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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016340

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/event/1016340

Approaching across the field, this well-preserved neolithic farmstead is invisible until the visitor is almost upon it, for it lies in a sand-filled pocket of the landscape and, until first excavated in the early 1930s, it was hidden within a 4m thick blanket of windblown sand. The local topography is very different now from five and a half thousand years ago: environmental evidence, especially the shells of tiny landsnails, indicates that the farmstead lay not on the shore but in open grassland behind a protective system of sand-dunes. Even now the coast of neighbouring Westray is less than 2km away across a sound that is in places no more than 7m deep, and it is possible that in neolithic times the two islands were still joined together. Certainly proximity to a bay is implied by the presence in the midden of vast numbers of oyster shells, which thrive only in a sheltered habitat.

This was a small, single-family farmstead relying for a living on breeding cattle and sheep, fishing and growing wheat and barley. The two oblong buildings represent a dwelling-house and a multipurpose workshop-cum-barn, built side by side with an interconnecting passage allowing access from one to another; they were not the first structures on the site, for they were built into an existing midden, but any earlier buildings were either dismantled or have yet to be discovered. This midden material, compacted into a dense clayey consistency, provided an economic building material, for the thick house-walls have a core of midden, faced on either side with stone.

The dwelling-house is the larger and best-preserved of the two buildings, with its entrance intact and itswalls up to 1.6 m high; the doorway at the inner end of the lintelled entrance-passage is furnished with a sill, jambs and checks to take a wooden door which would be barred into position. Inside, the house is spacious, 10m by 5m, and divided by upright stone slabs (and, originally, timber posts) into two rooms, the outer having a low stone bench along one wall and the inner acting as the kitchen; excavation revealed traces of a central hearth, footings for wooden benches and post-holes for roof-supports. The great stone quem is still where it was found, along with another smaller quern: a rubbing-stone held in the hand would grind the grain in the hollowed trough. The workshop alongside has a similar though less well-preserved main entrance and, unexpectedly, the door closing the interlinking passage between the two buildings was set in the workshop rather than in the house. Here slabs divide the interior into three rooms, the innermost furnished with shelves and cupboards and the middle room acting as the main working area, round a central stone-built hearth.

Many domestic artefacts were recovered: bone and stone tools, sherds of decorative bowls and jars (known as Unstan Ware), all made on the site from local materials (NMS).

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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