Quite by chance, an Iron Age underground building and a Victorian rubbish-heap has been discovered in Orkney.
An exciting discovery was made in Orkney at the weekend. A previously unknown subterranean structure, either a souterrain or a ‘well’, and probably dating to the Iron Age, was unearthed near the manse of Harray in West Mainland, Orkney. Martin Carruthers writes, “I had the opportunity to inspect the subterranean structure along-side Orkney’s county archaeologist Julie Gibson, and marvel at the beautifully accomplished stonework and architecture. The site was discovered by the landowner Clive Chaddock, who, happily, also happens to be a colleague at Orkney College UHI!
Peering inside the entirely roofed, pristine structure we could see that, although this site was hitherto unknown to officialdom, it has been discovered previously, in the Victorian period, as the whole of the interior is covered in 19th Century rubbish, iron kettles, pots, glass bottles, marmalade jars and imported French mustard jars!
The structure itself, consists of a short, low ceilinged, entrance passage that opens out into a larger partially corbelled chamber, which is square-shaped in plan. It looks very similar to the underground chamber at East Broch of Burray, and, indeed, quite similar to the ‘well’ chamber found under the nearby broch at manse of Harray in the 19th Century.
The chamber appears to be entirely constructed from coursed masonry with no bed-rock or glacial till apparent as some Iron Age souterrains and wells do. There are no uprights or pillars present inside the chamber, which makes this structure feel like one of the so-called wells more than a classic souterrain or earthhouse. The steep drop-off between the passage and the chamber also encourages the idea that there may well be a steep flight of stairs leading down into the chamber. The chamber might be really quite deep underneath all the Victorian, and perhaps earlier, in-fill.
As you can see from the images there’s so much Victorian material it probably represents quite an academically interesting collection in its own right. We might be tempted to think that later periods are so well-understood and documented that it isn’t worth thinking about this detritus archaeologically, but actually its often the case that the domestic habits of later periods are often overlooked in many mainstream histories and documents. The Victorian rubbish is potentially a neat snap-shot of someone’s (perhaps one of the Manse’s Ministers) domestic waste of that era and may be full of insight about the habits, tastes and practices of a Nineteenth Century Orkney house- with a real social history value. What’s more, it’s also an interesting insight into a recent intervention in an Orcadian souterrain/well that we had no previous knowledge of. So it’s also noteworthy that here we have an example of another prehistoric underground building that was clearly known to locals, for a time, but didn’t make its way on to the official archives, and helps make the point that there are likely to be so many more of these sorts of structures still to be found in Orkney. We’ll keep you updated in what happens at the site.”