oRKNEY Neolithic settlement

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Knap of Howar on the island of Papa Westray, a remarkably well-preserved farmstead that, until the late 1990s, was the only known Early. Neolithic house in ...
ORKNEY Neolithic settlement

photos: All photos are copyright ORCA

Orkney’s first farmers


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July 2012 |

Early Neolithic settlement on Wyre

An entire Neolithic settlement, predating Skara Brae, has been found on the tiny Orkney island of Wyre. Replete with unusual features, it is set to rewrite the story of Orkney’s first farmers, as Daniel Lee and Antonia Thomas explain.


mall places are often overlooked. This is certainly true of the island of Wyre. Lying at the heart of the Orkney archipelago, it is one of Scotland’s smallest inhabited islands. Covering just c.2.5km by 1.5km, it has a population of only 19. Even the majority of Orcadians have never visited, and it tends to be missed off the usual tourist trail. Despite a wealth of Norse and post-Medieval history, almost nothing was known about Wyre’s more ancient past. This is in striking contrast to Wyre’s much larger neighbours: the Mainland and Rousay. Dubbed the ‘Egypt of the North’, Rousay has one of the densest concentrations of prehistoric sites in Europe. Meanwhile, Orkney’s largest island, the Mainland, is home to some of the archipelago’s most famous sites, among them  Left Storm clouds gather over the Early Neolithic hamlet of Ha’Breck.

Rousay Wyre Mainland left A map showing the Orkney archipelago. Only 20 of its approximately 70 islands are inhabited. The island of Wyre (inset) has a population of 19. The site of the ORCA excavations is marked in red.

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ORKNEY Neolithic settlement

above A sondage through the midden in Trench A revealed an area of well-laid flagstone paving underneath. Further investigation exposed a stretch of pathway (top). BELOW Maceheads recovered during the 2006 fieldwalking.

Skara Brae, arguably northern Europe’s bestpreserved Neolithic village. But has the focus of archaeological fieldwork simply biased the pattern of known sites? Could Wyre have anything equally ancient? We decided to investigate. In 2006, our Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) team undertook a walkover survey of the entire island. Immediately, we identified numerous sites, including kelp pits and animal enclosures, and we even found a previously unrecorded Bronze Age barrow. But then we came across the recently ploughed ‘Field 13’ in the Ha’Breck area – unlucky for some, but not for us!

Lucky Field 13 The field surface was littered with hundreds of individual finds, including pottery, coarse stone tools, flint,


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burnt bone, and pumice. Some fieldwalkers were even fortunate enough to find a polished stone axe or macehead. The finds were certainly prehistoric, and appeared to be Neolithic. We decided to follow up with a geophysical survey across the densest part of the artefact scatter (an area measuring c.100m by 50m). The results showed several strongly defined anomalies, which we suspected signified ancient buildings. Could this be another Skara Brae? In 2007 we excavated a series of evaluation trenches across these anomalies to find out. We placed our first trench (Trench A) over one of the strongest geophysical anomalies, which was also where we found the densest concentration of surface finds. This trench revealed a rich black midden (or waste dump) full of flint tools, Early Neolithic round-based pottery, and Skaill knives – flaked beach cobbles used as butchery tools. A hazelnut shell from this midden level provided an Early Neolithic radiocarbon date of 3300-3100 BC. In the final few days of excavation we found a line of large, well-laid flagstones, which appeared to form a pathway. Digging on, we found they led into a beautifully constructed stone entrance, complete with a threshold stone. It was the doorway to a Neolithic house. Incredibly, despite extensive stone-robbing in prehistory and modern deep ploughing, two or three courses of stonework survived in parts of this house (called ‘House 3’ on the plan). The Neolithic builders had cleared the ground of topsoil down to the glacial till. They then cut the outline of a building into this natural clay, laying the foundation for a rectangular stone-built structure with rounded internal corners, and measuring approximately 8m by 4m (internally). Large central upright stone slabs, known as orthostats, project from a slight pinch in the side walls, dividing the house into two. This is a classic Early Neolithic style, reminiscent of the Knap of Howar on the island of Papa Westray, a remarkably well-preserved farmstead that, until the late 1990s, was the only known Early Neolithic house in Orkney (see box, p. 16). So, far from finding a ‘new’ Skara Brae, we had discovered something older. Constructed during the 4th millennium BC, it predated Skara Brae by several centuries, and was thus home to some of Orkney’s first farmers. Continued excavation of the house revealed further orthostats creating a bay in the northern July 2012 |

half, plus stone ‘furniture’ in the southern half. An axial post-hole in the centre of each of the two parts of the house suggests that the roof was supported by a central ridge pole that formed a frame, which sloped down to the stone wall heads. If Knap of Howar is anything to go by, these walls could have been 1.5-2m high. The northern post-hole had been reworked at least three times, suggesting that the building was maintained for a considerable length of time. In the last phase, an elaborate square stone-lined box was used to foot the post. This was left to rot in situ, revealing it was 20cm in diameter – not large timber in comparison to the rest of the UK, but a sizeable tree for Orkney, and certainly enough to have supported a thatched roof.

