Archaeologists returned to the Links o’ Noltland prehistoric settlement in February, 26 years after the original excavations, after concerns that recently-exposed archaeology could be obliterated by erosion.
The Links o’ Noltland is an area of sand dunes behind Grobust Bay on the north-west coast of Westray. These dunes are subject to severe erosion by the wind, a problem made worse by the activity of rabbits.
First recorded by the 19th century antiquarian George Petrie, the presence of important archaeological remains has been known about for years.
But it was only in the 20th century that excavations were carried out, when the National Museum, under the direction of Dr David Clarke, investigated the site between 1978 and 1981.
These excavations focused on one Neolithic building, which comprised two rooms joined by a passage.
The building, which was reminiscent of the houses at Skara Brae, had been built into a pit dug into sand and lined with midden material.
In addition, evidence of extensive middens and cultivated fields was also found.
But this programme of work was never completed and the findings have yet to be published. The house was covered up and today nothing is visible on the surface.
In 1984, the site, and a large surrounding area, was designated as a Property in Care (PIC), managed on behalf of the state by Historic Scotland.
Erosion at the links has been a cause for concern for some years, but in October, 2006, an archaeological assessment was carried out by EASE Archaeology — well known in Westray for their work at the Knowe o’ Skea.
As a result of this survey a decision was made to excavate a section as a matter of urgency.
Funded by Historic Scotland, a team from EASE moved in at the start of February. Although not an ideal time for an excavation, it was feared that if they waited, the exposed archaeology might not survive until the summer.
Leading the excavation were Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson.
Hazel explained: “In the years following Dr Clarke’s work, many new areas of archaeological interest have been exposed as the sand cover was blown away.
“Historic Scotland has funded several campaigns of work, both to preserve the known archaeological remains and to record and assess new sites as they come to light.
“Last summer, while excavating elsewhere on Westray, we visited the links and identified three new buildings which were just then being exposed by the wind.
“Historic Scotland funded a rapid assessment of the site and a survey of the wider area — the latter in order to determine the extent of change over the entire PIC area since the last major survey carried out in 2003.
“The results indicated that the buildings were at severe risk from complete destruction and the survey found that the entire area had suffered from a substantial loss of vegetation and was therefore becoming increasingly unstable.”
The archaeologists excavated a group of three prehistoric buildings, two of which had survived in a reasonable state. The third was in a very poor state.
“We think that all three are contemporary and that they date from the Bronze Age, possibly around 1700-1500 BC, or thereabouts,” said Hazel. “The two better preserved buildings are very different in shape and detail, suggesting that they served different functions.”
One is oval in plan and extremely large, measuring 12m by 9m on the inside, with walls up to 1.5m thick.
This had a central hearth and raised platform around the inner walls. The walls are formed from an inner and outer facing of coursed stone, with midden-type deposits filling in between. It also contained tethering posts for the livestock – used to tie up the animals when they were brought in for the night. The Bronze Age inhabitants would then have shared the living space – animals on one side, people on the other.
Hazel said: “In plan, if not scale, this building is very reminiscent of Bronze Age houses known from Shetland. Finds from this building have included chipped stone tools and a quantity of steatite vessel sherds.”
Although steatite was widely-used during the Norse period, the nearest source is in Shetland, leading to the quantity of fragments in the prehistoric building being described as “highly unusual”.
Bronze Age steatite vessels have been found in funerary contexts in Orkney before, at sites such as Lingafiold in Sandwick, but Hazel stressed that the links find is sure to be the largest steatite cache found in Orkney in a Bronze Age domestic context.
The second building was smaller and sub-rectangular and is thought to have stood across a yard from the nearby dwelling. Inside, it was divided into a series of symmetrically aligned bays, or alcoves, by upright slabs. The floor was paved with large, neatly-fitted, flagstones which had been subsequently covered with yellow clay — possibly to make it more watertight.
The scale of this building and lack of domestic features suggests that it was used as a store or shed. Few finds, other than a chipped stone tool, were found inside.
The third building appears to have been oval in plan but was too badly-preserved to gain a clear impression of its internal features.
It is thought that the building’s poor state of preservation is due to the fact that it either remained visible as a topographic feature after going out of use, or that it was buried and re-exposed in the past. In either case, the stone walls were partially robbed out. Following this, it was subsequently buried under sand dunes until the wind exposed it again recently.
.Summing up, Hazel explained: “What is so interesting about the site is the Bronze Age date.
“Although this has to be confirmed by radiocarbon dating, the comparison of stone tools, steatite vessels and house plans with Shetland, which are better known, certainly suggest Bronze Age.
“There are very, very, few Bronze Age settlements known in Orkney and fewer still excavated, or published.
“The most frequent monuments of this period are funerary barrows, cist burials and burnt mounds. This excavation has recovered a wealth of new information on a period otherwise barely known about in Orkney.”
Her excitement was shared by Peter Yeoman, senior archaeologist with Historic Scotland.
He said: “Early Bronze Age houses are rare discoveries in the Orkney Islands, and this shows that settlement continued at Noltland, after the abandonment of the later Neolithic settlement excavated by Dr David Clarke from 1978-81. So we now have a much greater time depth to the site.”
The excavation has been covered and protected and Historic Scotland, working with external specialists and the local community, will now agree a strategy for the long-term conservation of the rest of the site.