A spate of storms lashing the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland have unearthed a fascinating discovery recently, while also placing it at risk, reports LiveScience.
According to the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), Pictish and Viking remains have been discovered at the ancient Newark Bay cemetery dating to almost 1,500 years ago on Orkney's largest island. However, storm-generated waves are now eating away at the low cliff near the site.
“[W]ith the continual procession of bad weather we have experienced in the past few months, the site is under constant threat of further destruction,” Pete Higgins, senior project manager at ORCA, is quoted as saying to STV News.
The ancient human remains revealed by the storms will be removed to a safe location, say experts, as local volunteers aid staff and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands in placing sandbags and piling clay to prevent further flooding of the site.
“We know that the sandbags are not the answer to protecting the site in the long term, but they provide some protection,” said the university in a statement.
The senior project manager at ORCA added:
"The local residents and the landowner have been quite concerned about what's left of the cemetery being eroded by the sea."
The cemetery is located on the coastal site of Newark Bay and has been known to archaeologists for some time, with 250 skeletons removed from the site for studies some 50 years ago. It is yet to be determined just how far the graveyard extends back from the beach, according to Pete Higgins. Hundreds of Pictish and Norse bodies are thought to be buried at the site.
The cemetery was in use from at least 550 to 1450 A.D., covering two principal periods of habitation on Orkney.
Initially, it was populated by the Picts - a confederation of tribes that once dominated northern Scotland. At a later period, it was taken over by Norse Vikings, who started colonising Orkney in the eighth century.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay was excavated by British archaeologist Don Brothwell, who preserved the skeletons for future study, using methods current for those times. However, says Higgins, "the archive isn't quite the way we'd have it nowadays."
Experts are hoping to preserve the ancient remains until they can be studied over the next three years in HES-funded research.
Solving a Mystery
The ancient bones that have been revealed at the cemetery are yet to be determined as belonging to either the Picts or the Vikings.
The mystery persists as no burial objects or funeral clothing have been found.
According to historians, the first Norse visitors to the Orkney Islands settled there in the late eighth century, using the Orkney Islands as a base from where they led their Viking raids. Eventually, all of Orkney was dominated by the Norse, they claim, as this region of the British Isles remains most influenced by Norse culture.
However, it is the relationship between the Picts and the Norse on the Orkney Islands that is the subject of heated debate among experts.
Scholars have been puzzling over whether the Norse took over the area by force, or settled and intermarried with the Picts.
The ancient cemetery at Newark Bay possibly holds the key to this riddle, claims Higgins.
"The Orkney Islands were Pictish, and then they became Norse… We're not really clear how that transition happened, whether it was an invasion or people lived together. This is one of the few opportunities we've got to investigate that," says the expert.
In future research involving the remains, testing of genetic material will be carried out. The results are touted as likely to reveal that some people currently inhabiting Orkney are descended from those ancient people who lived on the islands over 1,000 years ago.
"We're fairly confident that we're going to find that some local residents are related to people in the cemetery," said Higgins.