Bay of Ireland Community Archaeology Dig – 5th & 6th September

Bay of Ireland3
The Bay of Ireland, looking across Scapa Flow to the Island of Hoy

Join the archaeology team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute on 5th & 6th September at the Bay of Ireland, Orkney investigating Late Mesolithic landscapes.

This project, led by Dr Scott Timpany and Dan Lee, invites volunteers to team up with archaeologists to open test pits on the foreshore of the Bay of Ireland to investigate the landscape of the Late Mesolithic. 

In 2013 an oak trunk was discovered within the intertidal peats at the Bay of Ireland in Stenness. Previous to this discovery it was known that such intertidal peats in coastal locations across Orkney were of an early date, often around 6000 years old! Excavation, recording and radiocarbon dating of the oak trunk took place in 2015 and it was confirmed as dating to the Late Mesolithic period with a felling date of c. 4400 cal BC; making this the only wooden artefact of Mesolithic date so far found in Orkney. A study of the pollen grains and the seeds within the peat next to the oak trunk showed that it was deposited in a reed-swamp environment fringed by woodland of willow and birch.

Excavating the oak trunk in 2015. Photo John Barber
Excavating the Oak Trunk in 2015. Photo: John Barber.

Although no tool marks have been found on the oak trunk it has been shown to be radially split, meaning it was cut in half before being placed in to the peat. The landscape information from the pollen suggests oak trees may have been present somewhere in the wider landscape but were not growing close to the Bay of Ireland. This suggests that the oak trunk was cut in half elsewhere and then deliberately placed into the reedswamp by Later Mesolithic people. But what was the oak trunk for? Was it a marker place in the landscape? Maybe an indication of a routeway to what is now the Brig O’Waithe to the Loch of Stenness? Is there other evidence of the activities of these people at the Bay of Ireland? Can we find tools or evidence of wood working?

In order to answer these questions, a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are going to be carrying out some small excavations on the foreshore at the Bay of Ireland on the 5th and 6th September and we would be delighted if people would like to come and help and see if they can find some evidence of these enigmatic former Orkney residents.

The team plan on undertaking some test pits through the peat near to the location of the oak trunk to see if further artefactual evidence can be found. Over the course of the two days we will also have the opportunity to discuss how the landscape of Orkney has changed since the Mesolithic to today as well as further details on the Bay of Ireland project and environmental archaeology.

If you would like to get involved in the dig or simply just want to come along to see the site and have a chat then please do get in touch through

*** We have some travel grants available for Orkney residents from the north and south Isles to attend the excavations. Contact above for details***

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


Carnegie Trust Funding

IMG_0266The Carnegie Trust award funds collaborative projects between Scottish Universities to advance existing areas of study, with the money awarded to be put towards fieldwork costs, laboratory costs and dissemination of results.

In May of this year Dr Scott Timpany of the Archaeology Institute UHI, in collaboration with Dr Richard Bates of The University of St Andrews and Dr Sue Dawson of The University of Dundee were successful in gaining a grant to undertake research on their project – Bay of Ireland Palaeolandscape Assessment – Addressing critical changes in Orcadian Landscapes; Mesolithic to Bronze Age

This project, which will also involve collaboration with the Universities of Hull, Wales Trinity Saint David and University College Dublin, aims to:

  • Take an interdisciplinary approach (involving offshore survey, pollen, plant macrofossils, insects and ancient DNA analyses) looking at a slice through an area of Orkney from the offshore marine zone through to the intertidal zone and on to the terrestrial zone.
  • Investigate how the landscape and sea-level changed from the Mesolithic period through to the Bronze Age (approx. 7000 years).
  • Investigate evidence for offshore submerged landscapes in the form of freshwater peats and tree remains.
  • Investigate how peoples interactions with their environment changed through this time-span, including activity within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

The project will be looking at how prehistoric communities on Orkney responded and adapted to environmental change. This research has particular relevance to the current day given the prospect of rising sea-levels and associated loss of land together with increasing winter storm damage.

We are also currently looking for a MSc research student to join the team for the project, who will be looking at plant macrofossils and insects from the intertidal peats at the Bay of Ireland. If you are interested then contact Dr. Scott Timpany on