Moving a site on Sanday – Bronze Age buildings, a well with steps, and much, much more.

Never assume you know what you’re going to find – sites always throw up surprises. SCAPE’s project with the Sanday Archaeology Group in Orkney is a perfect example… who thought we’d find a Bronze Age well during a reconstruction project!

Steps down into the well, with water at the bottom. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Steps down into the well ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Our Day of Archaeology 2014 was very eventful, and to get an idea of the hive of activity, see a time lapse film of the first two hours on site. The Day came half way through our project on Sanday, where we were working with the local group to relocate a previously excavated Bronze Age site. Local residents had reported structures revealed on a beach after a storm, leading to an emergency evaluation (it was thought that there might be a burial within the stone tank). The excavation had showed the site to be one of only a handful of burnt mounds with surviving structures within them. After the excavation, the sea continued to attack the stone tank, orthostats and a corbelled cell, and the local group wanted to preserve something of the site by moving some of the stones to their newly opened Heritage Centre, away from the sea. The group contacted SCAPE’s Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project – and a plan to relocate the stonework was devised as a ShoreDig project.

The Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk logo  ©SCAPE

The Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk logo ©SCAPE

Before we could transfer the large stone slabs to the Heritage Centre, we had to reveal the masonry from under the beach cobbles. The original excavation had located a corbelled cell buried in the coastal section, but health and safety concerns had prevented full excavation. By the time we started digging in early July, the sea had eroded back the coast edge, allowing access the cell. After getting our Shetland stonemasons, Jim Keddie and Rick Barton, to check the structure, we excavated demolition and backfill material to reveal six steps leading down to an underground chamber.

Excavating the Bronze Age well on Sanday ©SCAPE

Excavating the Bronze Age well on Sanday ©SCAPE

The prehistoric structure stood three metres high to the top of its corbelled roof. The lower chamber was full of water; and the silt at the bottom of the well was full of remarkably well-preserved organic material (I’ve never seen Bronze Age seaweed before). Part of our Day of Archaeology was spent sampling the organic silts, bagging 100% of the material for future analysis.

Bronze Age seaweed from the well excavated on a beach, Sanday, Orkney. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Bronze Age seaweed from the well excavated on a beach, Sanday, Orkney. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Burnt mounds often have a large trough or tank, and in Scotland, some of these tanks are made of large, flat slabs of stone. We excavated the cut for the stone tank, finding that the base was far larger than the size of the tank – and that the four side-stones had been placed on the flat slab at the bottom.

Preparing to move the base slab of the stone tank.©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Preparing to move the base slab of the stone tank. ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Much of our Day of Archaeology was spent moving the last of the stones to the reconstruction site. We plotted the relative positions of the stones with an EDM; and photographed, numbered and drew all the stones before lifting them. Jo and Ellie from SCAPE worked with Sanday Archaeology Group members to prepare the site so that the stones could be lifted. A second team of local volunteers were ready with tractors, trailers, digger and slings to move the stones off site.

Moving stones from the site at Meur ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Moving stones from the site at Meur ©Tom Dawson/SCAPE

Once the base slab was lifted, we saw that it had been built over an earlier, possibly corbelled, structure, perhaps explaining why such a large stone was used. This was very unexpected, and we managed to capture the moment as part of the filming we were doing for possible inclusion in the next series of Digging for Britain.

Jo filming Tom while stones are moved in the background. ©Ellie Graham/SCAPE

Jo filming Tom on site. ©Ellie Graham/SCAPE

Our Day of Archaeology was a great success – to learn more about what we found, (and what was under the slab) visit our Facebook page; or follow us on Twitter.

Moving a dune, eroding archaeology on Scotland’s north east coast.

The sand dunes at Brora, Sutherland, on Scotland’s north east coast, are over four metres high. Buried within them are the remains of the late 16th / early 17th century saltpans. Over the centuries, the wind had blown sand over the site, completely covering it until it became forgotten about.

Sand dune at Brora

Sand dune at Brora

In recent years, coastal erosion had exposed part of the front wall of one of the buildings, and on the Day of Archaeology, we finished machining and started cleaning up the site.

We knew that masonry remained buried in the dunes as we had uncovered half of a building in 201. Although we had seen the front wall of the buried portion, we did not know how much would survive.

In order to uncover the site, we had to remove hundreds of tons of sand and had spent the previous two days landscaping the dune. Removing the sand would allow us to work safely , but we had to make sure that the wind would not blow away the reshaped dune, so were replacing the turf on the remodelled dune as quickly as possible.

Machine stripping of dune

Machine stripping of dune

We were finished with the machine by 9:00am (the machine driver had another job to go to so started early, one of the benefits of long summer days up in the north!). The machine had taken out the bulk of the sand while we dug close to the walls to ensure that the machine bucket didn’t damage the masonry.

Cleaning site by hand

Cleaning site by hand

When the machine had gone, the walls plotted with the EDM, and loose of unsafe masonry was drawn, photographed and then removed.

Using an EDM for survey

Using an EDM for survey

There was also much collapsed masonry within the building, and once the machine had left, this had to be removed by hand.

Heavy work, moving stones

Heavy work, moving stones

We also spent time videoing Calum, a young volunteer who helped us out last year also, and had been inspired to use the Brora dig for a school project.

By the end of the day, we had cleared enough sand to reveal a small room, roughly 4 m x 4.5m, with a doorway facing the sea and a fireplace in one wall. While machining we had seen the lintel of the fireplace and it seemed to have initials carved into it. As we removed more sand from around it, we could see that there were further initials on one of the jambs; the other had nicks etched into its edge, perhaps where people had sharpened their knives.

Fireplace

Fireplace

The project had been initiated due to Jacqueline Aitken’s passion for, and concerns about, the archaeology of Brora. Jacquie remembers playing on eroding masonry (now long gone) when she was a child and was worried that Brora’s industrial heritage was being washed away by the sea. A member of the Clyne Heritage Society, she contacted SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) and a joint project, (also involving the University of St Andrews where Jo and I are based), was established. Thanks to funding from Historic Scotland, a small bit of Brora’s past is being recorded before it is lost forever.

Clyne Heritage group members

Clyne Heritage group members