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 (

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



Swandro and Skaill Open Day – Sunday 24th July

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
  • Artefact displays
  • Ferry from Tingwall at 11.55am. Return 5.30pm. Travel as a foot passenger.

Swandro Open day

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.

Amended map2aAs 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The remains of a spring fed Iron Age well showing the steps down to the water.


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

Big Fish, Little Fish..Medieval and Post-Medieval Fishing in the Northern Isles


Research conducted by Dr. Jen Harland provides a background to the excavations being undertaken at Swandro on Rousay this month. There are still opportunities to get involved in the dig and workshops by e mailing Sean at

Fish Remains from Quoygrew
Figure 1: Fish remains from Quoygrew, large cod family remains typical of the 11th – 13th centuries.

The ‘fish event horizon’ of c. 1000 AD is well recognised within the zooarchaeological record of the Northern Isles, and is matched by the human isotopic record which indicates marine protein consumption peaked between the 11th-13th centuries. The Late Norse focus on fishing for large cod family fish (Fig. 1) only lasted for a few centuries. This ongoing research explores what happened afterwards, using the fish assemblages from 3 recent excavations at Quoygrew, Skaill and Stacklebrae.

Where are the Herring Bones?

Stackelbrae and Skaill Farm are contemporary with Orkney’s herring industry, yet herring bones are absent. Herring survive well and are found in substantial quantities in other sites, so their absence cannot be attributed to taphonomic patterning. Instead, it would appear that they were either too valuable as an export, or they were simply not liked.

Herring are also absent from Viking Age and Late Norse sites in Orkney (Harland 2006), despite their contemporary popularity in other parts of the Norse North Atlantic. Historical records show the Dutch fishing for herring around Orkney’s waters, as seen in Adriaen Coenen’s Fishbook from 1580. Herring are notoriously difficult to predict and they spoil easily, so it is possible that they were deliberately avoided in Orkney, an avoidance that carried on into the recent past.

Big Cod to Small Saithe

Changing proportion of cod and sitheQuoygrew was the first site to produce a substantial quantity of well-sieved, stratified fish remains from the 15th and 16th centuries in Orkney. Unlike earlier centuries, cod (Gadus morhua) was found in very small quantities; most of the fish bones found were now saithe (Pollachius virens). The remains from Quoygrew showed a considerable shift in fish sizes too: the big fish of >80cm total length no longer dominated. Instead, these saithe were smaller, most being less than 50cm total length. The smaller size and change from cod to saithe indicates a shift in fishing grounds, from deeper, open-water fishing to shallow in-shore or shore-based fishing.

How typical were these deposits? Why had the inhabitants of Quoygrew turned away from the sea? Were there even any big fish left in the sea?

Initial excavations at Skaill Farm, Rousay involved the local community. The excavations continue this week.

Two small-scale excavations provided fish assemblages to help explore these questions. Stackelbrae was initially a high status settlement in the 15th to 17th centuries, before becoming an ordinary farm. The fish from Skaill Farm bring the chronological range into the 19th century. The assemblage from Stackelbrae in the 15th to mid-17th centuries indicated some deeper water fishing for cod was still taking place. This can be directly attributed to status: they had the resources to acquire or undertake targeted fishing for larger cod, but on a much reduced scale. However, from the mid-17th century this fishery had ceased. Cod and Saithe sizes and proportions through time, all sieved to greater than 2mmChanging Saithe sizes through time

The Rise of ‘Sillocks’ and ‘Piltocks’: the Small Saithe Fishery

Fish remains from Stacklbrae.
Figure 2: Fish remains from Stackelbrae, small saithe typical of subsistence diet in the recent past.

By the mid 17th century, saithe dominate assemblages entirely (Figure 2). Caught from small boats in-shore, or from the shore, they were an important part of the diet of ordinary Orcadians until the early 20th century (Fenton 1978). Their value extended beyond food: their livers were rendered down for oil, for lighting and for trade.

Why did the Northern Isles Turn Away from Open Water Sea Fishing?

Intensive fishing for large cod family fish peaked during the 11th -13th centuries AD. By the 15th century, ‘ordinary’ sites no longer had any large cod bones. Vestiges of the large cod family fishery are found at the high status site of Stackelbrae during this time, but by the mid-17th century, almost all fish remains found in Orkney are small saithe. Overfishing was not responsible – historical sources indicate there were plenty of big fish available (Barry 1805). So why do we see these shifts?

  • Orkney and Shetland were no longer preferred suppliers of preserved cod – the Newfoundland markets took over (Barrett et al. 2011)
  • Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468 and turned away from the Nordic maritime-oriented societies of the North Atlantic (Thomson 2001)
  • Environmental decline associated with the end of the medieval climate anomaly made the seas more stormy and fishing more risky (Oram 2014)
  • The Black Death ‘ravaged’ the islands in 1349 (Thomson 2001)
  • Shetland’s haf fishery for large cod and ling developed in the 18th century (Goodlad 1971) and similar fisheries developed in Orkney in the 19th century, but these early commercial fisheries are not yet recognised archaeologically and may be of limited local dietary impact.

Acknowledgements: ORCA excavated Stackelbrae and provided unpublished information; Historic Scotland funded the fish analysis. Excavations at Skaill Farm on Rousay were funded by Orkney Islands Council Archaeology fund, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the British Academy.


Barrett, JH, D Orton, C Johnstone, J Harland et al. 2011. ‘Interpreting the expansion of sea fishing in medieval Europe using stable isotope analysis of archaeological cod bones’, J. of Arch. Sci. 38: 1516-1524

Barry, G. 1805. The History of the Orkney Islands. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company

Fenton, A. 1978. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. Phantassie (East Linton): Tuckwell Press

Goodlad, C.A. 1971. Shetland Fishing Saga. Lerwick: Shetland Times Limited

Harland, JF. 2006. ‘Zooarchaeology in the Viking Age to Medieval Northern Isles, Scotland: An investigation of spatial and temporal patterning’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of York

Harland, JF and JH Barrett. 2012. ‘The Maritime Economy: Fish Bone’ in Barrett, J. (ed.) Being an Islander. Production and Identity at Quoygrew, Orkney, AD 900-1600. Cambridge: MacDonald, 115-138 Thomson, WPL. 2001. The New History of Orkney. Edinburgh: Mercat Press Oram, R. 2014. “The worst disaster suffered by the people of Scotland in recorded history’: climate change, dearth and pathogens in the long 14th century’. Proc. Soc. Ants. Scot.144: 223-244