Mesolithic disappointment at Minehowe, but bead hints at long-distance connections

A search for Mesolithic remains on a mound in Tankerness has come up blank leaving the experts to continue their quest for this “long lost” period of Orkney prehistory.

As part of this year’s four-week archaeological excavations around Minehowe, an exploratory dig on Longhowe, the large mound by the road, was looking for traces of the Mesolithic, the period from 9000-4000BC and renowned in Orkney for the scarcity of evidence.

The trenches followed the discovery of a number of Mesolithic flints on Longhowe last year, and geophysics work, which suggested that a “structure” of some sort had once stood by the road-facing slope.

This led to great excitement at the time because the people of the Mesolithic were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small groups and shifting according the season and the availability of food supplies.

The possibility of a permanent Mesolithic structure in Orkney was a tantalising one.

But work on the mound over the past few weeks has confirmed that the geophysics anomaly, once interpreted as a possible structure, is actually due to the geological makeup of Longhowe.

Orkney’s long-lost Mesolithic will, for the time being, remain hidden.

But despite the lack of permanent structures, other evidence found this year does seem to indicate that Mesolithic people once used the mound.

Co-directing the excavation with Orkney Archaeological Trust’s Nick Card, was Jane Downes, of Orkney College.

She explained: “We have evidence of stake-holes and lots of scatterings of flint, which are either Mesolithic or early Neolithic.

“So what we now think is that we do have traces of a Mesolithic group, who stopped briefly on the top of the mound, perhaps passing through on the way to or from hunting, fishing or gathering grounds.”

Back to the workshop

Picture Sigurd Towrie

The Minehowe metalworking workshop, showing the pits and holes around the fireplace

Moving back to Minehowe, this season’s digs were looking at various aspects of the Iron Age site, including the ditch that encircled the monument and the metalworking structure by the mound.

It is now becoming clear that this metalworking building, which last year was found to have an Iron Age woman buried under the floor, is much older than originally thought.

The building’s most recent hearth has been dated to between 100BC to 100AD, placing the structure in the middle Iron Age, and not the late Iron Age, as once thought.

This in turn makes the body found in the floor even more intriguing.

Jane explained: “Formal burials in long cists are generally found in the late Iron Age. The fact that this woman was buried before this period makes her grave even more curious, and much rarer.”

The layout of the metalworking building is now clearly visible along with its complex interior layout.

By the hearth, a triangular stone, found in the middle of an area which seemed to have been devoted to copper work, was probably where the craftsman sat while tending the items and materials all around him.

A series of holes in the floor would appear to be the remains of a complex series of furnishings around the fireplace. These were perhaps supports, on which pots, crucibles or other metalworking items, could be placed or hung over the fire.

Among the finds have been large bits of deer antler, a segment of whalebone and a complete pin in the area around the hearth. This pin, like a number found outside the building, had broad, flattened ends which may imply that they were used as tools perhaps for inscribing some of the items made on site.

A small piece of bone, carefully decorated with a chevron design was also unearthed, and, at the time of writing, another piece of suspected Roman glass had just come to light.

Somerset connection?

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The Meare Spiral bead found in midden at Minehowe.

But the star find in 2005 hints at more long distance connections between Iron Age Orkney and England.

An ornately decorated glass bead, found in a patch of midden, has been studied carefully by Martin Carruthers, a PhD student from Manchester University.

He said: “The bead appears to be an example of a particular type of glass bead decorated with what is known as a “Meare spiral”.

“This distinctive style of yellow and black bead takes its name from Meare in Somerset, in south-west England an area that has yielded over 50 different types of glass bead.”

The design, thought to date from 400-100BC, possibly as late as 100AD, was made by painting vitreous glass onto the surface of the glass beads. Although similar beads have been found across Iron Age Britain, it is suspected that this is the first found as far north as Orkney.

The bead, together with previous finds, once again highlights the high status of the site, and in particular the power and wealth of whoever was “responsible” for it. A fine example of this is the massive ditch surrounding Minehowe. This feature was recut, revetted and cleaned out on a number of occasions tasks which would have required a considerable investment in time and manpower.

Above this, it would require someone with the authority and power to mobilise such a project. Whoever controlled activities around Minehowe, seems to have had control over the people.

But although the fourth season has answered many questions, as Jane Downes explained, many remain.

“We’ve managed to resolve a lot of things around the site, but there were a lot of things to find answers to,” she said. “Numerous major questions remain. Where is the settlement connected with Minehowe, for example? Where were the people who were working, visiting and participating in activities around the site?”

A question mark remains over the location of the original chapel in the area. The traditional site of the nearby St Ninian chapel was called into question by previous geophysics scans. So it remains possible that the original early church site goes against local tradition and was perhaps not where it is mapped.

But the work at Minehowe is significant in a national sense in that it is allowing archaeologists to tie together various elements of the Iron Age, and attach a coherent timescale.

“Radio-carbon dates from Minehowe and the very diagnostic finds gathered, will provide an absolute chronology for this, and many other sites and artefact types throughout Britain,” said Jane.

Orkney Archaeological Trust, Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council supported this year’s Minehowe excavations.

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