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Wednesday 9 April 2014

First Modern Excavation on Skomer Seeks to Explore and Date Island’s Prehistoric Settlements

The Skomer Island Project team (L-R), Dr Oliver Davis (Cardiff University), Louise Barker (RCAHMW), Dr Bob Johnston (University of Sheffield), Dr Toby Driver (RCAHMW)
A collaborative research project between staff of the Royal Commission, The University of Sheffield and Cardiff University has just completed a third season of fieldwork and research on the renowned prehistoric landscape and national nature reserve of Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, west Wales. This included the historic, first modern excavation in the island’s history, exploring a mound of burnt stone alongside a prehistoric settlement, which produced flintwork, datable charcoal and the first fragments of prehistoric pottery from the island.

Skomer is a heavily protected landscape famous for its puffins and other breeding seabirds, but it is also home to some of the best preserved prehistoric field systems and hut settlements anywhere in Britain. In 2011 the Royal Commission used airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) to map comprehensively the island’s field systems. This work discovered evidence for a longer chronology to the fields than had previously been thought. The Skomer Island Project built on this work in 2012 with the first use of geophysics on the island, which showed that unrecorded prehistoric fields and settlements survive beneath the modern fields in the centre of the island.

Despite two major studies of the island’s archaeology in the twentieth century, no modern excavation had been attempted. In order to refine a chronology, the team set out in 2014 to undertake the first modern excavation to locate buried charcoal and other evidence suitable for radiocarbon dating and scientific analysis. It was decided to target one of the many substantial mounds of burnt stone in the north of the island, which are found alongside the prehistoric hut groups, thought to have built up from cooking activities. Although few finds were encountered in the mound itself, a sealed soil layer was uncovered a metre down, which yielded charcoal, flint tools and fragments of prehistoric pottery. Excavations were recorded using Structure from Motion, a technique which builds individual photographs into a 3D digital model of the land surface. The hard work of post-excavation now begins to analyse the discoveries and learn more about prehistoric life on Skomer.

Accurately recording prehistoric finds and charcoal samples in three dimensions using GPS.

The Skomer Island Project team would like to thank the Skomer Island Wardens, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and Natural Resources Wales for accommodating the archaeological work and granting permission to work in a Site of Special Scientific Interest. They are also grateful to Cadw for Scheduled Monument Consent, which allowed the work to proceed. The Royal Commission’s online records for the work can be found here.

By Toby Driver

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