“Decorated” Neolithic structure unearthed in Westray

Aerial view of the Links o' Noltland showing the collapsed dune system. (Historic Scotland)

Archaeologists working on a rescue excavation in Westray have discovered a “mysterious” Neolithic structure at one of the county’s most important sites.

The announcement this week, followed the conclusion of a successful rescue excavation, led by Historic Scotland, at the Links of Noltland.

The project aimed to learn everything possible about a number of Bronze Age houses being damaged by severe wind erosion. During the excavation, the archaeologists also took the opportunity to carry out further work on a large Neolithic structure, first uncovered in the 1980s. Part way through the project, the team made an entirely unexpected discovery.

Peter Yeoman, senior archaeologist with Historic Scotland, explained: “A previously unknown Neolithic structure has been found that is very different from anything else known to exist at this remarkable site. The exterior of this structure had been “decorated” using neatly laid horizontal bands of masonry.

“It was built using dressed stone and was clearly intended to look impressive from the outside. This marks it out from houses of the time, the exteriors of which tended to be created with function, rather than looks, in mind,” said Mr Yeoman. “However, there were some very special buildings, including certain tombs, where a great deal of architectural skill went into their architecture.”

Only one small section of the structure, which is about seven metres in width and possibly greater than that in length, has been excavated and further work will be needed to establish its function. But its existence adds another dimension to one of Orkney’s richest archaeological landscapes.

Finds show that the area was inhabited at many different times. In this case, polished bone beads, tools, and grooved ware pottery associated with the structure, identified it as Neolithic, maybe dating back to a period around 4,000 years ago.

With the latest phase of excavation at an end the building is being backfilled to provide protection from winter storms. Mr Yeoman said: “This has been a highly successful programme of excavation and research. We have been able to gather a great deal of information about the Bronze Age houses that had been exposed by storms.

“At the same time we discovered even more about the Neolithic structure excavated by Dr David Clarke and were delighted to find the measures taken by Historic Scotland to protect it had worked very well and kept it in excellent condition,” he said. “We monitor the condition of this area very closely and will continue to do all we can to keep it safe as it is of great archaeological importance.”

Post-excavation work will now take place in order to get the fullest understanding of information gathered during the excavation.

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