Show Your Stripes

News last week from my football club, to coincide with ‘Show Your Stripes’ Day, that it was launching a ‘progressive partnership’ with the University of Reading to improve its sustainability practices was welcome. What I didn’t know was that my hometown – in addition to giving football the greatest team the world has ever seen (well, the greatest team the Championship has ever seen, indisputably) – has also given the world climate stripes: the barcode-style heat map which demonstrates an easy-to-read visualisation of how the world, or your part of it, is getting hotter is an initiative of the University of Reading’s Ed Hawkins, a Professor in its well-established Meteorology Department. I was aware of climate stripes, of course, and there is a website which makes it relatively easy to show your stripes, but the hometown connection motivated me to dig a little bit deeper and see what I could do to show my own, very local, stripes (Ed – hoops, surely?)

The weather station for the Met Office – until 2003 also headquartered in the Royal(s) County – which is most local to me is South Uist Range. Located about 3km as the corncrake flies across open ground to the south-east of Ardivachar, what weather the Range station records is pretty much what we get. This station has, however, only been in use since July 1996, so its data – while building a dataset which will be comprehensive in the future – is of limited use in modelling the climate stripes for where I stay.

The other Met Office station for the Western Isles is Stornoway with a location which – at least in current terms – is adjacent to the airport. While the Met Office currently calls this location ‘Stornoway Airport’, I’ve no reason to assume it’s ever been located anywhere else than here at this point. Such a location is not untypical of many stations globally – they tend to be located on flat, open ground – and has led many climate change denialists to assume that recordings of termperature rises are associated with rapidly increased numbers of aircraft movements – that such locations thus give rise to false readings. We can, for evident reasons, probably discount such a theory at Stornoway Airport, though.

The station at Stornoway is one of the five oldest in use in the UK, dating back to 1873 and, indeed, the other four read as something like a tribute to the diversity of the UK, being Armagh and Oxford (both 1853), Southampton (1855) and Durham (1880). How such a spread came to be is rather heart-warming in its inclusiveness of the nations and regions of the UK. A graphic showing the climate stripes for these is readily available, with Sheffield substituting for Southampton, but the historic data for each of the Met Office’s ‘historic stations’ (37 in all) is easily found, so I thought I’d come up with my own, singular, version for Stornoway. Here, in a style which observes Hawkins’s commitment to ‘No words. No numbers. No graphs’, it is:

NB This is my own version, using a slightly different colour regime drawn from MS Excel, and is subject to data entry errors.

By way of explanation, the chart shows the mean annual temperature for Stornoway, from 1874 at the left-hand edge to 2021 at the right. Each column on the chart compares the mean temperature for that year with the mean for the twentieth century as a whole (1900-1999): annual temperatures significantly cooler than the C20 mean are shown in dark blue; those significantly warmer in dark red (with other shades indicating annual temperatures which are either cooler or warmer but with lesser significance). The annual means are an arithmetical average of the means for each month, themselves composed of the mean daily maximum temperatures in that month. There are other ways to approach the data – the station also records mean minimum temperatures and it would be possible to construct a figure for monthly mean temperature that way ((max+min)/2) but the outcome is, broadly, the same: Stornoway is clearly getting hotter.

We can see this from the red to the right of the chart; and we can also see it from the progression from the darker blues substantially to the left (the early part of the period), bearing in mind that we are comparing each annual mean to the mean for the C20 as a whole. Thus, the early years at the left (from 1874-1899) are largely cooler than the C20 mean while the later years to the right (2000-2021) are substantially warmer. Indeed, the mean maximum temperature for C20 is 11 degrees Centigrade; for the 26 years of the C19, the mean was 10.6 degrees; while for the 21 years of C21, the mean was 11.6. So, Stornoway has got hotter in the last 150 years by around 1 degree Centigrade – that’s pretty much in line with the average experience globally.

Obviously, annual temperatures fluctuate (as the following charts indicate, the year-to-year changes are volatile, which is why it is the trend that is most important, not what is happening in individual years (this cool summer included!). The pinker colours more or less in the centre of the climate stripes chart were in the later years of the Second World War and in the immediate period subsequently. We have indeed had temperatures that are ‘warmer’ in the past, too, but the years of the twenty-first century have been hotter for what is, in the context of this chart, an unprecedentedly sustained period. We might also record that the weather plunged into the cold in 1979.

I also had a look at the average ‘winter’ temperatures and the average ‘summer’ temperatures on the same basis (‘winter’ being defined as, within each calendar year, the six months from January-March and October-December inclusive while ‘summer’ is April-September inclusive. There are, of course, other ways to approach the data). While both summer and winter temperatures are rising, according to the annual means of the mean monthly maximum temperatures at Stornoway, it is the winter temperatures that are rising more quickly: the summers are getting comparatively warmer, but by less than the degree to which winters are becoming comparatively milder. The following charts compare the deviation for each season in each year from the C20 mean for that season (in Stornoway, 13.7C in ‘summer’; and 8.3C in ‘winter’); trendline added by Excel to demonstrate the comparative difference):

I suspected as much – rising annual rainfall (a measure of climate change also recorded by the Met Office stations), much of which falls in the winter months, speaks to rising winter temperatures. While there are still outliers – the 2010 winter was cooler than the C20 winter average by 0.76 degrees Centigrade – winter snows are, it seems, increasingly less and less likely; and, while the Caribbean may occasionally visit the Hebrides, this is going to be more evident from the photos than the reality for some time. Nevertheless, we are getting warmer.

As always, the essential question regards what is to be done. From an archaeological point of view, rising rainfall presents a particular problem both as regards ongoing digs and as regards the protection of particular established sites of interest. Temperatures becoming warmer also speaks to rises in sea levels which threatens coastal communities and sites of interest. There is only a limited range of effective measures which can be taken within such a field, however. The wider challenge to us all remains how we, as nations, address the rising temperatures that we all face. There are plenty of measures which can be taken about which much is already known, at societal level through decarbonisation, investment in renewable energy and building greater resilience in which biodiversity will flourish; through to individual decisions around transport and diet. Inevitably, there is a wide range of seriousness, a range of comparative priorities and plenty of lip service involved from those at governmental level charged with making policy which reflects these issues.

I’ll let this post bed in for a few days and then I’ll be changing the header picture to show my stripes, as above. It may not actually do anything in itself, but keeping the fundamental importance of the issue in mind, by quite literally nailing my colours to the mast, can never be a bad thing.

Ardivachar’s mystery mound

Our Understanding and Recording Coastal Archaeology sessions are now finished, but there was an optional assessment which students could submit; and, of course, I treated it as an integral part of participating. A full .pdf is elsewhere on the blog, but here is a short post both advertising that and providing a blog-length summary of the report (in terms of the word count, this is actually on target whereas the assignment turned out to be twice the required length – funny, that!).

