Sunday, August 8, 2010 - 20:30

The main threat to archaeological sites might seem to be modern development, but in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, it's nature that's threatening to destroy thousands of years of history.

These ancient sites have often been revealed by the effects of the wind and rain, but now the severe weather and rising sea levels are literally washing them away.

One expert describes it as the worst case of coastal erosion he's ever seen and says the government is spending too little to save the islands' history.

Video journalist Nick Lazaredes travels round Orkney and asks what can realistically be done to save them for future generations.

WATCH - Click to see Nick's report.

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Now something seriously different from Scotland - not a place any of us visit with monotonous regularity. Apparently, if you walk just about anywhere on the Orkney Islands they're awash with thousand-year-old ruins and you're quite likely to trip over prehistoric monuments and even ancient human remains. But it seems that threatened by rising sea levels and coastal erosion, bit by bit, the land is disappearing, and with it, Orkney's heritage. Here's Nick Lazaredes.

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

The remote Scottish islands of Orkney - one of Europe's historic wonders. Along the shores and bays of this rugged coastline, remarkable evidence has emerged of human habitation stretching back 8,500 years.

JULIE GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST: So we've got more long bone and little bits of rib and oh, here we are - a little bit of jaw. Coming out there - some child, you see - a child's burial.

The Orkney Islands' coastal dunes and cliffs are seeping with the bones of its long-dead inhabitants.

JULIE GIBSON: We've got a little bit more here - a little bit of long bone coming out, a little bit of rib coming out in that one. As they erode, they erode in little bits, and you'll get a bit of shoulder, a bit of arm this year, and then next year, you might get the head.

On Orkney's main island, county archaeologist Julie Gibson shows me the latest ancient site uncovered by the wind and the waves. A graveyard last used by the Vikings and countless generations of Orcadians before them.

JULIE GIBSON: It is actually quite rare to get really good preservation like this.

Fierce North Sea storms are responsible for uncovering the Islands' ancient treasures, including Skara Brae, regarded as one of the best-preserved Neolithic villages in the world. Though excavation started in 1860, it wasn't until the 1920s that the extent of the site was discovered by renowned Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe.

Professor Childe's meticulous archaeological groundwork here - before his death in 1957 - was an inspiration for scores of others who followed him, eventually leading to these windswept fields being declared a World Heritage site. Alice Lyall is the historic coordinator of this remarkably intact village.

ALICE LYALL, HISTORIC COORDINATOR: Here we have these stone-built structures that we can see and think - well someone sat there. Someone slept in that box bed and I think that's quite exciting. I think that it tells us something about ourselves in a sense, I suppose. It seems they were living a relatively good life. They weren't clinging to existence. They had time and energy to spare for a spiritual life, or a ritual life, or however you want to describe it.

Less than 20 minutes flying time from the main island is the island of Westray, another archaeological treasure trove. Almost two-thirds of its coastline faces the Atlantic, bearing the brunt of its ferocious weather. The relentless erosion continues to unearth significant relics like this 5,000-year-old clay figurine, found just last year and thought to be the earliest Scottish depiction of the human form.

Well, coastal erosion has been a boon for archaeologists, it's also proven to be a curse and here on the Island of Westray, some of the best examples of Neolithic settlements are literally being washed away.

GRAEME WILSON: We've got the Neolithic settlements behind us and then over there, there's some Bronze Age houses in the middle distance. You can just walk around and pick up stuff on the surface. There are lots of things like this - they don't look like very much but it's the remains of a little scaled knife.

Amidst the fast-shifting sand dunes on Westray's exposed western coast, Graeme Wilson and his team are engaged in what the Edinburgh prehistorian describes as a classic archaeological rescue.

GRAEME WILSON: I think it just got to the stage where something had to be done about it because you can't just have Neolithic and Bronze Age houses and settlements being washed away by the wind and the rain. So we've got to do something about it before it's destroyed - before it's too late.

Graeme's team is racing to uncover thousands of years of history before it is lost.

GRAEME WILSON: In this part of the site we're actually digging a Neolithic house.

Erosion and rising sea levels were threatening to destroy this site as quickly it was uncovered so two years ago, a frantic effort was mounted to uncover and remove the most significant artefacts.

GRAEME WILSON: It is a race against time here - and we can see the site change year on year, even month by month - this is something, that if we don't do this, then it will go.

Graeme says the forces of erosion at play in Westray are the most powerful that he has ever encountered.

GRAEME WILSON: Physically, the landscape here is dropping. The dune system that we're sitting in, is actually being deflated. It's dropping by up to 6 metres, and you can see that. Every year when we come back, we see new things have appeared - other things have been destroyed and moved on, so it's fairly it must be the worst case of coastal erosion I've ever seen.

Saddened by the daily grind of this desperate dig against time Graeme Wilson says the Scottish Government should be spending more in the efforts to save Orkney's threatened heritage.

GRAEME WILSON: They have limited funds - they do what they can - but there's always more that could be done especially somewhere like Orkney. It's crazy, there's so much stuff falling into the sea - you could easily spend more on that. If you value your heritage, then you can't allow it to be destroyed.

JULIE GIBSON: This would be 12th-century work - this stuff right in the middle - these big round arches.

In Orkney's capital, Kirkwall, Julie Gibson shows me the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, founded by a Viking earl. She's also critical of the level of funding given to protect Scotland's most endangered historic sites.

JULIE GIBSON: Nearly the exact same budget comes to deal with these monuments in Scotland as did when Maggie Thatcher was in power, so it's not gone up by one penny.

ALICE LYALL: That sloping section of the sea wall is the original sea wall that was built in the twenties, and that is part of the site itself that you can see right there on the edge.

As the Orkney's coastal erosion worsens more experts have been drawn into the struggle to save its most precious ancient sites. Alice Lyall says even the famous Skara Brae is at risk from the forces of nature.

ALICE LYALL: This part you can see here where you've got this exposed piling - actually, that shouldn't be exposed, that is damage that we would hope to repair in the near future but you can see the sea is capable of a lot of damage here. We only know that the site's here in the first place because of a storm - so it can be positive as well as negative. Nature revealed the site, and we're going to work as hard as we can to preserve it.






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8th August 2010