Questions regarding Knap of Howar in Papa Westray, Orkney, have resurfaced following the discovery of eroding midden material to the south of the iconic Neolithic structures.
Professor Jane Downes and Professor Colin Richards, of the UHI Archaeology Institute, were in Papay last week for the launch of the Tombs of the Isles project. Between sessions they accepted an invitation from residents to visit the Knap of Howar and see evidence of the erosion affecting the area.
Some distance to the south of the two consolidated Neolithic buildings they spotted two areas of shell-rich domestic refuse. Although eroding midden is not an uncommon sight along Orkney’s coastlines, the composition of this deposit stood out.
Among the visible layers were densely packed oyster shells – a feature also encountered during the two excavations at the Knap of Howar. In fact, the exposed midden is probably part of the same extensive deposit encountered by the 1970s excavation team in a test pit 20 metres to the south.
The first site excavation was carried out by Papay landowner William Traill and antiquarian William Kirkness around 1930. Their operation to clear out the buildings revealed limpets and razorfish “in abundance” and also oyster shells.
The latter prompted Traill and Kirkness, to speculate on the nature of Papay’s prehistoric landscape: “[T]he finding of large quantities of oyster-shells on a site where it is now impossible for them to grow suggests that erosion by the sea may have been so formidable as to have altered the whole outline of the land at this site. A large land-locked bay might have contained suitable breeding beds for oysters and would also explain the presence of so much sand.”
The excavation in the 1970s was considerably more thorough and revealed a shellfish assemblage in which limpets were predominant but in which oysters, winkles, cockles, scallops and razorfish were also found.
Over 76,000 complete shells were recorded, of which 85 per cent were limpet. At seven per cent of the total assemblage, oysters were the next most common. But despite the quantities, the excavators concluded that shellfish “were probably an insignificant component of the diet of the Neolithic inhabitants of Knap of Howar.”
That may well be the case but there were perhaps other factors at play. More recently in Orkney, the collection and consumption of shellfish was a regular, but not necessarily frequent, occurrence. The shellfish in question – cockles, razorfish (spoots) and whelks – were considered a treat well into the 1970s and their collection a social occasion in which a communal or family effort was rewarded with a seafood feast.
Whatever their role in the diets of the Neolithic people of Papay, the presence of midden deposits away from the Knap of Howar structures suggested additional activity – and perhaps structures – around the site.
For many years the two Knap of Howar buildings were seen to represent the earliest Neolithic activity in Orkney. Dates of between 3700-3600BC – around 300 years before the earliest activity at Skara Brae – were attached to the structures as was the idea that the islands’ first farmers lived in dispersed, isolated, single farmsteads.
But these early dates came from the midden underlying the buildings and incorporated into their wall cores. More recent redating suggests a much later date for the site, placing initial occupation around 3500BC and the erection of the stone buildings around 3300BC.
During excavations in the 1970s, no evidence for the earlier settlement was found, prompting Professor Colin Richards to suggest in 2016 that the Knap of Howar buildings replaced wooden structures. In addition, the 500-square-metre-spread of this early midden, not to mention the traces of archaeology to the west of the stone structures which were all but gone by the 1930s, suggested there was once a more extensive settlement.
Professor Downes said: “Many questions still surround the Knap of Howar and while this discovery might not answer all of them, it could considerably enrich our understanding of life on Papa Westray over 5,000 years ago. Well-preserved middens such as this where the sand preserves bone and shell are rare and provide exciting insights into what people ate and how they interacted with their environment.”
Dr Jen Harland, a zooarchaeologist at the UHI Archaeology Institute, added: “The oysters, and other shells, have real potential as a ‘biological archive’, because they contain within them a record of climatic conditions when they were grown, as well as potentially containing genetic material that could help with reconstructing oyster beds.
“Excavated in a controlled and modern way, with good dating, they could help with past sea-surface temperatures, as well as working out the season that they were harvested – were people eating shellfish all year round, or were they reserved for the spring, when little else was available?”