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About The Project

In the summer of 2004, GUARD (Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division) were commissioned by The SCAPE Trust to carry out an archaeological assessment of an eroding mound at Sandwick on the island of Unst, in Shetland. In the cliff at the edge of the beach there were large stone uprights, sections of walling and layers of midden (or domestic rubbish), all exposed by the action of waves. Sherds of Iron Age pottery had been found nearby. Members of the local community, who were concerned that this potentially significant archaeological site would soon be destroyed by encroaching tides and wind, brought the site to the attention of professional archaeologists.

general view of Sandwick Bay view of the eroding face in 2004

The bay at Sandwick and a general view of the eroding mound

View of the mound from the south

Thousands of archaeological sites around the coast of Scotland are under threat from coastal erosion; many have already been submerged by rising sea levels or destroyed by wind and wave action. The Shorewatch Project was established by The SCAPE Trust to train local communities in how to record archaeological sites being threatened by coastal erosion, and to rescue important information about the past before it is lost to the sea. Members of the local community were already involved in researching and presenting the heritage of Unst, having set up a local heritage centre.

Sandwick (the name comes from the Old Norse for 'sandy bay') was a popular place in the past: farther up the beach from this year's excavation site are the remains of two Norse farmsteads, dating to the medieval period, and the site of an early first-millennium AD burial mound, all excavated in the last few decades and since damaged by coastal erosion.

Given the high energy of the waves in the bay, the vulnerability of the prehistoric building to further erosion and the good archaeological potential of the area, this seemed an ideal opportunity to salvage information about prehistoric life on Unst while involving and training members of Shetland’s Past and Shorewatch groups in how to excavate and record the archaeological remains.

The 2004 season was the first stage in a programme of training and investigation. Over the course of two weeks, a small team (5 staff and 13 volunteers) used a variety of techniques, including geophysical survey, topographic survey, augering and limited excavation of the eroding section, to answer some questions about the site: how old is it, what was its function, how fast is the site eroding, and how much of it is left?

Section recording Topographic Survey Topographic and geophysical survey Walkover survey

Section recording

Topographic survey

Topographic and geophysical survey

Walkover survey

The excavations seasons established that the site consisted of several conjoined, stone-built rooms or yards, with occupation layers rich in artefacts and botanical remains – material that can help date the site more securely and give us an insight into how the occupants lived. Excavation of the site in 2005 and 2006 was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland. The 2007 season was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and The Russell Trust, with support from Shetland Islands Council, Unst Community Council and the Shetland Amenity Trust. This work is not only yielding valuable information about the past, but also demonstrating the importance of training volunteer groups in how to excavate eroding coastal archaeological sites.

 

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