My assignment seeks to bring together what we know about the mound situated at Ardivachar Point (Rubha Àird na Mhachrach) and also includes some basic recommendations about the management of the site in terms not only of the course themes but also with a view to a wider assessment of its value as a community and archaeological resource.

The mound

Nothing is known concretely about the mound: indeed, it has only been ‘known’, in an archaeological context, since 2005 when it was added to the record as a result of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey carried out subsequent to the violent and tragic storm of that January.

The mound measures c. 9.1m x c. 3.6m and appears to have a rather definite heart, or diamond, shape in terms of how the grass falls at the edges and which may represent the limits of the displacement of ground when the mound was constructed.

Photo 1: the mound’s heart shape

The mound is located on the headland at Ardivachar and is around 11 metres from the edge of the rock platform facing a small reef a short way offshore. The site is not a physically obvious one to an untrained eye but there are a couple of interesting features around the site which add to its potential interest.

Firstly, there is a line of stones set into the grass some 15m to the north-east which may form part of a boundary wall (or which, alternatively, may be part of a structure which is nothing to do with the site – for example, boundary walls which pre-date the sub-division of the land into crofts).

Secondly, there are a number of grassy tussocks located c. 11m to the north-west, visible in Photo 1, which may indicate setting points for the sun around midsummer or which may act as some other orientation markers for the site (or which, alternatively, may be just tussocks of grass). Assuming that both of these are deliberate and part of the site increases its footprint quite sizably from the pure dimensions of the mound itself.

Thirdly, there is the issue of what the mound was used for or what it represents. Without more detailed archaeological examination, this is almost completely unclear although we can suppose that the thin topsoil does indicate that there is unlikely to be great depth to whatever may exist below the ground. However, there is an interesting story told locally about it which adds quite considerably to the tale that the site tells.

Erosion

Moore and Wilson’s assessment that the mound is not an eroding site – it is still graded yellow on SCAPE’s sites-at-risk register – remains a fair one: there is no evidence that the mound itself is under imminent threat from coastal erosion except in the very long-term. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the site is free from forces of erosion: in particular, there is the issue of excessive amounts of rainfall amidst the rising number of extreme weather events posing an increasing challenge to a site whose features are low in profile.

However, erosion is threatening the additional features mentioned above: the potential boundary wall; and the potential orientation markers. Were either indeed to be part of the story told at the site, their loss is much more imminent and likely to lead to a loss in its archaeological value. These issues are explored in the series of photographs below.

Boundary wall

The following two photographs look at the potential boundary wall which, if true, might have protected the mound and also served the function of setting it apart in some way. Photo 2 shows the length of the visible stones in a line which runs north-east from this angle – about 6.5m in length; Photo 3 shows the scale of erosion (note the fallen stones as well as the slippage of grass). There is, however, no evidence of a similar wall to the west.

Orientation markers

The largest of these is centre-left in Photo 4, with three others stretching beyond it in a small arc extending towards the deeper area of erosion further back in the photo. It may be that it is the wind that has sculpted these markers to look as they do and that there is no actual function. The mound itself is to the centre right of the picture and can be found between the second and the fourth fence posts leading to the right from the strainer. Arrows point, to the left, to the orientation marker; and, upwards right, to the mound.

Photo 3: proximity of markers and mound to eroding coastal edge

In addition to the erosion around the markers, note also the rough drainage run-off and its close proximity to the site. That drainage channel runs broadly north-south and connects with others in the area, suggesting that drainage may have been put in place deliberately to skirt the mound. This, in turn, would indicate a community awareness that there is something of value here which ought not to be damaged.

Towards a meaning

If the grassy tussocks are indeed markers for orientation purposes, the most obvious explanation is that these mark the setting of the sun around midsummer, which unofficial guesstimates suggest is certainly a feasible one.

However, more likely is a story about the mound related to me locally by a crofter who, as a small boy (around seventy years ago), was told that it was a memorial to a woman drowned offshore when looking for shellfish while her husband, posted as lookout on account of riptides, deliberately looked the other way as he had fallen in love with another. He further said that the story had been commemorated in song. The South Uist version of the song A Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Woman) is set in Ardivachar and commemorates the drowning of a woman at sea off the Point while collecting dulse. This appears to be the song being referred to – and, in the Gàidhlig, pretty haunting it is, too. Here, the story departs a little from the tale as related to me in that the woman had been drowned by the actions of a servant girl who had fallen in love with her husband.

Folklore is thus making an interesting contribution here towards interpreting and understanding the site. Perhaps it was folklore that informed, with suitable embellishments, a technicolour warning to a small boy not to go into the sea there; or perhaps folklore, in having the song set at Ardivachar, was borrowing from an existing story inspired either by the mound and/or by a real-life tragedy.

Either way, what looks like the heart shape to the mound provides a thoughtful comment on its inspiration.

Conclusions

It is impossible to be definite about the conclusions since we do not know what the mound is, what it was for or anything about its chronology. This can only be known by some sort of further assessment and the use of low-cost, low-intrusive assessment techniques such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and auguring.

Knowing a little more about the site would spark a consideration of the possibility of a range of well-designed remedial actions which should aim to incorporate the community at the heart of the response.

1. the site needs to be better protected against livestock (the well-observed may have spotted that that is indeed a cowpat in Photo 1!) – though animal grazing is also responsible for keeping the grass low and the shape identifiable.

2. existing drainage systems need to be monitored to ensure that water run-off does not damage the site, or that the ground does not become waterlogged as it is around the area of the rough drainage channel.

3. about the potential orientation markers and boundary wall, they are clearly subject to erosion, chiefly from wind and rain washing out the undersoil on the exposed face, although in stormy weather the sea is also likely to present a direct threat. It would appear that little can be done about either of these other than, in the short-terrm, continued monitoring and recording.

Finally, better publicity of the existence of the mound may bring forward more stories and more accounts as to its origins. Working with Uist Community Archaeology Group would seem to be important first steps. Further research also needs to be done not least to assess the alignment of the site. It is also worth making the point that the loss of a mound which has a strong link to a well-known Gàidhlig folk song would represent real loss and that action, at some level, is both warranted and required.

The Loch of Intermittent Appearance

As Storm Eunice rages across Wales and south and south-west England, people have been checking on us, which is very kind – but, up and out here, we’re absolutely fine: it’s us that should be checking on friends and family in the south. Winds are currently gusting to the high 10s (that’s well below normal!); and, while Sunday doesn’t look too grand for a day out, with winds gusting to the high 50s, that’s not even the highest winds this month – the Range got a gust of 70 on 10 February.

