The Archaeology of Swandro: A Battle Between Time & Tide

DSC_0083The excavation at Swandro on Rousay has attracted a great deal of a media attention over the last few days and we thought it may be a good time to add some background to the site and the ongoing archaeological work.

As part of an archaeological investigation (by the University of Bradford and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute) of an eroding mound on the island of Rousay, Orkney archaeological work has revealed an extensive settlement.

This intriguing settlement under the beach was discovered  by Dr Julie Bond in 2010, who spotted a few odd stones only just visible among the pebbles below the eroding mound. Since then, excavation  is completely changing our understanding of this enigmatic site.

The tops of stones partly buried by the boulder beach turned out to be set uprights forming part of a prehistoric building around the high tide mark. Although the tops of the stones are worn and battered by the sea, the beach has partly protected the deposits and animal bone and pottery were recovered, the finds suggesting an Iron Age context.

DSC_0103Initial clearance of the overlying beach material revealed a building; an Iron Age Roundhouse  (Structure 1). Only the landward circumference survived  and contained a stone built oven and a cell with a large single flag cut to size forming the floor. Two stone cut holes indicated post settings suggesting the support for an upper level possibly a loft around the circumference for storage in the roof space.

DSC_0094Dr Julie Bond ( University of Bradford) remarked that “The seaward side has been savaged by the sea which has removed half or more of the structure.This has resulted in an Iron Age sequence having been terraced by the sea into a series of levels or steps. You can walk up these terraced steps through time, rising from truncated material  dating to the Middle Iron Age up to Late Iron Age and Norse features forming the upper erosion terrace adjacent to the wave-cut cliff.”

Work this year has concentrated on the excavation of the infill of several buildings. The apsidal northwestern end of the first building found (Structure1), defined by upright stones settings and the internal dividing up right stones,  revealed the presence of a flag floor and a stone oven  set into the wall. Under the flag floor and the remains of  burnt clay, forming an earlier hearth, had been eaten away by the sea.

The Iron Age sequence has been terraced into levels, rising from truncated material appearing to date to the Middle Iron Age up to Late Iron Age and Norse period deposits at the upper erosion terrace adjacent to the wave-cut cliff. To the north-west the sea is eating into the side of what appears to be a Neolithic Chambered Cairn. It is this cairn which forms the mound of Swandro. This suggests that the burial chamber may still be intact. Work on the passage has indicated a much later infill dating to the Late Pictish and Viking period over the collapse, with the presence of several sheep with cut marks on the bone which had been made by a heavy iron blade and a coin of the Northumbrian King EANRED dating to the mid 9th Century AD.

Dr Stephen Dockrill (University of Bradford) explained “The work is investigating the archaeological remains in order to sample the floors of the eroding Early and Late Iron Age structures to unlock the buried evidence.”

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Steve said “Some of these buildings such as a small round building, Structure 2 (where the 4th Century coin came from) have walling surviving to nearly a metre in height. However on the seaward side the waves have taken much of the wall completely away.” He continued  “The sea will destroy these buildings in the next year or so and this is our only chance to understand the generations who lived on this site”.

One building, a Pictish structure, has evidence for metalworking both iron smithing and the casting of copper alloy objects. This was indicated by crucible fragments and a small part of a mould. The Picts were the indigenous Late Iron Age people of Eastern Scotland and the Northern Isles, whose unique language and culture seem to have been obliterated by social and political changes of the ninth century, in which the Vikings played a major  part.

For more information on the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Trust see their website


The Project is directed by Dr Steve Dockrill and Dr Julie Bond, University of Bradford, and is funded by Orkney Islands Council, Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre Development Trust, Orkney Archaeological Society, the University of Bradford, Orkney College, Hunter College, (City University of New York), William Paterson University.

Thanks are due to the landowners Russell & Kathryn Marwick. The project is a joint initiative between the University of Bradford and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute supported by the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust (www.swandro.co.uk)