Archaeology's front line in Orkney

Orkney's hidden archaeology has been under investigation in recent weeks, thanks to a new project between local experts and volunteers. Fieldwalking events have been held in the UNESCO World Heritage Site to try and uncover some of the secrets of the past.

A winter storm in 1850 uncovered the sprawling network of stone-age houses that make up Skara Brae in Orkney. The wild winds ripped up the grass and blew away the sand to reveal the site.

But archaeologists aren’t always as lucky. In fact, the process of finding another Skara Brae, the next Ness of Brodgar or a new Maeshowe, takes a bit of dedication, as well as some welly boots and a keen eye.

In recent months, anyone travelling around Orkney’s UNESCO World Heritage site might have spotted groups of people slowly wandering through fields with their eyes firmly fixed on the ground. Far from acting as live-action scarecrows, these groups were in fact fieldwalking, the front line of archaeology in Orkney.

Fieldwalking underway in Orkney's World Heritage Site

Fieldwalking is the process of stalking through recently ploughed fields searching for evidence of ancient settlements, artefacts from the past or more recent historical finds. A recent project here, supported by the Orkney Archaeology Society, saw volunteers take to the fields in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Although our main Neolithic sites are well known, it could be argued they overshadow some of the smaller points of interest and the landscape surrounding them. The fieldwalking project aims to find evidence of previously unknown locations, which could shed new light on how people in Orkney 5,000 years ago interacted with places like the Ring of Brodgar and the temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar.

It’s a relatively simple process. Thanks to the support of local landowners, the volunteers gather at a recently turned field and each take charge of a space ten metres apart. They then stride forward, watching the ground beneath them carefully, for a further ten metres, effectively splitting the field into a grid. Anything that catches the eye is flagged, then investigated further. Finds are logged using GPS and then bagged, collated and taken to Orkney College for studies.

Another find being marked and bagged, with GPS used to pinpoint its location

It’s a cheap and accessible way to get involved with archaeology. You don’t have to be an expert or even have an understanding of Orkney’s history. Anyone can take part. For those that do, the chance to handle something that could possibly have last been touched by a human hand thousands of years ago more than makes up for braving the elements during an Orcadian spring.

This year the fieldwalking events have yielded the remains of stone tools, an arrowhead, part of a stone axe and scatterings of flint, which indicates a settlement may have been close by.

Some of this year's finds on display in the Orkney Museum

But it’s not all about the Neolithic. The project is also looking for evidence of how the land has been used from the stone-age right up until the Second World War. Horseshoes and old farming tools have been found, along with artefacts from an old wartime camp close to Maeshowe.

Many of the fascinating finds are on display at the Orkney Museum until the end of April 2017, with further information on what they are and where they were found. And it’s hoped more fieldwalking events will be held in the coming years too.

You never know – it could be you that finds Orkney’s next archaeological treasure.

Part of an axe-blade, found during the fieldwalking project

See the exhibition for yourself at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall until the end of April.

The Digital Media Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme. Newsletter

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