It has been very wet, though. The Range was the wettest place in the UK last Friday (although not particularly excessive) and high, prolonged and quite intense rains continued in the days that followed, leading to the re-emergence for a few days this week of what I’ve dubbed the Loch of Intermittent Appearance. This is a low-lying area of ground adjacent to a drainage channel which has an exit under the road and out to the sea. When that fills, either because the exit has been blocked by seaweed or else because of the simple volume of rain on the land, the area floods. There was no seaweed at the exit when I checked, but this was the photo at the peak on Wednesday (at least, in daylight hours), taken from our decking:

You can see the water running across the road and draining across the grass, bypassing the exit under the road – the sea is just off-left. The road was, as they say, passable with care. And the farm gate doesn’t currently seem to be generally usable – at least, not without the use of your wellies. The drainage channel is between the gate and the fence line running down from the top right – here it is in close up last Sunday morning, taken from just left of the gate in the above picture:

The water has now gone – the land is, normally, quite well-draining – though it does remain a little swampy.

But, inspired also by my archaeology course – for which my assignment was handed in (finally!) yesterday (and will be posted here in due course) – prompted me to check the flood maps. After all, if the road is going to get cut-off, it might be a good idea to get that boat patched up and recommissioned.

Dynamic Coast produces a range of maps on the issue of coastal erosion (and as such has been invaluable during the course). For the whole of the Scottish coast it has produced detailed mapping of the impact of rising sea levels under a high and a low emissions future, demonstrating where the high water line is expected to be under both scenarios at the turn of each new decade up until 2021. We’re fine up here on the headland – we’re surrounded by a rocky platform built from Lewisian gneiss, which is both dense and heavy and less permeable to erosion – but the softer, sandier areas either side of the headland are much more vulnerable. The bad news is that the road is indeed going to get cut-off – even under a low emissions future, in which sea levels off the headland rise by 0.37m by 2100 – though not at the Loch of Intermittent Appearance, but where it comes close to the shore of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay (Cill Amhlaidh). Under a high emissions future, with sea levels rising by 1.03m by 210, not only the road is under threat but the seafront properties of our neighbours across the bay are also gone:

Loch of Intermittent Appearance marked on the high emissions map in black, with the drainage channel just to the left.

Some of the impact of this on people’s lives, homes and livelihoods might be addressed by some sort of remedial action, though of course the better thing to do is to address rising emissions properly and cohesively not only to ensure but to deliver a low emissions future.

However, climate change isn’t just manifesting itself in rising sea levels but also in higher amounts of rainfall and in more extreme weather events. The Historic Environment Scotland Action Plan for 2020-2025 speaks, in somewhat coded fashion, of:

Total rainfall recorded on extremely wet days has increased by c.17% in 2008–17 in comparison to 1961–90. In the west of Scotland, this figure is 36%. (p. 15)

There’s a bit to unpack there, so I went on to the website of the learned folks at the Royal Meteorological Society to dig out their State of the UK Climate 2020 document for a bit of backup. There’s a lot of data in there and quite a lot of it technical in one way or another – but it does have data on rainfall going back to 1862 and for each of the nations of the UK. 2020 was a poor year – especially for our cousins up on North Uist (see Figure 22; p. 21) – but of course it is not one isolated year which is the issue but the overall trend. Looking at the rainfall in each year expressed as a percentage of the 1981-2010 average clearly shows a rising trend. Scotland is the wettest place in the UK (natch) and where the amount of rainfall is rising quickest – 2011-2020 was 11% higher than the 1961-1990 average – but each of the nations are getting wetter:

Figure 25, State of the UK Climate 2020 (p. 26 of the .pdf version)

Furthermore, six of the ten wettest years in the UK series from 1862 have occurred since 1998 (2000, 2020, 2012, 1998, 2008 and 2014, with particular implications for winters with 2014, 2016 and 2020 all in the top five wettest winters (p. 26). Amidst the rain, winter storms and extreme events attracting red alert warnings – like Storm Eunice – are likely to become a lot more frequent.

Archaeology is concerned about rainfall (hence HES’s Action Plan): access paths, sites and buildings are all adversely affected when exposed to all that water and many properties will need specific action to preserve what we know and love. Let alone what we don’t yet know we love.

If all this rainfall keeps up, it looks as though the Loch of Intermittent Appearance will be making more appearances than usual. And might thus need to be renamed. With rising sea levels going on at the same time, that’s quite a pincer action on Ardivachar, and with major infrastructural repercussions, too. It’s not only the archaeological environment but a question of the state of what we’re also handing down to our successors as reminders and nudges about the way we lived our lives. And if we keep going on the way we are, there’ll not be a lot of keepsakes worthy of the name.

In the meantime, stay safe down there.

Book review: Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie needs few introductions. Since last year Scotland’s Makar, and now a freelance poet, writer and indeed editor, her non-fiction writing, which combines deep observations about nature and the environment with reflections on her own place in it, relates clarity and perceptiveness and also captures fundamental meaning within, and from, moments of time. Her writing ‘at the confluence of nature, travel and culture’ is powerful in its simplicity and Surfacing, her 2019 collection, made a happy – and entirely serendipitous – accompaniment to my own recent (and ongoing) archaeological studies.

The cover (mine is 2020’s paperback edition) features several archaeological artefacts alongside relics of the natural world and its publication leans on two archaeological digs on which Jamie spent some time – on a native Alaskan (Yup’ik) dig, inspired by a visit to the Aberdeen University museum (oh! the power of curators!); and also at the Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement at Links of Noltland, on Orkney (where one of the team, mentioned at several places in the book, was our own Dr. Emily Gal). It’s a well-chosen illustration which emphasises the impact of humans on the environment (and which, perhaps, is suggestive of that impact not being kind) and, at the same time, that nature has – at least up to now – been able to regard and deal with that impact within the circularity of the life cycle (the distinct lack of which, with its non-degradable plastics, is the signature mark of our own Anthropocene) and with humans and nature in a degree of harmony.

The title is also clever, repeating Jamie’s predilection for single-word titles and, at the same time, strongly suggesting a theme of growing consciousness and the coming to light of things – both artefacts and knowledge – that were once lost.

Comparatively lengthy accounts of her time at the digs are book-ended with shorter (more typically Jamie-like) feature writing (blog posts, even) reflecting on climate change, our own lack of care for the environment and others (increasing as technology advances), family and ageing, and listening to nature’s voice. There is also an extended account of time spent in China (close to Tibet) during a tumultuous time in the mid-1990s, written as a promise to herself, and in part exorcism of a dream, made during a recent cancer diagnosis. But it is the digs that take centre stage, in terms both of the content and the theme of the work, and both feature different aspects of climate change: global warming (a lack of snow and compacted ice in Alaska); and coastal erosion (a result of rising sea levels and increasing rain on Orkney). More prosaically, both also illustrate the uncertainties arising from the short-term, piecemeal funding common to archaeological digs; as well as their seasonal nature, with daylight, and the weather, having an impact on what can be done and what can be realised in terms of bringing things to light.

