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2012 Current Archaeology Awards
The uncovering of a massive Norse longhouse at Skara Brae in Orkney is the work of archaeologist Dr David Griffiths, Director of Studies in Archaeology. He and Dr Jane Harrison, outreach officer on the East Oxford Community Archaeology project, have written a research article, Settlement Under the Sand, were a contender for Current Archaeology magazine's Research Project of the Year 2012.
Since 2003, survey and geophysics have been carried out at two locations on the west mainland of Orkney, at Birsay Bay and the Bay of Skaill.
These areas were selected because they are characterised by sandy low-lying landscapes, fronting bays where coastal erosion has been severe. Most sites found so far have been disturbed by the sea, most famously Skara Brae in 1850.
Small-scale ‘rescue’ excavation in the 1970s succeeded in recording a series of rich sites, but these were small in extent and the wider landscape remained an under-researched and untapped resource. As the threat of coastal erosion grows, we can only hope to understand its likely effects in future by researching the whole landscape picture.
A major element in our work is piecing together the evidence for past climate change. The areas covered by this project are covered by varying depths of windblown sand, a factor which has severely affected the environment in the past. Humans have adapted to this by stabilising and managing the landscape for agriculture and settlement, but at times - such as the end of the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ in the 14th 15th centuries AD - the effects of the incoming sand have been so severe that settlements and fields have been abandoned and people have moved elsewhere.
In 2007, we were also fortunate to obtain an additional grant from Historic Scotland to undertake a geophysical survey on the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island on the NW tip of Orkney mainland which is perhaps Orkney’s most important early historic site of the Pictish and Norse periods. This is being carried out by Orkney College Geophysics Unit.