The archaeology dig at the Neolithic houses found on the beach at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney is now underway.
Teams from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire arrived on the island last weekend to uncover the site and begin a series of excavations centred on the sites at Cata Sand settlement and Tresness tomb.
This is the
third year of the excavation and could not have taken place this year without
the support of donations that flooded in following an online appeal. Sufficient
funds to commence the dig and to undertake assessment of the animal and plant
remains were raised and the team would like to express their gratitude for the
donations from people all over the world.
Jane Downes said, “During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the
early Neolithic houses, but progress was slow due to the never ending blowing
sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased
storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have
vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors
and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.”
continued, “We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of
the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but had not been able to secure funding to
enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. These
donations now allow us to complete sampling of the floor deposits which in turn
will help to give a full picture of how these earliest farmers lived inside the
archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday was discovered by four
archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the
University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the
University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December
day in 2015 on their way to inspect the tomb at Tresness.
The team had
been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a
huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where
it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune around which
clustered an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit
of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped
into pits cut through the Neolithic house.
team first discovered the archaeological remains, they saw they were in a
vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the
actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that
the site had been exposed only fairly recently. The team also knew therefore
that they had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold
and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community to obtain a better idea of what
the site was, and how extensive it was.
the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that the remains of a series of
early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone
walling and stone-built hearths.
This was a
first for Sanday and although the house remains are incredibly fragile and
disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this
level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and
animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment.
Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from
the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills
that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.
encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it
became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach
surface came from two huge pits that had been dug in more recent times through
the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long
lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping to identify that the
bodies of many whales had been buried.
Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).
The team excavating the intriguing archaeology site at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney are appealing for donations to contribute to the costs of mobilising a team to complete rescue excavations at this rapidly eroding site.
The team also require funding to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains, to submit samples for radiocarbon dating for both these important finds, the Neolithic houses and the whales.
The archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney, was discovered by four archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December day of 2015 in a gale, walking out to nearby Neolithic tomb of Tres Ness which was known to be eroding at the cliff face.
The team had been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune – Grithies Dune – an eagle-eyed Chris spotted some orthostats (upright stones), and patches of reddened soil and walling were visible at the foot of this small dune. Settlement!! they thought, excited at the prospect of perhaps having discovered remnant of the elusive late Neolithic/early Bronze Age transition period……and which ultimately proved to be an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped into pits cut through the Neolithic house.
When we first discovered the archaeological remains, we saw they were in a vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that the site had been exposed only fairly recently. Exposure occurred probably during the major storm in 2012, when wind and waves removed not only part of the large dune but removed over half of Grithies Dunes, revealing the remains of the Neolithic houses. We knew therefore that we had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community getting a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.
An Early Neolithic Settlement Revealed
Geophysical survey using magnetometer showed the archaeological deposits were focussed at the Grithies Dune; the coarse stone tools we had found strewn along the sands denoted perhaps where tools were being manufactured from the cobbles that make up the gravel banks under the sands. Our excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that we had found the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths showing the long rectangular form and layout typical of early Neolithic houses such as Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, and several other houses discovered more recently on Mainland Orkney, and Wyre.
This was a first for Sanday, as early Neolithic evidence at the multi-period site of Pool had been more ephemeral. Although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones survives very well – this level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment. Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.
At the same time, over 2017 and 2018 excavation seasons, our explorations at the Tres Ness tomb have revealed that this tomb, rather than being a late Neolithic passage grave like Swandro – and Maes Howe – is a stalled tomb of early Neolithic form. This finding is significant for, before the large sand dune had accumulated which is relatively recently, Tresness and the contemporary settlement at Cata Sand would have been inter-visible and therefore part of the same landscape, and very probably built by the same community. Excavations of the interior of the stalled tomb will be undertaken in 2019 (pending relevant permissions from Historic Environment Scotland), affording a rare opportunity to examine the contents of an early Neolithic tomb under modern excavation conditions before this too is claimed by the sea.
Whales! The team encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping us to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried. We undertook the painstaking task of excavating fully one of the pits, and recording in 3D detail the location of all the bones; we felt that the whales deserved to be treated with respect and care. We recovered the bodies, but no heads, of more than 12 whales from this pit, and genetic analysis has since proven them to be the remains of pilot whales. This analysis was undertaken by the team led by Vicki Szabo ‘Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic’ (funded by National Science Foundation, USA).
