Although perhaps best known as the site of an extensive medieval cemetery, Newark is a complex, multi-period site with evidence of human activity going back to the Bronze Age.
It is, however, badly affected by coastal erosion and its archaeology under constant threat.
It was erosion that led to the discovery of the symbol stone, which was spotted eroding from a bank in 2016. A rescue excavation, funded by Historic Environment Scotland and led by the Archaeology Institute UHI’s ORCA, was launched to recover the stone before it was lost or damaged.
Featuring a cross on one side and Pictish symbols on the other, the Newark stone is one of two Class II symbol stones found in Orkney.
The first was unearthed in the island of Sanday in 2011. Both were examined by expert Dr Anna Ritchie, who believes the two are so similar that they were likely to have been made in the same workshop, or by the same stone-carver.
The Newark stone was buried near the remains of a stone-built church that may date from the tenth century AD. The cross-slab and the presence of Late Iron Age burials suggests this church replaced an earlier chapel.
One side of the symbol stone is dominated by an ornamented cross filled with a key pattern.
A great spiral at the centre of the cross-head is similar to a decorated lead disc from the Brough of Birsay, an island off Orkney’s West Mainland. A dog-headed being stands to the right of the cross-shaft.
The motifs on the opposite side include a large creature with elongated jaws and what may be a representation of a wild boar.
A third cross-slab, found in Sanday in 2021, may be another Class II stone. Although the both sides of the stone have suffered from erosion, the rear has a very faint circle – perhaps part of a crescent motif.
The Orkney Museum exhibition, which runs until October 29, focuses on an ORCA project that launched in 2019.
Funded by Historic Environment Scotland and led by a team from ORCA and community volunteers, the Newark Project has been piecing together the story of the site based on past excavations, surveys and modern scientific analysis of the human remains.
And what a remarkable story it is – with prehistorical burials, Picts, Vikings, Norse and the descendants of kings and Orkney’s merchant lairds.
A Bronze Age burial is the earliest evidence so far with several suspected barrows also detected in a recent geophysical survey. In the Iron Age, two underground structures were built, one of which had human remains deposited within.
Newark is the resting place of a large number of people who were buried there over a period of 800 years (AD600-1400). The full extent of the cemetery, which continues to erode into the sea, is uncertain but itsuse spans one of the least understood periods of Orkney’s history – when the Late Iron Age population encountered Vikings and when, somewhere along the line, the ancestry of some of Orkney’s population came into being.
A large part of the Newark Project’s remaining work will focus on trying to understand the DNA of those buried in the cemetery and their origins.
It also aims to explore more of the stories that osteoarchaeology can tell from the human remains previously excavated from the site, such as the Norse Age boatman from Newark Bay. In addition further radiocarbon dating will be carried out and isotopic analysis will give an indication of where the people grew up and what their diet was.
Although there are traces of Norse activity in and around Newark what farm existed, or domestic activity took place, is unknown.
Newark eventually appears on maps as the site of a grand Late Medieval manor house owned by Lord Lindores, son-in-law of the Earl of Orkney, Lord Robert Stewart, who was an illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland.
Although some of the ground plan was uncovered during excavations in the 1960s, not enough was explored to fully establish its size and style. It is also unclear why Lord Lindores and subsequent owners wanted a mansion at Newark.
By the late 1790s, however, it was in the ownership of one of Orkney’s leading merchant laird families, the Balfours, and was in poor repair. At some point after, it was demolished.
Located on the coast and eroding into the North Sea, Newark is continuously damaged by severe winter storms. The landowner and members of the Orkney community have tried hard to protect the site and prevent more damage, but it is difficult as every winter storms wreak further losses and undo the hard work from the preceding summer.
The erosion that plagues Newark means that human remains can be exposed overnight. If you are visiting the area, please leave the people in peace to be cared for by the local team.
The Newark Project: the story so far runs at the Orkney Museum until October 29, 2022. The opening hours are Monday-Saturday, 10.30am – 5.00pm from May-September and 10.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-5pm in October. Admission is free.