Race to study Iron Age roundhouses before they are lost to sea storms

EXPERTS are battling against time and the weather to excavate the remains of a historic island site which was uncovered by storms.

Hurricane-force winds exposed 2,000-year-old Iron Age houses at Baile Sear, North Uist, in January 2005.

A team from St Andrews University is keen to investigate the roundhouses before they vanish in another storm, and believe they have just one winter left.

The wind and waves have already taken their toll and some parts have been lost.

Tom Dawson, of the group SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the problem of Erosion) is leading the community project, which is partly funded by Historic Scotland and will start work in about four weeks.

He said: "The structures are just sitting on the beach. There are thought to be two roundhouses. We believe they are Iron Age, making them 2,000 years old."

In May 2005, a hearth was visible in one of the houses, but by September that year it had been washed away. Two months later, strong winds helped to expose the top of a roundhouse wall, but by February 2006, wind and waves had caused it partly to collapse.

Last June, the team reported tidal action was scouring the soft, sandy deposits around the sides of the wall, removing a large section of archaeological deposits.

Mr Dawson said: "About five metres of the site has been lost in the past two years, but we think there is a roundhouse underneath the shingle and cobbles on the beach. The walls are surviving to over one metre in height.

"This is an urgent excavation - I don't expect that site to last another winter. We want to rescue whatever information we can."

The team hopes to find evidence of how people lived in the Iron Age, what they ate and what they discarded. Pieces of pottery and tools and implements carved from whalebone have previously been found on the beach and it is hoped more can be unearthed on the site. It may even produce human remains, as skeletons were found on a similar site nearby.

The North Uist site is one of hundreds on the Scottish coast threatened by weather and climate change. SCAPE has surveyed about 30 per cent of the coastline, discovering more than 11,000 archaeological sites, with about 3,000 requiring further examination.

Mr Dawson said: "All around Scotland, similar sites are being lost. Erosion has always happened, but it is said climate change will leave Scotland one of the places worst affected by storms. In some ways it is frustrating, but it is an opportunity to work on sites which otherwise are protected.

"Laws mean you cannot always work on sites as well preserved as [Baile Sear] if they are inland. However, because it is threatened by erosion, it means we have the chance to get out there and find out about our past."


THE communities who lived on Uist 2000 years ago are believed to have developed sophisticated agricultural and farming practices, including crop rotation. Daily life revolved around maintaining crops and livestock.

They clothed themselves in sheep's wool, and grew potatoes, barley, oats and corn. Iron Age house design suggests food was cooked in a separate "kitchen" area, and its heat was channelled, using the shape of the house, to heat the dwelling.

The Uist tribes are known to have engaged in ritual slaughter of animals, and at one site four quarters of the body of a 12-year-old boy were discovered in four separate burial chambers.

Back to the top of the page