Cata Sand Excavation Neolithic Sanday

Early Neolithic houses and 19th century whales at Sanday dig site

The excavation at Cata Sand on the Orkney island of Sanday has unearthed a few surprises in the last few days - including the discovery of Early Neolithic Houses and the skeletons of around twelve whales from the nineteenth century.
Early Neo Wall
Early Neolithic Wall.

The excavation at Cata Sand, in Sanday, has unearthed a few surprises in the last few days – including the discovery of Early Neolithic houses and the remains of whales from the 19th century.

The team from the UHI Archaeology Institute, the University of Central Lancashire, School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain and University of Cambridge, have concluded that the structural remains are those of an Early Neolithic house (c.3400-3100BC) with associated occupation deposits, hearth and stone walls.

The Neolithic structure is both interesting and unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which rests on rounded beach stones. At least two construction phases have now been recognised. The primary house has a stone-set hearth, internal pits and boxes, and remains of the lower courses of a double-faced, thick stone outer wall and small dividing stones, which partitioned the house into different living areas.

This phase of the structure is comparable with examples of dwellings at Stonehall, Mainland and Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Although excavations at Pool uncovered some early Neolithic structures in the 1980s, this is the first “classic” Early Neolithic house to be discovered in Sanday. It is also contemporary with a stalled burial cairn situated just along the coast at Tresness, which is also being examined by the team.

Early Neo Hearth
Early Neolithic hearth.

To the north-west, another rectangular setting of stones represents a second hearth that relates to an extension and reconstruction of the earlier house. This is remarkable and only seen at Ha’ Breck on the island of Wyre.

A range of finds associated with the Neolithic house including some fragments of pottery, Skaill knives, a grinding stone, flint working remains and animal bones have also been unearthed. More importantly, preservation is excellent and the floor deposits are a deep red-brown colour and are rich in organic remains.

Because of the sandy location, the bone preservation is good, which is quite rare in other early Neolithic Orcadian settlements. This high degree of preservation will allow us to obtain a unique level of information regarding daily life within the Early Neolithic house.

However, excavating this site has its challenges – not least that it is in the inter-tidal zone and is partly underwater twice a day!

Whale skeletons.

Perhaps the most unexpected discovery was two large pits containing the skeletal remains of at least 12 whales.

Several people have recounted a tradition of whales being caa’d (driven) ashore at Cata Sands. We wondered if this tradition could account for the whale remains. A very likely explanation was given by local Orcadians, who provided us with an account of a 19th century visit to Sanday published in 1875.

In it the author describes the scene where no less than 80 whales were driven ashore on the Sabbath, only to be butchered for their blubber. Blubber was a source of oil used in lamps.

Whale graves
Overview of the site showing the whale skeletons in situ

Another reference to whales being driven into Cata Sand in the 18th Century also exists. On that occasion there were hundreds. More research will clarify the origin of these skeletons.

The excavation team includes Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.


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