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Sanday, Tofts Ness

Chambered Cairn (Prehistoric)(Possible), Cist(S) (Prehistoric), Dyke(S) (Period Unknown), Mound(S) (Prehistoric), Roundhouse (Prehistoric)

Site Name Sanday, Tofts Ness

Classification Chambered Cairn (Prehistoric)(Possible), Cist(S) (Prehistoric), Dyke(S) (Period Unknown), Mound(S) (Prehistoric), Roundhouse (Prehistoric)

Alternative Name(s) Taft's Ness; Shelly Knowe

Canmore ID 3572

Site Number HY74NE 1

NGR HY 7600 4700

NGR Description Centred HY 7600 4700

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Lady
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

HY74NE 1 centred 760 470

See also HY74NE 3 and HY74NE 5.

'A broch on Toftness, Sanday is said to be the provenance of several bone borers and a piece of pumice on which they had been sharpened, which were exhibited to Society of Antiquaries of Scotland by J W Cursiter in 1885. No other reference to this broch has been found, but Dr Wood in describing what to him appeared to have been a well-peopled settlement (Information from letter by Dr Wood to OS) states The greater part of the Ness has been enclosed with a chain of forts, which were connected by a stone wall.

One of the forts on the wall was examined a few years ago. It measured, inside 16' in length and 6 in width, the walls were 8' in height and from 4' to 5' in thickness; at the height of 6' from the foundation, the stones inside, were laid so as the upper stone overlapped the one immediately beneath, thus contracting the opening above, which was roofed over with large flat stones. All the stones in this building were large flat stones from the beach. The wall was regular and firmly built. There was no clay or cement of any kind. A deer's horn was found in the building and several fragments of bones(Letter from Dr Wood).

In the enclosed area the ground has been covered with buildings of various sizes:- circles of stones set on edge, with, frequently, an upright central stone, are still to be seen, - and numerous graves lined with flat stone, and also surrounded by small circles of stones.

Several of these graves have been opened, some of them contain human bones, - others contain only ashes, in many of them deer's horns have been found. Sand blow has almost obliterated the site (Letter from Dr Wood).

RCAHMS describe 'earth-houses' said to have been opened in the area, but by 1928 they were covered by sand. According to local report the majority consisted of rectangular cavities about 3' in depth, over 5' in width and a little more in length, and constructed cist-wise of large slabs and covered with a flat stone. Bone implements were recovered from some of them.

These might be Dr Wood's 'graves'. A human bicuspid tooth 'found in one of the sepulchral tumuli at Toftness, 1818' and probably from Dr Wood's collection, was donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) by David Balfour of Balfour and Trenabie in 1863.

Large, possibly prehistoric mounds are recorded by Wainwright near Geo of Toftsness (HY 761 474).

New Statistical Account (NSA) 1845; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1865 (Donations); Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1885 (Exhibits); RCAHMS 1946, visited 1928.

Scheduled as Tofts Ness, cairns and enclosures.

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 2 October 1991.


Field Visit (28 July 1970)

In the area centred at HY 760 470, partly covered by sand-blow are six large, turf-covered artificial mounds (A-F); several denuded stony banks, possibly a field system of uncertain period; an enclosure (G); and over 50 smaller mounds.

Of the large mounds 'A' is probably the alleged broch previously mentioned by Cursiter. It survives as a mound about 30.0m in diameter and 1.2m high with a rim of stony material around its top enclosing a slight hollow about 12.0m in diameter. It shows no broch features and cannot be classified, although undoubtedly artificial.

'B', measuring about 15.0m in diameter and 0.8m high, is a mound of earth and stones, possibly a cairn.

'C' measures about 33.0m in diameter with a smaller mound about 11.0m in diameter surmounting it, making a total height of 2.8m. Several upright slabs forming no intelligible pattern protrude through the turf.

'D' also shows several protruding stones, and measures about 22.0m in diameter and 1.1m high.

'E' is a crescentic-shaped mound, 1.8m high, almost certainly a burnt mound, though turf-covering and sand obscures its content. It is named Shelly Knowe on OS 6".

'F', about 12.0m in diameter and 0.8m high displays a content of stone, and may be a cairn.

Some of the denuded banks, spread to about 3.0m and 0.4m in height, exhibit a resemblance to HY63NE 5 in incorporating at irregular intervals stony mounds, averaging 7.0m in diameter, which may be cairns. These are the 'chain of forts' which Wood refers to, but both banks and mounds are too spread and overgrown for detailed observation, and there have undoubtedly been other mounds now virtually destroyed in addition to the eleven surveyed.

The E side of the enclosure 'G' is obscured by beach debris, and it is of uncertain period. Within it is the W arc of an apparently once circular bank and now overlaid by a seaweed rock, and a turf-covered mound about 9.5m in diameter and 0.6m high, with which it may be associated.

Immediately N of mound 'B' is a rectangular area 55.0m N-S by 40.0m E-W, bounded by sandy heaps which may conceal structures.