The Links of Noltland dig features Jamie at her best; but I think the Alaskan section works rather less well. Here she is curiously detached and her observations, while conveying insight, seem as a result a little more forced and certainly occur a little less naturally. Frequently, she is factual rather than poetic; prosaic rather than elevated. The reasons why can only be speculative and are likely to be several: language and culture are surely among them (politically, the Chinese section, the third piece of extended writing in the book and appearing at the opposite end to the Alaskan, provides some particularly interesting contrasts and its selection here in this volume might provide a contribution in this area). The same is also true of archaeological dig experience, perhaps gained for the first time in Alaska. At Links of Noltland, such barriers are not present (or not as present) and Jamie features much more on the dig itself – accurately conveying, as a novice, some of the techniques involved in constructing and cleaning a site, for example. The result is a much more cohesive piece of writing which allows Jamie’s observational ability to come fully to the fore and to present the material exploring and combining her themes in a way which is more rounded and which emphasises the links she wants to make between humans and nature. In Alaska, these are known, but less clear and differently perceived; while the issues raised appear more contended not least since they are also tied up with identity and a shared understanding which is native and not Jamie’s own.

The lack of cohesiveness to the first part of the work perhaps renders this a lesser achievement than her earlier work – but then, such a criticism is also a misstatement of the role of non-fiction writers who change with time and age, learning and understanding, and growth and development. Just as Sightlines was ten years ago now, and Findings a further seven, Surfacing is a product of who Jamie is now and we should cherish her: her ability to synthesise different aspects of the human existence and improve our understanding of our world as a result represents a talent of hugely important significance. I have Antlers of Water – her first edited collection concerning ‘our relationship with the more-than-human world’ on my shelf: this was originally going to be a joint review until archaeology took over. It’s greatly anticipated.

Benbecula’s submerged forest

This week’s archaeology session was the last on the course, so this will be (one of) the last posts on this topic. Apart from the (optional) assignment – at 1,500 words (max), this is little more than a blog post these days (and sometimes even less than that), so I will be viewing it as compulsory – to be submitted in the course of the next two weeks, the formal sessions are now finished. The assessment provides the opportunity to demonstrate our learning on the course themes of coastal erosion and how to shape our futures by learning from the past (hence, of course, the shameless but symbolic plundering of #FridaysForThePast); and I will be posting that here, too.

Friday afternoon saw an online (Webex) session with Kevin Murphy, county archaeologist for the Western Isles archaeology service and a committee member of the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers. The local authority-based archaeology service was set up across the UK in the 1970s to help overcome the disasters (here: for archaeology) of 1960s planning decisions and that remit, to ensure that the needs of archaeology has an input into the planning and development process, remains the mainstay of the service.

Scarce resources is an abiding issue – Kevin not only leads the team on the Western Isles but indeed is also it – and he is one of a rare breed, there being only a handful of archaeologists in Scotland more than there are local authorities (the numbers being, IIRC, 36 and 32 respectively). Across the Western Isles there are around 13,500 sites of interest; and the perennial problem, as far as I can see, is not only one of the scale of the task – monitoring development projects to ensure that they do not threaten sites of interest, amongst other roles – but also of the distances associated with the patch: unless travelling by plane – and there are evident problems with that in an environmental context – a road trip from Stornoway to Uist and Benbecula (and there are no other options…) is a day’s travel. And, for points even in South Uist but certainly Barra, that’s a day’s travel in each direction.

Managing all those requirements means working very closely with a range of agencies and stakeholders, and, indeed, dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Kevin is evidently hard-pressed and we were grateful both for his time and for his insights into his role and to the art of the possible. There is enough resilience to ensure that one big storm doesn’t blow it all away but the inescapable impression is one of an important local service being held together by bits of string and a blob or two of glue; and with fingers that are firmly crossed.

As if to highlight that lesson, the following day’s field trip was to the submerged forest – remains of trees now surrounded by sand and washed by the tide – near Lionacleit, on Benbecula. This was discovered by Ann Monk, a local resident, as recently as 2014; and it was a privilege to have Ann on this trip, as well as the expert and detailed insights provided by Simon Davies. There are submerged forests elsewhere in Europe (including quite famously at Borth, in Cardigan Bay), but this is one of the biggest and best preserved: when surveyed in 2018, teams investigated two 30m x 30m squares and found, in just one, 380 samples of tree remnants including birch, willow and Scots pine set into peat. Storms and the shifting sands that result both from wind and wave action mean that some of these remnants are no longer visible – but, at the same time, that others have also been uncovered.

The day was one of those where you needed to have the right clothes (and not to be a wearer of spectacles) but we visited all the major areas of the site including peat deposits, tree remnants, the butchery site, possible walls and dwellings, and the quern stone (actually both, although one appears to have been moved and replaced recently). It is somewhat humbling both to know that the surface that you’re standing on was a terrain familiar to Neolithic humans – living some 7,000 years ago (even if they might not exactly recognise the surroundings of the place today) – as well as that, crucially, peat doesn’t form in salt water: and that, therefore, what is now a tidal bay was once a freshwater loch, with the Atlantic being perhaps 5km further out to the west and the loch itself stretching south to the modern shore at Balgarva, on South Uist (where there are also tree remnants).

Tree remnants, with archaeology flagpole
With added humans, for scale
The in situ quern stone, used to grind wheat to make flour (though a time consuming business probably taking about 6-8 hours to grind enough to make bread for a single family)

A site that is now entirely tidal and thus flooded twice per day – but which was once secure (and dry) enough for a small community to locate their lives here and call it home.

The point is of course that the submerged forest and the other elements of the site – this ‘incredibly rare’ finding – was found, not by chance (it was the result of informed assessment of the possibilities and of determined exploration with that in view), but by an individual person outside the framework of a planned archaeological survey. In a different sort of society, one less guided by scarce resources, it wouldn’t be necessary for individuals to have to act in this way since we’d know what was (likely to be) there – but, given the constraints provided by our own, it is vital that they do. Lionacleit is a fabulous, historical place and it is completely astonishing that such important remains could have been discovered by an individual; and so recently. And, of course, the question remains of just how much else there is – if not quite beneath our feet – just a little further away. If it is true that we’re never more than 164′ away from a rat, is the same also true of archaeological remains?

This has been a really interesting course and series of lectures and site visits; and, indeed, I’ll not quite be sure what else to do with my Friday afternoons. Thanks to our enthusiastic and motivated lecturers, Dr. Emily Gal and Dr. Rebecca Rennell, and to other course participants, for some enlivening discussions and for information that has been, by turns, mind-blowing and life-affirming. There may well be another local studies course to engage with but, in the meantime, and when the weather improves a little from its damp and blustery self, there’s always some fieldwork to engage with for that assignment. Together with the knowledge that something might well be there which it is now up to me to report on. Humbling, indeed.

