Quoygrew project completes work on series of buildings occupied for nearly a millennia

Excavation work under way at Quoygrew.

The lower courses of a beautifully preserved series of buildings at Quoygrew, Rackwick, Westray, were due to be covered over this week as the sixth year of excavations on the site drew to a close.

Led by Dr James Barrett, of the University of York, the seven-week excavation continued work on a shoreside site that was occupied continuously from the ninth century until the 1930s.

Originally made up of two mounds, coastal erosion led to the discovery of archaeology, in an eroding bank, by Caroline Wickham-Jones, in 1977.

Excavation work on the mound nearest the sea has since revealed a 50-metre long series of buildings moving inland, representing different phases of use and reuse, covering a period of 900 years or so.

Although undoubtedly interesting from an architectural point of view, the project’s initial aim was to investigate the changes in Orkney’s society and economy at the end of the first millennium – a transitional period which saw a growth of international trade as the Earldom of Orkney took its place in Europe .

Quoygrew offered an ideal opportunity to study this, being continuously occupied practically throughout the second millennium. As could be expected, it showed clear evidence of two distinct “changing points” – the arrival of the Norse and their introduction of intensive fishing and the 1468 transfer of Orkney to Scotland .

Although the location of the earliest Norse houses was suspected, their locations were confirmed days before the dig was due to wind up. A trial trench opened following a series of geophysics scans revealed a glimpse of the older houses up on the mound overlooking the later structures.

Dating from ninth or tenth century, these buildings will have to wait for a year before being further examined.

This original area of settlement was built some distance from the shore, but sometime in the 1000s, a building was erected by the shoreline with a paved entrance that now faces out to sea.

The sheer depth of midden material, made up primarily of fish bones and shells, indicates that by this time intensive sea fishing activities were based around the site. The early building was apparently connected with this, perhaps serving as a store or a fish drying area.

In the 12th or 13th century, the shoreside building was extended inland and a hall added, incorporating a hearth and stone benches. The original structure was accessed via a doorway between the two rooms, although by this time its role seems to have changed to that of a byre.

The main hall saw a number of changes over the years with 15 different hearth configurations noted by the excavators. By the fourteenth century the room had been subdivided into two and the main hearth relocated to the lower end of the building.

Moving into the 1400s – the century that saw Orkney handed over to Scotland – a new structure was added to the end of the hall and, as could be expected, distinct changes noted. Whereas previous centuries had seen the Norse custom of using soapstone for domestic items, by the 1500s, there was a distinct change, with imported pottery – Rhenish and Scottish – becoming more prevalent.

With this year’s excavation, the final season on the shoreside structure, James Barrett contemplated what was next for the site.

“The good thing is that we really need do need to finish this year but we’re going to have to talk about what will and will not be done to the building, because it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to come back to it.”

The work on the lower structure now complete, it is hoped that the remains can be consolidated and some form of replica created on site. The form, and extent, of this replica remains to be decided but will allow future visitors to view the layout and interpret the development of the site.

As well as the proposed replica, an interesting element of the excavations is the digital mapping of data that will allow the creation of a 3d model of the house and a visual representation of the structure through its many changes and developments.

The Quoygrew excavation was supported by Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council.

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