Archaeologists Fear Many Ancient Sites Will Soon Disappear In Orkney As ‘Heritage Is Falling Into The Sea’

The 3,000 archaeological sites in Orkney like Skara Brae are under serious threat from climate change and may disappear quickly unless action is taken.

Archaeologists warn that the situation is dire in Orkney as archaeological sites are under threat from climate change.
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The 3,000 archaeological sites in Orkney like Skara Brae are under serious threat from climate change and may disappear quickly unless action is taken.

Orkney in Scotland is a place filled with history and wonder, with archaeologists estimating there to be around 3,000 archaeological sites that have been discovered so far, yet there is now the very real concern that many of these heritage sites may soon be disappearing because of fast-rising seas.

As The New York Times reports, in Orkney you can find ancient Norse halls, stone circles and even Neolithic tombs that have been scribbled over with graffiti that Vikings left behind. And of course, there is the magnificent Skara Brae, which dates back to 3180 BC. Here at Skara Brae you will find the remains of homes that were built thousands of years ago and which still have intact hearths, doors, bedsteads, and cupboards.

With 70 islands comprising Orkney, climate change has been a major detriment to the many archaeological sites here. In fact, since 1970 its beaches have eroded so fast that the rate of erosion was found to be twice what it was in the 19th century. Because of this great threat, archaeologists have teamed up citizen-scientists, academics, and government agencies around the world to try and hold back the damage that is occurring.

Professor Jane Downes, who is the director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands, notes that the situation in Orkney is looking very dire at the moment.

“Heritage is falling into the sea. It’s a very dramatic and obvious sign of sea level rise and increased storminess.”

To demonstrate just how badly climate change has taken a toll in Orkney, in 1983 an archaeologist decided to take measurements of a Neolithic tomb on Sanday Island to see how it would change over the years. In 2017, after having been completely untouched since 1983, measurements were taken once again and it was found that five feet had fallen victim to cliff erosion already, with the last 40 feet well on its way to being lost forever also.

Another location in Orkney that is suffering badly is Rousay Island, which in just one mile contains 50 centuries worth of archaeological sites that begins with the Stone Age and continues on through the Bronze Age and Iron Ages.

1,200 volunteers decided to address the issue of climate change and erosion in Orkney, and between the years 2012 to 2016 found sites that were particularly vulnerable and mapped these. Unfortunately, many new archaeological sites are being discovered here and have to be quickly addressed, such as the Stone Age structure that was found in 2015, which was carried away from the shores of the sea so no further damage could occur to it. Local residents have even taken to sandbagging ancient cemeteries so that the skeletal remains of people don’t float away forever.

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As Jim Hansom, who is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Glasgow explained, “Sea level in Orkney has been rising over thousands of years, and so coastal flooding and beach erosion is nothing new. What is of concern is that the extent and pace of erosion since the 1970s has increased.”

Northern Scotland has seen a massive 26 percent increase in rainfall from 1961 to 2011, and it is clear that unless something is done quickly to protect Orkney that many of the archaeological sites here are at serious risk of disappearing forever.