Unearthing the Stone Age in Wyre

Owen Raybould cleaning the paving slabs in Trench A. (Dan Lee)

Days after finishing on the excavation at the Ness of Brodgar, archaeologist Antonia Thomas was straight out to Wyre, to start investigations into a suspected Neolithic settlement site on the island.

The site, at the Braes o’ Habreck, yielded a “treasure trove” of stone age artefacts during a fieldwalking exercise last year — including pottery fragments, stone tools and a number of immaculate, but deliberately-broken, stone maceheads.

Based on last year’s results, two trenches were opened on the two main areas of activity.

Trench A started out as 5m square and was positioned over the area which yielded the most in the way of fieldwalking finds, and which appeared to relate to a rectangular structure.

Antonia explained: “We ended up extending this trench quite a lot because, as with the rest of the site, the archaeology had been massively plough-truncated and disturbed. When we deturfed by hand, there was literally a spade’s depth between the ground level and the archaeology, with the plough soil just peeling away on to Neolithic floor surfaces.

(Picture: Dan Lee/Orkney Archaeological Trust)

The tiny stone axe (Dan Lee)

”Most of our finds were discovered during deturfing, which agrees with the amount of material we got during the fieldwalking.

“One of the most exciting finds – although, again from the top soil – was a miniature stone axe, even smaller than the smallest one from last year! At only 3cm long, it really is minute.”

She added: “When we extended this trench we came down on to very rich dark earth, which was full of pottery fragments, including some small sherds of decorated grooved ware.

“A sondage – a small exploratory trench – in this area of the trench revealed large stone slabs, just two days before the end of the dig!”

Trench B measured ten metres by two and was positioned over what the geophysics suggested was a subcircular structure.

(Picture: Dan Lee/Orkney Archaeological Trust)

The rammed stone floor found in Trench B. (Dan Lee)

“This trench revealed a solid surface of compacted stones, reminiscent of the rammed working floor at Wideford,” said Antonia.

“Several flint and coarse stone tools had been pressed into this floor, and even incorporated into it, maybe as they went out of use.

“Clear indications of in situ burning and fire-reddened stones in this floor may relate to activities that went on in this area.

Finds-wise, this trench yielded nowhere near as much as Trench A, however, there was one prize find from this trench – a beautiful Unstan ware collar sherd, decorated with deep stab and drag lines.

“Although this may indicate that this trench had earlier activity than Trench A, the relationship between different periods and different types of pottery isn’t necessarily that clear cut.”

In addition, several metre square test pits were dug to try and clarify some anomalies on the geophysics.

One of these came down straight onto areas of reddened clay and black ashy deposits that appeared to form discrete features. As a result, the test pit was extended.

(Picture: Dan Lee/Orkney Archaeological Trust)

A view of Trench C – showing the hearth. (Dan Lee)

“When this was opened up, a clear hearth feature was visible, with several other ashy deposits bounded by small uprights around it, maybe even more hearths. This trench also contained a large post-hole and several pits, all cut into the natural clay, which had experienced severe iron panning.”

Summing up, Antonia said: “It’s a shame that that is it for this year and that we were only able to do a small evaluation, but we managed to find a lot out in just under three weeks, and hopefully, if we are able to get back next year, we should be able to reveal more about what life was like in Wyre during the Neolithic.”

The project was funded by Orkney Islands Council, the Society of Antiquaries Scotland, the Flaws family and Orkney College/Orkney Archaeological Trust, with extra assistance provided by Wyre Well Boring Services and Orkney Ferries.


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