Next week commencing 8th July 2019, a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will return to dig at the fascinating Skaill Farmstead site on the Orkney island of Rousay.
The team of UHI students, Rousay residents and volunteers will once again be led by Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee from the UHI Archaeology Institute. They will together continue the project to investigate this farm and settlement mound which may have been inhabited for over 1000 years.
The dig is part of the Landscapes of Change – Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate project which is now in its 5th season. The aim of the project is to explore the farmstead at Skaill from the Norse period to its abandonment in the nineteenth century. The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it is likely that a Norse settlement is located somewhere at Skaill. Earlier structures have been found below the present farm last year, and this season we plan to explore more of the Norse and possible Viking phases of the site.
The dig is located on the island of Rousay near the Midhowe Broch. Park in the layby for the broch and walk down the hill until you reach the sea. Turn left and follow the coast until you reach us at Skaill Farmstead! You will need to take the ferry from Orkney Mainland. Check out the ferry timetable before you go.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student, Ross Drummond talks about his work at the Skaill Farmstead dig, Rousay, Orkney.
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! This time reporting about Pt. 2 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay. The project at Skaill has been running since 2015, with this season’s activities (July 9th-24th) being the fourth year on site.
The main basis for the project when it was begun was to explore the Viking, Norse and post-medieval archaeology on the Westness Estate. The present farm on the site dates to the 18-19th centuries and was involved in the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga as the home of the Powerful Earl Sigurd, so there is a high possibility of a Viking site on Rousay somewhere along the coastline and Skaill may possibly be it; which was right up my street as the Viking-Norse period is my preferred time period in terms of archaeology.
The main aims for this year’s project were: to excavate the test pit transects, investigate and put trenches over the earthworks, investigate the farm mound, locate post-medieval midden and characterise the Norse horizon. SPOILER ALERT!!! We were pretty successful in accomplishing all these aims!
The team consisted of four site co-ordinators: Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons (all lectures at UHI Archaeology Institute Orkney), ORCA Project Officer Sean Bell (for week one, Bobby Friel took over for second half of project), students from various years of UHI Archaeology and local volunteers (Anthony, Chrissie and Ewan). Not to mention a solid young archaeological workforce in the form of some of the lecturer’s kids, who were very proactive in getting involved over the course of the two and a half week excavation.
Arrival on the first day started off with a tour of the site and a discussion of the plans for the upcoming excavation season by UHI Lifelong Learning and Outreach Officer Dan Lee. Following the introduction we got our hands dirty straight away and began working on opening up three of the main trenches for this seasons activities: Trench 19 (outside farmhouse in courtyard), Trench 4 (at back of house extending on a previous year’s trench) and Trench 23 (side of the farmstead). These were chosen based on previous geophysics and earthworks surveys which showed these as locations with high archaeological potential.
The first day ended in success as one of the project’s main aims for the season was accomplished early on in Trench 19, with post-medieval midden being found in abundance (pretty much as soon as I used a mattock to loosen up the soil after de-turfing). This was collected as bulk samples for later analysis, however, by day three the initial excitement would fade as midden material would end up in the spoil heap – there was just that much of it!
My role for this excavation would take up a slightly more hands on approach in dealing with outreach and social media as I was given several tasks. As well as being responsible for the social media activities for the site on various media platforms (#SkaillSaga), I also was given more outreach experience in giving site tours to any visitors to the site over the excavation period.
This season at Skaill also saw a wider interest in the site, as Digging For Britain sent a camcorder to site for a possible feature in the upcoming series of the show due to air later this year (so stay tuned for that). So Dan and I took turns filming footage of the excavation over the course of the two weeks.
Dan ‘very kindly’ gave me the ‘special honour’ of taking responsibility of activities in Trench 22, which involved possibly one of the worst de-turfings I have ever done; the ground was rock hard with stones and roots all over the place, the spade would barely even make a dint in the ground. However, I’d have the last laugh as Trench 22 would turn up trumps in the end; just had to endure a lot of struggle the first few days.I was joined in trench 22 by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbons and Jen’s son Callum (who would become my little protégé and remain by my side in the trench for the remainder of the project).
