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Shifting sand dunes reveal hidden Bronze Age settlement

09 December 2015

Chris Theobald

The remains of a Bronze Age settlement have been unearthed beneath sand dunes in the Orkney Islands.  

Photo:
Professor Jane Downes examines one of the house structures revealed on the beach. Other houses represented by dark spreads of stone can be seen in the background, extending as far as the last visible sand dune.
Photo: Colin Richards  

The discovery of Bronze Age homes on the Sanday sea shore provides a rare chance to examine a settlement from the period

The remains of a Bronze Age settlement have been unearthed beneath sand dunes in the Orkney Islands.

The team, from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) the University of Manchester and the University of the Highlands and Islands, discovered the millennia-old ruins on the sea shore at Tres Ness, on the island of Sanday.

They found a series of circular stone spreads which were revealed to be the remains of Bronze Age homes, each covered with a mass of stone tools. A total of 14 gatherings of stone ruins were found along a kilometre stretch.

 

“These spreads were so prolific we didn't at first realise that what we were walking on were the remains of substantial stone-built prehistoric houses."

UCLan’s Dr Vicki Cummings, School of Forensic and Applied Sciences, said: “We were walking out to visit a chambered tomb in extremely windy conditions along a sandy beach when we noticed spreads of dark stone amongst the white sand.

“These spreads were so prolific we didn't at first realise that what we were walking on were the remains of substantial stone-built prehistoric houses.

“Looking carefully at the remains we found a mass of stone tools which were clearly Bronze Age in date. What really stunned me was that these remains were stretched out over a kilometre making this the largest prehistoric settlement I've ever seen. This is truly a remarkable find but its exposure means that this incredible site is now under threat from rising sea levels and wintery storms.”

Professor Colin Richards, of the University of Manchester, said: “This is a major discovery as the houses and a Bronze Age land-surface has clearly been sealed beneath the dune system for some 4000 years. It was the scale and density of occupation that really surprised us. Not only are house structures present but working areas are also visible.”

 

“This is a major discovery as the houses and a Bronze Age land-surface has clearly been sealed beneath the dune system for some 4000 years."

This new discovery provides a rare opportunity to examine a dispersed settlement from the little understood Bronze Age in detail.

Professor Richards added: “The discovery of the complex of Bronze Age houses and working areas was entirely unexpected. In fact we walked past a number of ‘piles of stone’ without realising that they were actually the remains of Bronze Age buildings as Orkney is distinctive in having stone-built remains for the majority of the prehistoric periods. The most extraordinary observation is that the settlement appears to run over a kilometre with roughly evenly spaced houses and working areas. Further investigations may well uncover stone field walls and boundaries.”

Professor Jane Downes, of the University of the Highlands and Islands, a specialist in the Bronze Age, said: “This must be one of the biggest complexes of Bronze Age settlement in the Scottish isles, rivalling the spreads of hut circles in other parts of mainland Scotland.”