Off the north coast of Scotland, Orkney’s soft green landscapes holds a trove of things from everyday life before history was written.
More than 3,000 archaeological sites have endured for millenniums, scattered across the roughly 70 islands that make up the archipelago.
At Skara Brae, one of Europe’s best-preserved Stone Age villages, kitchens built around 3180 B.C. are fitted with hearths and cupboards.
Today, 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 archaeologist. Some are already being washed away.
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.
At many spots, the only plausible kind of preservation is documentation — done swiftly. From around the world, troops of archaeologists and students descend in the summers to dig, sift and catalog imperiled places. Their work is urgent. Orkney’s stories are recorded in disappearing ink.
“Heritage is falling into the sea,” said Professor Jane Downes, 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.”
In a short walk along the south shore of Rousay Island, a stunning arc of human activity comes into view. Nearly two kilometers covers 50 centuries: the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. The Picts, the Viking era, rule by the Norse, and Scottish landlords.
At the Knowe of Swandro, on Rousay, tribes built atop the homes of predecessors, creating layers of habitation back to Neolithic times. One discovery at Swandro this summer was a rock anvil used 1,500 years ago by a Pictish coppersmith.
At Skara Brae, public agencies are using lasers to map changes to the beach, where the Bay of Skaill laps closer.
A storm revealed parts of Skara Brae in 1850. To protect the site from the advancing bay, a sea wall was built in 1927. There had been no bay in the village’s heyday.
With students and archaeologists, Professor Downes has spent the last three summers at Cata Sand on Sanday, where she and colleagues had found an early Neolithic house. The beach there is expected to shrink over 20 meters by 2050.
“This site is so important in trying to understand the lives of past societies,” said Ross Drummond, a student at Highlands and Islands. “The archaeology will be washed away for good, and future generations will only have our records and findings to go on to understand the story of Cata.”
Ancient sites are under threat from climate change.