Following the first few days in the trench early theories were that the area where Trench 22 was located was used as a dump of structural materials as buildings were knocked down and re-used over time on the site (due to a large amount of lime mortar, stone with attached mortar and red sandstone). However, fortunes changed towards the end of the week as it seemed the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was on our side with my presence, as I found a coin in the SE corner of the trench just before pack up.
Ross with his coin find
George III 1806 halfpenny
The coin was identified as a George III half-penny dating to 1806! I was delighted as it made the struggle during the original de-turfing of the trench worth it. But this find came at a cost… Despite the obvious associations of possibly being a Leprechaun (those of you familiar with American Gods can just call me Mad Sweeney), Irish readers will be able to relate to the fact that ‘th’ words provide a difficulty in our pronunciation of certain words, especially in addition to an ‘r’ in third. You can see where I’m going with this…. So basically if Skaill does manage to make it onto Digging For Britain in the future remember I’m saying ‘George the Third’ and I am not talking about poo hahaha. This has since provided many with a laugh including myself, and probably will for some time to come (it’s not my fault I’m Irish!!!).
Following my find and pose with the coin Dan jokingly referred to me as the ‘Poster Boy for UHI Archaeology’ on film for Digging For Britain and after that the name kinda stuck around site (could be worse nicknames I guess).
On our return to site in the second week Trench 22 began to turn up some more surprises as we took the level down bit by bit, with an assemblage of medieval pottery being found near the same corner as the coin. Unfortunately the pottery was in pretty poor condition and was not able to be lifted as one piece, but several pieces were scattered all over the one area. These were excavated carefully and collected by myself and Callum and by the end of it we had the remains of the biggest collection of medieval pottery belonging to a single vessel found at the site thus far.
Following the removal of medieval pottery we noticed a pig’s jaw beneath where the majority of pieces had been collected, and meticulously began investigating the area further. After a day or so of careful excavation, our patience and attentiveness paid off as the ‘Luck of the Irish’ struck again. A finds deposit of medieval pottery, a pot lid and a piece of garnet mica schist were found around the pig skull.
The garnet mica schist was part of a rotary quern and is of high significance as although it can be found in parts of Western Scotland, it is a common find from Shetland and possibly even Norway and usually associated with Norse activity. The garnet mica schist was a great find because it’s dating to Norse time suggests that the other finds within the deposits may also date to that period, and it tied in with other Norse materials and structures found at other parts of the site.
The lifting of the pig skull was also a success as I managed to lift it in one piece under the watchful eye of Callum (it was a team effort).
The Open Weekend was also a great success with steady number of visitors over both days despite varying weather conditions. I missed the Open Day on the Saturday myself (had a football final with Kirkwall Accies, we lost, less said about it the better; but we’ll get the last laugh!). I returned to site on Sunday morning in high spirits until Dan came to ‘commiserate’ with the loss (reminding of me his own past triumph’s in football and vandalizing one of the site open day posters I had made dedicating a special shout out to myself). But the rest of the day went off really well, in between doing several site tours I managed to catch up on all the paperwork for Trench 22 with the end of the excavation fast approaching.
My final day on site involved working with UHI photographer Tim Winterburn who took some portraits of the students and lecturers involved on the dig for college profiles. I also managed to draw a plan of Trench 22 before catching the afternoon ferry back to Mainland in preparation for my travel to Sanday the following day for my next excavation.
Successful results were also achieved in the other trenches over the two week season. In Trench 23, Ingrid and Steve’s work revealed two structures (walls extending N-S) which seemed similar to Trench 19 just over the wall. These structures were joined by another structure, possibly a temporary wall; with a further feature in the NW corner – function at present unclear but may possibly have been an animal pen. Finds were mostly post-medieval in date such as thin plate and thick glass which would be post 1700s, as well as some animal bone in the SW corner.
