In the winter of 1850, Britain was battered by storms. Lives were lost, ships sunk and buildings flattened. Against this backdrop, damage to a mound on Orkney’s Bay of Skaill would scarcely seem to merit mention. But when the storm waters receded, they left behind the newly exposed walls of the Neolithic village at Skara Brae. Yet the sea can destroy as well as discover, and in 1924 the site felt the fury of the waves once more, when part of a building was swept away.
Skara Brae is only the most famous British archaeological site to have suffered from the sea. The coast has been changing for centuries, and to say that erosion threatens large numbers of sites is not to make a pessimistic prediction about the future impact of climate change and rising sea levels. It is happening now.
The problem is particularly grave in Scotland, and the 15,000km-long coastline, twice the length of the coastlines of England and Wales combined, is archaeologically rich. Anyone who has picnicked on a beach in dry, windy weather knows that sand is highly mobile. Drifting sand has buried many spectacular sites, protecting them from the elements and hiding them from stone robbers. This is one reason why Skara Brae was so well preserved. But what wind has hidden, sea can uncover, and the Scottish coast is frequently hit by severe storms, especially those that roll in uninterrupted from the North Atlantic. Often a collapsing wall in a coast edge is the first clue that archaeology is present. By then, the process of destruction is already underway.
Over the last decade the charity SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion), based in St Andrews, has worked with national and local organisations to record sites before they are destroyed. When Vere Gordon Childe excavated the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in 1928, he arrived at a site newly protected behind a sea wall; today it is unusual to shield sites in this way, as coastal defences are expensive to build and sometimes increase erosion along other stretches of coast. The following four projects are all sites that would otherwise have been lost, and they give a taste of the breadth of SCAPE’s work.
Iron Age Sandwick
Situated at the top of Shetland, Unst is the most northerly inhabited island in Britain. Its proximity to Norway – Bergen is closer than Edinburgh – means that Unst has a strong Viking heritage, but it was an eroding site from an earlier period that gripped the island’s population.
The Unst Amateur Archaeology Group became concerned about a site eroding from a small hillock, halfway along the beach at Sandwick. Stone tumbling from the sandy hill hinted at buried walls, while pottery suggested a prehistoric site. Archaeologists from the Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division worked with the local group and other Shorewatch members to reveal the remains of several later prehistoric buildings, and make thousands of finds. Already partially consumed by the sea, five structures were identified, with the earliest radiocarbon date falling in the middle of the first millennium BC. The building was later modified, during the last two centuries BC to the first century AD.
All of the walls were built of stone, while the cells had either clay or paved stone floors, and one contained a hearth that had been rebuilt at least three times. Another small cell contained almost 25kg of bog ore, layers of iron pan that form in peat bogs; this may have been brought to the site for smelting. Some rooms were probably used as workshops, while others were given over to domestic chores. Both fish and animals featured among the meals cooked in the inhabitants’ pots. Other finds included a shale bracelet and three painted quartz stones. Two had been deliberately broken – were these charm stones, destroyed to dissipate their power?
At first, abandonment of the structures was followed by refuse dumping, but gradually sand smothered them. Between the second and fourth century AD, a grave for an adult male was cut into the windblown sand. Aged between 50 and 60, the man was buried with a small piece of jewellery under his arm and a polished stone disc placed near his mouth. The shiny grey appearance of the almost perfectly circular disc has led to speculation that it may be a stone copy of a metal mirror.
Following excavation, the Unst team worked with the Adopt-a-Monument project to rebuild the site using the original stones. Rather than reconstruct the buildings in a safer location, the group left the site in its original position to act as a visual warning of the perils of coastal erosion. For the moment, the site is still clinging on, but how much longer it will last is anyone’s guess!
