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Orkney Smr Note

Date 1989

Event ID 621105

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Orkney Smr Note


Located in December 1984 as a surface scatter of flint and burnt bone, subsequent trial excavation, funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, established the presence of a substantial Grooved Ware settlement which was rapidly being destroyed by annual ploughing. Three seasons of excavation from 1986-8, undertaken on behalf of HBM, have revealed a large settlement complex, significantly different in construction from other Neolithic settlements in Orkney, as typified by Skara Brae. From the earliest phase of occupation, the site was hierarchically organised with a large house-structure, (No 2) being surrounded by at least 6 smaller, Skara Brae-Rinyo phase-1 type houses. This situation was maintained throughout the discernible life of the settlement with, at a later stage, the larger House 2 being internally remodelled. The smaller surrounding houses were rebuilt and a general expansion in settlement is demonstrated through the construction of at least an additional 7 houses.

During the 1988 season of excavation an outer trial trench, placed slightly S of the main settlement, revealed a massive cavity wall, 3m thick, enclosing a clay floored structure of square shape with rounded corners. Internally this building was approximately 7m across. This was subsequently overshadowed by the discovery that the whole building was enclosed by a large outer wall, 1.5m thick and 26m in diameter, which enclosed a large clay and stone platform-courtyard area around the inner structure.

Structure 8

The main questions guiding the 1989 strategy concerned the nature of this unique structure, in particular its function and relationship to both the main settlement and surrounding monumental landscape.

Initially two main problems had to be resolved. First, the entrance had to be located. Second, the outer wall and clay platform required examination.

Excavations in the northwestern area revealed that all walls and much of the clay floor of the building, and of the surrounding platform, had been removed by ploughing. However, as the area was investigated both the soil-filled stone impressions of the wall and, importantly, a 'monumental' entrance way to the inner building were discernible in the form of a series of large stone holes and slots of substantial depth cutting down into the natural till. Two long slots with the remains of packing stones indicated where single uprights had lined either side of the 0.8m wide entrance passage as it ran through the 3m thick wall. Two large upright stones set into the outer wall face had expanded the entrance to a 2m width. Two large standing stones, one snapped in situ, positioned away from the outer wall had flanked the entranceway, and two smaller uprights had further extended the entrance out into the platform area.

Although at present the clay platform is only partially excavated the location of a number of hearths and associated stone boxes, pits and occupation material on the southeast portion of the platform behind the inner structure effectively demonstrated this to be a courtyard as opposed to truncated mound makeup. Moreover, this arrangement of features may imply large scale cooking activities, apparently undertaken out of view of people entering the structure.

The organisation of the inner structure had, at least superficially, many features in common with a house. The yellow clay floor had a semi-rectangular cut at the rear, corresponding with a 'dresser', and in the centre a large disturbed square-shaped area with a ploughsoil filled stone slot to the E, enclosing red burnt material, suggested a destroyed hearth. A complete Grooved Ware vessel was discovered adjacent to the eastern wall and a stone lined drain ran internally along the rear wall and out through the SE corner across the clay platform and under the enclosing wall into a large external ditch.

Although, only partly excavated, an examination of the interior floor revealed the central feature itself to be a combination of elements ending with an upright stone of indeterminate height, flanking a temporary hearth. The temporary hearth had been created by placing small stone slabs vertically against stone blocks filling an earlier 'L' shaped cut into the underlying natural. This cut, stratigraphically below the 6cm thick clay floor, must represent an earlier upright stone arrangement, standing before Structure 8 was built. Three flakes of Arran pitchstone were located on the old land surface associated with this earlier standing stone arrangement.

The complete excavation of the internal drain running out into ditch showed a general silting to have occurred. Within these silts a small ceramic vessel 3.5cm diameter and 2cm depth was found. The drain was revealed to have been maintained over a substantial period of time involving platform re-surfacing and modification. Investigation of the ditch showed it to run from Structure 8, as opposed to being a possible settlement enclosure ditch. A large amount of stone collapse from the outer wall of Structure 8 survived in its upper fill.

The 1989 excavations successfully resolved the questions posed and, importantly Structure 8 may now be compared directly with the closely situated Stones of Stenness henge monuments (Ritchie 1976) which displays remarkable similarities. The underlying aim of the whole project involved the integration of the settlement complex into the wider monumental landscape and to aid its overall interpretation. The conclusion of the Barnhouse excavations in 1990 will, without doubt fulfil these expectations.

Sponsor: SDD HBM.

C Richards DES 1989.

Information from Orkney SMR, 1989

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