Just going about their business…

This week’s archaeology lecture was a very interesting session on the preserving qualities of sand, with specific reference to Links of Noltland, up on Westray, Orkney. This is an important late Neolithic/Bronze Age site (which means 3000 BCE-2500 BCE) – even the name juggles both Scots, Norse and English – and, like a lot of Orkney’s heritage, is both buried in sand and vulnerable to coastal erosion. Excavating the site, and preserving it for future use, represents a challenge in which available resources are confronted with the remorseless impact of time.

Consequently it provides an excellent illustration of the coastal archaeology course on which I’m enrolled; and has important resonance for the Western Isles given that a large number of the sites of archaeological interest – over 13,000 of them – on these islands are coastal (or, at least, they are now…) and a large number of those are buried in the sand beneath our feet.

My lecture notes need a little more time for reflection as the content was complex but the week also featured a good class discussion (online, of course) inspired by two items of source material which looked at what prehistoric civilisations can tell us about dealing with coastal erosion. The first was a 2009 article by Jim Leary in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology looking at the flooding of the North Sea lowlands; the second a contemporary piece by Robert Barnett and Sophie Ward in The Conversation looking at how rising sea levels affected what is now the Scilly Isles, in the south-west corner of the UK.

There is little evidence as to what happened to the peoples who once inhabited the vast area of the North Sea lowlands – Doggerland – which once connected the UK and continental Europe (why didn’t they write anything down?!) and so essentially we are only surmising about what became of them; but there is a little more evidence from Scilly, where rising sea levels were associated not with a decline in human activity, as might be expected, but in a flourishing of it. The key point is of course that coastal change, erosion and rising sea levels affect people in different ways depending on precise location – the spark for Barnett and Ward’s conclusion that it is local communities that have to drive response plans. Scilly may well have flourished whereas Doggerland – hit by immensely rising sea levels (of about 1.25 cm/year; or 30+cm per generation) – had already become a series of low-lying islands even before the ‘Storegga Slide’ swept much of the rest of the land away.

The question which occupied much of the class discussion – and which is also well addressed by Leary, although the simple lack of evidence leads him to go a little anthropological in the middle – was why people stay in low-lying areas affected by inundations and rising sea levels. It’s evidently a recurring question. Many people – in many communities around the world and including up on Baile Sear, which has been the focus of all our field trips so far – are also facing similar questions. Aside of the very different, and the changing nature of, the barriers to mobility, human beings across thousands of years are likely to have had fairly similar answers to tidal inundations and to the essential question, posed restrospectively, of ‘why didn’t they leave?’: family; community; and residence. All provide ties to the land (and/or the sea), even in hunter-gatherer societies; and all provide very valid justifications for not moving, in spite of all the evidence surrounding them.

Mulling over these questions later that evening while watching a bit of TV – it does sometimes happen in this household – I was struck by something really rather profound said by one of the characters in The Missing, a programme made by the BBC (of course) and whose second series was filmed in 2016. Both series were well received and well-watched, it appears, although it is an open question as to whether such a series – set in Europe, featuring characters speaking languages that are not their own and, where they are speaking their own language, the dialogue is not always sub-titled into English – would be commissioned in these Brexter’d Isles today. Anyway, Julien Baptiste, a retired (and ill) detective, is travelling in 2014 in northern Iraq/Iraqi Kurdistan to find evidence in support of a promise made to a parent of a murdered teenager and he has procured Stefan Andersson, a journalist, as travelling companion. Reaching the city of Azwya, which has been the subject of recent intense fighting between Isil forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, they first encounter utter desolation – not a soul in sight and every building stripped back to the bare bricks by shells and gunfire, roofless and only frames where windows and doors used to be, concrete acting as road blocks and rubble everywhere. Later, they sit down watching some young lads playing football, while some semblance of normal life returns behind them. People had, it seems, been in hiding from the fighting.

Baptiste: ‘Remarkable, is it not? In front of all this, people still go about their business.’

Andersson: ‘This is the only way of taking control of your life, I suppose. Feeling like your future is in your own hands for a change.’ (The Missing, Series II, programme 2 ‘The Turtle and the Stick’ @ 42.05)

It struck me immediately that this is likely to be a time-honoured response to disaster, whether in Azwya in the middle of the Iraq War; or on Doggerland or on Scilly thousands of years ago. Faced with problems that are external in nature and environmental, which wreak their own havoc and which exist beyond your own control and your own plans, your choices are limited – of course, you organise to fight back, however you can and by whatever means. But, ultimately, you stay because that remains your decision and, when everything else is being taken away, that decision – perverse as it might sometimes appear – is the only thing that remains your own and within your own control.

Sites of interest – a closer look

Saturday turned out to be a good opportunity to get in some Christmas shopping in Balivanich (bright lights, big city) – all still in the bags, BTW – but Sunday saw one of those days in which the sun shone all day alongside a remarkable absence of wind. It was also a day with a low tide – the lowest of the month, in fact – and in the middle of the day, too. So, too good an opportunity to miss to do two things – firstly, try and spot the remains of the submerged forest which, at least one source has it, can also be found at the headland; as well as test out the sites local to me on Rubha Aird na Mhachrach (Ardivachar Point).

About the submerged forest – well, nada. I did find a lot of heavily stressed rock usually buried by the tide and, of course, a fair bit of kelp, though. Local experts tell me that they’ve found nothing any time they’ve been here and it may be that sea action, and winds, have covered things up since 1985 (to when the source dates). But, also, the neapest of neap tides does go out a bit further than this, and so a future occasion might prove more rewarding.

I found both of the sites up on the Point pretty easily as a result of the accuracy of the SCAPE app when it comes to the sites’ GPS bearings. The first of these is a midden alongside some apparently structural stonework; and, secondly, there is a mound which ‘may be of archaeological potential’. As before, my comments below about this do need to be treated as those of an enthusiastic amateur and they may well be subject to a lesser or greater degree of revisionism at some future point.

When it comes to the first, I was looking only for a midden, having forgotten about the stonework (although the photos below – two different sides of the same thing – seem to capture (quite by mistake!) some of the latter). There is no evidence of shellfish or animal bones in the midden; but some interesting colours reflecting a solid bank of peat ash (the light brown colour at the bottom in the RHS photo) and what looks like some charcoal (in both) underneath the top soil (visible more again in the RHS photo).

Moving on further round the Point to the mound, this took me a little time to find because it is both quite small in terms of size as well as low to the ground. More of a molehill than a mound, really. Indeed, the GPS told me I was more or less on top of it (I wasn’t, quite) before I actually spotted anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an interesting story to be told here, though, and the more you look at the site, the more the details of the story that it is telling become apparent. As far as I was concerned, I found five interesting things about it:

1. the footprint of the site is larger than it first appears and by a simple assessment of its known dimensions. Partly, this is a reflection of…

2. … its shape, which is not round as might be suggested by the word ‘mound’, but elongated and which appears to have a ‘funnel’ at one end (see the next picture down). Think of a question mark with a mirror placed adjacent to the left hand edge. The elongated end might suggest the presence of some sort of entrance chamber. There is also a clear ‘ditch’ around the central heap. This gives the best clue to the overall shape as well as the potential presence of the ‘entrance chamber’ – and might also indicate walls, corbelling being a usual feature so as to minimise the need for roofing materials, structural timber being in short supply around at least the current coastline.

