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Archaeology InSites

Knap of Howar - Papa Westray, Orkney

A Neolithic settlement

The site, known as Knap of Howar, was excavated by archaeologists in the 1930s and again in the 1970s. They found two houses built on top of and surrounded by a large collection of waste material. Archaeologists used animal bones to radiocarbon date the site, revealing that people were living here between 5700 and 4300 years ago.

Both houses are rectangular with rounded corners and thick walls. The larger of the two buildings, thought to be the main house, had two rooms. In one room archaeologists discovered a low stone bench; in the other they found the remains of a fireplace and a quern-stone. The houses were connected by a small, narrow passageway. It appears that the smaller house was used for storage as it had many cupboards and shelves built into the thick walls. Archaeologists think that both of the houses would have had timber roofs covered with turf or thatch.

Resources and diet

Archaeologists can tell a lot from the waste that people leave behind. This was certainly the case for the excavations at the Knap of Howar. Firstly, the presence of a variety of fish bones – such as cod, saithe, rockling and wrasse – shows that the people who lived here were not just fishing from the coastline, but that they had the technology to fish offshore as well. Lots of different shellfish were also found including limpets, oysters, winkles and cockles. It’s likely that the shellfish meat was used as bait for catching fish and the shells were used in pottery making. The remains of both freshwater and marine birds were also discovered – including guillemot, razorbill, puffin and great auk. Archaeologists think that seabirds could have been a valuable source of oil used for lighting. A few bones from large marine species – including seal and whale - were also discovered. Although it’s thought likely that these were scavenged from the carcasses of animals found along the coast line, it appears they were hunting large land-based animals, especially deer.

As well as finding evidence from wild animals, the remains of early forms of cattle, sheep and pig were also recovered at Knap of Howar. The cattle had only recently been domesticated and probably looked more like the large – and now extinct – auroch than the cows we are familiar with today. As well as domesticating animals, the people who lived here were probably growing crops. Although only a few scattered grains of wheat and barley were found, the presence of quernstones and grinders – used for preparing the grains before consumption – suggests that some form of plants (whether wild or home grown) were included in their diet.

Archaeologists also found over 700 pieces of flint and chert at Knap of Howar. Around 100 of these appear to have been made into tools such as knives or scrapers. Tools made from other materials were also found, including a small polished stone shaped like an axehead, as well as hammerstones, pins, needles, and a spatula. Many of the tools were likely used for leatherworking, such as awls which are used for piercing holes. Around 80 fragments of pottery were also recovered including some which were decorated. Pottery specialists have identified that they were made from local material and were likely made at or close to the settlement.

The excavations at Knap of Howar revealed that the people who lived here were very resourceful. They knew how to make the most of natural resources. However, unlike their Mesolithic ancestors, they chose to settle in once place. They were part of the farming revolution; they started to shape and influence the world around them by domesticating animals and growing crops.

Knap of Howar is one of Historic Environment Scotland's properties in care and is both free to visit and open all year round. The Orkney Islands are also home to some of Scotland’s most famous Neolithic archaeology. On the mainland, you can visit ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site which includes the famous settlement site of Skara Brae.

Join us on our next journey when we look at burial traditions from the Neolithic. We will look at a chambered cairn from Caithness excavated by antiquarians in the late 1800’s which was the final resting place of multiple individuals.
Please be aware that this site may be on private land. For more information regarding access please consult the Scottish Outdoor Access Code