The Bay of Skaill in Orkney’s West Mainland is well-known as the location of Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement that sits above the beach at its southern end.
But the bay is equally renowned for the coastal erosion that plagues it and which, in early January, led to the discovery of a large decorated rock on the shoreline.
Sigurd Towrie, from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, takes up the story.
Living a few miles away, the Bay of Skaill has been a regular haunt of mine for decades. But a massive, incised rock – its upper surface featuring geometric designs – was the last thing I expected to find on an excursion last month.
One of the reasons for my frequent Skaill visits is to keep an eye on the impact of erosion. Talk of coastal erosion and people often think in timescales of centuries. At Skaill, however, it can often be measured in days, weeks and months. Perhaps the starkest, most visual example of this is the complete destruction — over 20 or so years — of a modern, stone-built and enclosed, picnic area above the beach. The effect on archaeology is even more severe with fragile remains exposed and damaged daily. Take a walk along the length of the shore and you will see archaeology dropping onto the beach.
In early January 2021 – three days before the decorated stone came to light – I spotted cattle teeth lying at the bottom of an eroding stretch of shoreline at the north end of the bay. Closer examination revealed the partly exposed jaw of a cow beside a huge waterworn stone (c0.86m long, 0.54m wide and 0.22m thick) jutting from the eroded section.
In the dwindling, grey light, there was nothing to be seen. Or so I thought.
Returning home, I passed details of the remains to Orkney’s county archaeologist, Julie Gibson. With more bad weather imminent, she suggested I return, record and retrieve them.
Back at Skaill, kneeling in front of the eroding face, with the large stone at my right-hand side, I carefully recovered the mandible. While transferring it into a finds bag, a break in the cloud cover saw the beach gloriously lit up by the now-setting sun. I turned to lay my sodden gloves on the stone. And there, incised into its surface and bathed in golden sunlight, was a pair of incised triangles and two rectangular bands running back into the section.
Having been involved with the Ness of Brodgar excavations since the complex’s discovery in 2003, I’ve seen a fair bit of Neolithic “art” over the past 18 years. The Skaill marks, however, were very ephemeral and quite rough – nothing like some of the beautiful, deeply incised decorations recorded in the Ness structures. Despite the apparent geometric patterns, the coarseness of their execution had me pondering whether the visible incisions were anything other than scratchmarks – perhaps butchery or cut marks.
Poor weather meant it was over a week before I returned to Skaill – this time earlier in the day. Once again it was the position of the sun that was key. The weather had dislodged a stone lying on the surface and, in the early morning light, it was clear that the incisions were more extensive than they had first appeared.
The triangles were part of a larger, criss-crossed lozenge pattern and there were more, very faint, rectangular bands and lines running across the surface.
Dr Antonia Thomas, the Archaeology Institute’s rock art specialist, visited the site and confirmed we had a good candidate for a carved stone – one with designs very reminiscent of some recorded at Skara Brae, just over half a mile away. To view the Skara Brae examples, see Dr Thomas’ book Art and Architecture is Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context, which is available to download here.
The immediate area is too disturbed to suggest what the stone represented or even whether it is in its original location. Construction work in 1934/35, however, revealed walling nearby, along with midden material indicative of occupation. Among the “old bones” dug up was a bone pin, “similar to one found at Skara Brae” and an unknown quantity of boar tusks. Incidentally, in March 2020, beachcomber Martin Gray found another boar tusk a few feet from the incised stone.
Today, in among the possible structural remains visible in the huge swathe of eroding shoreline is a substantial, but badly damaged, wall. This, together with a deposit of deer remains recovered by Archaeology Institute specialist Dr Ingrid Mainland at the end of 2020, suggests we have another settlement site at the Bay of Skaill – one that, from previous environmental sampling, is likely to be four or five thousand years old.
The 1934/35 work also revealed the skeletons of four individuals in vicinity of the incised stone. Details are sketchy so all we really know is that the “unenclosed” remains were under ten feet of sand and a double layer of “midden deposit”. The fact one had been laid in a crouched position suggests a Bronze Age date, but, unfortunately, there were no artefacts that could help date the burials.
Were these inhumations inserted into the sand-covered remains of an earlier, abandoned settlement? Or, as at Toftsness, in Sanday, and the Links of Noltland in Westray, did occupation on the site of a Neolithic settlement continue into the Bronze Age? The answer to that question cannot be answered without excavation.
Based on the scale of the eroded section, however, we may well be looking at a Neolithic/Bronze Age site on a par with Skara Brae. Albeit one that is now disappearing at an alarming rate.