3. standing at the ‘entrance’ end, I spent some time debating the mound’s alignment on a compass. According to the app on my phone, it appears to lie on a bearing of 100-280 degrees (east-west being 90-270 degrees), so there is no clear compass-based alignment (it’s sort of north-east/south-west). My, very rough, assessment from a few years ago (which needs to be checked) is that the sun at the summer solstice sets at a bearing of about 320 degrees so there doesn’t appear to be any solstice-based clues as to the orientation.

However, looking from there directly along the mound, I then spotted what looked to me like some sort of marker, in the form of a grassy tussock now close to the cliff edge. The tussock was soft and yielding and it’s not obviously rocky but it did stand out. Sometimes a grassy tussock is just a grassy tussock, of course. Nevertheless, at one point in the year, I think the sun would set directly behind this marker and, perhaps, that was good enough for those who decided to located the mound at this point here.

It is, of course, at the ‘wrong’ end of the site, however – if sunset was the key then, from Maeshowe up on Orkney, where the sun shines through the entrance chamber to illuminate the back wall three weeks either side of the winter solstice, we would expect the mound to be the other way around. Thus, it is more likely that sunrise, not sunset, gives the key to the orientation; and also, given the earth’s tilt, a point towards the summer, rather than the midwinter, solstice. Checking that out of course means an early start. Hmmmm.

Is that some sort of marker I see before me? Note the low-lying nature of the mound.

4. Looking from that same position at the ‘entrance chamber’ end but in the other direction, i.e away from the site, there seemed to me to be a clear path (on what is now croft land), approaching the site at an angle of about 90 degrees (i.e. from the north-east; and, probably, in the direction the midsummer sun rises here). Interestingly, the ‘path’ appears to take a small turn more directly towards the ‘entrance chamber’.

Of course, the ‘path’ is at ground level now, whereas the site is clearly subterranean. It’s not so evident from the picture below, but it is also waterlogged – and it might thus be a sign of a drainage channel dug far more recently. However, water tends to lie in areas for a reason (of which drainage is only one); one of which might be the presence of a well-trodden path in times gone by or, indeed, a line of stones laid down to constitute some sort of approach ‘road’. Paths, once established, tend to persevere (‘reference required’). What may also be of interest is that the boggy area informed by the ‘path’ then turns along the line of the existing croft fence (upper centre right) before crossing the area occupied by the site of the mound to its west (to the right of the picture) – i.e. it skirts the actual site). We might also usefully wonder what would be the actual function of a more recent drainage channel laid at that angle, and at that point on the land.

And is that a path I see before me? The (rather strangely shaped) shadow cast by your photographer lies – deliberately – across what is more or less the centre of the mound)

5. To the north a few steps away lies a series of stones, stretching more than 1m in length, set at what is now ground level and ending at what is now eroded coastline. So, it’s reasonably significant in terms of size and might well be evidence of some sort of boundary wall, built either to emphasise the importance of the site in some way or, perhaps, to keep out animals. There is no such evidence of a wall on the other side of the site, however. It is all kinds of interesting that, if indeed this is a boundary wall in times gone by, it is mirrored by the presence of an existing, contemporary fence alongside; whereas there is neither wall nor fence on the other side.

On the whole, I think this is a more important site than is superficially evident from its size alone. Some parts of the above – quite a bit of it, in fact – are the product of imagination; and that has its place, too, in archaeology which, substantially, looks at the evidence available and seeks to use that to tell a story. Looking at the hard facts: the site remains fenced off to the most direct route of public access, so is not particularly accessible; the site appears not to be currently maintained as croft land (whereas access to the shoreline – for seaweed, salvage and fishing – would be an important part of crofting rights); and drainage seems to flow around the site, not through it: which might either be by accident or design but which, in either case, might also be the product of continued maintenance down the centuries.

There are also, I think, some features which make the site worthy of some note. Given that it is quite difficult to spot (other than to a trained eye), and given the nature of the development of SCAPE’s ‘sites of interest’ (which is of community origin rather than the product of miles upon miles of serendipitous tramping up and down the coasts of these islands), it’s selection as one such site is likely to reflect a level of community awareness of it as the location of something in some way sacred. That might be drawn from some kind of folk memory or it might be the product of actual routines and customs handed down from generation to generation. And about which, at this point in the life of Ardivachar, a decision might need to be taken in respect of future generations. When the current outbreak of Covid-19 permits, it would be well worth me catching up with my long-established neighbours in the township!

Sites of interest – a desk-based view

This week’s archaeology lecture was led by Tom Dawson and Jo Hambly, of the SCAPE Trust who introduced their work on coastal sites of interest around Scotland other than on the western isles, including on Shetland, Orkney, St. Andrews, Wemyss Caves, on the Fife coal coast, and Eyemouth; and also their app identifying sites of interest around Scotland. SCAPE – standing for Scottish Coastal Erosion and the Problem of Erosion although, like a lot of organisations, the acronym probably means more in terms of branding than the words which make it up – is based at St. Andrews and works with Historic Environment Scotland on issues arising from Scotland’s coastal heritage. As a result it takes a keen interest in issues connected with erosion, rising sea levels and climate change; and many of these projects can be picked up via the SCAPE website.

All of which of course means it has a lot to discuss when it comes to the western isles, not least around Baile Sear, where we are doing some fieldwork, and when it comes to the issue of the sinking of the land. While mainland Scotland is rebounding following the compression of the land during Ice Age, when Scotland was covered by glaciers up to a kilometre thick, there is no such ‘trampoline’ effect out here since the glaciers were not as thick; in contrast, the land is sinking – and it’s not under the weight of all those scheduled monuments either:

I spotted this map, which is focused on Harris and Lewis, our neighbours to the north, and which cuts off the bottom of South Uist completely, on the Twitter feed of Mark Rowe. Each dot represents a scheduled monument and the map – which is of uncertain origin, although it seems to have been compiled by the County Archaeologist for the Western Isles Historic Environment Record – shows a quite remarkable amount of known history (even if it’s of the ‘known unknown’ type). Mark Rowe writes the Outer Hebrides guidebook for Bradt Guides, and he notes that between the first and second editions of the guide, between 2017 and 2020, the number of identified sites across the western isles increased by 3.8%, to 13,348 (an increase in terms of number of nearly 500).