Both within and outside the area enclosed by the stony banks and the sea are at least 50 turf-covered mounds from 6.0m to 12.0m in diameter. Some are undoubtedly natural sandy knolls, but others may be cairns or clearance heaps but this cannot be determined without excavation. There is no trace of circular stone settings.

It is uncertain what the complex represents. Some of the large mounds could be sand covered occupation sites with the banks being associated field walls, but the similarity of some of the mounds to HY63NE 5 suggests the possibility that they may be sepulchral. There are also traces of comparatively recent cultivation in the area.

Until excavated it is impossible to classify.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (NKB) 28 July 1970.

Measured Survey (July 1980)

The complex of cairns and enclosures on Tofts Ness, Sanday is the most extensive and best preserved example of this type to survive on North Ronaldsay or Sanday. Agriculture has recently encroached on its W and S sections, and modern land-clearance and rabbit-burrowing threaten further damage. This survey, which was undertaken in July 1980 by Mr J B Stevenson and Mr A J Leith of RCAHMS with the assistance of Dr R G Lamb, includes only the NE part of the ness, where the remains are best preserved and at greatest risk; it is intended that the survey of the whole area will be completed in the future with a more detailed discussion of the sites than is possible here.

The complex comprises three large mounds; more than 300 small cairns; one long mound; a series of enclosure banks; at least one enclosure; and miscellaneous recent features.

The large round mounds (1-3; HY 7618 4730, HY 7610 4683, HY 7620 4678) measure from 26m to 33m in diameter and up to 2.8m in height, and are composed of a mixture of sand and stones. They are probably prehistoric burial-cairns, but there is nothing to indicate whether they are chambered or not. Both chambered and unchambered round cairns have been found in association with small cairns in Orkney, e.g. at Elsness, Sanday (RCAHMS 1980, Nos. 7-8) and at Knowes of Trotty, Mainland (RCAHMS 1946, ii, 29-31, No. 73), and although these three mounds are larger than the majority of the Orkney Bronze Age cairns their size alone cannot be used as an indicator of their date. All three have secondary structures built on top of them; 1 and 2 are capped by stone-walled enclosures of relatively recent date, and at 2 and 3 settings of upright slabs suggest domestic occupation.

The smaller cairns range from 2m to 15m in diameter, stand up to 0.7m in height and are composed of a core of stones covered by sand. On one cairn, outside the area of survey, the remains of a cist are visible and it is likely that the majority of the cairns cover burials (for the results of the excavations in some of the cairns see RCAHMS 1980 p.9).

Near the centre of the surveyed area there is a long, somewhat rectilinear, mound (4, HY 7606 4703), which is overlain by Bank A; it stands to a height of 0.5m and shows signs of disturbance. Dr Wood (see p.9) records the excavation of a long mound on the line of the banks, which contained a vaulted chamber measuring 16 ft by 6 ft (4.88m by 1.83m), possibly a chambered cairn. As the bank is still intact it is unlikely that this is the mound referred to by Wood, but it may represent a similar structure.

A number of banks (A-G, J-L, N, P, Q), which range from 1m to 3.5m in thickness and up to 0.4m in height, are situated on the ness. They are composed of a stone core covered by sand; in places stone-robbing or rabbit-burrowing has completely levelled them. Several cairns have been built on top of the banks, whilst at least two of the mounds appear to be earlier than the banks (4, Bank A; 5, Bank E). The only visible original entrance through the enclosures is formed by the banks is in Bank A, 65m SSW of its junction with Bank N. Bank H is much more substantial than the others, measuring up to 10m in thickness and 0.5m in height; its function is not clear, but it may have formed an enclosure of more recent date than the others. The stratigraphical relationships of the banks cannot be ascertained by fieldwork alone, but surface traces suggest that A and N are contemporary; A overlies E-G; E may be later than D-F; L is overlain by enclosure M; and H overlies G and J.

The more recent features include enclosure M, which is two-phase and contains an inner enclosure which is partly overlain by a kelp-drying rack; kelp-drying stances (R); kelp-kilns (S-T); marker cairns (U); and close to cairn 1, various mounds, stone walls and an oval enclosure.

RCAHMS 1980, visited by RCAHMS (JBS, AL) July 1980

Orkney Smr Note (1999)

In 1985 excavation commenced upon a settlement mound, which forms part of a well preserved archaeological landscape on the peninsula of Tofts Ness, Sanday (See HY74NE 1).

Geophysical survey has suggested that the mound extends beyond its apparent physical edges, to the S and E. Two trenches were excavated to indicate the extent and nature of the archaeological material which is threatened by mole ploughing on the southern and eastern flanks of the mound.

Excavation revealed that the mound's edges are buried by wind blown sand reducing the visible physical extent of the site. Rich midden layers were encountered containing well preserved animal bone and mollusc remains. Evidence was also found of a structure some 4m in diameter, with a S facing entrance and flagged floor.

Pottery recovered contains a number of incised decorated sherds suggesting a Bronze Age context for the site.

