Amazing Finds at Cata Sand- Early Neolithic Houses and 19th Century Whales

Early Neo Wall
Early Neolithic Wall

The excavation at Cata Sand on the Orkney island of Sanday has unearthed a few surprises in the last few days – including the discovery of Early Neolithic Houses and the skeletons of around twelve whales from the nineteenth century.

Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the University of Central Lancashire, School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain and University of Cambridge, have now concluded that the structural remains are those of an Early Neolithic house (c.3400-3100BC) with associated occupation deposits, hearth and stone walls.

The Early Neolithic house is both interesting and unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which rests on rounded beach stones. At least two construction phases have now been recognised. The primary house has a stone set hearth, internal pits and boxes, and remains of the lower courses of a double-faced thick stone outer wall and small dividing stones, which partition the house into different living areas. This phase of the structure is comparable with examples of dwellings at Stonehall, Mainland and Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Although excavations at Pool uncovered some early Neolithic structures in the 1980s, this is the first ‘classic’ early Neolithic house to be discovered in Sanday. It is also contemporary with a stalled burial cairn situated just along the coast at Tresness, which is also being examined by the team.

Early Neo Hearth
Early Neolithic Hearth

Another rectangular setting of stones to the north-west is a second hearth that relates to an extension and reconstruction of the earlier house. This is remarkable and only seen at Ha’ Breck on the island of Wyre. A range of finds associated with the Neolithic house including some fragments of pottery, Skaill knives, a grinding stone, flint working remains and animal bones have also been unearthed. More importantly, preservation is excellent and the floor deposits are a deep red-brown colour and are rich in organic remains. As the site is located on sand there is also good bone preservation, which is quite rare in other early Neolithic Orcadian settlements. This high degree of preservation will allow us to obtain a unique level of information regarding daily life within the Early Neolithic house.

However, excavating this site has its challenges, not least that it is in the inter-tidal zone and is partly underwater twice a day!

whales
Whale skeletons

Perhaps the most amazing and unexpected discovery has been to find two large cut pits within the trench that contain the skeletons of a minimum number of twelve whales. Several people have recounted a tradition of whales being ca’d (driven) ashore at Cata Sands. We wondered if this tradition could account for the whale remains. A very likely explanation was given by local Orcadians who provided us with an account of a 19th century visit to Sanday published in the year 1875. In it the author describes the scene where no less than 80 whales were driven ashore on the Sabbath only to be butchered for their blubber.

Whale graves
Overview of the site showing the whale skeletons in situ

Blubber was a source of oil used, amongst other things, in lamps. Another reference to whales being driven into Cata Sands in the 18th Century also exists. On that occasion there were hundreds driven in. More research will clarify the origin of these skeletons.

Visitors are very welcome to come out and see the site. There is a car park at Cata Sand – if there is a University vehicle here then we are on site, but please note we do have some days off and will not be working in the heavy rain! Walk along the western side of Cata Sand to the highest dune and our excavation is on your right.

If you would like further information about this project you are welcome to contact us:


The excavation team includes Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.


Join us at ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference 14th -17th September 2017 to find out more about the site.

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Cata Sand Dig – First Update

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The excavation of the recently discovered late Neolithic /Early bronze Age settlement dating to c.2500-2000BC is now underway. It is early days, but already the team are beginning to unearth finds.

It has to be said that the island of Sanday in Orkney can be a little exposed at times – being situated in the North Atlantic – but the weather has been kind over the last few days to the team working in one of the northern most islands in Orkney. The site itself is beautifully located on the beach, but in many ways this adds to the difficulties as erosion is an ever present danger. In many respects the team are working against the clock, knowing that the site may be damaged by the next winter storm.

The location also works against us in the respect that up to the minute Twitter, Facebook and social media posts are difficult from this isolated outpost. So if you are used to the daily coverage from our other sites then please forgive us on this occasion for not being so up to the minute.

However, Chris Gee, Project Officer Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology UHI Archaeology Institute, managed to send us a brief report on the first couple of days at the dig. He continues….”On Sunday 13th August and Monday 14th August we cleaned the beach deposits from the site, and as indicated by the magnetometer survey, revealed midden material and an arc of stone spread possibly indicating a wall beneath. The inital work has already produced many exciting finds including skaill knives, flint working waste and a fine rubber stone which has also been used as a pounder and possible anvil.”

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The excavation team includes Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.

 

Window onto the Early Bronze Age in Orkney.

Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester writes about developments at the recently discovered Bronze Age settlement in Orkney

Late February running into early March is never the best of times to undertake archaeological fieldwork in Orkney, but this was when we had planned the further investigations of the stone spreads including stone tools and structural remains along the large stretch of Cata Sands, Tresness, on Sanday.