The whale remains are probably the result of the historical practice of ‘ca’ing’ the whales, that is driving them onto shallow sandy beaches for the purpose of obtaining blubber. At times too numbers of whales would beach themselves. However it is possible that these whales are the ones referred to in an account by John Sinclair in the 19th century (John Sinclair, Sketches of Old Times and Distant Places, 1875) who reports that more than eighty ‘bottle nose’ (pilot) whales were driven onto the sands, and comments on the offensive smell deriving from the carcasses, which may well then have been removed into pits. Further analysis of these remains could tell us about the diet of whales, and c14 dating would help identify whether they are from an historic ‘ca’ing’ rather than being of any earlier period.
Cata Sand Funding Appeal During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses; progress is slow due to the never ending blowing sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have vanished completely. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.
We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but have not been able to secure funding to enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. The completion of sampling of the floor deposits is necessary to give a full picture of how people lived inside the houses, and what resources they were utilising – plants, animals – and what artefacts they were making and employing.
We are appealing for donations to contribute to the costs of mobilising the team of archaeologists to go to Sanday this August and complete rescue excavations at Cata Sand. We also require funding to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains, to submit samples for radiocarbon dating for both these important finds, the Neolithic houses and the whales.
Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark).
From the far flung island of Sanday in Orkney, our intrepid and probably exhausted University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology MSc student Ross Drummond, reports on the digs on the island.
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 3 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time focusing on several different sites on Sanday.
So not even 24 hours after I had finished my previous excavation at Skaill Farmstead on Rousay, I was on the move again. This excavation involved a longer ferry journey (three times the duration of the Rousay crossing) and was my most northern trip of my Orkney adventure. So after a night spent back on the mainland, a football match and a quick clothes wash my bags were packed again, and off I set North to join up with the excavation team.
The team was a mix of both University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Central Lancashire staff and students. The UHI team was led by Prof Jane Downes and Prof Colin Richards, along with Chris Gee, while the majority of other students partaking in the dig came from UCLan led by Dr. Vicki Cummings; with a few students from the University of Sheffield also taking part of the dig, as well as team members from Galicia, Spain.
I spent a bit of time jumping between all three sites so the easiest way to talk about the activities on Sanday is probably just to talk site by site. Unfortunately excavation work stopped at the Tresness site by the time I had arrived on Sanday so will leave that to the end.
The first site I visited was the excavation at Loth Road. This site is being looked at as part of the Northern Exposure Project. The Northern Exposure Project which began last year, forms the first stage of a broader 5 year project examining the end/collapse of the Neolithic and beginning of Bronze Age in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and the plan involves examining sites on Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle. The overall project will also record the condition of an eroding stalled cairn on Tresness. This study forms part of The Tombs of the North Project.
Unlike the other two sites on Sanday, Loth Road was not threatened, i.e. it wasn’t coastally eroding. Two standing stones upright in a field alerted Colin & Chris to the fact there could possibly be a double house – one stone part of one door, the other stone part of another. As some of you may have already read from the blog post a few weeks ago, initial thoughts about the Loth Road site were that it could have been a kerb cairn, however this turned out not to be the case.
My first day on site, couldn’t have started off better! It seemed like I arrived on Sanday at a good time because only just before my arrival, the Loth Road team had begun a tradition that would continue until the end of activities on Sanday, involving a fry-up breakfast and a breakfast roll. To be honest I think this should be a tradition that should be carried on and adopted by all research excavations; definitely builds up a good team morale and great way to start off the day ahead of a few hours of excavation.
As mentioned previously the first blog post about the possible kerb cairn was only released a day or two before my arrival, but probably to the annoyance of Sean (no worries Ross. Exciting developments! – Sean), it seemed like I had brought some of the Luck of the Irish I had with me on Skaill, Rousay. Because by the end of day 1 on Sanday, I had changed Colin’s original theory about Loth Road.
Colin decided I would have the honour of using the mattock that day, so after a few hours of removal, the archaeology hidden beneath the ground started to take shape. What had started out as a pile of rubble in-fill only a few hours previous, had turned into a passage with an entrance. The entrance goes with the house as they are on the same surface, and it now looks as though we have two opposed houses, instead of a kerb cairn or double-house. Within the wall of the house there are radial subdivisions just like the spokes of a wheel; so we now have established a circular house with radial subdivisions.
The structures at the Loth Road site are thought to date to the Bronze Age to around 2000 BC. As well as the Bronze Age houses there appears to be an earlier settlement at Loth Road also, with the presence of a rectangular wall underlying the houses possibly dating back to the Early Neolithic. There were also a large amount of cup marked stones found at Loth Road which apart from the Ness of Brodgar, is a scarce form of prehistoric rock art in Orkney. There are a few examples from Shetland such as Unst and since Sanday is a northern isle in the Orkney archipelago it could indicate a possible coming together between the two island groups at this time. Prof Colin Richards described Loth Road as being the most perplexing site he has worked on, with the interpretations of the site being fluid as each day passed. Loth Road wasn’t a double house as first thought, the stones were set in a circular structure and now appears to be a circular house.
