The Knowe of Swandro

6 mins read

Excavating eroding archaeology on Rousay

Overlooking excavations at the Knowe of Swandro on Rousay, Orkney. This photograph shows how close to the waterline the site lies; indeed, at high tide during the winter, the archaeological remains (which the team cover with protective sandbags before departing at the end of each dig season) are completely submerged. IMAGE: University of Bradford

In the concluding part of our Orkney trilogy (see also CA 394 and 395), Carly Hilts reports on her visit to the Knowe of Swandro on Rousay, where Julie Bond and Caz Mamwell took her through the latest findings from this long-lived but rapidly eroding site.

Across the waters of Eynhallow Sound, the island of Rousay was initially only an indistinct shape shrouded in mist. As the ferry drew closer, though, I could see ominously rainy clouds sweeping across its higher points, clearing just as quickly to leave the green slopes streaked with sunlight. In Orkney, I had been told, it is common to experience every kind of weather in a single day, and that had certainly been the case during my short crossing from the larger island known as Mainland – though the journey had been as beautiful as it was bracing, with gannets plunging around us like white javelins. Below deck, my car was nestled between the imposing bulk of a tractor and its bale trailer on one side, and bundles of the day’s post and milk deliveries on the other – Rousay’s c.200-strong population rely on many goods being brought in by boat, but one thing that they have no shortage of is archaeological remains. Numbering over 160, historic (and, particularly, prehistoric) sites almost outnumber humans on the four-mile-long island, and their diversity and significance have earned Rousay the nickname ‘the Egypt of the North’.

From the single road that encircles the island you can reach a number of enticingly named Neolithic tombs – Taversöe Tuick, Blackhammer, Knowe of Yarso – and on Rousay’s southwest side you find a small car park signposted for the largest of these: Midhowe cairn. Located steeply downslope from the car park, this 32.5m-long communal burial space is divided by upright stones into numerous stalls, in which the remains of at least 25 individuals were found during excavations in the 1930s. Today the 5,000-year-old cairn is shielded from the elements inside a structure resembling an aircraft hanger, which is furnished with suspended walkways to allow visitors an aerial view of the tomb’s interior. It also marks the start of a remarkable mile-long route along the coastal fringe, known as the Westness Walk, which guides you through tangible reminders of Rousay’s past. Immediately to the west of the cairn stand the remains of its similarly named but rather younger neighbour, Midhowe Broch, an Iron Age tower standing guard over the grey waters. Turning and walking east along the rocky, sometimes boggy, shore, I then passed the roofless ruins of long-abandoned farmsteads (the 19th-century land clearances that devastated so many communities in Highland Scotland also took a heavy toll in Orkney; Rousay’s population was once almost five times larger than it is today), the remains of St Mary’s Kirk, and a Norse hall – until I reached my intended destination: the Knowe of Swandro.

Two monuments mark the start of the Westness Walk, a mile-long coastal route lined with archaeological sites. On the left is the Iron Age Midhowe Broch, while the photo on the right shows the Neolithic remains of Midhowe cairn, which visitors can explore on walkways suspended above the ancient stonework. IMAGES: Simon C B Jones

Preserved within an uneven beach of sea-tumbled stones, the Knowe of Swandro takes its name from its location beside (and, at particularly high tides, under) the Bay of Swandro. Its remains have been under investigation by a team of archaeologists and students from Bradford University, together with students and volunteers from as far afield as the USA (particularly from City University New York and William Paterson University), for over a decade. The project is funded by the Orkney Islands Council, the Swandro Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, and support from Bradford University, and it was born in 2009, when Dr Julie Bond was walking across this stretch of beach towards another significant archaeological site, Westness cemetery. While making her way towards the peninsula where the burial ground lay, Julie spotted a number of orthostats sticking up through the stones. These jutting uprights were clearly not natural, and Julie deduced that the sea had taken the top layer off of some kind of structure, with its surviving stonework preserved beneath the beach.

Due to the importance of the Westness finds, the area was already a Scheduled Ancient Monument, but the scheduling did not continue beyond the high-water mark. As a result, when 2011 brought a particularly low spring tide, test pits were dug below the waterline. These exposed midden deposits and what was interpreted as evidence of occupation in the Neolithic period – but it was only the beginning of what the Knowe of Swandro had to reveal.

Looking along the course of the Westness Walk – past ruined farmsteads (LEFT) and the remains of St Mary’s Kirk – towards the Knowe of Swandro (ABOVE). IMAGES: Simon C B Jones

Today, Julie is co-director of excavations on the site, together with Dr Steve Dockrill, also of Bradford University. Last summer was the team’s first season back at the Knowe of Swandro since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic (although the hiatus had given them the opportunity to re-examine some earlier finds from the site, including the famous ‘Pictish anvil’ – of which, more below), and it was Julie and supervisor Dr Caz Mamwell who greeted me as I arrived on site, taking me through the story so far, and explaining how the 2022 excavations were adding to this picture. To refresh the background (which you can read in more detail in CA 275): the initial excavations at Swandro had revealed mighty concentric circular walls, which at first were suggested to be the remains of an Iron Age broch. This would not have been a surprising find, as at least nine such structures still stand along the shores of Eynhallow Sound – but as investigations progressed, it soon became clear that the site was rather more complex. The stonework, while impressive, did not reflect the distinctive double-wall construction typical of a broch. Nor was there any evidence that it had once supported a second storey. Instead, it appeared to be much earlier in date – the architecture was much more akin to that of a Neolithic chambered tomb, of which 16 are known on Rousay. This interpretation still remains speculative for now, but further investigations revealed evidence of occupation spanning an impressive sweep of time, with the site’s use stretching into the Iron Age, Pictish, and Norse periods of Orkney’s history, all building on top of each other to produce an imposing mound that now needed to be teased apart.

There were rather less methodical forces at work, too, to dismantle the archaeology, however – since their project began the excavation team have been engaged in a race against time and tide to document as much as they can before the emerging remains are lost to the sea. In the winter, the waters of Swandro Bay rise beyond the excavated area, meaning that at the end of each digging season the team have to cover the remains first with sandbags (filled with sieved spoil), and then rocks – not for them the tarpaulins pinned by tyres that I had seen at the Ness of Brodgar the previous day (see CA 395). Despite these precautions, though, the sea is still taking its toll on the underlying archaeology, stealing from beneath as well as from above; the beach is made up of loose stones with gaps between them, and when water rushes through these under pressure and sucks back out, it takes archaeology with it and jams the resulting gaps with beach stones and sand. Larger, heavier stones are left behind, but are destabilised, making their excavation a painstaking process. Adding to these challenges, the site also ‘enjoys’ a particularly high water table, and the team also faces water running off the nearby hills during particularly unfriendly weather. In spite of these challenges, though, the excavations have proven very productive – and at the time of my visit, further illuminating clues had already emerged.

The Knowe of Swandro’s archaeology is complex: archaeologists have to make sense of ancient stonework that has been heavily disturbed by the sea, and which lies among tumbled beach pebbles. IMAGE: Simon C B Jones

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 396. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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