Bronze Age Bressay
After the success of the Sandwick reconstruction, another Shetland group decided to work on an eroding site on the island of Bressay, moving it to their local Heritage Centre. The Bronze Age burnt mound at Cruester was first excavated, then backfilled, in 2000, revealing that inserted into the heap of fire-cracked stones was a rare example of an associated structure, which contained various rooms. At the upper end of one sloping passage was a circular cell with heat-damaged walls that had been repaired on several occasions. At the lower end, sunk below ground level, was a large stone trough. It is probable that stones were heated within the room and then pushed down the passage and plunged into the liquid-filled trough. While the purpose of such activity remains unclear (see CA 256), the well-preserved building provided opportunities for some of the conflicting theories to be tested.
The structures within the burnt mound were not freestanding, so rather than shift the entire mound, the reconstruction team decided to dig into a convenient natural bedrock hillock next to the Heritage Centre. Back at the site, neighbouring farmers helped lift the numbered stones and transport them to new location. Machines placed the larger orthostats into sockets that had been drilled into the bedrock and stone- masons rebuilt the shorter stretches of wall between them. Using machines and stonemasons, the site was moved and a replica built in just six weeks. Students now use the replica to test possible models for its use. From being an eroding site with no future, the Cruester Burnt Mound is now a visitor attraction and vibrant educational resource.
Baile Sear wheelhouses
In 2005, a severe storm struck the Western Isles and, in places, the coast retreated by over 50 metres. Sites were destroyed, and for weeks afterwards the beaches were littered with prehistoric pottery. Previously buried archaeology was also uncovered, and Access Archaeology Group became concerned about eroding remains on the island of Baile Sear, North Uist. Since the storm, work has focused on recording a site that is now drowned by every Spring Tide.
Excavation revealed two Iron Age wheelhouses – circular structures that, when seen in plan, resemble a wheel with spokes. The ‘spokes’ and outer wall supported a series of beehive roofs, covering rooms with inward-facing doorways that encircled the central area.
One of the sites is now destroyed. Half of the other still survives under a dune, though this could go in the next big storm. The excavated portion revealed Iron Age walls standing almost two metres high beneath the shelly sand that shrouded the site. Bone preservation was fantastic, and among the numerous artefacts were three whalebone combs. A huge amount of unworked animal bone was also recovered, both burned and unburned. Much of this came from numerous pits dug both into and below the successive ‘floors’ – layers stained red with peat ash. Several of the hearths that generated this ash were discovered, and one prehistoric occupant had decorated the clay base of one with a cross impressed using three fingers.
This wheelhouse was originally built within a large sand pit, but it had become unstable and collapsed. During the rebuilding, a rotary quern was sunk into the ground, its central hole covered with a white stone. Both burnt and unburned animal bone were placed on it, and above them, a human jawbone. This intriguing rebuilding deposit has been radiocarbon dated to the third or fourth century AD.
As with the other sites, nothing would remain of the Baile Sear wheelhouses if local people had not joined the excavation, braving wind and rain. Often, casual visitors out for a walk would express an interest, and within minutes, they were on site, trowel in hand. The site also attracted plenty who were content to spectate, including art students and schoolchildren.
‘Ancient glory of Brora’
In 1869 the Inverness Advertiser reported that ‘the action of the sea against the banks has laid bare a row of buildings which must have been for ages lain imbedded in the sea… people flock to visit this long hidden relic of the ancient glory of Brora.’ More than a century later people are again flocking to the place to see the hidden relics of Brora’s earliest industrial buildings, revealed this time by a community excavation.
Jacqueline Aitken grew up in Brora and, as a child, played among eroding ruined walls. Brora’s industrial history, based on a pocket of Jurassic coal, is well known, but no one locally could tell her what these walls were. Over the years erosion continued, and concerned about the perilous state of the archaeological remains, Jacquie contacted SCAPE. This led to the local Clyne Heritage Society and local volunteers starting a Shorewatch project.
The results have opened up a window into Brora’s salt-panning industry. Research revealed that in 1598, Jean Gordon, Countess of Sutherland, established the first salt pans, using coal to evaporate seawater. At least two large stone buildings made up the ‘Old Salt House’. The largest was located at beach level and its monumental foundations, over 20m in length, were where Jacquie played in her childhood. Built close to a supply of sea water, this was almost certainly the pan house, where the brine was evaporated. Little survives, but thick layers of clinker, industrial waste from burning coal, is eroding from nearby dunes.
