Home Sites Palaeo-Reconstructions People Links Partners Contact Us




Rising Tides - Orkney





How We Work


The Past Environment of Orkney


Archaeological Implications




Bay of Firth


Holocene Sea-level Change in Orkney







The Rising Tide: an examination of Holocene relative sea-level changes and the impact on the prehistoric human population of Orkney


The archipelago of Orkney lies off the north coast of Scotland.  Areas of fieldwork to date have been highlighted in red.













The Rising Tide was set up in 2004 to research the early settlement, changing landscape and rising sea-levels of Orkney.

People first came to Orkney some 10,000 years ago, but there is little evidence of this for two reasons:

· Orkney 10,000 years ago was a very different place.  Lower sea-levels meant that the islands comprised a single landmass and many of the lands once settled by Orkney’s early inhabitants now lie underwater.

· these first settlers were nomads and little of their material culture has survived the millennia.

Orkney – a unique blend of land and sea

The project involves a multi-disciplinary approach using archaeological and palaeo-geographical techniques to re-construct past sea-level change and its effects on the early inhabitants of Orkney.



The archipelago of Orkney comprises a small group of low-lying fertile islands ten kilometres to the north of the mainland of Scotland.  It is well known for the remarkable preservation of its archaeology which includes the stone built houses, tombs and monuments such as Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Sites (Downes et al 2005).  There is another, less well known, side to Orkney archaeology, however, and that comprises the submerged landscape around the islands.  Work on Holocene sea-level change in Orkney indicates that relative sea-levels only reached their present position some 4000 years ago (Wickham-Jones & Dawson 2009).  This is substantially after the arrival of the first Mesolithic population of Orkney c.10,000 years ago, and nearly two millennia after the development of farming in the islands c.6000 years ago.  




Work elsewhere in north-west Europe has emphasised the potential of submerged prehistoric sites (eg: Fischer 2004; Momber 2004) and the possibility that archaeological material may have survived inundation in Orkney should be considered.  Flemming’s work on the conditions pertinent to site survival highlights the value of archipelago locations such as Orkney (Flemming 1983).  In Orkney, the considerable changes that have taken place in relative sea-level mean that our understanding of the archaeology of the islands can only be partial while it is based solely on the investigation of sites on land.  The quality of the upstanding stone buildings at the many Neolithic villages and other sites across Orkney (eg: Skara Brae, Knap of Howar, Links of Noltland) suggests that submerged sites, if they exist, might be substantial. Since 2005 the present project has combined the analysis of sediment cores, to provide information on Holocene sea-level change, with geophysical survey and diving, to investigate the possibility that archaeological sites and landscapes dating to the Neolithic and earlier could have survived inundation in submerged locations with a high preservation potential (Dawson & Wickham-Jones 2006; Wickham-Jones & Dawson 2008).  


Orkney Project Sites: