Sunday, August 30, 2009


Racing against time to save prehistoric Orkney site

The site at the Links of Noltland on the island of Westray on the northern fringes of the Orkney islands (Scotland) is emerging as one of the UK's most important prehistoric digs: over the last 30 years archaeologists have uncovered a complex of neolithic and bronze age houses, field systems, rich middens and possibly ceremonial buildings dating to 3,500 BCE.

Noltland has revealed glimpses of this slowly evolving society: they kept red deer,
primitive rough-haired sheep, pigs and cattle; harvested shellfish; planted wheat nourished with domestic waste and animal dung; used whalebone for rafters, tools and clothing pins; made beads; and embellished their tools with carvings and lumps of the ochre-coloured hematite imported from nearby Hoy.

Over the last 30 years, the north Atlantic wind has remorselessly swept away thousands of tons of sand at Noltland, excavating dunes and finally exposing several thousand years of early human civilization. But the wind now threatens to destroy the site, that sits just tens of meters from the surf. The gales are becoming more intense. It is a crisis increasingly common for coastline archaeological sites around Britain.

Since the early 1980s, the land surface at Noltland has dropped by up to 10m (33ft), exposing what now appears to be a significant neolithic township. There are at least five neolithic houses and six later bronze age buildings on Noltland, and evidence of several others are emerging from under the sand.

The dig is being led by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson, a wife and husband team hired by the site's owners, the government agency Historic Scotland. They have worked on Noltland for 10 years and have watched, with mounting anxiety, as the wind has stripped the site.

"It's pretty disastrous," says Moore. "It's just all going; I don't think there's anything we can do to stop it either. This is why we're here. Everything is being stripped away - it's being exposed and washed out."

The islands were inhabited, like much of western Scotland's coastline and all its island groups, because Britain's sheltered coastal waters acted as prehistory's motorways: inland were steep mountains, unfordable rivers, thick forests and wolves. In a world without roads and railways, the Hebridean islands, the Orkney archipelago and Shetlands offered accessible and abundant sources of shelter and food.

The steadily eroding sand allows glimpses ... If Historic Scotland can find the
funds, they could be reopened for public exhibition. "This is a live site," Moore adds, "the real thing, and it's eroding in front of us. It's a rescue situation. If you're lucky enough to come up here and see it, it's a very rare opportunity. It's so short-lived and it's not going to survive."


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