Jim Dwyer, a New York Times reporter, and Josh Haner, a Times photographer, traveled to a Scottish archipelago in the North Atlantic to see how people are trying to save thousands of ancient structures.
Off the north coast of Scotland, Orkney’s soft green landscapes hold a trove of things from everyday life before history was written.
More than 3,000 archaeological sites — among them standing stone circles, Norse halls and a Neolithic tomb graffitied by Vikings — have endured for millenniums, scattered across the roughly 70 islands that make up the Orkney archipelago.
By Sarah Almukhtar | Source: Historic Environment Scotland Canmore. Note: Archaeological sites date from prehistoric times through the 20th century.
At Skara Brae, one of Europe’s best-preserved Stone Age villages, kitchens built around 3180 B.C. are fitted with hearths and cupboards, bedsteads and doors that could be bolted shut.
Today, in forays to remote spits of land, people are working to save some of these places for posterity from the climate changes accelerated by human activity.
About half of Orkney’s 3,000 sites, many built before Stonehenge or the pyramids, are under threat from those changes, according to the county archeologist. Some are already being washed away.
Tresness, a Neolithic chambered tomb on Sanday Island.
Since 1970, Orkney beaches have eroded twice as fast as in the previous century. Others that had been stable are now shrinking. Rains, falling heavier and more often, are dissolving the crusts of soil and sand packs that protect remnants of civilizations.
Their work is urgent. Orkney’s stories are recorded in disappearing ink.
“Heritage is falling into the sea,” said Prof. Jane Downes, director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands. “It’s a very dramatic and obvious sign of sea level rise and increased storminess.”
From around the world, troops of archaeologists and students descend in the summers to dig, sift and catalogue imperiled places. There are scrambles for funds. “We’re focused on coastal sites because they’re going to be gone,” Professor Downes said.
At many spots, the only plausible kind of preservation is documentation — done swiftly.