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Wednesday, 19 September 2012

New Discoveries Reveal the Hidden Archaeology of Skokholm Island, Pembrokeshire

Skokholm Island from the southwest.
Crown Copyright RCAHMW: AP_2011_4456.

Skokholm is a small island half a mile across located off the south western coast of Pembrokeshire, about two miles south of its larger island neighbour Skomer. Using innovative new survey techniques a small team from the Royal Commission has been investigating how people lived and farmed these Pembrokeshire islands in the past – much of the focus has recently been on Skomer, – but now, the fascinating story of Skokholm is beginning to be revealed.

The island is of international importance for its colony of breeding seabirds, first highlighted by the naturalist Ronald Lockley in the 1920s. Lockley’s time on Skokholm provided the inspiration for his book “Dream Island” and in 1933 he established Britain’s first bird observatory. Today the island is managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales with whom the Royal Commission has been working. The present accommodation on the island is provided by converted farm buildings that date to at least the beginning of the nineteenth century, but Skokholm’s history goes much further back – at least 5000 years and maybe more!

In the early twentieth century archaeologists recorded flint scatters on the island – probably the waste from the production of flint blades and scrapers by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.  But now, guided by an extraordinary new LiDAR survey of Skokholm, which uses a laser mounted on an aircraft to create a highly detailed terrain model of the island’s ground surface, we’ve been able to reveal the fields and settlements of the Iron Age and Medieval inhabitants and begin to tell their story.

DSM generated LiDAR image of Skokholm (top) and interpretation (bottom).
Copyright Reserved, Environment Agency Geomatics Group; hillshade DSM view generated by RCAHMW.

For instance, in the southwest of the island, LiDAR has shown us the remains of enclosures and fields, some still containing evidence of hand-dug cultivation ridges, underlying the nineteenth century field pattern. Given their similarity to remains found on nearby Skomer, which are likely to be prehistoric, an Iron Age date for this phase of enclosure and cultivation is probable.  However, there is little complexity to their remains and the fields do not appear to have been sub-divided, which suggests that occupation may have been short lived or even seasonal.

The most exciting finds are earthworks discovered near to the nineteenth century farm buildings.  In particular, the LiDAR revealed two large rectangular platforms to the east of the nineteenth century farm.  These were completely unexpected and are likely to represent the remains of a medieval farmstead, long now forgotten and deserted.

Undoubtedly Skokholm still has many more hidden archaeological secrets waiting to be revealed.

Coflein, site details and online images: Skokholm Island.

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