Experts ponder mystery of Neolithic wooden structure

Excavations in progress at an early Neolithic settlement at the foot of Wideford Hill. On the right, in the foreground, is an extensive 'cobbled' surface interpreted as a work area. This area produced a plethora of finds, including five polished stone axes and numerous sherds of early Neolithic round-bottomed pottery, including decorated Unstan Ware. On the left is one of a series of drains that crossed the site and appear to direct ground water away from the structures. The early Neolithic house, which appears similar to the Knap of Howar, on Papa Westray, is under excavation in the background.

The scant remains of the only wooden prehistoric structures found, to date, in Orkney, were left this week as a three-week excavation at the foot of Wideford Hill drew to a close.

The dig, sponsored by Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and Manchester University, saw the welcome return to the county of Dr Colin Richards of Manchester University.

A shallow trench was opened in a field by the side of the main Kirkwall-Stromness road –  a site originally “discovered” by Orkney antiquarian, Robert Rendall, in the 1930s.

Speaking on the final days of the excavation, Dr Richards summed up the discovery: “There’s a lot here we just don’t understand yet. It’s not much to look at, but it’s going to prove very important.”

Perhaps the most exciting discovery in terms of Orkney archaeology was that of a series of large post-holes. Although the wooden posts have long since rotted away, the holes clearly show the position of a number of circular structures. The lack of stone foundations would indicate that these circular buildings were wooden, perhaps dating back around 6,000 years.

Dr Richards explained: “We just never expected we would find wooden buildings in Orkney – there just aren’t any timber buildings in Orkney. What we’ve got here are circular structures made up of a circle of timber posts and a central hearth.

“Originally we thought these might date from the Mesolithic period (7000-4000BC), because there’s a handful of the sort of sites throughout Britain. But this doesn’t seem to be the case now as we’ve just found a shard of distinctly Neolithic pottery in the base of one of the post holes.”

Some of the post-holes that make up one of the timber structures. A shallow scoop near the centre of the photo is the remains of a hearth.

Given their diameter and depth, the post-holes must have once held substantial wooden pillars. This in turn, said Dr Richards, implies that the posts themselves were supporting a fairly substantial structure. At the centre of these buildings was a shallow hearth scooped out of the earth.

A second, smaller building was also uncovered, surrounded by a number of other seemingly random post-holes. From the ground this scatter of holes looked erratic, but viewed from above Dr Richards thinks he spotted a pattern a rectangular shape with oval corners.

“It does look like we’ve got several things going on here in relation to wooden constructions. We’ve got a number of these circular wooden structures of varying sizes and given the lack of foundations we can see that they did not have stone walls.

“Instead we’ve got wooden walls or perhaps wicker or suchlike and if these timber posts were as substantial as they appear to have been, they would have been supporting quite a decent sized building.”

On Tuesday, the archaeologists found the remains of a stone Neolithic structure that appears to be contemporary with the houses found a short distance away at Stonehall in Firth.

This early Neolithic house, possibly dating from around 3,600 BC, has long curved walls similar to those found at the Knap o’ Howar in Papay.

“The area around this structure is a bit confusing for us,” said Dr Richards, “There seems to be gullies and things coming through into a big drain that runs around the outer wall of the house. The house itself is a good, substantial building with good, thick walls.”

A short distance from this stone structure was an area particularly rich in finds, especially decorated pottery in the style known as Unstan Ware.

The early Neolithic house similar to the Knap o' Howar under excavation. The central hearth and part of the internal wall face can be seen. Although most of the walling/stonework has been lost, the outline of the structure could be traced by the remains of wall foundations and a large ditch/drain which seemed to curve around the structure on the upslope.

Dr Richards continued: “This has been full of material. It’s one of the richest sites I’ve ever dug on. There has been tons of Unstan Ware pottery, which only turned up in small quantities at the Knap of Howar. We’ve got vast quantities turning up here.”

Among the other finds were five stone axes, a wealth of broken tools and copious quantities of flint.

“What it looks like we’ve got is a big working area built away from the main house. There, when they broke their tools, they were just leaving them, which explains why there’s so much intermingled with the other finds.”

“It’s very difficult to judge the date of this building but it does resemble some of the Stonehall structures so I’m thinking that this may well be contemporary with Stonehall.”

The site, with a sequence of construction ranging from wooden structures, estimated to date from around 3,900BC, to the later stone structures more commonly associated with the Neolithic in Orkney, will greatly add to archaeologists’ understanding of the period.

Summarising, Dr Richards said: “What we’ve got here in the relatively small excavation area are these circular post hole structures, maybe several of them built and used over several years. And then we have a later stone built house with an associated working area.

“This is all very interesting and all very early. It’s almost certainly going to produce some of the earliest dates we’ve got in the islands.”

He added: “The exciting thing for us is that we’ve got another rich Neolithic assemblage of material that we can now compare with Stonehall.

“So we’re now looking to see whether the people here were making and doing things differently to those from Stonehall, using different type of pottery, for example, to express their differences in other words like two distinctly different communities or were they actually very similar.”

Radiocarbon dating will now be used to clarify the age of the various structures.

 

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