Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters celebrates every aspect of our beautiful shores and waterways with a programme of activity designed to inspire both visitors and locals to explore and experience everything that makes them special.
This month we spoke to Robert MacKintosh, a marine archaeologist working for Wessex Archaeology’s Coastal & Marine team based in Scotland. He is a trained SCUBA diver and is working on providing underwater archaeology services to Historic Environment Scotland.
What sparked off your interest in underwater archaeology?
I’ve always had an interest in archaeology and history, although I originally studied law. Fortunately, looking back on it, I graduated during the financial crisis in 2008, which made finding a job difficult and made me decide to continue studying. Archaeology was the subject that appealed the most. It was a bit of a revelation when I discovered that maritime archaeology existed, something that hadn’t occurred to me before, as this seemed even more interesting and a field in which my SCUBA diving experience might help me get a job.
Can you tell us about your job and what it involves?
I work for Wessex Archaeology, an educational charity that funds its charitable aims through the provision of archaeological services. As part of the Coastal and Marine team I work on a wide range of projects, from offshore development projects like windfarms and sub-sea cables, to wreck research and monitoring for clients like Historic Environment Scotland and Historic England. This involves some diving and other types of fieldworkand of course time spent in the office.
What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?
The most interesting projects to work on are usually provided by Historic Environment Scotland. We provide them with sub-sea archaeological services and this involves monitoring the wrecks that are protected as Historic Marine Protected Areas, and researching wrecks that they are considering protecting. This means you get to research and dive on the oldest and most interesting wrecks in Scotland, like the early 17th century merchant vessel at Kinlochbervie, and the 17th/18th century Dutch wreck at Drumbeg.
Can you tell us about some of the finds you or your teams have uncovered around Scotland’s coasts and waters?
This summer we surveyed the submerged remains of a bridge in the River Teviot near Ancrum, that was discovered by the local Ancrum and District Heritage Society. The remains were in the river under the span of an extant 18th century bridge. This was slightly different to our normal work, being in a river, so the conditions made it quite difficult. We managed to record the remains, and sampled them for dendrochronological (tree-ring) and radiocarbon dating. They turned out to be from a bridge which was built in the middle of the 14th century, making it the oldest scientifically dated in-situ bridge remains in Scotland, about a century older than any bridge still standing in Scotland. It also let us study a method of medieval bridge construction that we previously only knew about from historical sources which, for an archaeologist, is incredibly exciting.
You’re exploring the past, but what part does technology play in your work?
Technology is essential to our work. For the offshore development work, and also for wreck investigations, geophysical surveys play a vital role. We have a team of marine geophysicists that work specifically on this sort of thing. We of course rely on technology for our sub-sea work too, including the latest diving and camera equipment. We also have a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which lets us investigate sites which divers can’t visit for various reasons. Photogrammetry - making 3D models from photographs - is something that has transformed maritime archaeology in the last 10 years or so, as we use it to produce very accurate site plans and models of artefacts, but the photos needed for it can be captured in a single dive.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love travelling around Scotland for work to places that I’d never have visited otherwise. A few years ago we were surveying a flooded slate mine on the now uninhabited island of Belnahua, so we stayed on Easdale, home of the World Stone Skimming Championships, and hired a landing craft to get us to Belnahua each day. Belnahua is incredible, and is an island not many people get to see.
What impact has COVID-19 had on your work?
COVID-19 has had a considerable impact on our work, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year furloughed. Our offshore development work has continued almost unchanged, but everything else really slowed down. This was partly due to things like archives closing, but also because fieldwork, especially diving, got much more difficult to do safely. We have managed to do a couple of fieldwork projects that didn’t involve diving, which could be done with two socially distanced people, including the Ancrum Bridge survey which turned out to be very successful.
Do you have a favourite place or memory connected to Scotland's coast or waters?
A few years ago, travelling by boat between Eigg and Canna as the sun was setting, I was lucky enough to see a Minke whale. The scenery around there is incredible anyway, and it was at that special moment in the evening where the light was making the mountains of Rùm and Skye red and purple. That was something I’ll never forget.
Find out more about the work of Wessex Archaeology: www.wessexarch.co.uk