S J Dockrill DES 1985.

Excavation continued in advance of agricultural improvement, and revealed a well preserved round house and annexe surrounded by a buried soil containing evidence of ard cultivation. Dating evidence suggests a late Bronze Age context for this building complex. Trenches transecting the S and E edges of the mound produced evidence of two structures and substantial midden deposits dating to the early bronze age.

S J Dockrill DES 1986.

Excavation of a settlement mound in advance of agricultural improvements has identified two main phases of occupation dating from the Neolithic to the early Bronze Age and the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age. Excavation concentrated upon a round house structure.

In the surrounding landscape prehistoric land management is suggested by data obtained by magnetic survey together with excavation and soil auger profiles.

Survey (conventional and geophysical) has also located a number of other major sites containing settlement characteristics to the W of the scheduled landscape.

S J Dockerill 1987.

Excavations were concluded in 1988. Levels stratigraphically below that of the Early Iron Age round house, the focus of the main excavation area, were examined in detail. Evidence of two further structures pre-dating the round house were identified and partially excavated. The largest of these was also of round house form and had been extensively robbed by the later structure. An oval structure complete with paving and a stone lined tank, packed with clay was examined in the SE corner of the excavation area.

Work on the surrounding landscape consisted of excavation of paleo-landsurfaces and sampling and an assessment of another settlement mound badly disturbed by the mole plough.

Geophysical surveys established the presence of further sites and the extent of others identified previously.

S J Dockerill 1988.

HY 756 464. An excavation was carried out by AOC Archaeology for the University of Stirling at Tofts Ness, Sanday, as part of a PhD project. The aim of the project is to look at continuity and change in soil management systems in the Northern Isles, from the Neolithic until the early 20th century. Tofts Ness was the third of three sites sampled, following work at Scatness, Shetland, and Bragasetter Farm, Papa Stour, Shetland.

The Tofts Ness peninsula is a low-lying area of windblown, sandy soils with over 300 mounds and cairns, many of which may be funerary monuments. A survey of this landscape was carried out by Bradford University in the 1980s, and excavations were subsequently carried out by Steve Dockrill on a multi-period settlement mound (Mound 11) measuring 70 x 35m. Seven phases were identified on the site, spanning the Neolithic to the Iron Age.

Mound 11 was re-excavated in 1999 in order to sample and compare the Neolithic soil at the base of the sequence with the deepened agricultural soil created in the Bronze Age and the overlying Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age sandy agricultural soil. Test pits were excavated within two of Dockrill's excavation trenches in order to sample the stratigraphy from the section faces where the chronology had already been established. In the first test pit the Bronze Age soil was sealed by Early Iron Age middens. In the second test pit a Neolithic agricultural soil (identified by the ard marks which cut into the till below) was sealed by Neolithic middens. The middens were sealed by the Bronze Age soil, which was sealed by the sandy Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age soil. Samples were taken from all phases of the buried soils and also from the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age middens.

An auger survey was carried out in order to trace the extent of the buried soils, and the information from the survey was used to plan where to put further test pits. Seven test pits in two parallel transects showed that the Bronze Age soil was up to 35cm thick and extended for some 36m to the E of Mound 11. Beyond this point the original land surface sloped down into a hollow in which the soils became peaty and the blown sand which sealed the soils was much deeper. The sand-based LBA-EIA soil was traced to a distance of 14m E of Mound 11, where sand-filled ard marks could be seen cutting into the Bronze Age soil below.

Post-excavation analyses of the samples will include soil micromorphology, pH, loss on ignition and phosphate analysis, magnetic susceptibility, and analysis of the soil.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Natural Environment Research Council, AOC Archaeology.

E Guttmann, A Duffy and R McCullagh and A Duffy 1999

Information from Orkney SMR

Field Visit (1999)

An extensive complex of earthen banks and cairns are located to the east side and tip of Tofts Ness. Within the complex are several larger mounds and groups of smaller mounds which are located in close proximity and which together form chains or enclosures. Previously, it was speculated that the majority of the mounds were likely to be funerary monuments, possibly surrounding larger Maes-Howe type tombs, however, investigations in the 1980's revealed a Bronze Age structural complex, rich midden deposits and buried cultivation soils. The results of this work are awaited and as yet there is very little known for certain about the remains in the wider landscape. Two mounds and two stone concentrations are located on the coast edge and are vulnerable to erosion. Stones protrude from the mounds, possibly indicating the presence of structural remains. The stone concentrations may represent remnant structures which have been damaged by erosion but could alternatively be the ex-situ remains of structures removed from further inland. Ref.: RCAHMS (1946), #474; RCAHMS (1980), #15; Dockrill, SJ (1985) 'Sanday (Lady parish), Tofts Ness. Settlement', DES (1985), 32; Dockrill, SJ (1986) 'Sanday, Tofts Ness. Bronze Age settlement mound', DES (1986), 22-3.

Moore & Wilson 1999.

Coastal Zone Assessment Survey, 1999


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