Cata Sand Excavation Funding Appeal

Neolithic houses emerging on the beach at Cata Sand

The team excavating the intriguing archaeology site at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney are appealing for donations to contribute to the costs of mobilising a team to complete rescue excavations at this rapidly eroding site.

The team also require funding to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains, to submit samples for radiocarbon dating for both these important finds, the Neolithic houses and the whales.

The archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney, was discovered by four archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December day of 2015 in a gale, walking out to nearby Neolithic tomb of Tres Ness which was known to be eroding at the cliff face.


The team had been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune – Grithies Dune – an eagle-eyed Chris spotted some orthostats (upright stones), and patches of reddened soil and walling were visible at the foot of this small dune. Settlement!! they thought, excited at the prospect of perhaps having discovered remnant of the elusive late Neolithic/early Bronze Age transition period……and which ultimately proved to be an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped into pits cut through the Neolithic house.

When we first discovered the archaeological remains, we saw they were in a vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that the site had been exposed only fairly recently. Exposure occurred probably during the major storm in 2012, when wind and waves removed not only part of the large dune but removed over half of Grithies Dunes, revealing the remains of the Neolithic houses. We knew therefore that we had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community getting a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.

The exposed location of the excavation

An Early Neolithic Settlement Revealed

Geophysical survey using magnetometer showed the archaeological deposits were focussed at the Grithies Dune; the coarse stone tools we had found strewn along the sands denoted perhaps where tools were being manufactured from the cobbles that make up the gravel banks under the sands. Our excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that we had found the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths showing the long rectangular form and layout typical of early Neolithic houses such as Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, and several other houses discovered more recently on Mainland Orkney, and Wyre.

This was a first for Sanday, as early Neolithic evidence at the multi-period site of Pool had been more ephemeral. Although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment. Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.

Neolithic houses emerging from the sand

At the same time, over 2017 and 2018 excavation seasons, our explorations at the Tres Ness tomb have revealed that this tomb, rather than being a late Neolithic passage grave like Swandro – and Maes Howe – is a stalled tomb of early Neolithic form. This finding is significant for, before the large sand dune had accumulated which is relatively recently, Tresness and the contemporary settlement at Cata Sand would have been inter-visible and therefore part of the same landscape, and very probably built by the same community. Excavations of the interior of the stalled tomb will be undertaken in 2019 (pending relevant permissions from Historic Environment Scotland), affording a rare opportunity to examine the contents of an early Neolithic tomb under modern excavation conditions before this too is claimed by the sea.

The team encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping us to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried. We undertook the painstaking task of excavating fully one of the pits, and recording in 3D detail the location of all the bones; we felt that the whales deserved to be treated with respect and care. We recovered the bodies, but no heads, of more than 12 whales from this pit, and genetic analysis has since proven them to be the remains of pilot whales. This analysis was undertaken by the team led by Vicki Szabo ‘Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic’ (funded by National Science Foundation, USA).

Whale skeletons being excavated on the beach at Cata Sand, Orkney

The whale remains are probably the result of the historical practice of ‘ca’ing’ the whales, that is driving them onto shallow sandy beaches for the purpose of obtaining blubber. At times too numbers of whales would beach themselves. However it is possible that these whales are the ones referred to in an account by John Sinclair in the 19th century (John Sinclair, Sketches of Old Times and Distant Places, 1875) who reports that more than eighty ‘bottle nose’ (pilot) whales were driven onto the sands, and comments on the offensive smell deriving from the carcasses, which may well then have been removed into pits. Further analysis of these remains could tell us about the diet of whales, and c14 dating would help identify whether they are from an historic ‘ca’ing’ rather than being of any earlier period.

The team excavating the whale skeletons at Cata Sand, Orkney

Cata Sand Funding Appeal
During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses; progress is slow due to the never ending blowing sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.

We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but have not been able to secure funding to enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. The completion of sampling of the floor deposits is necessary to give a full picture of how people lived inside the houses, and what resources they were utilising – plants, animals – and what artefacts they were making and employing.

We are appealing for donations to contribute to the costs of mobilising the team of archaeologists to go to Sanday this August and complete rescue excavations at Cata Sand. We also require funding to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains, to submit samples for radiocarbon dating for both these important finds, the Neolithic houses and the whales.

Check out our ‘Total Giving’ site if you would like to donate towards this important dig.

Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).

2 thoughts on “Cata Sand Excavation Funding Appeal

  1. Patricia Vincent Wednesday, April 24, 2019 (2:22am) / 2:22 am

    Amazing discovery! Orkney is so ancient. Wishing you much success in your research and funding.

    • seanlisle1 Wednesday, April 24, 2019 (10:33am) / 10:33 am

      Thank you Patricia.

Comments are closed.