Landscape survey leads to discovery of Neolithic settlement on Wyre

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Antonia Thomas cataloguing the hundreds of finds discovered in Wyre.

A treasure trove of Neolithic artefacts found in Wyre is hinting at the possibility the island could be the site of another Neolithic settlement.

Visiting archaeologists Antonia Thomas and Helen Bradley were carrying out a landscape survey when they chanced upon the Stone Age remains.

Almost 200 hundred items were recovered from a ploughed field south west of Ha’breck, or Hallbreck as it appears on modern maps.

These ranged from domestic pottery fragments, stone tools and axes, flint as well as five immaculate stone maceheads.

Antonia Thomas explained: “We’ve come up the last few years to work on Minehowe and have stayed with Magnus Flaws. After visiting Wyre to meet his family, and because it’s dominated by Cubbie Roo’s Castle, we thought it would be nice to do something on the island.

“Wyre’s position in Orkney is quite significant – basically it’s bang in the centre of Orkney and provides a clear vantage point to view the surrounding sea and islands. In a landscape sense, it’s an incredibly interesting place as well.

“Near the end of our survey, we began noticing some patches of darker, stonier soil in one of the ploughed fields. Then we started noticing finds – loads of them!

“Initially, we found a small polished soft-stone axe, two macehead fragments, coarse stone tools and pottery. When we took all of this into Orkney College to show Orkney Archaeological Trust, we managed to get a team of volunteers together to do some systematic fieldwalking that led to us discovering some more macehead fragments.

One of the broken maceheads from Wyre

One of the broken maceheads from Wyre.

The maceheads, which appear to have been deliberately broken, are otherwise unblemished, which would hint at their ritual or ceremonial function.

The finds came from an area of the field which looks like containing the traces of two structures.

One is a rectangular building that is thought to have been domestic, the other, approximately five metres or so to the north-east, was large and circular and measured approximately 35 metres in size.

The maceheads were found in the vicinity of this circular structure, which led to comparisons between the latest finds and those made previously at Barnhouse, in Stenness.

The parallels between the two sites are immediately apparent.

The Barnhouse settlement was discovered in the winter of 1984, after a fieldwalking exercise undertaken by archaeologist, Dr Colin Richards.

Agricultural activity over the centuries meant that little remained of the Barnhouse site, but the resulting excavations uncovered 15 small dwellings in varying stages of development. At the centre of this settlement, and surrounded by a 20-metre circular wall, was the building now simply known as Structure Eight.

Structure Eight has since been interpreted as a major ritual or ceremonial site and hailed as the largest covered structure from Orkney’s Neolithic past.

Although the finds certainly hinted at more sub-surface archaeology, attempts to clarify the situation using geophysics have been inconclusive so far. Although the geological make-up of two stone seams running under the area interfered the team’s scan results, it is hoped that they will show something once “cleaned up”.

Antonia and Helen will now go on to write up their results but hope to be able to secure funding to allow them to come back and investigate further.

“Ideally, we’d love to get back an open up some small evaluation trenches,” said Antonia, “to see exactly just what’s going on.”

The project was supported by Orkney Archaeological Trust and funded by Orkney Islands Council.

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