Sunday, October 23, 2011

A henge beneath the water of the stenness loch? Time will tell

Survey work in the Loch of Stenness has revealed what could be a massive prehistoric monument lying underwater to the south of the Ring of Brodgar.

The underwater “anomaly” has come to light in a project looking at prehistoric sea level change in Orkney. The project, The Rising Tide: Submerged Landscape of Orkney, is a collaboration between the universities of St Andrews, Wales, Dundee, Bangor and Aberdeen.

But although it is tempting to speculate that the ring-shaped feature, which lies just off the loch’s shore, is the remains of a henge — a circular or oval-shaped flat area enclosed and delimited by a boundary earthwork (usually a ditch with an external bank) — or perhaps a prehistoric quarry, at this stage the project leaders are urging caution.

Orkney-based archaeologist, Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, explained: “The preliminary results from the high-resolution geophysical sensing are suggesting that there is an unusual ‘object’ in the shallow water just off the shore, but more work is needed before we can identify it or even confirm whether it is a natural, perhaps geological, feature, or something man-made.”

When prehistoric Orcadians started to build the stone circles in Stenness, the landscape would have been much different to what it is today and the sea would have been about a metre below current levels. Prior to the sea coming in, the loch area was stands of open freshwater, with reed beds — probably much like the landscape around the Loons, in Birsay, today.

Previous studies have shown that the sea around Orkney reached its present level about 2000BC, but even then, because there is a rock “lip” at the Brig o’ Waithe which held the sea back, the impact of the rising water in the Loch of Stenness was a bit slower.

Caroline Wickham-Jones added, “Archaeologists study what’s there, but sometimes it’s more interesting to ask what’s not there. The early Neolithic tombs around the bay for example: where are they? Many other early Neolithic tombs in Orkney — such as Unstan — are found near present sea level, on low-lying land. Were the earliest tombs around the Bay of Firth built on land that has since been covered by sea?”

The surveys have detected two intriguing anomalies in the bay, one of which is visible in aerial photographs by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and also appears on the remote sensing results.

A seismic survey in the bay has helped to shed light on the possible structure of one of these, and now the team plans more diving work to confirm the results.

Read the original story at the Orkney Jar

Past Horizons. 2011. "A henge beneath the water of the stenness loch? Time will tell". Past Horizons. Posted: October 12, 2011. Available online:

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