Our goal was mainly to see whether this material, first located last December actually represented the remains of houses (as we had assumed), or merely working or tool production areas. Together with the Sanday Archaeological group, Professor Jane Downes (University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute), Vicki Cummings (UCLan), Christopher Gee (University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute) and myself (later Tom Dawson and Jo Hambly from SCAPE, and Beccy Jones and Lisa Brown from Historic Environment Scotland) ventured out onto Cata Sands to give the spreads of tools closer inspection and to undertake geophysical survey (looking for midden material).

In typical weather conditions, ranging from snow showers to warm sunshine, many of the discrete spreads of stone tools were found to be all that remained. Nonetheless, among the stones we examined were some beautifully shaped ard points for breaking up the soil and more nebulous long ‘flaked bar’ tools. Either these were just working or production areas or else any houses that once stood there had been completely eroded by the sea and winds and this was all that was left.

Geophysics Cata Sands Structure
Geophysics showing 15m diameter structure.

Now, it may be wondered why the presence of small flints and stones caused us so much pleasure. Well there are several reasons, first, this period (Early Bronze Age) is a bit of a prehistoric mystery in that it marks the time when the majority of the late Neolithic villages such as Skara Brae, Ness of Brodgar – and Pool on Sanday – were abandoned. Why such a dramatic shift in settlement should occur is difficult to interpret although we do see signs of the weather deteriorating at this time, for instance, a layer of wind-blown sand turns up as far inland as the Ring of Brodgar ditch at around 2200 BC. Second, traces of the new areas of settlement have been fairly difficult to find, we know some sites such as Crossiecrown, Mainland and Toftsness, Sanday, continue to be occupied but such sites are rare. Third, for good or bad, contact with Shetland appears more visible through the material remains that we find during this period. It could be said that Early Bronze Age Orcadians turn their heads from mainland Britain and Ireland and look to the north – towards Shetland. As the links between Orkney and Shetland appear to become more formal and time passes, a greater emphasis on land and its control ensues. It is also at this time that stone dykes are erected and infield/outfield agriculture practiced.

In fact, the Cata Sands discovery could not have been timelier because now that the long running Cuween-Wideford landscape project looking at Neolithic settlement on Mainland has finished, a new project – Northern exposure: the end of the Neolithic in Orkney – is just beginning and the new site fits exactly into the time period being examined. Indeed, it could be that many answers concerning what happens at the end of the third millennium BC will come from islands such as Sanday, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that northern isles communities maintained relationships with Shetlanders earlier in the Neolithic than has been previously realised.

We hope to go over to Sanday again quite soon and continue work at the Cata Sands settlement, in collaboration with the Sanday Archaeological Group, and the SCAPE group from University of St Andrews. The landowners Colin and Heather Headworth have been very generous and welcoming, all we need now for further investigations is a period of calm weather and sunshine, as it was an interesting experience seeing the area that had taken days to uncover and clean be completely filled with sand within half an hour or so of a strong northerly wind blowing up!

All photographs courtesy of Colin and Heather Headworth.

Site Evaluation Starting at Cata Sand

Archaeological work is planned to evaluate the site at Cata Sand, Sanday in Orkney during the week commencing 29th February. Preliminary investigation will use a variety of techniques including survey, geophysics, surface collection, auger and test pits.

The site at Cata Sand, Sanday was discovered in November 2016 by Prof Jane Downes and Christopher Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Prof Colin Richards of the University of Manchester and Dr Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire. The site manifests itself as low lying spreads of stone scatters, some of which are quite discrete and are of about 10-12m diameter. Within these scatters are many flaked stone bar implements (mattocks and ards points), and rough outs for tools, and orthostats and small extents of walling are visible in places together with patches of reddened soils; these findings suggest that the remains of extensive prehistoric, probable Bronze Age, settlement are being revealed.

The site is situated on a long expanse of beach and can be seen to extend both under the very substantial dunes, and into the sea; it is therefore in part under the sea but exposed at low tide, and being increasingly exposed by erosion of the dunes by the sea. The intended project comprises preliminary examination of the site to ascertain its nature, extent and level of preservation or survival.

A plan for further work will then be formulated based on these findings that will be part of a wider research programme being developed to examine the changes that occur at the end of the 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC, the end of the Neolithic/ Chacolithic/Bronze Age in Orkney about which little is known.

Methods that will be employed are geophysical survey, topographic survey, surface collection of artefacts, augering, test pits. Sanday Archaeology Group, Sanday schools, UHI students and SCAPE will be involved in the work.

The evaluation is partly funded by Historic Environment Scotland

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