Heavy rains jeopardize the preservation of hundreds of buried bones. Archaeologists are placing sandbags on the graves to reduce the damage caused by the rains.
Recent storms in the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland have revealed human bones from a 1500-year old Pict and Viking cemetery. To preserve the remains, volunteers from the University of Highlands and Islands piled sandbags and clay over the graves.
The cemetery was created in the 6th century by the native people of the region, the Picts, and was used for almost a thousand years until the area was conquered by the Vikings in the 15th century, and they continued to use the site to bury their dead. “We don’t know very well how this transition happened, whether it was an invasion or whether people lived together,” Peter Higgins, of the Orkney Islands Archeology Research Center, told Live Science.
According to the experts, the archaeological site was already known before the last storms: 50 years ago, 250 bones were removed from the area to be studied. However, archaeologists still do not know the extent of the cemetery and fear that heavy rain and the ocean will destroy the bodies that are there.
“Every time we have a storm with a bit of a south-easterly [wind], it really gets in there and actively erodes what is just soft sandstone,” said Higgins. “The local residents and the landowner have been quite concerned about what’s left of the cemetery being eroded by the sea.”
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As archaeologists have explained, rainfall can seriously damage human remains, making it difficult to study the material. In addition, a concern is the vulnerability of the remaining tombs to flooding, which can cause bones to move and cause them to be lost.
That is why, in an attempt to protect the archaeological site, the experts placed the sand and clay bags on top of the tombs. “We know that sandbags are not the answer to protect the site in the long term, but they do provide some protection,” wrote those responsible for the conservation of the cemetery in a statement. “As soon as the weather is safe again so we can replace the bags and protect the area, we will ask for help [from the population].”
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The team intends to continue studying the centuries-old bones, mainly because testing the genetic material of the corpses is essential for specialists to understand the origin of the inhabitants of that part of Scotland. “We are very confident that we will find that some local residents are related to people in the cemetery,” noted Higgins.