Archaeology in Orkney, Summer – Part Two

The Loth Road site2, Sanday
The Loth Road Excavation

This is the second in a series of blog posts looking at the main findings from the excavations undertaken by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute during the summer of 2018.

This time we examine the fascinating excavations on Sanday – one of the northern most islands in Orkney.

Professor Colin Richards continues…..Cata Sand, Tresness Chambered Tomb & Loth Road Bronze Age House, Sanday. Fieldwork on Sanday this summer was arguably undertaken at some of the most beautiful places in Orkney! Also, in the most glorious weather.

In all, three archaeological sites were investigated relating to two different research projects.

First, a new project entitled ‘Northern Exposure’ began by excavating an Early Bronze Age settlement at Loth Road. The research project is examining the period c 2400 – 1800 BC, which marks the transition from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age. As an ‘in between’ period, these centuries have tended to be neglected as researchers tend to work on the Neolithic (3700 – 2400 BC) or the Bronze Age (c. 2000 – 800 BC). In fact it is a fascinating period of time beginning with the abandonment of the late Neolithic ‘villages’ such as Skara Brae, Ness of Brodgar, and on Sanday, Pool. Around c. 2400 BC, communities appear to fragment and people live dispersed across the landscape in paired or ‘double’ houses.

The beach location of the Cata Sand site
The beach location of the Cata Sand site

There seems to be a change in climate around this time, and across mainland Scotland we see the possible influx of new groups of people from the continent. These people are metalworkers and the first metal (copper) objects come into circulation and use. It does not look as if these immigrants get as far as Orkney, although they are present in Caithness. Nonetheless, judging from the abandonment of the villages, society appears to be disrupted from about 2400 BC in the Northern Isles.

However, it is precisely at this time that for the first time links become apparent between Orkney and Shetland, with materials being exchanged and similar house architecture occurring in both areas (also present on Fair Isle). So the big questions revolve around why were the villages abandoned, what effect did climate change have on their lives and why did the folk on Orkney begin to engage with communities in Shetland? Equally, what effect did the new populations moving through Britain (with ancestry reaching back across the north European plain to the Steppes) have on late Neolithic Orcadian society?

As one of the northern isles, Sanday is a good location to explore the beginnings of links between Orkney and Shetland, the Loth Road Early Bronze Age settlement comprises a double house (and possibly more structures) overlooking the Bay of Stove where a massive late Neolithic village is present several hundred metres away.

Structures emerging at Cata Sand, Sanday
Structures emerging at Cata Sand

Excavations uncovered some well-preserved houses, which had been decorated with cup-marks. These are small depressions normally found on rock outcrops or burial cists or mounds. This is exciting as it is the first example of such decoration in an Early Bronze Age domestic context, and more importantly shows links to Shetland where they are present on rock outcrops on Unst and Whalsay. Excavations will continue next year where it is hoped more material from Shetland will be discovered.

The second research project involved excavating the chambered cairn at Tresness, together with a contemporary early Neolithic house at Cata Sand. This fieldwork continues a project investigating the early Neolithic of Orkney and Shetland and includes house sites excavated in both places.

The Sanday early Neolithic house site of Cata Sand is situated on a low rock spit projecting into the bay. This is a very dynamic environment which changed dramatically before and after the settlement was inhabited (c. 3300BC). Indeed, the landscape is changing today and one of the reasons this site was discovered was because an eroding sand dune revealed masonry and hearths. Investigations have uncovered at least two, and probably more, substantial houses – obviously these have been eroded by the sea (the site can be covered at high tide), but enough remains to enable us to examine house floors and hearths.

The site became well known last year due to the unexpected discovery of large numbers of whales that had been buried in large pits just a few hundred years ago. The Neolithic houses are interesting because of their low lying coastal position. Investigations on Mainland over recent years at Stonehall, Smerquoy, Knowes of Trotty and Wideford Hill have found similar early Neolithic houses much further inland at the base of rising ground and clearly sited with regard to water sources. It will be interesting seeing if the inhabitants of the Cata Sand houses had a higher engagement with the sea.