Colin, Jane, Chris and Vicki discovered the site on a wild winter day in 2015 and was covered in this blog back in December of that year (see link here) An evaluation of the site was undertaken in March 2016.
In 2017 a few weeks of excavation work summer took place; which revealed more walls and hearths, leading to thoughts it was an Early Neolithic site like the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray, as they have a very similar layout – a longhouse with a rectangular hearth. There was also the discovery of several whale pits dating to the 19th century relating to a whale drive in 1875, the whales were culled and buried without heads to get rid of the smell. Although this is interesting and gives us some information about the more recent history of Sanday, the pits unfortunately take away from the archaeology and have left a hearth and one side of the house fairly damaged.
That brings us on to this year’s activities and discoveries, where the team looked to build on information and the work done in the previous year. There are 3 hearths at Cata Sand, the central hearth survives, is made of stone and was re-modelled after starting out as a scoop hearth. The midden at the site contained animal remains and shell. The biggest discovery of this year was aided by the sea in revealing the presence of an orthostat in the newly discovered hearth. The newly uncovered hearth was orientated N-S, whereas the other two hearths were orientated E-W. This may suggest that the house originally started out with an N-S orientation (more common of earlier settlement pattern), before switching to an E-W orientation.
There were also evidence for pits & postholes, possibly indicating the earliest structure was a timber building; with stone later replacing the timber structures. This could be a very significant finding as it may give us an insight into the past environment of the area, with the possibility of wood being available to the people at the time. The Cata Sand site is very complex, with so much rebuilding and remodelling of houses. The main puzzle is to try identify and understand the restructuring, which will involve the team returning to site again next year. Some soil samples which were charcoal rich need a radiocarbon date, and hopefully will be obtained before the start of next season. Hugo Anderson-Whymark also did some did some photogrammetry and will be creating 3D models of the site. The New York Times also paid a visit to the site for an upcoming article about coastally eroding archaeological sites in Orkney, which also includes Skara Brae and Swandro, Rousay so it was great that a site as small as Cata Sand is getting major media attention and coverage. So that is something to look out for over the coming months for sure!
My own experience of the site was great, if you haven’t been to Cata Sand before I would definitely recommend it! As well as having great archaeology, the scenery is absolutely stunning! It was like somewhere out of the Caribbean and is probably the most beautifully located archaeological site I have worked at to date. Of course I went for a daily dip at lunchtime every day I was on the Cata Sand site, mostly to the disbelief of many of my fellow team members who thought I was mental. As I always say though, “I’m not crazy, I’m just Irish”. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 I suppose, although the setting is stunning it is also damaging the archaeology as the constant battle against the rising tide is one we cannot win. That’s why this site is so important in trying to understand the lives of past societies at this time as sometime in the future the archaeology will be washed away for good, and future generations will only have our records and findings to go on to understand the story of Cata Sand.
The Tresness site is located on the southern tip of the Tresness peninsula, Sanday. The site has only been worked on the past two years in 2017 and then again this year; and the main component of the site is a chambered tomb. Tresness is part of a wider project to look at early Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney, which looks to build on Audrey Henshall’s work on chambered cairns of Orkney in the 1960s. The tomb is well preserved even though there is the significant threat of coastal erosion.
2017 involved the opening of a small trench, for a preliminary investigation. The side eroding into the sea had walling which looked to be early Neolithic and also had the presence of protruding orthostats, again suggesting an early Neolithic date. There was also a second stall on other side of the tomb.
2018 saw the opening of a larger trench to try find out more about the tomb. However, as the site is a scheduled monument the team had to negotiate with Historic Environment Scotland what could be dug and what couldn’t. Again Hugo did some photogrammetry and will be creating 3D models of the site. There was also a chamber area present at the side of the tomb. The team were given permission to enter the chamber and discovered that it was well preserved, with the presence of stalls (vertical upright stones) and a back slab. Towards the seaward side the walls stop. The wall runs E-W with the monument altered later on with what looks to be a possible Iron Age souterrain. The Tresness site is similar to Knowe of Rowiegar and there is also a broch close to Tresness. In summary the Tresness site is half chambered tomb, half Iron Age souterrain at the front, with the two best parallels for the site being the Holm of Papa Westray North and the Calf of Eday.
