Surprise at Smerquoy – an early Neolithic Village is Unearthed

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The excavations at Smerquoy have now been closed down for another year, but initial findings are beginning to change our view of early Neolithic settlement in Orkney.

Evidence from Smerquoy suggests that early farmers in Orkney were living in villages rather than isolated farmsteads.

Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester continues….

One of the most exciting aspects of archaeological excavations is more often than not quite unexpected things are brought to light. Of course, a site is selected for examination because it is considered to be a good candidate to answer certain questions, and it will be realised that this assumes a rough idea of what lies beneath the ground. However, until the topsoil is removed, in this case by expert JCB operator Ali Miller, it is never completely known what actually lies beneath the surface.

Over the last three years fieldwork at Smerquoy, with the kind permission of Mr Billy Sinclair, we felt that we had obtained a good idea of what the site was like. This in itself was very exciting, the archaeology was mainly of early Neolithic date, and within the excavated area a well preserved stone-built house (the Smerquoy Hoose) had been discovered. This lay on level ground at the bottom of the lower north-west slope of Wideford Hill. Above it, even before initial excavation we had noticed a number of large scoops running for some distance across the hillside. Over the last two years we have excavated one of these scoops only to find the remains of two more stone built early Neolithic houses laying 5-6 metres apart.

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The situation of Smerquoy early Neolithic village on a “driech” Orkney day

What makes this an exciting discovery is that we appear to be excavating within a substantial early Neolithic ‘village’ where houses are situated in a row next to one another along the side of the hill. Each house is terraced into the hill slope in order to provide a level internal floor surface. These are large houses, with floor areas of around 50 square metres subdivided into inner and outer rooms or compartments. The inner room had a large scoop fireplace, and with outer walls some 1.5m thick: these were large comfortable houses.

The discovery of an early Neolithic village at Smerquoy confirms the results obtained from the interesting sites of Ha’Breck, Wyre and Stonehall near Finstown. At both these sites several early Neolithic houses were discovered but whether they formed a ‘village’ – like that seen at the later Skara Brae – was debatable. Indeed, it was not such a long time ago that many archaeologists thought the first farmers dwelt in small isolated farmsteads, like that seen at Knap of Howar, Papay.

Smerquoy alters this picture completely. The imagery of a row of early Neolithic houses spread across the lower slopes of Wideford Hill is extraordinary and requires us to not only rethink the density of settlement at this time, but also enables a degree of understanding as to how the big later Neolithic settlements such as Barnhouse, Links of Noltland and Ness of Brodgar, came into being – they simply continued a pattern that dated back to the beginnings of farming in the Northern Isles. Furthermore, the presence of villages at such an early date makes the question of how Orkney was populated by the earliest farmers far more problematic, as we appear to be dealing with a substantial influx of people.

IMG_1813This year despite variable weather conditions in the county, the fourth and final season of excavation at Smerquoy has been underway since the beginning of the month.  The aim was simply to complete excavations in the two stone houses mentioned earlier. However, as is often the case a surprise was in store for us when Ali’s bucket scrapped across the walls of yet another stone structure. To cut a long story short, this building is clearly of Neolithic date, probably early Neolithic judging from the pottery, but of an architectural form previously unknown. It is smaller than the other three houses found at Smerquoy, measuring just 6m x 4m, and the floor is covered in bright red, thick ash deposits. We are not completely sure if it is even a dwelling! Hopefully, a few more sunny days will help us resolve this question.

Our time at Smerquoy has been thoroughly enjoyable and we cannot thank Billy Sinclair enough for his welcome, kindness and enthusiasm. All our best photographs have been obtained with the generous help of Billy’s neighbour John Brody and we extend our gratitude to him also.

The Enigmatic Structure at Smerquoy

The excavation at Smerquoy had advanced a great deal since my last visit. A whole new trench had been completed. But before Colin Richards and Christopher Gee talked me through this enigmatic area, they guided me over to the back of the site. To an area where the earliest houses in Orkney were built during the Neolithic.

