Neolithic site confirmed at Bronze Age cemetery

Knowes of Trotty dig directors, Dr Jane Downes, from Orkney College, and Nick Card, from Orkney Archaeological Trust.

Questions surrounding an ‘unusual’ building at the Knowes of Trotty Bronze Age cemetery have been answered – at least partially.

The structure has turned out to be an early Neolithic house, which predates the Harray cemetery by approximately 1,500 years.

Dating from around 3,500BC, the structure resembles, and is contemporary with, the Knap o’ Howar, in Papa Westray. The house, and the various finds from within, is also very similar to buildings excavated at Stonehall, in Firth, in 1999 and 2000.

The house was originally discovered during an exploratory dig at the Knowes, in 2002.

Subsequent excavations left the archaeologists puzzled as to its origin and purpose – structures are not commonly found at Bronze Age cemetery sites.

Stone Age settlement

But returning to the site this year, by the end of the second week’s excavation, it became clear that a Stone Age settlement was once sited at the foot of the Ward of Redland.

Dr Jane Downes, of Orkney College, and Orkney Archaeological Trust’s Nick Card, led the excavators, which included Masters Archaeology students from Orkney College.

They extended the previous trenches to clarify the extent and layout of the building.

It was oblong in shape and measured approximately seven metres by four metres. The different wall constructions showed that multiple phases of occupation, with a large central hearth – typical of Neolithic dwellings throughout Orkney – dominating the floorspace.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

A side-entrance in the north-eastern wall raised hopes that a second building – identical to that at the Knap o’ Howar – would turn up. The excavation, however, revealed that outside the structure was a paved working area.

A second doorway in the structure was particularly intriguing.

Built into the south-west corner of the building, it led into what appears to be a small, stone cell, no bigger than a press, dug into the slope of the hill. This is an architectural feature not encountered in Orkney before and was to be looked at closer in the final week of the dig.

Bronze Age use

Jane Downes explained: “From a preliminary look around the area, it looks like this house was once part of a larger Neolithic settlement. We’re not certain as to how the house fitted in with the later, Bronze Age, use of the area as a cemetery, although it seems likely that it had fallen into disrepair and was later ‘adopted’ by the people of the Bronze Age.”

The key to this later use may lie in “cult houses” found in Bronze Age Scandinavia, and this adds to growing evidence that prehistoric Orkney was part of a “northern” world. Did the people of Bronze Age Orkney assume the Neolithic remains had a similar significance to these low rectangular cult houses?

Neolithic significance remembered?

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The massive primary burial barrow at the Knowes of Trotty, in Harray.

Another interesting possibility is that the site’s Neolithic significance carried over to the Bronze Age and led to its “reuse” as a cemetery.

Given the sheer size of the primary burial barrow at the Knowes, for example, it is tempting to wonder whether the Bronze Age builders may have incorporated an existing Stone Age tomb into their scheme.

The Knowes of Trotty site is one of the earliest groups of barrows in Orkney, and marks a transition from the burial practices of the Neolithic, when the dead were interred in mass communal tombs, to individual barrow burials and cremations.

But although funerary practice was changing, Bronze Age discoveries inside Orkney’s chambered cairns has shown that the structures retained some significance, were used, and may still have had a place in the rituals of the period.

The presence of a chambered tomb, which would have served the people of the Neolithic settlement centuries before, could have led to the site being chosen for the cemetery.

A fanciful idea? Perhaps not as much as you might think.

A radiocarbon date from a piece of bone retrieved from the cist at the top of the barrow last year has indicated a date of 2500BC – almost 1,000 years older than the accepted date for the Bronze Age cemetery.

Although it must be remembered that the radiocarbon date could be erroneous, and will be checked, do we have a situation where Neolithic remains were removed from an earlier structure and reburied in the Bronze Age?

Further radiocarbon tests hold the answer.

Orkney Archaeological Trust, Orkney Islands Council and Orkney College supported the excavation.

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