Orkney’s Cutting-Edge Role in Archaeology

Mimir’s Well: by Caroline Wickham-Jones, Visiting Research Fellow, Institute for Northern Studies

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Taking cores for environmental reconstruction

Regular readers will be aware of the importance of archaeology to the county. Many are also aware of the importance of the county to archaeology. Fertile soils and good preservation conditions, alongside the natural building stones provided by local geology, mean that the archaeological sites here are remarkably well preserved and this has been noticed and studied by archaeologists for around 100 years.

While the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the discovery of some of our great sites, they only came to worldwide attention with the publications of Gordon Childe who led the investigation of Skara Brae for the Ministry of Works in 1928 (while he was professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh). Childe had travelled widely and he put his findings into a global context. He was fascinated by the development of society around the world and, though at first mistaken about the actual date of Skara Brae (believing the site to be much more recent than it is because of the wonderful preservation), he recognised it as a village of early farmers: ‘a tribe of sheep- and cattle-breeders’. Childe wrote highly acclaimed books about the development of humankind, and Skara Brae was mentioned in several of them.

Through Childe, the archaeology of Orkney played a significant role in the foundations of the new profession of archaeology that was emerging around the world. This role would be expanded in the 1970s with the advent of the optimistically named ‘New Archaeology’. New ways of collecting and analysing data provided archaeologists with a suite of new tools that required the excavation of sites where plenty of finds would be made. Where better to turn than Orkney! In this way excavations took place at sites like Quanterness Tomb, Knap of Howar, Skara Brae (again), Birsay and Links of Noltland. Although not all have been published in full, the information from these projects played a key role in the development of archaeological thought at the time.

Since then archaeology has seen new names and iterations ‘Middle Range Theory’; ‘Processualism’; ‘Post-processualism’, each as dry and self-obsessed as they sound. Orkney has continued to play an important role to provide the material data with which the professionals like to play. New publications, such as Richard Jones and Colin Richards’ Development of House Societies in Neolithic Orkney, and excavations like the Ness of Brodgar continue to bring Orkney archaeology to centre stage.

You would be forgiven for thinking that we know all there is to know, and that Orkney archaeology is fully understood.

You would be wrong.

New sites like the Ness of Brodgar provide a powerful reminder of the way in which archaeology surprises with the discovery of the unexpected. It sometimes seems as if the Neolithic Gods have chosen to mock us by placing one of their most extensive sites right at the heart of the monumental sweep between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. But there is another innovative field in which Orkney archaeology now provides an impact well above that expected of a small island group in the north. For this we turn to a totally different aspect of archaeology, one that was first considered at the time of Childe, but that has been out of reach until recent times.

Submerged landscapes comprise areas of land that once lay above sea-level but are now underwater. They can be large, as in the landscape of Doggerland that once joined Britain to the Continent, or small, as in Otterswick, the once-wooded bay in northern Sanday. All hold the potential to preserve archaeological remains. Interestingly, the nineteenth century publications of William Watt and Traill Dennison flagged up some of the earliest discussion of sites like this as indicators that the world was once different. Sadly, it has been impossible to study them until recent decades.

Archaeology today is a specialised profession in which new technologies have opened up numerous possibilities for the collection and analysis of data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of Submerged Landscape Studies. Driven by increasing exploitation of the seabed for oil, cable laying, aggregate extraction and so on, a wide suite of techniques has been added to the archaeological toolbox. Many archaeologists are making use of them.

The investigation of the submerged landscape is taking place around the globe. One small part comprises the work currently being undertaken by the Rising Tide project in Orkney. We have been working since 2005 and comprise specialists from a group of universities across the UK. The members of our group include many different specialisations as well as archaeology: marine geophysics; sediment analysis; palaeoenvironmentalist; sea-level specialist; and others. When we started work here many people were surprised to think that past sea-level around Orkney had been low enough that the nature of the archipelago had changed considerably over time. It seemed strange to think that when the first hunter-gatherers visited Orkney some 13,000 or more years ago, they may have found one large island. There was a certain amount of scepticism.

Only when you begin to see the work in Orkney in the light of research elsewhere do you see it in context. From the shallow inter-island waters of Australia, to the shores of Argentina and Chile, and the coastal seabed of southern Sweden, teams are working to investigate and reconstruct the landscapes of the past. Landscapes when global sea-levels were lower and local environments comprised different climate, vegetation and landmass. It is not surprising that traces of these landscapes also survive around Orkney.

In each location the details of the landscape and its subsequent loss beneath the waves vary greatly depending on complex local conditions. Broadscale models, using information relating to the location and deglaciation of the last great ice sheets, general topography, local tides and currents, and sedimentation, picture the rough location of the coast in previous times around areas such as the North Sea. They also help us understand the rate at which land was lost as relative sea-levels rose throughout prehistory. Nevertheless, models do not provide accurate information relating to specific places. For that, it is necessary to gather localised data, and, even then, surprises still occur.

For example, when we started working in Orkney, we were inspired by work in Denmark that had revealed amazing detail of a settlement dating back to around 5000 BC at Tybrind Vig. The finds from Tybrind Vig were spectacular: decorated canoe paddles, fragments of net, and complete bows. Naively we thought that we might come across similar material here. Sadly for us, the waters around Denmark are, generally, very different to Orkney waters. They are much calmer and their low energy is ideal for the preservation of archaeological material.

On the other hand, we were surprised to find that relative sea-level rise around Orkney only stopped about 2000 BC. This meant that the first farmers also experienced a changing coastline and the loss of land. It is quite possible, therefore, that houses and tombs, similar to those of Knap of Howar or Midhowe, might have been inundated. Of course, the million-dollar question is: were they? So far, we have not been able to answer that. After five thousand years or so being washed by the currents and tides, even the most robust stone-age house will have been reduced to a pile of rubble and verifying the origin of the anomalies that we have recorded has proved more difficult than we imagined. It is a problem that few people have started to address. Our work continues and is of wide application. It is a work in progress: watch this space!

The broadscale work in locations such as Doggerland, where a team from the University of Bradford are currently leading the way, is important. But it tells us little about the precise impact of sea-level rise on specific coastal communities. That is where Orkney, once again, comes to the fore. The small-scale studies that we are undertaking here throw light on places such as the Bay of Ireland where the demise of woodland that was growing around 4000 BC has been recorded. In the Bay of Firth, it is possible to see how the influx of seawater altered the intertidal zone between 5000 BC and 3000 BC. Events such as these impacted on the resources available to the early communities of Orkney. Similarly, it is possible to see how people at Ness of Brodgar must have been aware of the rising water levels that encroached on the narrow strip of land they considered so important.

In this way, Orkney plays a significant role in small-scale studies that combine information relating to the changing world of the past with understanding of the people. It is salutary to realise that the earliest communities here lived in a world where change was normal. They did not have the benefit of the hindsight that we employ. They did not know that sea-level rise would stop. As far as the community at Ness of Brodgar were concerned, their buildings would eventually be consumed by the sea.

One wonders how they played that into their world view. What stories did they tell? What plans did they make?

In this way, the submerged landscape impacts on us all, not just those with an interest in diving. The world of the past was different, and we can only understand it properly if we understand all the elements that combined to create it.