Race against time to excavate Pictish cemetery after human remains discovered

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Archaeologists face race against time to excavate and preserve a large Pictish cemetery – after storms damaged the site revealing human remains.

The coastal site at Newark on Mainland, Orkney, was badly damaged by recent high winds and waves.

The ground, which is formed of soft boulder clay, is prone to landslides as it holds on to high volumes of rainwater, according to experts.

Volunteers are working to secure the cemetery site, which is currently being protected by sandbags, as quickly as possible.

It is believed the cemetery could hold invaluable information about the little-understood transition between the Pictish era and the arrival of Vikings on Orkney.

Archaeologists from ORCA excavating human remains from the cliff at Newark

Human remains which have fallen onto the beach will be collected and moved for safekeeping.

Bones exposed in the boulder clay will remain in place until a full excavation can get underway, allowing archaeologists to get a full picture of the burial rituals carried out there.

Pete Higgins, senior project manager at Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) said the site would be lost ‘within a few short years to the sea’ without work to upkeep it.

Mr Higgins said: “The archaeologically important site at Newark on the south east coast of Orkney is under constant threat from storm surges and huge waves blowing in from the North Sea.

“The coast in this location is made up of soft boulder clay and, with the continual procession of bad weather we have experienced in the past few months, the site is under constant threat of further destruction – revealing more human remains as each storm passes.”

The erosion of the site shows parts of the ancient chapel

The cemetery was in use from at least 550AD to 1450AD, with bodies buried over four of five layers.

The skeletons removed from the site during the 1960s and 1970s by Professor Brothwell of the University of York are now largely stored at the Natural History Museum in London, with some held at Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

In 2016 a carved Pictish type two stone was exposed and excavated by ORCA Archaeology.

A three year project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland, is now underway to better understand the site and the remains found there.

DNA analysis of the human remains will be carried out to determine the background of those buried there.

Newark was also once home to a 17th century manor house which was also claimed by erosion of the coastline.

The site is being actively watched over by Deerness residents and volunteers from across Orkney, including students and staff from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute.

DNA analysis of the human remains will be carried out to determine the background of those buried there

A major report is now being compiled, detailing the work that has been completed at Newark in the past and what needs to be done for the future.

Mr Higgins added: “We know that the site was excavated in the 1960s and 1970s by Professor Brothwell of York University and that remains of more than 200 individuals were excavated during that time.

“The cemetery was in use from at least 550AD to 1450AD, and although its physical extent is not known, it is thought to be extensive.

“Further research work connected with the major project now being undertaken by ORCA will determine more over the next three years.

“Additionally, in 2016 a Carved Pictish Type 2 stone was exposed and excavated by ORCA Archaeology.

“We also know from our examination of written records that Newark House, a manor house dating back to the 17th century, in addition to the walls of a chapel also existed at the site and are now partly destroyed by the advancing sea.

“This is a significant site which, without the constant remedial shoring up the sea defences undertaken by the local community, landowner, volunteers and archaeology students from Orkney College, would be lost within a few short years to the sea.”





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