A second building lay higher up in the dunes. Its stone walls were 2m high in places, and the floor was paved with locally quarried shale slabs. There was no evidence of burning, wear or damage to the floor, and it is more likely that the building functioned as a drying room or storehouse. The building had two doorways, each with an identical symbol carved into the left jamb. These could either be masons’ marks or apotropaic symbols, carved by masons to ward off evil or bad luck. The use of such marks peaked when fear of witches reached fever pitch in the early 17th century.
Over 150 years passed before salt was again made in Brora. In 1767, Welshman John Williams re-established salt pans, and an estate plan of 1772 shows five buildings. Three of these have completely succumbed to the sea, but excavation uncovered the two remaining buildings. Both had cobbled and paved floors, and a central chimney built into a wall that divided the buildings in half. One of the buildings contained a substantial hearth which has similarities to the ideal pan hearth illustrated in William Brownrigg’s book of 1748, The Art of Making Common Salt.
A cast-iron cylinder used to support the pan lay embedded in the top of the hearth. Quantities of ‘stone scratch’, a crust that had to be chipped from the pans at regular intervals in a process known as ‘paddling’, was found in a heap of industrial waste outside the buildings.
The finds give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of those who worked the 18th- century Brora salt pans. The buildings themselves were relatively well built, certainly warm, and had some glass windows. The workers used tableware that is generally described as middle-class, with occasional high-status objects. Cups and bowls show that afternoon tea was taken. Wine and ale were also favoured tipples, as was gin, imported in square case bottles from Holland. A wide range of foods were eaten, including dishes out of fashion today, such as seabirds, rooks, and limpets. The buttons, pins, and buckles that fastened labourers’ clothes and shoes provide evidence that women worked at the pans.
Before the excavation at Brora, hardly anything was known about early industrial coal-fired salt pans. Without Jacquie’s timely intervention and the commitment of the local community, the information would have been lost.
As these case studies show, communities are key to SCAPE’s work. The length and remoteness of much of the coast means local help is crucial. Things change rapidly, and sites uncovered in storms can soon be hidden again. Local groups have reported new discoveries and monitored eroding sites as part of the Shorewatch project – a former winner of the Silver Trowel Award, which has been used as a model in other parts of the UK.
For many years, Historic Scotland has sponsored survey projects and excavations at eroding sites. Resources, however, are a problem, and despite the generous support of many organisations, there is not enough funding to deal with all the sites at risk, especially at a time of economic turmoil. Eroding sites will eventually be lost, and while academics and others argue the merits of digging one site over another, damage continues. The value put on sites by communities is an excellent indication of how resources should be prioritised. Through Shorewatch, SCAPE supports groups to set up community projects at sites valued locally. The results are benefitting all.
Watching the waters
The programme of coastal surveys was started by Historic Scotland in 1996. Managed by SCAPE since 2001, surveyors search for sites along the foreshore, the coast edge and a strip of land extending back about 50 metres. The survey reports (available from www.scapetrust.org) record all sites encountered, and assess the vulnerability of the coast to future erosion. Sites that need further examination are highlighted and recommendations made. Over 5,000km of coast have been explored, but as Scotland’s coast is so long, 60% of it remains to be examined. More than 12,000 sites have been plotted, 50% of which were previously unrecorded, and over 3,700 sites carry recommendations for future work. Threatened sites range from Viking buildings to ancient fish traps, from prehistoric settlements to World War II gun emplacements (such as one in the Firth of Forth, above). With so much at risk, work needs to be prioritised to ensure that it is concentrated on those sites that are both important and threatened. The public have an important say in this, and SCAPE is working with others to produce a list of the highest priority sites. The Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project is being developed, and it will ask for help to update records and for views on which are the most important and most threatened sites.
Source Tom Dawson and Joanna Hambly University of St Andrews/SCAPE www.scapetrust.org
ALL IMAGES: Tom Dawson.