What History Gives, the Sea Steals

February 6, 2016

On a North Sea shore in Scotland, a group of archaeologists struggles to dig in a storm. The wind is so fierce it threatens to blow them over, and bursts of hail and near-horizontal rain send them periodically scurrying for shelter. They’re battling water on more than one front: waves surge up the beach, threatening to inundate the worksite. Sometime after an expensive camera sails off a tripod and breaks, they abandon their dig.

Undaunted, the crew of professional and volunteer archaeologists returns a few months later to finish work at the site, a coastal farm called Meur.

The structures they’re excavating have survived for thousands of years. But a strong storm uncovered the site in the first place, and the next storm could drag it into the ocean for good. In Scotland, as on coastlines around the world, climate change is both helping to reveal new archaeological sites and threatening to destroy them. Researchers and citizen scientists are racing time to collect the stories of these vanishing sites.

A little cluster of islands sits to the northeast of Scotland like an asterisk. This is the archipelago of Orkney. Near its top is a spindly island just 50 square kilometers in area. Called Sanday, it’s pronounced—and is—sandy.

In 2005, a violent storm caused widespread damage along Sanday’s coastline, rearranging beaches and uncovering intriguing stone structures at Meur. What at first looked like a grave turned out to be a Bronze Age water trough, about 4,000 years old. It was part of a structure called a burnt mound, a place where prehistoric people heated rocks in a fire, pushed them into a water-filled trough, and then discarded them in a heap.

The purpose of a burnt mound is unclear, but theories abound: kitchen, sauna, leather tannery, maybe even something to do with brewing beer. Meur is a remarkably well-preserved site that includes several rooms and other structures. “It’s fairly unique,” says Tom Dawson, a University of St Andrews archaeologist who manages the organization Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE). “But it’s typical insofar as it is a spectacular archaeological site which is being destroyed.”

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