Although my time spent at the Tresness site was for two days of backfilling, it didn’t mean my keen archaeological eye wouldn’t find something interesting on site. One day while checking out the coastal cliffs for easy access to the sea for a lunchtime dip only two minutes away from the Tresness site, myself and Connor (UCLan student) came across a few holes in the ground. On closer inspection it turned out these were not just random holes in the ground, but look like they could possibly be cists. At present it is hard to know if the cists are associated with the Tresness monument but they are something that may be looked at on return to site next season. So it just goes to show that you don’t need to be researching for hours on end in an office to make an archaeological discovery, sometimes you just need someone who is a bit crazy enough to go for a swim! Also if you are to go swimming on Sanday, I probably wouldn’t recommend going in at Tressness, it’s a fairly wild and exposed part of the coastline. So for safety’s sake wouldn’t recommend it to others, but I had a laugh and survived it so c’est la vie.
Following a few days of hard and tiring work completing the backfill and returfing, the team celebrated the great excavation season by having a BBQ at the Ayre’s Rock Hostel, followed by a gathering around a fire at the nearby beach. It was a great way to end everyone’s time on Sanday with the whole group singing sea shanties and just having a communal sense of celebration and accomplishment.
To sum up the Sanday excavations……the landscape of Sanday as well as the rest of Orkney is completely different in the present day to what it was in the Neolithic. Cata Sand would have been on a little finger of land pointing out into the sea and there would have been no sand dunes at the time. There is a possibility that both Tresness and Cata Sand could be contemporary, leading to theories that Tresness could possibly be a burial place for those living at Cata Sand. But it will take more work during next year’s season to investigate these ideas further. The complexity of the Loth Road site made it a very interesting site to be a part of, and no doubt Colin will already be counting down the days until next year when he can start trying to unravel the confusing conundrum thrown up during this year’s work. Also the sites at Cata Sand and Tresness gave me an insight into just how vulnerable archaeological sites in coastal areas are (especially up here in Orkney) and that we must do as much as we can to record and gain any information we can from the sites before the sites are inevitably lost to the sea forever.
It was also great to see so many people interested in the work we were doing on Sanday. Over 10% of the island’s 500 count population both visited our sites for the Open Day and attended the Public Talk on our findings. It might not sound like much but 10% of a whole island’s population just to see and hear about archaeology was really gratifying for all the team and it was great to get our findings ‘out there’ into the public.
Just a few comments on my own experience…….it was an absolutely fantastic excavation to be a part of. It was a great team of students who made me feel welcome from the start even though I was a late arrival, and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed their experience. It was also great to work with experts in prehistory and the Neolithic periods such as Colin, Jane and Vicki, and really interesting to see how their archaeological minds worked as each site developed and changed over the few weeks. Having been lectured by Colin for two modules over the previous semesters it was great to see that the enthusiasm and wonder he delivers in his lectures within the classroom is carried with him out into the field as well; he’d probably still be digging at Loth Road if he had his way.
It was also good to catch up and work alongside my classmate Katie again, who played a major role at the Loth Road site for the duration of the 4 week excavations, and I’m sure will have a long and successful career in archaeology in the future. Also a shout out to the other students who eventually joined me for a swim at the beach at Cata, may have taken until the last day but eventually convinced them!
Just want to say a massive thanks to Paul and Julie at the Ayre’s Rock Hostel for being so accommodating and basically putting up with us taking over the hostel for the few weeks. Also to all the inhabitants of Sanday….thank you for showing such an interest in our work. It was great to see the numbers and turnout at both the Open Day and the Public Talk, just to see and hear about archaeology; so it means a lot to the whole team that the work we were doing captivated so much of yer attentions. Also to those of you living on Sanday I am extremely jealous of your surroundings! I probably arrived on the island for the best two weeks of the summer weather-wise and it was great to be able to explore and experience your island in such fantastic weather. The setting of Cata Sand was absolutely stunning and the memories and pictures are one’s I will keep with me to get me through the cold and dark winter months that are slowly encroaching upon us.
Also I can’t sign off without giving a mention to Kirkwall Accies Football Club. I went back to the mainland briefly overnight at the end of the first week before returning back to Sanday the following day, as we had a top of the table clash. We won the match ending the season with a 100% winning record and it is the club’s first promotion in over 12 years. So A-League Here We Come! Hon Accies!
Anyway I’ll leave it there for Sanday excavations. Next you’ll hear from myself will be taking on the monster which is the Ness of Brodgar, so make sure to keep an eye out for how I got on with Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill, Ross Drummond, UHI MSc Archaeology student
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.”
“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.”
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 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.”
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.
During 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.