The Storm Chasers are Back!
Actually the Rising Tides team are back up in Orkney, Sanday to be precise, trying to chase environmental signatures of the past while also trying to dodge a weather bomb! So what is it we are actually doing and what is a weather bomb? As those of you who have read any of our previous work will know we are particularly interested in understanding palaeo-environments, landscapes and geography in relation to past societies. Our work on the mainland, that is the mainland of the Orkney Isles, has reconstructed drowned landscapes through geophysical, coring and diving work. On Sanday, we have come chasing the records of a drowned forest. Sounds familiar? Well yes, in some ways it is similar to those sites on the west coast of Wales, and from a much older time frame the sites at Happisburgh where we found the oldest footprints outside Africa last year. Here in Sanday however we are trying to link back to that critical period in the development of human behaviour, the change from hunter-gatherer in the Mesolithic to the farmers of the Neolithic.
So why Sanday? Well, for one reason that a “drowned” forest has been written about in the past. In 1867, in the History or Orkney the Rev George Barry reported a “strong tradition that the harbour of Otterswick in Sanday was once a forest, which was destroyed by inundation. “and further, a sample of the trees was obtained by Traill-Dennison in March 1890. We walked the beaches here and ran some speculative geophysics last summer with encouraging results that led us to a bay on the west coast of Sanday where with great luck on a particularly low tide we spotted a small raft of peat. Coring and measurement of its elevation confirmed that it was equivalent to the Otterswick Bay samples and so here we are, back again on a series of very low spring tides to get further samples.
So what’s the problem? It’s December, there is limited daylight here and we have the “storm of the century” approaching (think The Perfect Storm)! The task therefore is to get some samples and undertake some more geophysics before it hits. The tactics – geophysics (always geophysics) but most importantly some serious extreme geoscience sampling – a JCB! (for those of you who are not familiar with this great vehicle, and actually its not a JCB that we are using, then it’s a backhoe).
The results – instant sections, great samples and all done before today with its horizontal sleet and snow. We have now dug four test pits (typically in fading light at low tide, actually it was dark!) and found the peat. Significantly the peat we have dug appears to be full of freshwater molluscs at the base but towards the top there are articulated marine bivalves as well as whelks and other marine molluscs. This is what we are after – it documents the onset of marine conditions and allows us to begin to understand how marine waters flooded across these Mesolithic landscapes. Elsewhere we have been augering in probable infilled bays where we discovered more than 2.5m of peats and sands alternating throughout the core. This documents the interaction between the land and the sea and excitingly these cores are very close to a multi-period archaeological site that started in the Neolithic and continued intermittently until the Viking period. So mission accomplished so far….watch this space