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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More Finds on Sanday

Braving the weather on Sanday, Chris managed to take some quick shots of the newly discovered Bronze Age settlement complex. It was blowing a sandstorm at the time so please excuse the quality ! But they are interesting nonetheless.

The first photograph shows a short section of curving wall with the top edge of an upright stone, c0.60m in length, roughly parallel to, presumably, the inside wall face. Just behind the photographer another slightly curving wall face, visible for c2m, was traced among the beach stone and shingle. Reddish brown midden deposits containing shell and bone were also observed close to these features.

The second photograph shows one of several raised ridges of shingle which extend underneath the sand dunes to the east. In the foreground of the photograph can be seen a curving ridge of stone which may represent the remains of a building. Modern vehicle tracks cross the image diagonally. Stone tools including ard points, struck cobbles, Skaill knives and stone bars were visible at this location and along the length of the beach.

Ard points are round section flagstones pointed at one end. Many have been chipped and pecked to shape. Ard points were used as stone shares on ploughs without a mouldboard. They passed through the soil breaking it up. Ard points are familiar at Bronze Age sites, and interestingly are also found associated with barrows and burial mounds from that period.

The third photograph shows two “earthfast” sub-rectangular stones to the right of Vicky. These may form part of a building entrance.