Standing in a deepening fog that was not being cleared by a high wind (Orkney is the only place I have lived where fog and high wind live quite happily together!) Colin pointed out the outline of a substantial house that had been built using clearly worked stone. There were two parts to the wall making up the house with a thicker wall appearing on the downslope side of the structure. To the back of the house there was a single wall which formed the wall cut into the hillside. These houses as discussed before were built on terraces cut into the hillside.

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Close up of the worked stone present in one of the houses

The shape of the house was rectangular and was divided by a line of standing stones or orthostats. A dark patch of earth set within the house clearly showed the position of a domestic hearth; the damp conditions aiding our view of the different colours of the floor. However before we moved on, Colin and Chris explained that the house area had at one point been deliberately covered in glacial till, levelled and then re-used for non domestic purposes.

And then we examined the structure that is being a little difficult to interpret. One thing is for sure, it was not a house. It was also built later than the other early Neolithic houses on the site. The walls were oval in shape and very thick with an infill of clay, ash, stone debris and early Neolithic pottery. The structure could have a burial function, but until further work is completed it’s use will remain a mystery.

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The mystery structure at Smerquoy

And finally…..The location of this site is quite dramatic; set on a hillside above the sea, but it is even more dramatic to my eyes when the weather is perhaps not as kind as it could be to the hard working archaeologists! A video clip showing the location of the site……on a foggy and windy  August day.

Smerquoy – Early Neolithic Settlement Finds

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Ali’s Hoose showing the scoop hearth as a darker patch.

Talking with archaeologist Chris Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the significance of the excavation at Smerquoy on the mainland of Orkney easily becomes apparent.

The structures at Smerquoy were built before the well known structures at the Ness of Brodgar, which in itself is impressive, but Chris, together with his team from the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire, are progressing towards establishing whether all the houses visible in the geophysics were contemporary with each other or built over time with some buildings being abandoned as others were built.

In archaeological terms they are working towards establishing a sequence of construction. However if it is the case that all these structures were contemporary then this settlement would have been very impressive indeed for any person arriving in the Bay of Firth or approaching along the small coastal plain….which is now followed by the main road from Finstown to Kirkwall. Also keep in mind that this settlement was brought into being when the first farmers were carving out a presence in Orkney. Sometimes it is easy to forget this fact when considering the finds and the structures present here.

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Looking out across The Bay of Firth from the site on rather a cloudy day!

Rubble and redeposited glacial till has largely been removed now from the south end of Ali’s Hoose – the end which was terraced into the hillside – to reveal, in some places, two courses of the inside wall face, the rest having been robbed out prior to infilling.

It appears that the thick glacial till was placed directly upon occupation floor deposits making it relatively simple to excavate.The slots for opposing upright stones, which would have divided the interior of the house in half, are visible in the floor, as well as a scoop hearth set within the south half.

So far there is no evidence of a stone-set hearth, like that encountered in the Smerquoy Hoose of 2013. It had an earlier scoop hearth, which had been packed over with clay when the stone-set hearth was added. Does this imply that Ali’s Hoose went out of use at an earlier phase than the Smerquoy Hoose? We will hopefully find out as the investigation proceeds.

IMG_5982An increasing number of finds are being discovered which begin to paint a picture of life in early Neolithic Orkney. A rather large, water-worn, egg-shaped stone was found partly pressed into the floor, up against the wall within the south end of Ali’s Hoose today. We should be able to examine it further once it has been lifted.

Other finds included several more shards of round-based early Neolithic pottery, including a second shard with Unstan Ware style decoration. A large stone dish was also unearthed and is the fourth to be found at Smerquoy. Furthermore several Knap o’ Howar borers have also been found at the site. IMG_5972The end scratches present of these tools look as if they have been used in a circular motion. The smaller borer has a shoulder which shows that it was used to create a deeper hole than the others recovered.

What they were used to bore, however, remains a mystery for now.


For more information on the Smerquoy site, click through to Orkneyjar.com

Thanks as ever to Sigurd Towrie.