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.”


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 (

Swandro and the Roman Coin

The Roundhouse Swandro
The small roundhouse from Swandro where the coin was found.

The race against the tide at the Swandro excavation on the island of Rousay, Orkney is gathering pace this week and the teams efforts have been rewarded by some quite amazing finds.

The sea has battered the Swandro site, on Rousay, over the winter and the lower (seaward) parts of the site have sustained more damage. This can be seen in the stones forming the lower course of the chambered cairn.

Here these stones appear to have been smoothed and the material retained by them sucked out by the force of the sea. Despite this, the archaeology further up the sea cut terraces have survived more intact although there has still been some signs of physical damage.The buildings here have provided some exciting results. A circular structure forming what appears to be a small roundhouse has provided an exciting find: a copper alloy Roman coin.

Dr Steve Dockrill (the co-director of the project with Dr Julie Bond) commented, ” The bust on the coin is clearly visible although much of the lettering isn’t at present clear. The reverse contains a standing figure, possibly representing the emperor with waht might be an image of Victory at the side. This type of coin is similar to issues dating to the mid 4th Century AD.”

Roman Coin Swandro
The probable 4th Century coin ‘as found’. Specialist conservation may provide greater detail

Further excitement occurred in a later Pictish building where the excavation of a cellular building containing evidence for both iron working and copper alloy casting. The excavation team has been aided by the UK’s leading archaeo-metallurgist, Dr Gerry McDonnell who has expertise in examing debris from archaeological metal working residues.

Steve added, ” Gerry has examined much of the material from Orkney and Shetland over the years and that he has been extremely excited by the findings from last year and the work that he has carried out on the floor layers this last week.” The most recent piece of evidence being that of a fired clay tuyere, this is the clay used to hold the bellows in the furnace.

Dr Gerry McDonnell and Rose
Dr Gerry McDonnell explains the working of the fired clay tuyere to Swandro’s finds assistant Rose.

The Swandro – Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust is a SCIO (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation, registered number: SC047702) set up by the excavation team and supporters of the Swandro excavation and environs,  and is managed by a board of unpaid charity trustees.

The Trust aims to respond to the finite resource of Orkney’s coastal heritage that is being destroyed by the sea. Due to global warming, the effects of climate change and melting polar ice is promoting higher sea levels and changing weather systems, which is exacerbating an existing problem. The coastline of Westness on the Island of Rousay has a particular series of vulnerable sites.  The Knowe of Swandro, Rousay forms the immediate focus for the Trust due to the  a devastating effect of coastal erosion on the archaeology at the Knowe of Swandro.

Our charitable aims are to advance education, heritage and culture for people of all ages, backgrounds and levels of capability from anywhere in the world through the pursuit of archaeological activities, in the widest possible ways, at Swandro and its environs by:

  • encouraging and providing opportunities to learn about the heritage and archaeology of Swandro and its environs;
  • encouraging and providing opportunities to become involved in archaeological activities at Swandro and its environs;
  • offering a range of activities, including without limitation: public lectures; exhibitions; tours; visits; summer schools and work experience opportunities and public participation, in a volunteer capacity, in the widest possible range of archaeological techniques and tasks, all in pursuit of the widest possible understanding of, interest in and development of the archaeological work at Swandro and its environs;
  • facilitating the publication of the results of and the maintenance of the records of archaeological activities carried out in relation to Swandro and its environs;
  • facilitating the promotion of the preservation of and public display of the collections of archaeological artefacts and ecofacts, obtained from Swandro and its environs;
  • working with other organisations and individuals, including schools and universities, to further the aims of the organisation;
  • serving Swandro and its environs by an active involvement in its future excavation and presentation.

See their website for more details.


Coastal Erosion and Heritage in Orkney- New Trust Launched


Whenever the weather forecast is on the TV, my eyes always drift to the top of the map. This, I suppose, is natural as I live with my family in Orkney and the weather decides how we live our life that day.

The forecast for the end of this week (w/e 13th January 2017) looks interesting – a severe weather warning involving high winds and snow showers.

However, the combined power of the wind, rain and the action of the sea is also more than a way of life in Orkney, it is affecting the very existence of many heritage sites in the archipelago. It is well known that Orkney possesses amazing world-class sites, but the area has also been identified as an area that experiences some of the worst coastal erosion issues in Scotland.

Coastal erosion combined with climate change is, of course, an international issue and it is heartening to see that Historic Environment Scotland has recognised the problem as recently reported by BBC News.

archaeology-on-the-edgeIn the light of the issue, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in partnership with staff from the University of Bradford, The City University of New York, The William Paterson University of New Jersey, Orkney Islands Council and REW Development Trust have created the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust. The trust is aimed at providing resources for the continued work at Swandro-a priority archaeological site that is in imminent danger of destruction from coastal erosion.


Click through to the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust website and blog for more details.



Kids Archaeology Club – Swandro and Skaill

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!

Swandro Open day



Rousay Dig Update

The archaeological digs on Rousay are progressing apace now that the Orkney summer has arrived in earnest. Local people have taken the opportunity to work on the sites and there are still places available for anyone who wants to experience a hands on archaeological dig.


Skaill Farmstead

The first day at the farmstead began with excavating the pit from last year down to the Viking wall that had previously been uncovered. Once the wall was reached, the trench was stepped out in order to uncover more of the wall. In addition to this, we began to use geophysics to uncover more of the structures shown on the survey. The first of the pits has been dug adjacent to the corn drying kiln. This revealed a wall face and an orthosats possibly used for dividing the interior of the building. Further test pits were planned for later in the week to explore the other features shown on the geophysics.

During the second day, samples were taken of the soil in the trench near the farmstead. The second trench was mapped and left open for the public to view. Test pit three was started and will be continued by our yound volunteers on Thursday. The best finds of the day were two bone buttons in excellent condition. Other deposits of bone and pottery were also uncovered. Hopefully the rest of the Viking wall will be uncovered over the next few days.Buttons


The first day began with cleaning the storm beach back and strimming the grass back. During day 2, further clearing back was undertaken, the tarpaulins from last year’s dig was removed. The international team has now started to excavate the site and we are all looking forward to gain more insight into this heavily eroding site.

There are still places available over the next month to take part in these digs. There is no charge and you will receive training in basic archaeology techniques. There is a Kid’s Archaeology Club running too. See the poster below…..Swandro digs-page-001