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Date 1973 - 1975

Event ID 1008820

Category Recording

Type Excavation


In 1973 and 1975 Dr A Ritchie conducted further excavations to obtain dating evidence and consolidate collapsed areas of walling. The interiors of both houses were re-excavated, some 8.5m length of collapsed house wall were examined, about 36 sq m of midden were investigated, and 15 test-pits were dug to ascertain the extent of the midden. A simple stratigraphic sequence was established:

1. (Period I). A layer of midden material (0.4m thick) represents the primary phase of activity. Apart of the remains of stone paving, there is no evidence of contemporary construction; further structures of this phase may have been lost to the sea.

2. (Period II). The two surviving houses were built on top of the earlier midden, house 1 being the earlier. An upper layer of midden material (0.2m thick) was contemporary.

Both the archaeological evidence and the radiocarbon dates demonstrate that there was no cultural or significant chronological difference between the two major periods of activity on the site. A series of nine radiocarbon determinations places the occupation between 3700 and 2800 cal BC.

House 1 was clearly the main dwelling house and remained in use throughout phase II. It is rectilinear on plan (with rounded corners both internally and externally), and measures 10m by 5m in overall floor area. The wall survives to a height of 1.6m and is 1.5m thick, being built with inner and outer drystone facings, and a core of midden material. The entrance (a paved and lintelled passage 1.7m long) survives at the W end. A further passage through the N wall leads into house 2. House 1 is divided into two rooms by a line of four upright slabs and (formerly) two timber posts. The outer (W) room was paved and furnished with a low stone bench of platform along the S wall; little remained of the original floor-deposit. The inner (E) room was had not been cleared out so thoroughly by the early excavators; a thin skin of original deposit survived with a hearth (in a shallow hollow) and a massive trough quern. The floor was unpaved, and surface grooving may indicate the former presence of a bench lining the walls. There was a small aumbry in the N wall.

House 2 was built alongside house 1, but their walls touched only at the conjoining passage. Although built in the same way, this house is smaller (measuring 7.5m by 3m internally) and less regular on plan; the walls survive to a height of 1.26m. It appears to have served a different function, and is divided by upright slabs into three rooms. The outer (W) room was featureless apart from the two doorways, one into house 1 and the other (a paved passage 1.5m long) through the W wall. The internal wall-face on either side of the main entrance exhibits post-and-panel technique, which is not found elsewhere. Both entrance passages had been carefully blocked in antiquity. The small innermost (E) room was evidently intended for storage: five 'cupboards', three shelves or aumbries and two pits were apparent. The central room was apparently the main working area; the floor deposits were 0.2m thick and undisturbed by the early excavators. Within this room there were two successive hearths, one of them measuring 0.7m by 0.65m with a substantial stone kerb and a boulder floor; the other was a shallow pit similar to that in house 1. The fuel burnt could not be determined by analysis of the surviving ash.

Both houses probably had hipped timber-framed roofs, possibly supported by partial corbelling of the walls and also by the tall upright slabs built into the walls and by the wooden posts in house 1. They were filled with sand when first discovered, and there is no evidence for the use of flagstone roofing; a simple covering of turf or thatch appears probable. The erosion-damaged wall-foundations and paving found by the early excavators outside the entrance to house 1 may represent the remains of a yard or annexe.

The houses were flanked by midden deposits which were spread to a uniform thickness of about 0.35m over an area of about 500 sq m. The lower layer belonged to the primary phase of settlement while the upper represented domestic refuse from the period of use of the houses. The contents of the two layers were virtually identical, being rich in artifacts and organic remains with the exception of plant material. The remains of a variety of fish (including saithe, wrasse, rockling, cod and ling) were identified, indicating both inshore and offshore fishing. Among the diverse remains of shellfish, limpets were predominant but oyster, winkle, cockle and razorshell were also significant. The direct contribution of shellfish to the economy was minimal, but they were apparently used as fishing bait and pottery filler. The bird remains included both freshwater and marine species; guillemot, razorbill, puffin and great auk being of potential value as sources of oil for lighting.

The faunal evidence suggests that the settlement formed a self-supporting agricultural unit of primarily pastoral character, being based on the raising of sheep and cattle in equal numbers. Both these animals show evidence of fairly recent domestication; the cattle were large and closely related to the aurochs while the sheep were a primitive form bearing poor wool. A few large pigs were kept and deer were hunted on occasion; the seal- and whalebones found were probably derived from carrion. Cereal cultivation may have been more important than the evidence suggests, the recovery of only scattered grains of wheat and barley being due to adverse soil conditions. Two querns were discovered, as well as stone 'seed-grinders' which may suggest the collection and use of wild plants as a plant source.

The extensive and varied artifactual assemblage is significant for the apparent absence of imports from beyond Orkney or even from beyond the local area. Some 700 pieces of flint and chert were recovered, all of them apparently derived from nearby beaches. One in seven displayed evidence of working; knives and scrapers were identified.

Portions of 78 pots (sometimes described as 'dainty bowls') were recognised, about 13 being bowls of Unstan type, 41 simple bowls (either plain or bearing restrained decoration) and about 9 bowls of shouldered or cordoned form. These vessels are characteristically smaller and thinner-walled than the tomb pottery of the same type. Petrological analysis indicates local manufacture.

Thirty-five bone and stone artifacts (excluding flint) were recovered. A small polished stone axe found in the pottery midden was of fine-grained dolomite, apparently from a local source. The querns, hammerstones, seed-grinders and stone borers found were all worked from beach pebbles.

The bone assemblage included artifacts of both common and distinctive types: awls, pins, a needle and a dimpled gouge of unparalleled form. A whalebone spatula and a blubber knife were also found, as were perforated mallets (possibly to be seen as prototype maceheads) of antler and whalebone. Many of the bone tools are of types traditionally associated with leatherworking; some of the awls display evidence of wear.

The association of the settlement with Unstan ware suggests an association with the stalled cairns that contain pottery of this class. The architecturally-comparable use of slab-defined compartments and side-benches also links houses and cairns; the nearby stalled cairn of Holm of Papa Westray North (HY55SW 2) has been proposed as an associated mausoleum.

The following radiocarbon determinations (all derived from mixed animal bone) were obtained:

Lower midden 2820+/-180 bc Birm-816

Lower midden 2472+/-70 bc SRR-349

Midden filling wall of house 2 2320+/-100 bc Birm-813

Lower midden 2300+/-130 bc Birm-815

Midden filling wall of house 1 (= lower midden) 3756+/-85 bc SRR-347

(Re-run of SRR-347) 2131+/-65 bc SRR-452

Upper midden (contemporary with house 1) 2815+/-70 bc SRR-348

House 2, floor deposit 2740+/-130 bc Birm-814

House 1, floor deposit 2582+/-70 bc SRR-346

Upper midden (contemporary with house 1) 2501+/-70 bc SRR-344

House 1, floor deposit 2398+/-75 bc SRR-345

Chronologically, the later dates from Knap of Howar overlap the start of the sequence at Skara Brae (HY21NW 12.00).

Artifacts from this site are held in Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, and in the National Museums of Scotland.

A Ritchie 1984; A Ritchie 1985

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