Sam working in Trench 4 with possible Norse wall in the background
One of the pieces of slag found in Trench 4
Trench 4 was worked on by the team of Jen, Sam and Chrissie and findings this season will prompt a return to this trench again next year. A substantial wall was found running E-W which has a high possibility of dating to the Norse period and could form part of a Norse longhouse. In the south area of the trench a secondary lower wall was exposed, which looks like an early feature (possibly Norse or Viking), and will be investigated further next year.
Finds included post medieval pottery and glass, metal objects, unglazed pottery, whetstones; and also a large quantity of slag. Gerry McDonnell archaeometallurgist at the nearby Swandro dig examined some of the slag and suggested they showed evidence for the smelting of bog iron as well as smithing. These pieces of slag may possibly be the earliest evidence of smelting in Viking Age Orkney, could mean there is a possibility of a nearby smithy building, which could be hidden somewhere on the Skaill site awaiting to be discovered in the future.
Trench 20 was worked on by Dan and Conal, and originally started out as a 1 × 1m trench, but was extended upon the discovery of a very substantial wall (1m long by 80cm high) at the back of the farm buildings; and probably has a post-medieval date. Buried substantial buildings across the site like this one explain the ground level rise, answering more questions we had before excavating but still leaving a very complex story to unpick.
Trench 19 worked on by Bobby, Sean, Anthony, Jan and Sue showed that the most recent farmhouse building was built on an earlier one (similar to Trench 1 2 years ago). It is post medieval, possibly dating to late medieval in date, with the gable end having a 1m wall, similar to that found in Trench 20. There was also a blocked doorway found and it looks as though the structure may have extended south at some stage. The floor surface was covered in post-medieval midden, and there are plans to extend the trench next year to find out more on the diet and farming habits of the people who lived on the site.
It was a great dig to be a part of, very different to The Cairns in both time period and set up. The involvement of members of the local community as well as some of the lecturer’s children made it a really family friendly and relaxed environment. Little things like lunch breaks spent on the beach were an added bonus with great coastal views on clear days. Can’t leave without giving a shout out to my boy Callum, or claim that the ‘Luck of the Irish’ was the reason purely on the great results from Trench 22, it also involved teamwork from the Dream Team! There are talks of the Dream Team being re-united in late August at Islay so we’ll see what possible finds that excavations turns up. Only downside to the dig was the annoying presence of klegs and horsefly’s on site, so my admiration to the Rousay natives who probably deal with this problem on a regular basis (managed to survive without any bad bites or marks though thankfully!).
Next you’ll hear from myself will be from Sanday, where it’ll be an exploration of prehistoric and coastal erosion sites.
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
P.S. Again keep in mind the ‘th’ problem for us Irish if those clips of me with the coin ever make it to air on BBC, and please do not ask me to say ‘George the Third’ for your own amusement, everyone will just end up laughing! Hopefully it won’t come back to haunt me in any future archaeological career I might have.
For any further info on Skaill and to follow my own archaeological adventures over the summer, make sure to check out our social media.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute invites you to be an archaeologist for a day.
Join the team uncovering the story of this exciting site at our Open Day at Skaill Farm on the island of Rousay, Orkney.
The site is open from 10am to 4pm on both days, so come across to the island of Rousay and make a day of it…bring the children and they can join in too, finding out about our Viking and more recent past. There are tours and displays for those who don’t want to join the team in the trenches.
The site is located next to the beach and the Midhowe Broch and is also an ideal place for a picnic.
The ferry departs from Tingwall regularly throughout the day. The timetable can be viewed here.
We look forward to seeing you there. See the interactive map below for location of Skaill Farm.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have been working at Skaill since 2015 exploring the Viking, Norse and post-medieval archaeology on the Westness Estate, Rousay and this year the dig recommences on Monday 9th July.
The name Skaill suggests that the site under investigation was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall and was perhaps a high status settlement during this period.
Westness was mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga as the home of the powerful Earl Sigurd. The present farm dates from the 18th and 19th Centuries and was caught up in the story of the Rousay clearances.
Located near to Midhowe Broch, the Site Directors, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Mainland and Dan Lee, welcome visitors to the excavation which aims to explore the remarkable deep time represented along the shoreline. There is no need to book and the site is child friendly…so bring along the family to explore the past at this most historic of locations.
