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Archaeo News 

8 August 2009
Skara Brae and other coastal sites threatened by erosion

It is one of the best preserved Stone Age villages in Europe, but Skara Brae in Orkney (Scotland) is just a few metres from the sea and it is a constant battle to save it from coastal erosion. Experts warn as many as 10,000 historic sites around Scotland are at risk of being swept away, many of them unexcavated and unprotected. For thousands of years Skara Brae was hidden from view and protected from the harsh island weather, and it is that weather whipping up the sea nearby which is still Skara Brae's greatest threat.
     Orkney archaeologist Julie Gibson says recent geophysics have uncovered more of the village a short distance inland, but adds: "We don't know exactly how much has disappeared into the sea over the years before proper coastal defences were put in." Those defences are well maintained by Historic Scotland and added to every year. But on a walk around the 4m-high coastal wall, Stephen Watt from Historic Scotland explains some of the challenges they face. Pointing to one part of the wall he admits that a storm three years ago brought trouble. He said: "This particular bit was badly damaged. There was a hole you could almost walk into. It drew out a huge amount of material from behind the sea wall." Last year another part of the wall was rebuilt down to the bedrock to stop water getting underneath.
     Stephen Watt says they have discovered that the greatest erosion is occurring where the hard stone of the sea wall meets the sand. If that continues he says it is possible that the sand might erode back and that the sea would come round the side of Skara Brae. So now Historic Scotland, along with other organisations, is monitoring the entire bay to work out the rate of erosion and where it is worst. Future repairs will be based on the results of this wider study. "At the moment this site looks quite stable, but a single storm could come in, undermine the sand and all the stone here would come collapsing down," said Watt.
     Scotland has thousands of historic sites around its coastline. Archaeologists would like to document as many as possible before coastal erosion washes some away, but some are already disappearing. The Scape Trust, a charity researching Scotland's coastal archaeology, has already helped organise community digs in several parts of Scotland. They would like to do more, gain as much knowledge about how people used to live from other archaeological remains before some of them are lost to the waves forever. But with so many sites unexcavated and potentially under threat, Tom Dawson from the Scape Trust admits that in this race against time it would be unrealistic to save them all.

Source: BBC News (3 August 2009)

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