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A race against time and tide for University of Bradford archaeologists

Published: by Becky Adamson

Several people at a coastal archaeological site searching for artefacts

Dr Julie Bond from the University of Bradford, alongside staff and students of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University are battling against erosion to uncover the secrets of an Iron Age Settlement and its surrounding area, on the Scottish island of Rousay, Orkney. The excavation is part of a number of archaeological projects forming Scotland Digs 2022 #ScotlandDigs2022.

The site, at the Knowe of Swandro, was once a large settlement occupied from around 1000BC to AD1200 and consists of Iron Age roundhouses, Pictish buildings, a Viking settlement and a Norse Long Hall, and is considered an area of extreme importance due to the insight the dig can provide on the use of existing sites by Scandinavian settlers. Dr Steve Dockrill [Honorary Researcher] warns that the project is a race against tide and time: “ A substantial Iron Age roundhouse, which forms the focus of a village-like settlement is being eroded by the sea. The large roundhouse had been lived in by generations for a millennium or more, and shows signs of a number of building events modifying the structure.”

Although coastal erosion is the biggest threat to unearthing sites such as these, it also provides a unique opportunity to investigate the construction of the roundhouse and surrounding settlement. Dr Dockrill the co-director remarks "The site is rich in cultural material and evidence for the use of land and sea in terms of agriculture and fishing. This site is being destroyed by the sea. Over a third of the roundhouse has been lost to coastal erosion. Despite this we are uncovering new evidence for life in the Iron Age and are using the latest technology to record the archaeological evidence before it vanishes”.

The University of Bradford-led excavation is working in partnership with the Swandro Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust, which relies on public donations to continue its work and has HRH Prince Charles as its patron, and with Historic Environment Scotland which also supports the research.

The excavation has recently uncovered jewellery, tools made from bone, pottery and a late Roman coin as well as a rare Iron Age glass toggle bead. University of Bradford students travel to Orkney to gain practical experience as part of their course, and student Michal Szedzielorz says: "This is an amazing experience. I have learnt more in 6 weeks than I ever expected. I have learnt so many new practical skills and a better understanding of archaeology."

The prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize was awarded to the University of Bradford in 2021 for their world-leading work in developing archaeological technology and techniques, and its influence on practice, policy and society.