The site is open to the public from 9th – 22nd July 2018 (note, the team will not be on-site 14-17 July) ,the site opens at 9.30am each morning and closes at around 4.30pm. Access to the site involves a walk down a steep hill from the car park for Mid Howe Broch and left (south) along the shoreline (15 min walk). The ground is uneven and the path is a little overgrown in places. Archaeologists will be working on site during the week. The Open Day will be on the final weekend 21st-22nd July.
If we can ask that you do not access from Westness Farm. The location of the site can be found on our interactive map….
Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present.
Dan Lee, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute together with a team of local volunteers and school children embarked on a programme of archaeology in Rousay, Orkney over the summer 2017.
Rousay’s Summer of Archaeology culminated in a host of activities along the west shore during July. Excavations were carried out at the coastally eroding site at Swandro (by a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute & University of Bradford) and at Skaill farmstead.
Together, the work at these sites aims to explore the remarkable deep time represented along the west shore; from the Neolithic, Iron Age, Pictish, Viking and Norse periods to the 19th century clearances. Work at these sites framed a series of community activities and workshops including test pit excavation at Skaill, training placements for Rousay residents, metalworking workshop, bones and environmental workshop, experimental archaeology, and open days at the two excavations. Over the month, the sites received hundreds of visitors, from Rousay and all over the world.
Excavations at Skaill farmstead were undertaken within the middle two weeks of July. The results of the geophysical survey in 2015 showed potential earlier features below the present 18/19th century farmstead. Subsequent test pits in 2016 identified several earlier structural phases below the farmhouse, including a wall with two outer stone faces and midden core, which is likely to date to the Norse period. The site represents a small ‘farm mound’ where successive phases of building, levelling and rebuilding give rise to a low mound.
The aim this season was to establish the extent and character of the farm mound, and the depth, quality and date of any deposits and structures in order to better understand the site for more detailed investigation. A line of 1m by 1m test pits at 10m intervals were excavated in two transects across the mound. The natural underlying glacial till was located at the northern, western and southern edges of the mound helping us to define the extent of surviving archaeology.
In the centre of the mound, deep stratified deposits were found. These are likely to be over 2m in depth. Post-medieval deposits were found to overlay a distinctive Norse horizon. Norse pottery, fish bone, shell midden and elaborate red sandstone mouldings were found in the earlier horizons. The moulded red sandstone is significant, indicating high status buildings in the area during the late medieval period, and may help provide insights into the ornate red sandstone fragments nearby at The Wirk and on Eynhallow. Evidence for metal working, in the form of iron slag, has also been recovered from Skaill. Significant assemblages of animal bone, fish bone and pottery from the 17-19th centuries were also recovered. These will help us understand farming and fishing practices during the last few hundred years.
To the north of the farmhouse, a small trench across a former 19th century barn was reopened and extended, showing the external wall footings and internal flagged floor. The building was demolished between 1840 and 1882 during a time when the farmstead was cleared and ceased to operate. In addition, a small evaluation trench across a suspected field boundary to the south of the barn was reopened from last season and completed. This contained a stone-lined drain and midden enhanced soil, indicating that earlier buried structures could be widespread at the site. Indeed, all of the earthworks that fell within one of the test pits contained structural remains such as walls.
Over the two weeks, Skaill received nearly 150 visitors, with 70 visitors over the test pit weekend. Several local children helping dig the test pits. Overall the season was a great success; helping raise the profile of the island, opening up the site to so many folk and increasing our understanding of the Skaill and Westness story.
The project has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant and additional funding form the OIC Archaeology Fund.
Work at Skaill farmstead, Westness, Rousay, got underway last week with some building survey, walkover survey and a workshop with the Rousay Community School.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute were joined by the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) survey team to record the remains of the buildings at Skaill farmstead and The Wirk (Norse tower). This is the first phase of the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea: Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present project – a summer of activities and reaearch.
