development and its cultural biography within the archaeological record of Rousay and Orkney as a whole.

Summaries of each year's  excavation results:


2010 DIG      2011 DIG 

2012 DIG      2013 DIG

2014 DIG      2015 DIG

2016 DIG      2017 DIG

2018 DIG     2019 DIG

2022 DIG


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