Human remains at ancient Pictish cemetery on Orkney exposed by storms

Human remains have been exposed at the site of a vast Pictish and Viking-era cemetery on Orkney after storms battered the islands.

Volunteers work to secure the cemetery site at Newark on the Orkney mainland after storms exposed human remains. PIC: ORCA.
Volunteers work to secure the cemetery site at Newark on the Orkney mainland after storms exposed human remains. PIC: ORCA.

Archaeologists are now in a race against time to fully excavate and preserve the site at Newark on Orkney mainland which is being protected in the short term by sandbags.

The site is particularly vulnerable to the impact of south easterly winds with the ground, which is formed of soft boulder clay, now prone to landslides as it holds on to high volumes of rainwater.

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    Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager at Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) 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.

    "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.”

    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 York University are now largely stored at the Natural History Museum in London, with some held at Orkney Museum at Kirkwall.

    In 2016 a Carved Pictish Type 2 stone was exposed and excavated by ORCA Archaeology.

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

    Human remains which have fallen onto the beach will be collected and moved for safe keeping although the bones exposed in the boulder clay will remain until a full excavation can get underway.

    By leaving them in place, archaeologists will get a far fuller picture of the cemetery and the burial rituals carried out there.

    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 walls of a chapel at the cemetery site also existed, but the walls have now been partly destroyed by the advancing sea.