Part of this increase is likely to reflect an increase in interest in archaeology (read on…) – but it’s also likely to reflect the fact of coastal erosion – from wind and wave alike – which is making sites apparent where they were not before and which is, of course, also jeopardising them, too. There are slips and slides in sites of interest not only because of the natural sinking of the islands as a result of the sheer density of the gneiss supporting it but also because of tides and sea surges and of the action of the wind in shifting vast quantities of sand from one place to another, resulting in structures buried for centuries under deposits of topsoil and grass starting to become exposed but in danger of slipping out of our grasp in terms of comprehension as there simply isn’t enough time – or enough resource – to get to grips with what is there. This is very evident at Baile Sear – the rocks to the centre-right of the picture on the face of the dune, which I took on my last visit the weekend before last, seem to be structural and to have slipped down the fall line from further up: they’re not there by chance.

A phenomenal amount of work went into the development of SCAPE’s sites-at-risk app, both from the experts from SCAPE and from local expert archaeologists but, as importantly, from local communities who have knowledge – and sometimes folk memories – stemming from the practices and customs handed down from generation to generation in what was a largely static population (around, for instance, the sites of C19 and C20 middens no longer in use). But there are (at least) two problems: one is that coverage is likely to be patchy; and the second is that, where sites of interest and which are at risk have been recorded, that information quickly dates if it is not maintained while sites may be lost where a need for maintenance has not been spotted as a result of the site not being visited on a regular basis.

Which is where the community comes back in. Building on the interest which sees people turn up to archaeological events and digs out of curiosity, as well as out of a desire to contribute their own knowledge and awareness, information can be gleaned which means that apps stay relevant and useful – as long as the people using them know, at least in general, what they’re doing (and as long as the information submitted is moderated – which it is when it comes to SCAPE’s app).

There are, on the SCAPE map, around a dozen sites of interest within a half-hour walk of the front door of my bit of the north-west corner of South Uist (and including one right on my doorstep, which is likely to account for the large quantity of shells I dug up when digging the garden back when the days were a bit longer than they are now). There are likely to be more than these – including the remnants, on this side of what is now the bay, of the submerged forest on the southern shore of Benbecula that I noted in last week’s post. Some of these are mounds, some are middens, some are wheelhouse sites, some are where human remains have been discovered and some are where bodies have been buried in some rather interesting ways. None seem to be of a particularly high priority – or, at least, they were not when the app was first compiled. But now – who knows?

I had hoped to get out today to check out a few of these, test my own developing skillbase and make a contribution; but a morning spent getting boosted (yes: please do it, folks!) and an afternoon looking out at darkening skies and falling rain has meant a focus on some desk-based work instead making sure I kow what to do out there in the field. Maybe tomorrow is the time for action (to fuse my 1970s/1980s mod bands) – although #SaturdaysForThePast does have a bit less of a ring to it 😉

Right there, under our feet

It’s been an interesting week for archaeology what with Milly, a 13-year-old, discovering a horde of Bronze Age axes in Royston (on her third metal-detecting trip, natch); and publicity arriving for a very well-kept secret find, in a farmer’s field in Rutland, of a Roman villa complex with a mosaic depicting Homer’s The Iliad. Both go to prove the old adage that you never know what’s under your feet – and that probably every grass-covered hillock in otherwise broadly flat ground is likely to be of potential archaeological interest.

We do have Bronze Age – up to c. 800BCE – finds out here on Uist although Iron Age ones, i.e. from the era immediately following the Bronze Age, are more common. The Romans, of course, never made it this far in their conquest of these isles – to them, the western isles were ‘here be dragons’ even if they weren’t quite ultima Thule – so there’ll be no villa complexes or mosaics out here and, probably, neither any evidence of underfloor heating (although certainly people of that time knew how to heat stones for a variety of purposes).

This week’s course featured a terrific lecture from Dr. Emily Gal, of UHI, reflecting on the relationship between archaeology and the paleoenvironment: how climate change influences what we now find on archaeological digs and how humans somewhere way back up the line responded to climate change; and how to interpret meaning into the evidence we find in the ground (via plant matter, insects and ‘remains’ of all types imaginable). It was quite mind-blowing to discover that the western isles are literally sinking, as a result of geological factors, whereas much of mainland Scotland is still rising: the ice sheet was much thinner here, but up to one kilometre deep on the mainland. The consequence is that, whereas there is still a kind of ‘trampoline effect’ on the mainland, with the earth’s crust rebounding upwards after the release following its suppression by the weight of all that ice, there is little or no effect here and, in fact, the key is movement in the other direction caused by the dense weight of the gneiss which forms the bedrock of these islands. This is not to say that sea levels are not rising on the coasts of the mainland too – they are, especially on the east coast, and at a rate of knots.

The outcome of the sinking of the western isles is nothing particular to worry about – the rate here is about one metre per millennium – but, on top of human-influenced climate change, it does raise the question about what evidence we can find for how people previously interacted with the changing climate: how they tried to respond to it and the mobility issues that inevitably arise when things get a bit too hot for survival, and human growth, right here.

The follow-on issue is one of how Uist would have looked in times gone by. Probably, it was about twice the width it now is, extending the latterday coast out into the Atlantic by as much as 14km. The Monach Islands (that’s the little tilde on the map to the right, lying out to sea between Benbecula and North Uist), and now uninhabited, was still connected to North Uist by a land bridge as recently as the 16th century. Furthermore, the ‘long island’ probably therefore was indeed one long island, stretching from what is now the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais) and reaching down probably to Barra and, perhaps, even further south. Certainly South Uist was joined to Benbecula with the bay between the north-west tip of South Uist – where we now live – and Benbecula being actually previously constituted of one freshwater, inland, lake before being swamped by the sea. There is evidence of a wood existing on the edge of that expanse of water, now constituting a submerged forest on the current southern shore of Benbecula and, apparently, there is some similar evidence here, too, as well as on the small island of Gualan slightly further east to us though that needs to await the next spring tide (and good weather!) for an exploration (and, perhaps, a photograph should I be able to find anything). That’s next weekend, by the way. (Weather not guaranteed.)

The lecture was succeeded the following day by some field work on Baile Sear – just about visible on the map above as the island between Benbecula and North Uist and close to the shore of the latter – where the class was engaged in some photography and some ‘cleaning’ (gentle scraping; no gouging) of sections of the exposed midden (tip site), largely to expose the different colours signifying how the midden was composed. Here’s a couple of small (unofficial) photos showing ‘my’ section: check the band of red (peat ash) against the lighter colours of the windblown sand above; and, lower down, a protruding bit from a darker section of soil which, after a bit of more cleaning, revealed itself as a shard of pottery, with a pleasingly curved shape and, at the top, a clear rim. Elsewhere in the midden there are animal bones and a few scattered shells although not as many of the latter as elsewhere in the locality.