A Neolithic granary? Working on, we soon discovered that House 3 was not any old farmstead. The first (and earliest) phase of use in its northern part was particularly interesting: spread across the floor were several thick layers of charred material, 70mm deep in places, comprising tens of thousands of barley grains. We had found one of the largest assemblages of Neolithic cereal in Scotland (currently under analysis by Rosie Bishop as part of her doctoral research at the University of Durham). The intensity of grain-production evidence in the house is so unusual it leads us to suspect that the building may have had a more agricultural function – a granary perhaps? Whatever the case, there was something else unusual about this house: mixed into the burnt grain layers were several sizable chunks of wood charcoal, suggesting that a large fire had ripped through the building. The heat was intense enough to redden the underlying glacial till 

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above Simplified trench and house plans for the Neolithic features excavated at Ha’Breck. House 1 and 2 are visible in trench C (top left), while Houses 3, 4 and 5 lie abutting or side by side in trench A (bottom). BELOW House 3 under excavation, with House 5 beyond. Constructed in classic Early Neolithic style, the stone walls survive two or three courses high. An area of intense burning that contained large quantities of charred barley grains is visible in the portion of House 3 closest to the camera. A quern rubber and small polished axe (inset) were deposited within the house during clean-up operations after the fire.

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ORKNEY Neolithic settlement

within the central northern part of the house. Yet both the huge quantities of grain and the fire seem to have been confined to the northern half of the building, while the southern portion – with its series of shallow pits and scoops cut into the floor – was largely unaffected, and continued to be used after the fire. Dramatic as the conflagration must have been, it did not mark the end of the life of the building. Neither was the structure cleaned out. Rather, the charred grain was pushed to the sides of the room, spilling into open pits and gullies, while the scoop hearth was sealed with a large flagstone slab. A quern rubber was placed on top of this charred grain layer, and the area affected by the fire was covered with a thick layer of mixed clay. Thus all evidence of the charred remains was hidden, while the quern was left visible above the new floor surface. The occupants then placed a small polished stone axe (one of the 15 recovered so far from the site) next to the quern and built up further levelling layers and floor deposits. In the northern end of the building, this sequence amounted to over 400mm of in situ occupation layers. We found several further quern fragments elsewhere across the site, often broken and deliberately placed within closing deposits. Why this ‘strange’ activity? All the evidence, from the vast quantities of grain involved to the actions of the farmers in the aftermath, makes us suspect that the fire was started intentionally. It was probably a ritual act, rather than the result of a series of accidents. Indeed, some

above Excavating one of the many small pits cut into the floor of House 3. RIGHT Thirteen of the 15 stone axeheads found at the site.

Early Neolithic houses in Ireland also appear to have been deliberately burnt down, suggesting buildings had a life-cycle of their own, perhaps linked to those of their owners. Or perhaps something else was going on – a religious or social act reflecting the importance of grain in the lives of these early farmers?

From the Knap of Howar to Skara Brae There is no clear ‘start date’ for Orkney’s Neolithic, but evidence for farming, settlement architecture, and round-based ceramics appears in the archaeological record during the early to mid 4th millennium. Until recently, only one Early Neolithic dwelling was known: the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, dated to the middle to second half of the 4th millennium (right). This remarkably preserved farmstead consists of two adjacent rectangular stone houses with walls surviving up to 2m in height, and internal pits, hearths, and even built-in cupboards. The houses on Wyre have been dated to 3300-3000 BC, or the Early Neolithic. And over the past 15 years, several other Early Neolithic buildings have been discovered July 2012 |


