Emergency excavation after January storms uncover Bronze Age site

Map of Sanday, OrkneyAn emergency excavation on Sanday drew to a close on Wednesday, after a team of archaeologists spent the past few days examining a prehistoric site unearthed by the January storms.

The combination of last month’s extreme weather and high tides revealed the previously unknown site, at Meur, in Northwall, on the north-eastern tip of the island.

Originally, the site was thought to be part of a burial mound or cemetery. Situated on a west-facing shore, the weather had uncovered a series of stone settings that were very similar to burial cists common throughout Orkney.

A large central “cist” was found to have been inserted deeply into a clay base, but did not appear to contain any obvious remains – human or otherwise.

But due to the continual risk of the site being obliterated by the elements, Historic Scotland despatched a team, from archaeology company AOC, to examine and record the discovery.

Work began at Meur last Saturday, February 12, and was completed on Wednesday.

But rather than being the remains of a funerary monument, it now appears the site had an entirely different use.

County archaeologist, Julie Gibson said: “We thought it was going to be a burial mound but it has turned out to be something else entirely.”

She added: “It’s now looking like being a burnt mound, probably dating from the Bronze Age, although with hardly any of the usual burnt mound material. This is simply because the usual burnt material found around these type of sites could either have been washed away, or maybe lies underneath the adjacent modern road.”

What is a burnt mound?

Burnt mounds are typical of Bronze Age Orkney (1800-600BC)

They are generally just mounds of blackened earth, usually found near a source of fresh water, mixed with the remains of heated stones and ash. Beneath these mounds lie the remains of paved areas, usually incorporating a hearth and a stone lined pit.

But at Meur, the situation is altogether more sophisticated, with a paved area and an impressive water system incorporating a stone tank, cistern and overflow.

What this was used for is open to debate.

Burnt mounds are generally agreed to be the remains of areas used for heating water. Hot stones, from nearby fires, were placed in a water-filled tank, thus heating water.

What this hot water, or steam, was used for depends on which theory you follow. Some favour the idea that the sites were purely domestic and used for cooking. The lack of domestic remains, however, has prompted the idea that the sites had a more ritualistic, religious or ceremonial use – perhaps a sweathouse or sauna.

Whatever the purpose, as the heated stones cooled and cracked, the fragments were discarded and built up around the area, which, along with quantities of ash, went on to form the burnt mounds that dot the landscape today.

With the Meur emergency excavation complete, the site will now be left to the elements.

The excavation was sponsored by Historic Scotland and Orkney Archaeological Trust.

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