I’ve tramped over these dunes above this site a few times and, while the exposure of the midden is not new – it dates back now a few years when a hurricane lead, amidst human tragedy, to a 50m section of dune being lost in one night – I’ve never known what was there, underneath. Or, to be fair, and to my shame, given it too much more than a passing thought. But that small shard, readily exposed to my fingertips, is at least 1600 years old and there may – just may – be a lot more of interest underneath the machair. People lived here, died here and are, perhaps, buried here – in what was not an isolated manner of existence but as part of a sizable, probably noisy, jostling community and, judging by the size of the midden, a successful one at that. Perhaps that piece of pottery was an ordinary household item broken in the course of every day living – or perhaps it was used to lug a load of shellfish to a celebration of some kind. Perhaps it might even have been broken as a part of that celebration. Now, that evidence of existence lies on the coast and is exposed not only to the mighty Atlantic and the winds – but back then? Quite some way inland, perhaps even sheltered from the wind in some way, with people making their existence not just from the sea but from the land all around them.

All is really speculation – we just don’t know, at least at this stage – but, after all, what is speculation other than the product of evidence, and an informed ability to interpret, set alongside a free running imagination?

Ancient monuments: protect and survive. Or not?

General warning: this post constitutes some unusually early thoughts and may be neither accurate, reasonable nor fair. But please read on. And let me know if I’m wrong!

This week’s archaeology course lecture – they’re on Fridays, hence #FridaysForThePast (sorry!) – was led by Dr. Rebecca Rennell and, around a series of interesting slides on understanding the erosion of heritage sites on Uist, there was a fascinating discussion within the group on the issue of the extent to which sites close to the coast and subject to erosion can, or should, be protected.

The discussion was with reference to Dun Mhulan (Dun Vulan), a broch site on South Uist of which more in a minute. Brochs were monumental structures erected on coastal locations on the west of Scotland and across the western and northern isles somewhere between 1BC (possibly earlier) and 3AD (possibly later). With a double skin wall, giving space for access to chambers and galleries and to the upper floor(s), they stood perhaps up to 20m tall and were used for – well, we don’t actually know. Smokehouses for preserving food, possibly; as stores, possibly; as defensive structures, unlikely; as symbols of the wealth and organisational ability of a community, quite probably; as waymarkers for those travelling on the highways of the sea – almost certainly although that’s equally very unlikely to have been their major purpose. Here’s a couple of snaps I took precisely ten years ago of probably the best remaining example of a broch, up on Mousa in Shetland, which has been preserved fairly intact. The one on the left shows the broad dimensions and the general setting – those smudged specks at the top are indeed people; the one on the right shows the double skin wall and stairway access (grilles and framing may not be original features):

Aside of a bit of care and maintenance over the centuries, this is not a reconstruction. The reasons why the broch here has survived in such good condition are likely to be several: Mousa is a small, now uninhabited, island located only a short way off the mainland of a small island archipelago (that is the Shetland mainland to the right centre); and, crucially, it’s sheltered by a small hill to the east (the left) and, though it is itself on the west side of Mousa, it is protected (at least from sea surges) by the mainland. Consequently, much of the force of erosion is not focused on the broch itself; and, equally importantly, there are not a lot of people around requiring its stones for their own structures. Both of these are, of course, mutually reinforcing factors.

Here, in comparison, is Dun Mhulan, in a photograph taken by Howard Fenton: and see also, for a bang up-to-date 3D model, that taken by Smilemaker (Simon Davies) just last weekend, following the lecture:

The site transparently doesn’t have Mousa’s advantages. That’s the Atlantic to the right (i.e. the west) and there’s no shelter from the winds, from whichever direction. Erosion hasn’t just knocked things down, it has also created a lot of infill – the stones on the ground at the entrance way (lying at just about twelve o’clock in the picture) actually form the lintel of the main doorway so a lot of the original action is below what is now ground level. The wall on the Atlantic side is a rebuild, buttressed by a concrete apron put in place in the mid-1990s at the same time to provide some support for the site but which, as can be seen from Simon’s 3D model, has already had to be supplemented by gabions not least since the concrete has been cracked – presented with an angled concrete barrier, the Atlantic has simply gone around the sides (illustrating the issue of measures taken with preservation in mind frequently leading to problems somewhere else). Furthermore, brochs were often built on islets – the left hand side of the picture shows what is actually a saltwater lagoon, but this was originally matched by one to the right which has now been lost to the Atlantic – while that is also the sea to the upper right, the site being on a small promontory (the broader location is well illustrated in this shot, which also highlights that the sea at the upper right in the above picture is held back from swamping the lagoon by a thin bar of shingle). Dun Mhulan is extremely open and thus it is extremely jeopardised.

It would thus be a mistake to say that the future for Dun Mhulan is uncertain because, actually, we can be fairly sure that, at some clearly unknowable point in the future, it will be inundated. And perhaps we’re only one major storm away from that eventuality: at Baile Sear, up the coast off North Uist (and the focal point for our field work), the significant hurricane of 2005 saw 50m of coastline lost in one night.

The dilemma facing archaeologists, and the local community, is therefore well encapsulated by Dun Mhulan: it’s one of striking a balance between preservation and excavation. Or, as the professionals say, ‘preservation by record’ since excavation, depending on its precise focus, is likely destroy a site completely but that, in the process, a clear picture will be drawn up of how the site was used and developed. In conjunction with modern technology, preservation by record becomes an issue of how sites can be presented, sometimes reimagined by informed guesswork but used to educate ourselves not only about the building techniques and the creeds of communities in the past, but also how they confronted climate change (much of what we don’t know about brochs centres on why they fell into disuse and were abandoned). Interestingly, key sites can indeed be relocated to places where they can be better preserved and presented – see the example in the previous link about the Meur Burnt Mound, on Sanday in Orkney (also referenced here) – and in support of community heritage (and, let’s be frank, tourism) initiatives.

So, if we cannot protect Dun Mhulan against coastal erosion, rising sea levels and all the rest of the impact that climate change is having, the question remains as to what can be done with it. Legally it is a scheduled monument, which complicates things a little – scheduled status, whose aim is to preserve sites as far as possible in the form in which they passed to us, is extremely important; but, equally, scheduling paradoxically means that action can’t be taken either so that we can learn from sites. Given the level of threat to Dun Mhulan and its general low-key nature (its level of exposure means that interpretation boards, which don’t currently exist, are likely to have extremely short lifespans anyway), as well as the availability of other broch sites, including in the western isles, offering a better representation of shape, form and structure, I do wonder whether our interests might be better served by re-excavating Dun Mhulan (some work was carried out in the 1990s, before the apron was installed), possibly in conjunction with a Meur-type relocation, so as to capture as much information as possible from it so we can learn. Perhaps the site’s major value could lie in telling us more about how these unique and enigmatic buildings were used, how and why they came into being and why they were abandoned. Or, with a nod to the tenets of academic research, at least about how this one particular site was used.

As ever, the availability of resources is likely to play a major role in determining whether this could happen (excavation is of course costly); or whether, by taking no action, we are playing instead a game of risk with our chances of learning. It seems to me that, in the face of coastal erosion our choice when it comes to such exposed sites is either to try and preserve by record; or else being faced with the reality that we haven’t preserved at all.