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.

Archaeology and coastal erosion in Uist

Have just enrolled on this 10-week course starting in a week’s time; and I’m really looking forward to some pre-course field work taking place tomorrow up on Baile Sear – an island off the west coast of North Uist which experiences a pace of erosion which is almost visible. I haven’t been up there for around five years now and I’m interested (and rather full of foreboding) to see the amount of change that has taken place in that time. I’m hoping that the course will give me a greater understanding of climate change and its role in shaping the islands on which I live; and the lives and the opportunities of all of us who stay here.

The pre-course field work is based on a drone study of the archaeological remains eroding from the coast, which is being led by Ellie Graham, a PhD student from Aberdeen.

Just hoping that the rain, which is in the Met Office forecast for tomorrow morning, alongside some rather changeable weather, holds off – making judgments and recording observations through wet glass(es) can be a bit of a challenge…

The course is likely to be quite intensive while holding down the (freelance) day job, so blog activity might be a bit more rare over the next period. Will be trying to post some materials and some thoughts up here as the weeks go by, though. This is my first time in a learning environment for quite some time and, on this side of the learning room as opposed to the other, for quite a bit longer. There were archaeologists in my last employment and I really wish I’d come across a few more of them while I was there.

Anyway – wish me luck!