Coastal Survey at Birsay

The rain did not dampen the resolve of Dave Reay and his team from the UHI Archaeology Institute on Wednesday when they started the first of 3 days surveying the coast from the Point of Buckquoy to Birsay Village.

Birsay Mapping Magnus

Dave Reay pointing out fragments of bone

The coastal survey is part of the Mapping Magnus 900 project which involves the local community in archaeological survey techniques whilst learning more about where they live.

Dave Reay’s team of Kevin Kerr and Linda Somerville was joined by Norman Shearer and myself but if you missed this event you can still join in on Thursday and Friday. Contact: or phone 01856 569229.

The day was an introduction to recording coastal sites and Dave explained that there is a massive density of known archaeology in Birsay. Although much is known there are three important factors to consider:

  • What has changed?
  • Has anything new been exposed?
  • Supplement the known with the new findings.

Birsay Mapping MagnusMost people are aware that the Brough of Birsay was Norse with an earlier Pictish settlement but this coastal survey is not looking at the Brough but from the Point of Buckquoy to the village.

In the 1960’s Wainwright recorded 6 or 7 Iron Age structures. Later on Ritchie examined a sequence of late Iron Age settlements around the Bay. Morris re-examined Wainwright’s excavations and wrote up all the  findings. There are 4 known mounds and one, the Knowe of Norquoy, appears very much to have been a settlement mound due to the deposits found there. Human bone is still being uncovered as the coast erodes.

After a Health and Safety talk which was particularly needed given the poor, slippery weather conditions and the nature of the area being surveyed, the team set off to mark out areas of interest for recording.

It was important to look at the layers carefully and identify cut features, structures, and deposits particularly burnt remains. Due to its location there was much evidence of sand blown events where quite a deep layer of sand could be seen layered on top of previous stone/clay.

Key questions to be asked:

Birsay Mapping Magnus

  1. What is this deposit?
  2. How did it get there?
  3. Is it darker in colour? (dark earth)
  4. How does the stone sit? are there spreads of stone?

The results from this survey will go together with those of the walk over survey of Birsay and the archival research to build up an in depth study of the area. Birsay is a rich resource for our cultural heritage in Orkney and the community events have not only allowed this to be documented in detail but have raised awareness of its importance during Norse. Pictish and Iron Age times.

Two more events to look out for are the Archive Drop in Day on 23rd September at the Orkney Archives Room, Kirkwall Library and the Palace Village excavations which take place from 25th September – 6th October.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

Related Stories: Mapping Medieval Birsay

Exploring Orkney Archives for Birsay’s Medieval Past

Why you have to wear layers in Orkney: Dress for the weather


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6 replies »

  1. Interest IN Birsay, and the interest OF Birsay, expands and expands.
    Those two photos are classic, Fiona – absolutely classic. Every visitor to Orkney should be given a copy with their plane/ferry ticket. Perfect.

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