The Orkney Island of Rousay in Northern Scotland, known for its megalithic tombs and brochs, has been the focus of research by the RGK’s Prospecting and Excavation Methodology Unit since 2016. As part of the „From Boyne to Brodgar“ initiative and in cooperation with the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI), the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and Historic Environment Scotland, landscape archaeological methods (remote sensing methods, geophysical prospection, pedological analysis, drilling, and GIS modeling) are being conducted to investigate the relationship between burial structures and settlements of Neolithic Orkney. Rousay’s numerous burial monuments (along the island’s S coast and Saviskaill Bay to the north) are juxtaposed with only two settlements (Rinyo and Swandro), but the landscape of Orkney’s inhabitants underwent a massive change from the early Holocene (~9,700 BCE) to ~2,000 BCE. Sea level rise of up to 30 m may have caused settlements and other burial monuments to become submerged underwater cover or to be located in coastal or shoreline areas today. These include, for example, the settlements of Swandro (Rousay), Cata Sand (Sanday), and the UNESCO World Heritage Site „The Heart of Neolithic Orkney,“ which are massively threatened by climate change and the accompanying coastal erosion.

To better understand the effects of marine transgression in the early Holocene, as well as changing climatic conditions and ultimately the impact of humans on their environment, the Rising Tide Project was launched in 2005 by the University of Dundee (Department of Geography, Sue Dawson and Alastair Dawson) and the University of Aberdeen (Department of Archaeology, Caroline Wickham-Jones). At UHI (Archaeology Institute, Caroline Wickham-Jones), research on Mesolithic and Neolithic Orkney continued from 2017 with the „Turning Back the Tide“ project.

Sediment drilling was carried out on the islands of Sanday, Mainland (Bay of Skaill, Loch of Harray, Lock of Stenness, Bay of Firth) and around Scapa Flow at key archaeological sites, in salt marshes, coastal lagoons, and shallow water bays. This has made an important contribution to deciphering sea-level history and environmental conditions in Orkney from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age. However, individual studies analyzing micro-regions and the influence of climate change on local Neolithic communities are still pending. In addition, sonar and seismic surveys have identified potential targets to be verified as archaeologically relevant and anthropogenic, respectively.

Building on the experience of the research on Rousay and taking into account the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2018 between the UHI (Archaeology Institute) and the RGK, the research on Neolithic Rousay will be continued and colleagues at the UHI will be supported. To reconstruct the Neolithic landscape of Rousay in detail, boreholes will be drilled in the area of the settlements of Rinyo and Swandro, in the Bay of Saviskaill, in the Loch of Wasbister, and on the opposite side from the Broch of Gurness (Mainland). Sonar surveys and diving archaeological investigations in Saviskaill Bay, the Loch of Wasbister, and the area of the Rinyo and Swandro settlements may provide clues to submerged burial sites and settlement remains. In addition, UHI colleagues will be assisted in diving archaeological investigations of potential archaeologically relevant sonar targets.

By October 2020, all preparations were ready: documentation earlier underwater work was done in the neighboring island of Mainland, we studied that, and together with colleagues from the University of Highlands and Islands we searched over possible bays where sunken sites we already identified onshore with geomagnetics continue underwater. Our well-prepared next step would have been to go to Rousay in November, but now that no missions are authorized, unfortunately, we couldn’t do anything in 2020, and the further future remains uncertain even during the pandemic.

Project members and partners

Eszter Bánffy (Projectmanagement)

K. Rassmann

R. Scholz