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Archaeo News 

26 April 2008
Sea level study may change views on Orcadian landscape

A radically different picture of the prehistoric landscape around Orkney's World Heritage Site (Scotland) is beginning to emerge – a landscape which perhaps didn't feature the Stenness and Harray lochs. Preliminary results from an archaeo-environmental project indicate that, prior to 1500 BCE, the Stenness loch was an area of wet marshland surrounding small pools or lochans.
     The Rising Tide project is looking at past sea level change and prehistoric settlement around Orkney. At the helm is local archaeologist Caroline Wickham Jones and Sue Dawson from the University of Dundee. Since 2006, the pair have gathered core samples. The analysis of the remains of tiny creatures known as diatoms, preserved in the sediments of both sea and loch, allows experts to pinpoint when the sea around the islands reached its present level.  
     Sue Dawson explained: "Two dates have now been obtained which start to give a more precise idea of the period at which the sea reached present level." The Echnaloch samples gave a date of 2340 – 2570 BCE, while at Voy, in Stenness, the date is between 1440 BCE and 1270 BCE. Compare this to the estimated construction dates of the Ring of Brodgar (c2500 BCE-2000 BCE) and Standing Stones of Stenness (c3100 BCE). By the time the Stenness loch was fully established, the Ring of Brodgar had been standing for approximately 500 to 1,000 years.
     These single dates give an initial idea of when sea level reached present levels around Mainland Orkney. The time lag between Voy and Echnaloch is likely to be due to the different geographical positions and sheltered nature of Voy.
     Caroline Wickham Jones commented: "Archaeologically, the dates are important because they indicate just how much the landscape of Orkney has changed since the World Heritage sites were built, around 5,000 years ago. Environmental reconstruction from coring suggests that, rather than being connected to the sea, the Loch of Stenness comprised a lake with reed beds at the time when the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness were first built. While the sites were in use the sudden ingression of sea into the Loch of Stenness must have been a notable event. The subsequent flooding of the Stenness basin took place over the later life of the monuments making this an area of dynamic environmental change which must have impacted on the lives of those living in the area. Around Orkney relative sea levels would have been lower for much of the Neolithic, raising the possibility of submerged Neolithic sites and landscapes in the shallow seas between the islands."
     The dates immediately raise a number of questions over the Ness of Brodgar monuments. If there was no loch, for example, the theory the stones were floated to their present site goes out the window. Another casualty is the idea that the Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar were erected where they are because of an interaction between the land, lochs and sky. However, archaeologist Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) feels the lack of lochs would not necessarily have lessened the significance of the Ness to the Neolithic builders. If anything, he suggests, it may have enhanced it. "If we had these two marshy, boggy areas on both sides of the Ness, not only would that mean the Ness was more pronounced, in relation to the low lying landscape around it, but it would remained a 'liminal' place, bordered by two 'no-go' areas. The fact remains that the monuments were constructed in a natural amphitheatre and right through the middle of it there's a natural walkway or causeway, running north-west to south-east." He added: "It's a primary strand of evidence," said Nick, "but we do need more dates and more evidence which I hope the project will be able to supply in the future. It's going to alter the way we view the landscape surrounding the Ness of Brodgar in the Neolithic and maybe into the Bronze Age."
     In June, the project plans further coring to refine the history of the loch of Stenness.

Source: Orkneyjar (20 April 2008)

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