“Oh My Goodness…It’s a Neolithic Axe.”

The Late Neolithic axe found near Maeshowe

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute continued the 2017 field-walking season yesterday and were rewarded with the discovery of a Late Neolithic polished axe.

An intrepid band of volunteers, drawn from the local community, joined forces with several first-year archaeology students and archaeologist Chris Gee to commence their second day of field walking for the season.

Two fields were walked, located within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site Buffer Zone, near to Maeshowe Chambered Cairn.

The day was cold but fine and the field was heavy going – having recently been ploughed. More than one volunteer fell in the cloying mud, but they soldiered on, picking up finds, bagging and tagging them for GPS survey.

Discussion initially centred on a large stone situated in the middle of one of the fields. Was it a cist lid, a capstone or part of the natural geology? Chris Gee examined the stones and, following discussion with the volunteers, suggested that the stones were, in fact, part of the natural geology of the area.

The Neolithic axe found by Gill Tennant

A few hours passed and nothing of any significance turned up. And then a small shout went up and Chris was called across to the side of another field where Gill Tennant, one of the volunteers, was walking. She held up a small piece of stone to which Chris Gee calmly responded by saying, ” Oh my goodness. It’s a Neolithic axe!”

The axe itself is made from local fine grain sandstone and is broken in half, probably in the Neolithic, leaving just the end with the cutting edge. The surface has been polished to give a smooth surface, although this has now been weathered. Heavy steel ploughs have repeatedly turned this object resulting in the marks across its surface and recent chips. The surface also has a patina. The axe has obviously been in the top soil for some considerable time.

The axe is probably around 5,000 years old and the interest deepened as everyone realised that the object was from the same period as the nearby sites of Maeshowe and the Ness of Brodgar. It is a little exciting to think that the last person to have held this object, or even made it, could have been inside the buildings at the Ness of Brodgar, lived in the nearby landscape and maybe had relatives buried inside Maeshowe.

Kath Page
Looking across the site towards the Loch of Harray. Photograph: Kath Page

Thanks to Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS)  and Historic Environment Scotland (HES) for grant funding to undertake the field-walking.

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page