The HES team produced accurate scaled drawings of the buildings (plans and sections) using a plane table and alidade – a basic but very effective survey method which results in highly accurate scale drawings. At Skaill farmstead, these included features such as the fireplaces, doorways, blocking, alcoves and shelves allowing the different phases of construction to be identified. The house was extended four times to the north as the farm expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the barn, the beautiful corn drying kiln was recorded along with a flue, a grain store, winnowing doors and vents. A dairy was identified at the northern end of the house.
Walkover survey was started around the farmstead with the help of volunteers. Features such as the stone walled enclosures, and earthworks such as banks and terraces were recorded. These sites were mapped with a handheld GPS and help to place the farm buildings into a wider context. An earlier phase of enclosure, perhaps and early hill dyke, was walked on the steep slope above the road.
Ten pupils from the Rousay Community School had a day of activities during the week. This started with a class-based workshop about what archaeologists do, how we know where to look, what we find and what this can tell us. They looked at finds and thought about what you might expect to find below the ground, especially in a farm mound such as that at Skaill, and above the ground in terms of built heritage.
The class then visited Skaill farmstead and after a picnic lunch found out about building recording and photography from the HES team. Pupils traced from the geophysics plot of the farm and we looked at what we could see on the ground. They finished by drawing their own plans of the farm buildings. The weather was kind and a good day was had by all.
We look forward to starting the excavations at Skaill and Swandro next month!
The project has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant and additional funding from the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund.
Dates for the diary:
10-23 July: Excavations at Skaill farm. Test pit weekend/open days 22-23 July. Volunteers and visitors welcome.
3-28 July: Excavations at Swandro coastally eroding site. details available soon.
Volunteers welcome! Please get in touch if you want to take part in the fieldwork at Skaill.
This phase of the project includes archaeological building recording by the Historic Environment Scotland survey team and walkover survey with the UHI Archaeology Institute at Skaill farmstead, Westness, Rousay, on the shores of Eynhallow Sound. The built remains of the 18th-centry farmstead will be recorded.
Come and join the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Historic Environment Scotland team to survey the intriguing remains at Skaill farmstead.
There are still two places available for anyone who is interested in buildings archaeology and would like to take part in the survey on 14th and 16th June. Volunteers don’t need any experience of archaeology as training in basic survey techniques will be provided. Contact Dan Lee at email@example.com to book a place.
The project will continue on 15th June with the team holding a workshop at Rousay School in the morning and a site visit in the afternoon.
The full programme culminates at Skaill farmstead in an open afternoon on Friday 16th June where visitors will be invited to meet the team, see the results of the work and try some practical activities. All welcome!
This is the first event in a series of community archaeology events on Rousay this summer. Watch out for excavations at Skaill 10-23 July.
Stories, Stones and Bones: Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea – Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present.
Rousay Heritage Trust celebrates £7800.00 Heritage Lottery Fund grant as part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017
Rousay Heritage Trust has received a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Stories, Stones and Bones grant. This exciting project, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Land and Sea – Exploring Island Heritage, Past and Present, in Rousay, Orkney, led by the Rousay Heritage Trust in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute and the University of Bradford, has been given £7800.00 to run a programme of archaeology themed events during 2017.
These are to be centred around the archaeological excavations at Swandro and Skaill, on the western coast of Rousay, and on the Viking and Norse periods. This project is part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
The project will provide a programme of hands-on and memorable experiences for a range of ages within the island community will complement the wider St Magnus 900 year commemorations and will focus more fully on the archaeology and history of Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre in the Viking / Norse period.
Project events include a Viking themed boat flotilla with guided trips around Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre looking at the Viking and Norse sites and their history. Members of the community can learn skills in archaeology during test pit excavations at Skaill, surveying a Viking house at Swandro, experimental archaeology workshops and more. These activities link in with the ongoing archaeological investigations by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Bradford researching long-term change along the Westness coast. The project culminates in the production of a new free booklet for all Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre residents containing useful information about the islands, their heritage and archaeology and the results from the summer’s activities.
Commenting on the award, Bryan Milner (Chair of Rousay Heritage Trust) said: “ We are delighted that our Summer of Arts and Sport in recent years are now to be followed by a Summer of History. This is especially appropriate because not only are Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre rich in archaeological sites but also because Egilsay is where Magnus was martyred 900 years ago”.
