Smerquoy – Early Neolithic Settlement Finds

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Ali’s Hoose showing the scoop hearth as a darker patch.

Talking with archaeologist Chris Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the significance of the excavation at Smerquoy on the mainland of Orkney easily becomes apparent.

The structures at Smerquoy were built before the well known structures at the Ness of Brodgar, which in itself is impressive, but Chris, together with his team from the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire, are progressing towards establishing whether all the houses visible in the geophysics were contemporary with each other or built over time with some buildings being abandoned as others were built.

In archaeological terms they are working towards establishing a sequence of construction. However if it is the case that all these structures were contemporary then this settlement would have been very impressive indeed for any person arriving in the Bay of Firth or approaching along the small coastal plain….which is now followed by the main road from Finstown to Kirkwall. Also keep in mind that this settlement was brought into being when the first farmers were carving out a presence in Orkney. Sometimes it is easy to forget this fact when considering the finds and the structures present here.

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Looking out across The Bay of Firth from the site on rather a cloudy day!

Rubble and redeposited glacial till has largely been removed now from the south end of Ali’s Hoose – the end which was terraced into the hillside – to reveal, in some places, two courses of the inside wall face, the rest having been robbed out prior to infilling.

It appears that the thick glacial till was placed directly upon occupation floor deposits making it relatively simple to excavate.The slots for opposing upright stones, which would have divided the interior of the house in half, are visible in the floor, as well as a scoop hearth set within the south half.

So far there is no evidence of a stone-set hearth, like that encountered in the Smerquoy Hoose of 2013. It had an earlier scoop hearth, which had been packed over with clay when the stone-set hearth was added. Does this imply that Ali’s Hoose went out of use at an earlier phase than the Smerquoy Hoose? We will hopefully find out as the investigation proceeds.

IMG_5982An increasing number of finds are being discovered which begin to paint a picture of life in early Neolithic Orkney. A rather large, water-worn, egg-shaped stone was found partly pressed into the floor, up against the wall within the south end of Ali’s Hoose today. We should be able to examine it further once it has been lifted.

Other finds included several more shards of round-based early Neolithic pottery, including a second shard with Unstan Ware style decoration. A large stone dish was also unearthed and is the fourth to be found at Smerquoy. Furthermore several Knap o’ Howar borers have also been found at the site. IMG_5972The end scratches present of these tools look as if they have been used in a circular motion. The smaller borer has a shoulder which shows that it was used to create a deeper hole than the others recovered.

What they were used to bore, however, remains a mystery for now.


For more information on the Smerquoy site, click through to Orkneyjar.com

Thanks as ever to Sigurd Towrie.