Minehowe flints hint at Orkney’s earliest settlers

A scattering of flints unearthed near Minehowe could mark the site of the earliest “settlement” found in Orkney to date.

The flints were found during the excavation of the Bronze Age barrow on top of Longhowe – the raised strip of land between Minehowe and the circular feature known as Roundhowe, to the south-west.

Orkney Archaeological Trust project manager Nick Card explained: “Within the make-up of the barrow we found lots of bits of flint – in fact more flint from this one area than we got from the rest of the site. We originally thought these were Bronze Age but a couple were definitely diagnostic of the Mesolithic.”

The Mesolithic period in Orkney, from around 9000-4000BC, is renowned for the scarcity of evidence.

The people of the period were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small groups and shifting according the season and the availability of food supplies. This, along with the fact that they did not create stone constructions, such as Skara Brae or Maeshowe, means they have left little trace for the modern archaeologist.

Compared to the wealth of material for later periods of prehistory, the evidence of the human inhabitants of Orkney during the Mesolithic period is scant, so it is not surprising that the find is causing some excitement.

“Looking at the earlier geophysics of Longhowe there’s a couple of small anomalies which could be structures or evidence of settlement activity ,” said Nick. “Next year, we’re hoping to see whether these anomalies are associated with the flint finds.”

Nick added: “If these anomalies prove to be evidence of early structures then we could have Orkney’s long-lost Mesolithic site – the “one” we’ve been looking for. The implications of this are monumental.”

Mesolithic Orkney

Mesolithic Orkney would have looked much different than it does now, probably with a more wooded environment and a sea-level up to 30 metres lower than today.

This in itself is interesting as most Mesolithic sites in Scotland are found near the coast, while the Tankerness flints show that people were considerably inland.

Archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones, a specialist in the period, is delighted by the find.

“It is just what I have been waiting for,” she said. “Although there are tantalising hints elsewhere of the Mesolithic people who lived in Orkney, this is the first time we have a site with good excavation potential. This will enable us to learn much more about the islands’ first settlers.

“Until now we’ve had to look very generally at the Mesolithic in Orkney, but now we have a good specific site to work from and that we can expand outwards to put it into context – find out more about the environment and so on. It may sound a bit clichéd but I think it is probably the start of something big and has implications for our understanding of the early settlement of Scotland as a whole.”

Rescanning the area

Following the discovery, Orkney College’s archaeological geophysics unit re-surveyed the area around Longhowe.

The team of archaeology students, led by geophysicist Dr Susan Ovenden, were looking to clarify a number of anomalies previously detected near a scattering of Mesolithic flints found during an excavation of the Bronze Age barrow on Longhowe.

Speaking after the new scanning operation, Dr Ovenden said: “We’ve got a little bit more detail than was on the original scan made by John Gater five years ago. There certainly are discrete anomalies which look like archaeological remains, rather than natural.”

A “ground-truthing” excavation will now be required to see if, and how, the anomalies are related to the Mesolithic discovery on the site.

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