Dan Lee (Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, UHI Archaeology Institute) added: “we are thrilled to be part of such wide-ranging and exciting events centred upon the remarkable archaeology of Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre in the St Magnus 900th commemorative year”.
Rousay Heritage Trust is a charity with the main objectives of the advancement of the education of the public in the history, culture, natural history and any other features of life in the island of Rousay, Orkney and the preservation for the public benefit of the historical, cultural and natural heritage of Rousay and of its sister islands, Egilsay and Wyre. Contact: Helen Castle firstname.lastname@example.org 01856 821229
Stories, Stones and Bones is for any not-for-profit group wanting to engage more people with the heritage and take part in the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Stories, Stones and Bones grants between £3,000 and £10,000 are available to groups who want to discover their local heritage. Projects can cover a wide spectrum of subject matter from exploring local archaeology and a community’s cultures and traditions to identifying and recording local wildlife and protecting the surrounding environment to managing and training volunteers, and holding festivals and events to commemorate the past.
Heritage Lottery Fund. Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) aims to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities across the UK and help build a resilient heritage economy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage. www.hlf.org.uk Follow us on Facebook Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland and twitter @HLFScotland. Use the hashtags #HLFScotland and #HHA2017 to be part of the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
Throughout July, the international team working on the digs at Swandro and Skaill on the island of Rousay, Orkney, have been getting youngsters involved in archaeology.
It has been a great success with parents and children from the mainland as well as local children trying their hand at archaeology. This week the children had great fun making and decorating Viking pottery, examining Viking artefacts and learning new skills by digging a small test pit.
“I have some pictures from today. It was fantastic. We all loved it.Thank you so much.” Susan and her 2 children.
This Sunday 24h July is the Swandro and Skaill Archaeology Open Day, when not only will the whole site be open to the public, but there will be chances to get involved. The Viking bone carver, Valgar Ketilson will also be on site to help everyone get hands on with the past!
The international team excavating the eroding archaeological site at Swandro and the Viking Farmstead at Skaill on the Orkney island of Rousay are holding an exciting open day on 24th July 2016.
Everyone is welcome and transport will be available from Rousay ferry terminal for those who travel across as foot passengers (Ring us at 01856 569225 so that we can meet you at Rousay Ferry Pier).
The details are as follows:
Venue: Swandro and Skaill archaeology excavations
Sunday 24th July
11am – 4.30pm
“Living Archaeology” activities
Meet Valgar Ketilson, the Viking bone carver and get hands on with the past
Site tours around the archaeology excavations
Guided walk along the Westness Walk
Ferry from Tingwall at 11.55am. Return 5.30pm. Travel as a foot passenger.
Background to the Excavations
Julie Bond and Steve Dockrill of the University of Bradford write…….The Knowe of Swandro on the Orcadian Island of Rousay, consists of a mound which is situated immediately behind a boulder beach on the Bay of Swandro. On its eastern flank is the Norse settlement site known as Westness, excavated by the Norwegian archaeologist Sigrid Kaland in the 1970’s (Kaland 1993). 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. This research builds on the site and landscape studies undertaken at Tofts Ness, Sanday (1984-8 by Dockrill), Old Scatness and Jarlshof (1995-2006) in Shetland by Dockrill & Bond and the Viking Unst (2006-8) project by Bond.
The Key Questions
What is the extent of the Iron Age settlement and how does this change over time? The understanding of the Iron Age settlement in cultural and economic terms by the excavation and sampling of these sites will provide a current and informed understanding for people living on Rousay in the Iron Age and how this changes over time.
What is the association with the Norse settlement and how does this inform on the question of the Pictish/Viking cultures? 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.
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 a unique opportunity to investigate the construction of the mound due to the erosion.
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.