The final site examined is the chambered cairn of Tresness, which is roughly contemporary with the Cata Sand houses (c. 3500-3300BC). Again, coastal erosion is destroying this site and an excavation was mounted to explore the mound composition and burial chamber. After removing the flagstones over the chamber, it was found that a later wall had been built across the chamber. The wall is probably of later date and suggests the cairn was dug into in the Iron Age. This is a common occurrence in Orkney where Iron Age communities (c. 800BC – AD800), seem to target Neolithic tombs to enter and either build structures on top or nearby. This is unfortunate for archaeologists interested in Neolithic burial remains and practices! Hopefully, the later disturbance will be restricted to the entrance area and untouched Neolithic burial remains discovered next year.

Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road, Sanday
Archaeologists excavating at Loth Road

It has been interesting and exciting work on Sanday because our initial findings show us how different the islands were through prehistory. Furthermore the archaeology on Sanday for the period 2400 – 1800BC may well provide us with important information about why people stopped living in the big villages, and why they not only altered their domestic arrangements, but also began to turn and look northwards and to forge closer links with communities on Fair Isle and Shetland.

At each site the landowners were very enthusiastic and helpful and we would like to thank Adam and Jimmy Towrie and Colin and Heather Headworth. A great many local people visited the sites and kindly helped the team in various ways, and are very much looking forward to returning next year, and expecting equally fine weather….The excavation is a joint project between the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire.

For more on the continuing excavation on Sanday in Orkney see our previous blog posts.


If you would like to join us to study archaeology at any of the 13 colleges of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk 

Cata Sand and Tresness Excavation Fieldwork Reports now Available

Cata Sand Site 1

The Data Structure Reports (DSR) detailing the exciting 2017 excavations at Cata Sand and Tresness Chambered Tomb, Sanday, Orkney are now available for download.

Taking the the Cata Sand excavation DSR first, the document examines the aims of the excavation, methodology, context narrative, discussion, outline of future work and post-excavation strategy, references and registers. 

Introducing the report, the team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire write……”On the eastern side of Cata Sand, Sanday, a small sand dune known as the Grithies Dune is located in the intertidal zone. In December 2015 we identified archaeological material eroding out of the sand immediately to the south of the Grithies Dune. We returned in March 2016 to undertake an evaluation. We opened up a small trench roughly 8 x 5m over an area where we had previously seen archaeological deposits.”

Aerial Photograph of Cata Sand Excavation 2017

“The work involved the removal of windblown sand only rather than the excavation of any of the archaeological layers revealed. This simple cleaning exercise, however, produced 41 artefacts including flint debitage, Skaill knives, coarse stone tools and pottery. The evaluation revealed that the remains of occupation, including a house, lay exposed just beneath windblown sand. In order to ascertain the extent of the occupation here we then conducted a large-scale geophysical survey of the area using magnetometry. This revealed an area of magnetic enhancement around the Grithies Dune roughly 20m in diameter. We returned for a four week period in 2017 to excavate the archaeological remains concentrated at the Grithies Dune site.”

The full Cata Sand Data Structure Report can be downloaded in pdf……Download the Cata Sand DSR 2017

Tresness Chambered Tomb

Moving on to the The Tresness Chambered Tomb excavation, the DSR explores the archaeological background to the site, methodology, excavation results, recording of the eroding section, assessment of the erosion at the site, management recommendations and suggested further work, post-excavation schedule, public outreach activity, bibliography and registers.

The Tresness Chambered Tomb is located on the southern tip of the Tresness peninsula, Sanday, Orkney. It is a site which has not seen significant previous excavation. This report describes excavations conducted in August and September 2017 and offers an assessment of the on-going erosion at the site.

The full Tresness Chambered Tomb Data Structure Report can be downloaded in pdf…..Download the Tresness DSR 2017


smiley people

The excavation team included 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 involved specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.