A settlement emerges The ‘granary’ did not stand alone. We discovered another stone-built structure adjoining its southern wall. Labelled House 5, it consists of two rooms: one large and one small (with internal dimensions of 4.8m by 3.2m and 2.2m by 1.32m). The larger room has an internal opening connecting it with House 3, as well as an external entrance in its eastern wall. At the southern end of the main room, a narrow opening, set between two stone-built piers, leads into the smaller cell, giving the impression of a more ‘private’ space. A rectangular stone-lined hearth lay at the heart of the main room. Curiously, the hearth’s basal slab overlay a stone-lined drain that runs downslope before disgorging through an opening in the wall of the south cell. But why would a drain begin under a hearth? We can find no logical explanation. As for the connection between it and the neighbouring ‘granary’, although House 5 is

stratigraphically later, the two buildings appear to have overlapped for a time. The outer (eastern) wall of the ‘granary’ was given an additional ‘skin’ when House 5 was constructed. Moreover, though we have not yet obtained any radiocarbon dates for House 5, the finds all indicate a broadly similar date to the ‘granary’. Both houses were robbed out in prehistory. The entrance of the ‘granary’ was sealed with redeposited natural clay before large amounts of black midden were brought in and deposited over the paving to the east of the house to form a levelling layer. To our surprise, when we excavated those midden deposits, we found the remains of a further house. Unlike the isolated Knap of Howar farmstead, we were on our way to discovering a whole settlement. But this house (number 4 on the plan) proved different to its neighbours: instead of stone walls, we exposed 14 post-holes – it was a timber building. 

above House 5 under excavation in 2011. When the basal slab of the hearth was lifted (left) a drain was found underneath.

at a handful of sites (see map p. 13), namely Stonehall in Firth, Wideford in St Ola (the only other early site with timber buildings), and the single house (surprisingly in the middle of the Bronze Age barrow cemetery) at the Knowes of Trotty, Harray. It also seems likely that the buildings currently being excavated at Green on Eday, and the structural remains found under a chambered tomb at Howe near Stromness (found in the early 1980s), are contemporary. This paucity of Early Neolithic domestic architecture is in stark contrast to the large number of surviving tombs. These burial monuments are known as stalled tombs, because they generally consist of compartments formed by large upright slabs (orthostats) in stalls, mirroring the architecture of Early Neolithic houses. The transition between the Early and Later Neolithic in Orkney is generally taken to have occurred around 3000 BC, and is characterised by a whole suite of changes. Later Neolithic tombs are not divided by stalled compartments, but instead have chambers leading to cells, again mirroring the layout and form of contemporary houses, such as those seen at Skara Brae, which was occupied for several hundred years from around 3000 BC (left). These houses seem to have been clustered in nucleated villages, and were home to farmers who made elaborately decorated flat-based pottery known as Grooved ware (although this simple distinction between the Early and Later Neolithic is now being challenged due to radiocarbon-dating programmes). This later Neolithic is the era that Orkney is justly renowned for, the time of the great monuments of the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, and the Stones of Stenness, which, since 1999, have formed part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. The transition to the Early Bronze Age in Orkney occurs around 2000 BC. | Issue 268

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The plot thickens

above Houses 1 and 2 at the end of the 2009 excavation. When House 2 was built over the earlier structure the new hearth was off-set from its predecessor (inset).

Wyre’s rich heritage Though off the beaten tourist trail, Wyre occupies a central position in the Orkney archipelago, and has a rich history. Of note is the 11th-century castle of Cubbie Roo (above), the oldest stone-built castle in Scotland and once the home of Kolbein Hruga, a renowned character in the Orkneyinga Saga. The Romanesque ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, tucked into the green folded valley below the castle, were built by Kolbein Hruga’s son Bjarni, the first Bishop of Orkney. In the 20th century, Wyre was home to the poet Edwin Muir. Yet despite its wealth of historical sites, almost nothing was known of its prehistory. Some ancient sites had been recorded, including the enigmatic enclosures at Skirmie Clett and two burnt mounds, all thought to date to the Bronze Age. Prior to the project described in these pages, nothing earlier had been recorded.


