Holding Back The Waves At The Swandro Dig

By Bernie Bell

 I’ve been thinking about the archaeological dig at Swandro, on the island of Rousay.

Each year, the archaeologists do their very best to protect the site from the winter storms.  Winter storms in Orkney can be extreme, and the other major dig sites at the Ness of Brodgar https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/  and The Cairns https://archaeologyorkney.com/category/the-cairns-dig-diary-2019/  need to be well covered with tarpaulin, held down by hundreds of old tyres.

Ness of Brodgar Mike Bell 3

The Ness of Brodgar – looking a bit different!

The trouble at Swandro is, the sight is right on the shore, and the sea is just eating away at it.  So, it takes even more ingenuity and hard work to secure the site as thoroughly as possible for the winter.  After the winter the archaeologists then return for the dig season in the summer, and painstakingly remove all the protective coverings  – taking care not to damage the site whilst doing so.

They assess the situation, and commence the dig – and the things they have found there!!!

A stone anvil, with the Pictish smith’s handprints, in carbon, still on the stone   https://www.swandro.co.uk/post/dig-diary-monday-23rd-july-our-anvil-still-has-the-pictish-smith-s-hand-prints

They’ve also  found more workaday objects, and some lovely little pieces, including a seal tooth amulet… https://www.swandro.co.uk/post/star-find-chloe-s-new-tattoo

And….aaaaaand…. the skulls of a White-tailed Sea-eagle, and an extinct Great Auk!!!!!!!!!

The site shows use from a succession of periods, from the early Iron Age to the Norse, and so the structures and artefacts from these times can be found and examined in conjunction with each other. The study of a site like this, can help to illuminate the story, not just of that particular site, but also of similar sites which are found separately.

And so, I was thinking about Swandro. It was thoroughly ‘put to bed’ at the end of the last dig season, and the archaeologists got on with the job of conserving, examining and researching what they had discovered.


Over the following months, the site will have taken a battering in what was an exceptional winter, with some exceptional storms -and the archaeologists must have been itching to take the covers off and see what kind of state the place is in.

BUT – that will have to wait.

Rousay is one of the smaller islands of the Orkney archipelago, and, as far as I know, is still completely clear of coronavirus. It’s particularly important for the communities on the smaller islands to have as little contact with the outside world, as possible – that will give them more chance of keeping that feckin’ virus  – OUT!!!

If anyone objects to my use of the word feckin’ – too bad – that’s how I feel about…it’s that feckin‘ virus!

The digs at the Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns have been postponed, and so has the Swandro dig.

The Ness is safely in-land, The Cairns site is by the coast, but only by the coast, not on the coast.

My thoughts are turning to Swandro, and how much it might have suffered this last winter.

The team who usually uncover it and care for it, won’t be able to do so, for quite some time. Unfortunately, that could mean that damage limitation which could have taken place – won’t – and the sea could be sneaking in, through the gaps.

I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom for Swandro, but the site is in a particularly vulnerable position, and up-keep and care, are particularly important.

You might be asking – “What can I do about it?”  You can spare a thought for Swandro, and maybe spare a donation, so that, when the tyres, stones and tarpaulin are eventually removed, the archaeologists will be well equipped to deal with what they might find.

Money is tight, and needed for essentials, but maybe if you were meaning to have a birthday, or other celebratory meal out, you could donate the money which you would have spent on the celebrations, to a charity, and/or, if you‘re that way inclined – to archaeology!!!

To donate to funding for a specific, dig, such as Swandro, go to…..  https://www.swandro.co.uk/  or to Orkney archaeology in general…. https://orkneyarchaeologysociety.org.uk/

See you next year, at The Ness, The Cairns, and…..Swandro!

Images courtesy of the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust

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1 reply »

  1. Didn’t know about the Swandro dig and it is absolutely fascinating. I find it astonishing that we as a country don’t seem capable of protecting such an important part of out history. Any other country would be spending £millions to preserve and protect such an amazing part of their history. Orkney is such an archaeological treasure trove and we should be doing whatever it takes to preserve and protect these sites for posterity. The thought of losing sites like Skara Brae or Swandro is just heartbreaking.

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