Friday, January 27, 2012

Outer-Hebrides survey builds a new picture of the past

A recent call to local people to report anything unusual that they have spotted at the shoreline or under the sea has already resulted in several promising sites for a new archaeological project.

Tip-offs from islanders led to a possible medieval fishing village and finds of 5,000-year-old pottery submerged in a loch.

A local man – JJ McDonald – told the team that he knew of a “medieval fishing station”. Photographed from above, the landscape shows high potential for new site discovery of all periods of history. Notably, this area near North Loch Euport is called ‘Havn’ (the Norse word for harbour) on Ordnance Survey maps. A previously unknown complex of fish traps and evidence of coastal occupation south of Lochboisdale on South Uist was discovered during flight surveys.

At Loch Duna – a freshwater loch – a local diver has discovered ceramics which date to the early Neolithic period. He reported his discovery of the 5000-year-old pottery to the local museum just days after attending the first public lecture on underwater archaeology given by the Outer Hebrides Coastal Community Marine Archaeology Pilot Project (OHCCMAPP) team in July.

The call went out in 2011 to fishermen, beachcombers, divers and residents in the Western Isles.

The project searches for previously unidentified prehistoric and historic remains in the coastal and marine areas of the Isles, all the way from Berneray to the Butt of Lewis and all islands in between.

Many of these places are only accessible for short periods each day due to the tides – or are now fully submerged because of rising sea levels – and have not always been looked at in detail by archaeologists. As a result, it is hoped that this project could lead to a number of significant new discoveries.

Speaking on behalf of the project, Dr Jonathan Benjamin of WA Coastal & Marine said:
“As full time archaeologists, we don’t have the benefit of observing the shoreline between the low and high tides, day in and day out, year after year. That’s why we’re relying on the knowledge of people who live and work on or near the sea, and who might have noticed something out of the ordinary, either in a fishing net, or at an especially low tide. Their tip-offs can lead to significant discoveries. We’re also explaining to people the sorts of things that we’re interested in, because they may have seen or noticed things in the past, but disregarded them as not important.

“Until now, there’s been no major study focused on the marine archaeology of the Outer Hebrides, and by beginning with the intertidal and shallow waters, aerial survey and community engagement, we hope to be able to demonstrate that there is a vast amount of knowledge, literally waiting to be discovered by archaeologists working with local residents on land, in the air and underwater.”

Now members of the project team have had a chance to fly over some of the remote sites they’ve been told about, with a Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) aerial survey team.

Aerial photographs have been taken with the advantage of low winter sunshine which tends to highlight archaeological features in the landscape.

Already they have identified several sites as warranting further investigation – possibly even full ground and underwater archaeological surveys – in the future.

The project – a partnership between RCAHMS, WA Coastal & Marine, Historic Scotland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNE-Siar) – aims to get local people involved in sharing their knowledge about features in the landscape in order to build up a picture of how people lived and worked on the islands over the last 9,000 years.

Remains found on the coastline, or even now fully underwater, can then be recorded, cared for and preserved. With rising sea-levels and the power of the tides, many of these sites are at risk of being lost.

Speaking about one of the most promising tip-offs received to date, Dr Alex Hale, archaeological investigator at RCAHMS, said:
“Meeting JJ MacDonald was one of those fortuitous moments that can only happen when you are in the field. We bumped into JJ at his boat shed, by chance, and the amount of knowledge he has of the local environment is incredible. He’s obviously very knowledgeable about the area of South Uist where he lives and was able to help us identify sites that we’ll now be able to investigate further, such as the fishing station.”

Past Horizons. 2012. "Outer-Hebrides survey builds a new picture of the past". Past Horizons. Posted: Available online:

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