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A wooden house is a remarkable discovery for the Neolithic of Orkney. This period is always assumed to have been dominated by stone architecture. Indeed, conventional wisdom had it that the islands became treeless during the Neolithic, resulting in a lack of timber post-built structures. Our timber house is therefore of great importance to Orcadian archaeology. Excavations revealed that it was rectangular, measuring 5.8m by 3.8m, and arranged around a central scoop hearth. The post-holes at the corners are markedly larger than the others, suggesting they supported the structural frame. A line of smaller post-holes project into the interior of the house, neatly mirroring the central orthostats in the stone-built ‘granary’. Sealed under the midden deposits, House 4 must pre-date the neighbouring stone houses (3 and 5). A charred hawthorn nut confirmed this, returning a radiocarbon date from the last centuries of the 4th millennium BC. The shallowness of the hearth deposits and the absence of any repair to the post-holes suggest that this structure was only short-lived. The reasons for abandoning the timber house after so short a time remain unclear. Perhaps it was only briefly in use while the settlers built their stone house? Another rectangular, post-built structure was found just a few metres north of Houses 3, 4, and 5. Labelled House 1, it has also been radiocarbon dated to the late 4th millennium and appears to have been equally short-lived. When it was dismantled, a stone-built rectangular house (House 2) was constructed on the same footprint. The hearth of the earlier timber house was not reused, and instead a new stone-built hearth was set slightly off-centre in the new building. These two rectangular wooden dwellings greatly illuminate our understanding of Orkney’s Neolithic. While prehistoric timber buildings are widespread in the rest of the UK, and stone domestic buildings almost unheard of, in Orkney the situation appeared to be reversed. Only one other site in Orkney, at Wideford, excavated by Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester, has produced evidence for wooden buildings in the Neolithic. Now, our finds are challenging the notion that Orkney became treeless at this time, dovetailing with recent palaeo-environmental studies, specifically pollen analysis by Michelle Farrell (University of Hull) that indicates woodland survived well into July 2012 |

the Later Neolithic in Orkney, with some pockets enduring into the Bronze Age. The presence of both timber and stone houses also demonstrates the ingenuity of these late 4th millennium farmers, who drew on a wide repertoire of architecture and material culture.

tool-making area. Among the finds were hammer stones, flint tools, and debitage, plus plain round-based pottery – including from a vessel with an unusual perforation in the side – and decorated Unstan ware collar sherds.

Beyond the houses

A Neolithic quarry We had assumed that the stone for the houses had been quarried from the beach, just a few hundred metres away, as the shore at Ha’Breck was a renowned source of building stone right up to the end of the 20th century. But in 2010 another geophysical anomaly led to the true source of the stone. Expecting another midden area, to our surprise, excavation revealed the edge of a substantial rock-cut feature with a near vertical edge. Two metres deep, with stepped sides and a bedrock base, it was a Neolithic quarry. Quarries are notoriously difficult to date, often continuing in use for hundreds, or thousands, of years. Luckily for us, one of the earliest fills contained birch charcoal which has been radiocarbon dated to the mid 4th millennium BC. A hammer stone, a flint blade, and a dump of reddeer bone also lay in these lower fills. This suggests that the quarry was opened even before the Wyre farmers were building the nearby houses. The upper bedrock is weathered, indicating that during the Neolithic this was an exposed outcrop of rock. The bedding planes have narrow gaps between them, just enough to get a wooden wedge in and prise the flags away from the rockface. Some of the upper layers – which contained Grooved ware pottery and flaked stone tools – have been dated to the end of the 3rd millennium BC or the very end of the Orcadian Neolithic, meaning that the quarry was gradually backfilled over a period of some 1,500 years. Yet another component of Early Neolithic daily life was discovered few metres away from the quarry: a rammed-stone floor containing stone tools and burnt stones, interpreted as a | Issue 268

Top The stepped sides of the Neolithic quarry cut into an outcrop of rock, with (above) pottery found within it.

Although we have built up a rich picture of life on the island, one big question remains unanswered: what about death on the island? There are no known Neolithic funerary sites on Wyre. This upends the usual Early Neolithic Orcadian situation, where many tombs are known, but few houses (see box, p. 16). Indeed, there are around 15 prehistoric tombs on Wyre’s nearest neighbour, the island of Rousay. Could it be that part of the funeral journey for the Ha’Breck farmers involved crossing to one of the great tombs just over the water? The argument is compelling. Despite this mystery, our excavations at the Braes of Ha’Breck are creating a new, more holistic picture of daily life for some of Orkney’s earliest farmers. The various Early Neolithic houses found on the site (all of which date to 3300-3000 BC), the ‘granary’, and the quarry, all render Ha’Breck unique. This was a vibrant Early Neolithic hamlet with activity far beyond the confines of the domestic houses. We are confident that other remains are waiting to be discovered: many more possible buildings speckle the geophysical plot. These are exciting times. Wyre is set to rewrite Orkney’s Neolithic. No longer a shall this tiny island be overlooked. C


Source Antonia Thomas and Daniel Lee, ORCA. Feature edited by Dr Nadia Durrani (nadia@ nadiadurrani.com).

Excavations at the Braes of Ha’Breck are directed by Antonia Thomas and Daniel Lee of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), and supported by Orkney Islands Council, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Orkney Archaeology Society, LEADER European Funding, Wyre Community Council, the Flaws family, Orkney Ferries, and Orkney College Archaeology Department. Thanks also to Rosie Bishop and Michelle Farrell. The illustrations for this article were produced by Antonia Thomas.

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