The Work so Far
A number of set upright stones were just visible among the pebbles on the beach in 2010. Subsequent excavation indicated archaeological survival on the beach below the erosion face that forms the boundary between land and high water. The presence of these deposits and their subsequent investigation has completely changed our understanding of this enigmatic mound. Initial clearance of the overlying beach material revealed the remains of an Iron Age structure. This was confirmed by an AMS radiocarbon date of 25BC-AD130 at 95% confidence for carbonized barley from a midden, which sealed flagging in one of the compartments. Work in 2012 enabled the nature of the erosion to be more fully understood indicating significant archaeological survival and potential. The sea had created terraces or steps within the archaeological mound, with each of these eroded scars being covered by re-deposited beach material.
In 2012 on the north western side of the cleared archaeological surface the remains of a substantial outer wall forming the arc of a large circular building seemed to form the continuation of a crescent shaped ridge at the top of the mound and it was thought at first to be the outer wall of a large roundhouse of broch proportions. However the presence of a series of stepped concentric outer wall-faces containing a rubble core suggests that the mound represents a Neolithic chambered cairn.
Work in 2013 also concentrated on the continuation of the site south east of the mound. Investigation in 2014 has demonstrated a Pictish phase, indicated by cellular structures built within the infilled remains of more substantial Iron Age structures which themselves show there is a continuation of the site on the foreshore and under the boulder beach. The truncated remains of the Norse Hall clearly overlie this Pictish/Late Iron Age settlement. Excavation at Swandro in 2014 also clearly indicated that the top of the mound forming the Neolithic Chambered Cairn had been partially robbed of stone in the Iron Age and infilled with Late Iron Age (Pictish) midden.
On the seaward area of the beach under the boulders the truncated building (Structure 1) was further investigated. Midden was found to continue to seaward but is clearly being affected by tidal action; deposits of midden located by coring in the intertidal zone in 2011 have now disappeared.
Work on the beach in 2014 concentrated on the excavation of the later Iron Age (Pictish) elements of the site. Excavation revealed a complexity of structural development with building forms found to be nested in earlier, larger structures. The sea had partially destroyed both sets of buildings. The truncations were cleaned as sections, sampled and recorded. The part-excavation of one of these later truncated buildings (Structure 2) in 2014 saw the sampling of floor surfaces down to the primary flag floor. The excavation and sampling of the infill of a third building form revealed the presence of slag and crucible material suggesting copper alloy working. A broken flagstone within a floor surface of one structure proved to be a capstone to a well. The well was accessed by steps and corbelled on three sides, with clay bonding present in the lower part; it is still filled by a freshwater spring.
Excavation in 2015 continued to define the partially eroded structures on the beach and the excavation of the Pictish building (within the extension started in 2014). The passage to the chambered cairn was identified and the upper fill contained evidence of Viking Age activity with the finding of a coin of EANRED (King of Northumbria in the first half of the ninth century AD). Gareth Williams (in discussion of this find and within a Northern Isles context) was happy to see this as being a Viking Age deposition. The upper part of the beach containing the eroded buildings was recorded with both photogrammetry and 3D laser scanning.
The storm beach area containing the chambered cairn, which had been recorded in 2012, was re-examined in 2015 to identify and record the effect and damage caused by the sea since the site had been carefully covered and re-packed with beach cobbles. The tomb revetment demonstrated that heightened wave activity over the intervening winters had shifted deposits and revealed one of the lower revetment stones before clearance. Once uncovered, this area was cleaned and recorded using digital imaging and 3 dimensional scanning. It is worth noting that the cairn has suffered greatly from the effects of erosion in the intervening years, with much of the lower (seaward) circuit of the outer casement wall and the packing contained by it having been removed by the sea. Several of the large blocks from this lower revetment have been torn out and have completely disappeared. The water level at high tide regularly comes to this outer part of the tomb. The large stones that remain were angular when recorded in 2012 and now show significant smoothing by the action of the sea and movement of smaller beach material.
Finally….The erosion is rapid; midden deposits found during an examination of the beach at low tide in 2011 have been completely destroyed by the sea. The sea is actively destroying the eastern part of the site under the earthwork remains of the Norse houses; stonework still survives but most of the sediments and midden deposits have been washed away and the front stones of the remaining features show battering and wear