Surprise at Smerquoy – an early Neolithic Village is Unearthed

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The excavations at Smerquoy have now been closed down for another year, but initial findings are beginning to change our view of early Neolithic settlement in Orkney.

Evidence from Smerquoy suggests that early farmers in Orkney were living in villages rather than isolated farmsteads.

Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester continues….

One of the most exciting aspects of archaeological excavations is more often than not quite unexpected things are brought to light. Of course, a site is selected for examination because it is considered to be a good candidate to answer certain questions, and it will be realised that this assumes a rough idea of what lies beneath the ground. However, until the topsoil is removed, in this case by expert JCB operator Ali Miller, it is never completely known what actually lies beneath the surface.

Over the last three years fieldwork at Smerquoy, with the kind permission of Mr Billy Sinclair, we felt that we had obtained a good idea of what the site was like. This in itself was very exciting, the archaeology was mainly of early Neolithic date, and within the excavated area a well preserved stone-built house (the Smerquoy Hoose) had been discovered. This lay on level ground at the bottom of the lower north-west slope of Wideford Hill. Above it, even before initial excavation we had noticed a number of large scoops running for some distance across the hillside. Over the last two years we have excavated one of these scoops only to find the remains of two more stone built early Neolithic houses laying 5-6 metres apart.

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The situation of Smerquoy early Neolithic village on a “driech” Orkney day

What makes this an exciting discovery is that we appear to be excavating within a substantial early Neolithic ‘village’ where houses are situated in a row next to one another along the side of the hill. Each house is terraced into the hill slope in order to provide a level internal floor surface. These are large houses, with floor areas of around 50 square metres subdivided into inner and outer rooms or compartments. The inner room had a large scoop fireplace, and with outer walls some 1.5m thick: these were large comfortable houses.

The discovery of an early Neolithic village at Smerquoy confirms the results obtained from the interesting sites of Ha’Breck, Wyre and Stonehall near Finstown. At both these sites several early Neolithic houses were discovered but whether they formed a ‘village’ – like that seen at the later Skara Brae – was debatable. Indeed, it was not such a long time ago that many archaeologists thought the first farmers dwelt in small isolated farmsteads, like that seen at Knap of Howar, Papay.

Smerquoy alters this picture completely. The imagery of a row of early Neolithic houses spread across the lower slopes of Wideford Hill is extraordinary and requires us to not only rethink the density of settlement at this time, but also enables a degree of understanding as to how the big later Neolithic settlements such as Barnhouse, Links of Noltland and Ness of Brodgar, came into being – they simply continued a pattern that dated back to the beginnings of farming in the Northern Isles. Furthermore, the presence of villages at such an early date makes the question of how Orkney was populated by the earliest farmers far more problematic, as we appear to be dealing with a substantial influx of people.

IMG_1813This year despite variable weather conditions in the county, the fourth and final season of excavation at Smerquoy has been underway since the beginning of the month.  The aim was simply to complete excavations in the two stone houses mentioned earlier. However, as is often the case a surprise was in store for us when Ali’s bucket scrapped across the walls of yet another stone structure. To cut a long story short, this building is clearly of Neolithic date, probably early Neolithic judging from the pottery, but of an architectural form previously unknown. It is smaller than the other three houses found at Smerquoy, measuring just 6m x 4m, and the floor is covered in bright red, thick ash deposits. We are not completely sure if it is even a dwelling! Hopefully, a few more sunny days will help us resolve this question.

Our time at Smerquoy has been thoroughly enjoyable and we cannot thank Billy Sinclair enough for his welcome, kindness and enthusiasm. All our best photographs have been obtained with the generous help of Billy’s neighbour John Brody and we extend our gratitude to him also.