Archaeologists Excavate Medieval Graveyard In Orkney

By Caroline Lewis | 28 February 2005
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Shows a photo of two archaeologists in fluorescent tabards working on ground in front of a dry stone wall. There are human remains in the ground.

Archaeologists working on the site. Bones are visible on the right hand. Courtesy Ronan Toolis, AOC Archaeology Group.

Severe storms which lashed Orkney in January have revealed a medieval graveyard containing more than 20 skeletons. A rapid response archaeology team has been working on the scene at a pace, before the sea consumes the remains.

Orkney Archaeological Trust had planned to excavate the site in the summer, with funding from Historic Scotland. However, the urgent situation drove a decision to undertake the excavation immediately and a team of archaeologists arrived on the site on February 18.

Patrick Ashmore, Head of Archaeology at Historic Scotland, explained that his organisation has a call-off contract with AOC Archaeology.

“This contract is designed to allow AOC Archaeology Group to rapidly assess fresh discoveries of buried human remains,” he said, “and so with the agreement of Orkney Archaeological Trust and the kind permission of the landowner Mr Ronald Cook of Rendall, we were able to instruct AOC Archaeology Group to send out a team of archaeologists to excavate the most vulnerable burials and assess the situation.”

Shows a photograph of a bare landscape with the sea in the background.

There may be blue skies now, but this area suffered heavy storms in January. Courtesy Ronan Toolis, AOC Archaeology Group.

The skeletons were found on the foreshore below St Thomas’ Kirk and the broch at Hall of Rendall, northwest of Kirkwell on mainland Orkney. The AOC team cleared trenches in the shingle and found several burials, some underneath a layer of rubble from a fallen wall.

“It looks as if the sea has destroyed the burial further out from where the team is digging,” said Ronan Toolis, AOC Archaeology Group excavation team leader.

“We found 21 skeletons and we excavated 14,” he told the 24 Hour Museum. “Those were under imminent threat of coastal erosion.” The remaining burials have been covered up, to be preserved in situ. “They are graves, so we have to respect them,” noted Ronan.

“They seem to belong, broadly speaking, to the medieval period,” he said.

“The skeletons will be studied by specialists looking for evidence about how old they were when they died, if they had any diseases and the skeletal changes caused by particular kinds of work,” he continued.

Shows a photo of two archaeologists working on ground in front of a dry stone wall. There is some rubble strewn on the earth.

Archaeologists worked fast to salvage skeletons. Courtesy Ronan Toolis, AOC Archaeology Group.

The kirk (church), known locally as Tammas’ Kirk, was partly excavated in 1931, having been long abandoned. The dig revealed a nave and a chancel, whose layout suggested construction began in the 12th century.

The remains of a suspected broch (an Iron Age stone tower) at the site have been exposed by past erosion. An Iron Age comb, pottery and midden material were also discovered.Patrick Ashmore explained: “St Thomas’ Kirk itself probably dates from the 12th century and the cemetery is probably medieval. Of course it is possible that there was an earlier chapel on the site, or that the cemetery continued in use after abandonment of the kirk.”

“Rescuing these burials before they are destroyed by the sea will give is unique information about the people who lived and worshipped here,” he continued, “and we need information about the site to consider whether we have to think about more excavation in advance of its destruction.”

“There is a lot to be done and I am most grateful to the local volunteers from Shorewatch who have been helping us on the excavation,” said Ronan Toolis.

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