Rapid erosion has revealed spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology on the coast of Westray, Orkney. Contemporary with the Ness of Brodgar’s religious monuments but with a domestic focus, what can this settlement tell us about daily life in prehistoric Orkney? Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson explained.
Overlooking the North Atlantic on the island of Westray, the Links of Noltland boasts an impressive prehistoric landscape stretching over 4ha. Comprising the well-preserved remains of over 20 buildings – including Neolithic structures contemporary with, and comparable to, the famous ‘village’ at Skara Brae – together with extensive middens, field systems, and a cemetery, the site is revolutionising knowledge of Neolithic and Bronze Age Orkney.
Noltland’s wealth of archaeological features is in danger of being lost, however. Facing into the wind and exposed to almost constant salt spray, the site is at severe risk of erosion, with the dune system that has protected it for millennia rapidly depleting. Designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a property in care of Scottish Ministers, managed on their behalf by Historic Scotland, the settlement has been closely monitored for change since the 1980s, but by 2005 it was clear that – for reasons still not fully understood – the scale of erosion was accelerating at an unprecedented level. Matters had become urgent.
In response, Historic Scotland launched a rolling campaign of assessment and conservation works, and rescue excavations undertaken by EASE Archaeology, directed by the authors and project managed by Historic Scotland Senior Archaeologist Richard Strachan. Since 2006 these have revealed a large number of hitherto unsuspected Neolithic and Bronze Age remains, with a highlight of the most recent season being the discovery of two carved stone figurines similar to the celebrated ‘Orkney Venus’ (CA 236).
Local soil conditions favour the preservation of skeletal material, meaning that there is a large amount of animal bone available for study, providing valuable opportunities to examine husbandry and butchery practices. Such bones, from both wild and domesticated animals, were crafted into a wide range of tools and decorative objects from beads and elaborate dress pins to mattocks, awls, polishers, and points. Bone-working debris is rarely encountered on archaeological sites of this period, and study of this material is providing a glimpse of manufacturing processes employed by prehistoric craftsmen.
While the Neolithic remains at the Links of Noltland bear comparison with those at Skara Brae on Orkney Mainland in terms of both age and architecture, at Noltland erosion of the ground surface over such a large area has permitted a far more extensive investigation of the site’s hinterland, making it possible to examine the settlement’s evolution over a long duration. Beginning in the 3rd millennium BC and enduring into the Bronze Age, the site’s inhabitants saw dramatic changes to both their built and natural environments during the settlement’s lifespan.
In Structure 10 we found structural modifications suggesting that the building had seen later phases of occupation, with tantalising glimpses of the original walls visible beneath. These were extremely well constructed, and it appears that the interior was deliberately backfilled with midden material and rubble prior to the later use. From this infill material we recovered a carved stone ball – an enigmatic type of prehistoric artefact found mostly in Scotland, with five discovered at Skara Brae alone. While the purpose of these objects is still open to debate, with suggestions ranging from ceremonial use to a function as a projectile for taking down wild animals, this was a significant find since few have been found in secure archaeological contexts, most coming to light as stray finds.
The earliest occupational evidence revealed by our excavations so far was a farmstead, dated to at least 2800-2500 BC. Set inside a stone-walled enclosure, this complex stood on a ridge surrounded by cultivated fields, with its finest, and perhaps earliest, building (Structure 10) in the centre, constructed from neatly coursed quarried stone. Over time, more buildings were added and older elements were modified and reused, creating a series of closely packed rooms and passages. We investigated the interiors of two (Structures 10 and 19) during the most recent phase of work. These represent two of the larger rooms, both rectilinear in form, with upright stones used to divide up internal space.
Structure 19, by contrast, appears to be one of the later buildings within the complex. While radiocarbon dating results are still awaited, the structure was found to have been built over the original enclosure wall. It was entered via a narrow entrance passage that opened into a central floor area surrounded by peripheral recesses or ‘box-beds’, which were separated from the main space with upright slabs, one measuring over 2m in length. Opposite the entrance were the footings of a dresser similar to those seen in houses at Skara Brae, while later floor layers inside the structure produced very large quantities of decorated Grooved Ware pottery dating to the early 3rd millennium BC, together with a wide range of stone and bone tools.
The settlement is surrounded by extensive contemporary middens. These are directly responsible for the preservation of many of the site’s buildings, absorbing the structures as they fell out of use. They are also proving a productive source of new information about the settlement. While Noltland’s house-proud inhabitants generally kept their floors clean, discarding few artefacts inside the structures, the middens hold a vast amount of material, in places reaching over 1m in depth.
We have excavated considerable areas of midden to reveal the structures hidden beneath, and in so doing, we recognised that at Noltland these were not merely refuse heaps – they were used for a variety of activities, including animal butchery and craft working. Stone pathways lead through the deposits, while specific areas appear to be reserved for specific activities. There are butchery zones, for example, where we found rough ‘skaill knives’ made from split beach pebbles, as well as worked flints that would have been used to dismember animals. Elsewhere, caches of tools such as bone mattocks and bead-making debris suggest that, in addition to sourcing their raw materials, bone implements were being manufactured here as well.
Close analysis of this wealth of discarded material has provided many details of what life was like at Neolithic Noltland. We now know that the inhabitants were predominantly cattle farmers, but also kept sheep; that they had access to abundant wild resources including numerous species of bird and fish, together with deer, marine mammals and shellfish; that they cultivated barley, and that their dogs regularly came to gnaw at the meaty scraps of bone. We can reconstruct other aspects of their world from the farming and craftworking tools that they left behind, alongside decorative items such as dress pins and beads, as well as worked shell.
One of the most exciting aspects of the midden investigations has been the discovery of bizarre ‘compositions’, consciously and sometimes elaborately arranged groups of materials. In one instance, a scallop shell was placed between the horns of a sheep skull while a flint tool was set inside. In another, numerous animal jawbones were arranged together, perhaps votive offerings associated with the killing and butchering of animals. We have also noticed composite items of bone and clay, equally tantalising, but sadly less well preserved.
Outside the clustered farmstead, several other Neolithic buildings have been identified during our work, including two houses with a cruciform interior. The first (Structure 9), located just outside the enclosure wall, had 28 cattle skulls, two of which have been dated to the mid-3rd millennium BC. Deliberately placed within its foundations, they would have been an important gesture from this community of cattle farmers. Standing further apart, the other building (Structure 7) – home to the site’s second dresser – seems to have been enclosed by a series of ‘casement’ walls – concentric ‘skins’ of stone, producing massively thick structures.
The most complete building to have been excavated at Noltland so far, however, is a subterranean house and annex (Structure 18), isolated from the other structures and of very different construction. Dubbed the ‘Grobust house’ after the bay it overlooks, the structure was built in a large pit cut into a sand dune and comprises two unequal sized rooms joined by a passage. While Noltland’s other buildings are freestanding, the Grobust house has revetted drystone walls. In places still standing up to 1.1m high, these are probably preserved to almost the original roof height.
Originally discovered and partially excavated by Dr. David Clarke of the National Museums of Scotland in the late 1970′s – who revealed that part of the building may have been deliberately filled with soil at the end of its life, from which large numbers of flint tools, worked bone, pottery and stone objects, were recovered – there was a lag of over 30 years before work resumed on the house. This was the main focus of our 2012 excavation, during which the last remnants of infill were removed. With the interior of the building finally fully uncovered, we were able to explore the house’s entire layout for the first time.
This is an extract, but you can read the whole feature in CA 275