A few thank yous from the team…………..”We are very grateful to Colin and Heather Headworth who allowed us access to their land. Scottish Natural Heritage granted permission for this work to take place on an SSSI. The project was funded by the University of the Highlands and Islands, the University of Central Lancashire and the Orkney Islands Council. Hugo Anderson-Whymark came out at short notice to conduct photogrammetry at the site, and we are also grateful to Tristan Thorne for taking aerial shots with his drone. Ingrid Mainland and Jen Harland from the UHI Archaeology Institute came out to site to help us with the whales.

The Sanday Archaeology Group were as supportive as ever and in particular we would like to thank Caz, Ruth and Cath for logistical and practical support, both on site and in terms of storage! Ruth and Ean Peace organised the talk in the community centre and also provided us with historical accounts of whaling.

John Muir at Anchor Cottage and Paul and Julie at Ayres Rock must be thanked for providing accommodation. We are grateful to Sinclair Haulage for acquiring (and securing!) our portaloos and to the Sanday Community Shop for arranging to transport the whales to Kirkwall. Sean Page helped with the press releases.

We are very grateful to our volunteers who worked incredibly hard in such a beautiful but exposed setting: Justin Ayres, Edd Baxter, Irene Colquhoun, Ana Cuadrado, Grant Gardiner, Stephen Haines, Joe Howarth, Arnold Khelfi, Mike Lawlor, Rob Leedham, Therese McCormick, Ginny Pringle, Alex Shiels, and Cemre Ustunkaya.”

 

Examining the Cata Sand Whales

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The excavation at Cata Sand on the island of Sanday in Orkney not only unearthed the remains of Early Neolithic Houses, but also as reported in August, the skeletons of around twelve whales originating in the nineteenth century.

The team led by archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, University of Central Lancashire and volunteers from Sanday Archaeology Group travelled to Sanday to excavate a possible Neolithic site. However within a few hours, two trenches were discovered to contain remains of whale skeletons.

DSC_01001During the excavation, eight individual skeletons were lifted and transported carefully to the UHI Archaeology Institute laboratory in Kirkwall, where Stephen Haines and Claire Mackay, began to examine the remaining bones last week. Stephen is a recent MSc graduate in Forensic Anthropology (UCLAN) and has volunteered to help clean, assemble and analyse the bones. Claire has recently started a research masters at the UHI, in which she will be exploring the exploitation of whales in Late Iron Age and Norse Orkney.

As Stephen assembled the bones into anatomical order, it soon became apparent that, as the area where they were found was an inter-tidal zone, many of the bones were waterlogged and brittle. However, Stephen assembled the bones in order and a number of interesting facts emerged.

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Interestingly all of the animals appear to be missing their heads. A likely explanation could revolve around the known practice of giving the heads of whales as prizes to Captains involved in the hunt or local landowners in the case of beached whales. The head of a whale was especially valuable as it contained a large quantity of precious oil.

Perhaps surprisingly the evidence points to the fact that the animals were not butchered for their meat. There does not appear to be any cut marks on the bones themselves and they were not disarticulated and scattered – as usually found at butchery sites.

So how did these huge skeletons get into the ground? In the nineteenth century account of the whale beaching, a visitor to the island complained about the terrible smell coming from the decomposing animals. Reading the account further, it would seem that this complaint resulted in the local people burying the carcasses on the beach. And there they remained for over 200 years….forgotten by locals and visitors alike.

Sadly, as we don’t have access to the heads, identifying the species involved is incredibly difficult, however based on the general morphology we believe the bones belong to the dolphin family – potentially a Risso’s Dolphin. Further research will confirm the species.

The initial findings have now been edited into a series of videos clips…..


The excavation team included 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.

If you want more information on studying at the UHI Archaeology Institute then email us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or check out our website

 

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.


If you want more information on our archaeology courses at UHI Archaeology Institute then see our website or contact studyarachaology@uhi.ac.uk

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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