What happens with archaeology during the winter in Orkney? Swandro Rousay

The weather and lack of daylight means ‘digging’ is not possible. In this article from Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust we find out how those working on the site in Rousay keep busy.


Tomb on the beach at Swandro – the outer walls of the Neolithic chambered tomb are the concentric circles in the foreground, the burial chamber is under the grass at the left. The Atlantic Ocean is lapping at the edge of the site.

Excavation is the exciting and glamorous part of archaeology, but it can only take place for a comparatively short period each year. The intervening period is when the important (but not very imaginatively named) post-excavation work takes place. This involves a team of dedicated people doing lots of tasks like cataloguing finds, entering them in data bases, processing the environmental samples (of which more later), writing preliminary reports etc, all of which are vital tasks but not necessarily terribly exciting and certainly not glamorous. You do at least get to be the first to see some of the summer’s finds in all their glory, such as this white tailed sea eagle skull:

white tailed sea eagle skull Swandro

The skull came from the Iron Age levels this year, and coincidentally we do have a pair of sea eagles nesting in Hoy once again, just above the Dwarfie Stane in Rackwick Glen (another probably Neolithic tomb site) and they’ve raised a chick this year and two last year.

Sea eagles were once common in Orkney but were hunted to extinction in the 19th century because they were said to take lambs, poultry and piglets. There’s even a mid-18th century tale that a baby, lying wrapped in a thick woollen shawl near its mother who was working in the fields in Orphir, was snatched by an eagle and carried across the Bring Deeps to Hoy. The legend has it that a boat was quickly launched and a rescue party, led by the distraught mother, pursued the eagle and were successful in retrieving the baby unharmed, cushioned from the eagle’s talons by the shawl.

Aside from the eagle’s skull, we also have lots and lots of Iron Age pottery, here being catalogued by Klaudia, one of the Bradford students who, as well as working at the dig during the season, are also are working on Swandro material during their placement year.

Swandro archaeology

Sorting through the residues (the stuff that’s left after all the juicy organic material has floated off) is incredibly tedious, but you do sometimes get little gems to cheer you up, since the emphasis on sampling is to take it in chunks to make sure you don’t damage the carbonised seeds and other small particles that will be retrieved by the flotation, so some small finds are inevitably included in the sample.

Swandro archaeology

One of the nicest so far is this tiny broken amber bead…

broken amber bead Swandro archaeology

.. and these copper alloy fragments and ring from the same context as the amber:

copper alloy fragments Swandro

Also during post-excavation work there’s a chance to take better photos of some of the star finds from previous seasons, after they’re been carefully dried and gently cleaned and so look their best, as is the case with this Pictish painted pebble from the 2018 dig – is is just me or does that look like a dog’s head?

Pictish stone Swandro

Apart from the post-excavation work we are also thinking about next year’s excavation, which we are planning on running from the 23rd June to the 11th August, with hopefully an advance team on site the week before.

As always we are still fundraising to pay for both next year’s excavation, future seasons and future analysis and radiocarbon dates, so if anyone reading this would like to make a donation anything you can spare would be gratefully received. We would also like to thank everyone who has so generously supported us so far,  without you we wouldn’t be able to continue our work.

Click on this link to donate: Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust

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2 replies »

  1. Blimey – that sea-eagle skull – blimey. That’s going on The Wall.
    Seeing these things, makes me dizzy.
    That’s a really good article.

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