Archaeology Bay of Ireland

Turning Back the Tides: investigating Orkney’s submerged landscape

Bay of Ireland Stenness looking out towards the island of Hoy
Bay of Ireland, Stenness, looking out towards the island of Hoy

Fieldwork is taking place over the summer 2017 on an exciting project investigating the submerged landscape of Orkney; land now under water, covered by the tide but which would have been terrestrial land >5000 years ago during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods when Orkney would have had a much larger land mass than today.

The project team is an ensemble cast from the Universities of the Highlands & Islands, St Andrews, Dundee, Trinity St David’s, Hull, Coventry and University College Dublin, together with Mesolithic specialist Caroline Wickham-Jones.

The project, which is funded by the Carnegie Trust and Historic Environment Scotland, aims to reconstruct the landscape of Orkney from the Mesolithic period to the Early Bronze Age, a timeframe of some 6000 years. This will give us a glimpse into an Orkney much different to today where woodland was commonplace and there were greater tracts of wetland in areas now submerged.

The project will be looking at how this landscape changed and how people in the past interacted with this landscape such as through farming, manipulating wetland through burning and clearing of woodland.

During this time, sea levels were rising rapidly and people would have observed their land changing both in terms of vegetation as freshwater wetland became saltmarsh, together with a visible loss of land to the sea. A further aim of the project is then to investigate how people would have reacted to this change in terms of resilience and adaptability; themes common to people in areas of the world affected by such changes happening today.

The Tide Covering over the test pit following sampling and recording
The tide covering over the test pit following sampling and recording

The project will be looking at the area of the Bay of Ireland through to the Loch of Stenness, taking a multi-disciplinary approach in order to carry out this investigation; therefore, a number of methods involving different technology will be used. A marine geophysical survey of the Bay of Ireland will be conducted to help us understand what the former terrestrial landscape now under the water would have looked like. The survey will also look for sediments on the seabed, such as peats and silts that can preserve organic remains and cultural materials such as wooden objects.

Sediments will also be sampled through coring and test pitting to recover material for environmental analyses in both the intertidal zone and the Loch of Stenness, meaning we will have a slice of the landscape from the marine zone through to on land (or rather on loch). These will include methods such as pollen and plant macrofossils (seeds, buds, fruit stones, nuts, wood fragments), together with insects (e.g. beetles) that can inform us of what the landscape used to look like e.g. different plants have different shaped pollen grains that can be identified from the sediments to show what plants were present in the past.

We have recently been out in the intertidal zone at the Bay of Ireland to do some test pit sampling. Previously a 3.5m long split oak timber of Mesolithic date (6000 years old) was discovered exposed within the peat in this area (the first to ever be found in Orkney), while remains of trees approximately 5500 years old can also be seen in what is termed a submerged forest (preserved remnants of woodland), the physical remains of Orkney’s past woodland.  With the help of UHI Archaeology Institute students Alanis Bruhag and James Bright, together with Laura Hindmarch from Historic Environment Scotland and a lot of digging, a test pit was eventually opened up that could be sampled for sediments we could use for our environmental work (pollen, insects etc.). The sediments that were sampled can be seen in the section (side) of the test pit below and these themselves start to tell us a story of how the landscape of Orkney has changed over time (see below).

Test Pit annotated

The samples taken on site were transported back to our laboratories at the UHI Archaeology Institute where the sediments will be recorded in more detail and they can be sub-sampled for the environmental work. Material will also be used for radiocarbon dating so that we can see how long it took the sediments to accumulate and to say when some of these major landscape changes happened.

Keep tuned to the Archaeology Blog for details on the results as we get them. After the test pit had been sampled and recorded, it was backfilled (so no one can fall in!) and we were left to reflect on the encroaching tide covering the past landscape once more.

Some more traditional archaeological investigation will also take place and in September (5th & 6th), we will be undertaking an excavation in the intertidal zone in order to look for archaeological materials such as wooden objects and stone tools. If you would like to come along and help take part in this excavation, you would be more than welcome! Please contact Dr Scott Timpany at the Archaeological Institute UHI for more details at


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