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A talk with Julie Gibson
Orkney Archaeologist

Julie Gibson Julie Gibson, 44 years old (but she looks much younger) is the Orkney Archaeologist and works for the Orkey Heritage Society. We met her in Rousay and hat a little chat about archaeology in Orkney.

First of all, we talked about coastal erosion. The sea is eroding said Julie more than a hundred sites of national and international importance. They are disappearing at various speeds because is so random how it hits. It could get great chunks of site going in a big storm. Particularly when the rocks are laminated and the sea comes in and drives the air in front of it and explodes rocks in chunks. One of our problems is that at the moment we don't have special resources to record nor even attend those sites to record the differences and the face of the shore from year to year.

Are there any particular sites threatened by coastal erosion?

We have two Neolithic chambered tombs in Sanday, burnt mound and barrows from the Bronze Age and brochs going because they are put on the shore edge. And of course as the islands get smaller their geometry changes. That means that more sites are on the edge anyway. But all the islands have eroding sites. The sea level is rising in Orkney and this is in contrast to the rest of Scotland. And the weather seems to getting more erraticly stormy and storms would cause the damage.

What about funds?

The British Government is not doing enough by any means. They are saying that they are doing their best but I think the coastal erosion problem in Orkney is the worst in Scotland and requires more attention more urgently than the Government bodies are getting into it. We have got an excavation this year which may or may not be continued into next year for an early church site on Papa Stronsay which is being eroded by the sea. And this is not seen as a major excavation, but as a rescue salvage.

Are there any problems with local farmers?

Some islanders have an attitude that archaeology is a nuisance and it's best to cover up very quickly and not to be spoken about. Other islanders just love archaeologists and they enjoy having them there.In Rousay for instance, a man knew there was an Iron Age souterrain on his land but he didn't know where it was. He wanted to plough the field and wanted to avoid that piece of ground. So he got all of our publications and we walked around trying to measure where the site should be, but people who originally dug it measured it from the shore. And we didn't know where the shoreline was at that time. We spent a lot of time, we even tried dowsing. We finally found the site's location and the farmer could plough his field. But some archaeologists don't appreciate the knowledge farmers have. When people have lived for generations on one piece of land they have quite memory and maybe they can tell you things that their grandfather found or things about the monuments. The best way to find out sometimes is simply to ask.

What about the impact of tourism on prehistoric sites? What do you think about visitors centres as the one at Skara Brae?

I think Skara Brae needed one, because there were lots of tourists coming there. When the weather is really bad, sometimes they really need to be indoor, especially elderly people. Skara Brae doesn't seem to be suffering the impact of so many visitors. This is in contrast to Maes Howe which any evidence says that the carvings are getting less clear.

To become a member of the local, lively Orkney Archaeological Trust and be personally involved in its efforts in maintaining Orkney rich archaeo heritage, you can send an e-mail message to Julie.


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