Fieldwalking in Orkney Update 2019

The community archaeologists are briefed by Chris Gee

The fields of Orkney are now ploughed and so that means the new fieldwalking season is upon us.

The call for volunteers went out and a band of intrepid community archaeologists are led out into the spring Orkney sunshine to search for artefacts thrown up by the plough.

Chris Gee, of the ORCA Archaeology team organising the programme, takes up the story……”Even though we are still early in the fieldwalking of the World Heritage Area this season the results are already very interesting, providing new information on recorded sites, revealing unknown ones, and as usual raising more questions.

A field which was marked with three “Tumuli” on the OS map was walked. Although “tumuli” would indicate burial mounds of some sort often the labels were applied with little evidence of what the site actually was. In this case the tumuli were visible in the field as very low mounds with a slightly darker reddish-brown soil than the surrounding. On the surface at the centre of one of the mounds we found a chunk of cramp. Cramp is one of the products of cremation, often placed carefully within the stone cist along with the cremated remains or sometimes within the makeup of the burial mound.

Flaked flagstone bars

On the mound alongside we found two flaked stone bars. These flattish flaked flagstone bars which were used in cultivating the land are often found within, and sometimes placed around the edge of Bronze Age barrows. Our flaked stone bars had smoothed areas which showed that they had been fairly extensively used before deposition. These stone tools were used to renew the land and bring it to life once more in an eternal cycle, maybe this is what was also expected of them in the context of human life and death.

We walked a new field in an area that we have covered in previous years which is just over the loch from the Standing Standing Stone circles and Barnhouse. In this field we found extensive spreads of cramp which indicates that there was much funerary activity here in the Bronze Age. The funerary cremation fires here would have been clearly visible for miles around and particularly from the large monuments over the Harray Loch.

Fieldwalking under an Orkney sky

Further to the two hitherto unknown Neolithic settlement sites that we found last year another one has turned up this year. In fact on the first traverse of the first field to be walked one of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute students picked up the butt end of a ground stone axe or chisel. It was obvious that there was something in the field as soon as we looked at it as there was a slight rise that looked a bit darker in colour (due to occupation ash and midden enhancing the soil). Fragments of burnt stone, flint chips and small scrapers, along with larger stone tools were recorded from the surface. Just as we were about to leave the field I picked up a fine flint chisel arrowhead and several pieces of grooved ware which had also been ploughed up.

Flint arrowhead

Taken together these finds and their distribution suggest a Neolithic settlement site with at least a Late Neolithic element to it. Judging by the extent of the spread it probably consisted of a few houses, perhaps something like Crossiecrown, just outside Kirkwall.

The site is just across the loch from the Barnhouse-Brodgar monuments and not far away from Maeshowe. They would have been clearly visible from each other. The questions we are now asking are how the people in this smaller settlement interacted with the cluster of large monuments and settlement in the area and over the loch (it may have been very wet marsh at that time) and vice versa. How much interaction was there and what form did it take?

I suspect the clear inter-visibility and proximity in this case was not accidental and that it had meaning to people in both locations. Although given the density of prehistoric settlement within and well away from the World Heritage area it may be reckless to read too much into the location of one settlement. What we can now say though is that as well as the large prehistoric settlements like Barnhouse-Ness and Bookan there are apparently several smaller Neolithic settlements consisting of maybe a couple of houses in each case in very close proximity to the large monuments.

Examining and recording the site of one of the finds.

The great thing about field walking is that it is very easy to do (particularly on a bonny day!) and the results are almost instant, allowing us to discuss the landscape and what our latest finds are telling us immediately with the community archaeologists.

I am particularly grateful to all the interest shown to this project, and actually archaeology in general in Orkney, by all the landowners that I have met. I have had many interesting chats and learned so much as a result of meeting the people that know and have a first hand interest in their land.

Thanks also to Orkney Archaeology Society, Historic Environment Scotland and others who have sponsored this project.

If you want to get involved in fieldwalking in Orkney then contact Dan Lee on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk