New contender for Orkney’s oldest settlement site

A view of the site, looking out towards Mill Bay.

There’s a new contender for Orkney’s earliest “settlement”, following a two week investigation in Stronsay.

Naomi Woodward, who discovered two tiny flint arrowheads in Stronsay, last year, returned to the island at the beginning of March. There, with five other archaeologists, she discovered a huge quantity of flint, together with what could be the county’s only example of in-situ Mesolithic settlement activity.

The Mesolithic period, from around 9000BC-4000BC, is renowned for its scarcity of evidence.

Excavations in Stronsay.

The people of the period were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small groups and moving around, according to the season and availability of food supplies. Because of their itinerant lifestyle, they left little trace for the modern archaeologist.

The Stronsay flint cache looks like representing a temporary camp – erected, possibly during a hunting expedition, on a landmass that would eventually become Stronsay. In foul weather conditions, a number of one-metre square test pits were opened over a 60 metre area. The results left the excavators in no doubt that there had been early activity.

Naomi explained: “We’ve got over a thousand pieces of flint – lots of very fine blades and microliths and the debitage you get from flint knapping.

“Links House, where we were excavating, was the site where we discovered the tanged points last year, but a second location of Millfield, where another tang was discovered in the 1920s, is 2km away. The artefacts we were getting were quite different from the normal Mesolithic artefacts, and this could mean the site might be a bit earlier than we were first anticipating.

“We knew as soon as we started retrieving material that what we were getting was quite a bit earlier than your typical Neolithic material – because it was just so fine. Even the flints we picked up at Longhowe, near Minehowe, last summer were quite different.”

Mud and water - the perils of a March excavation in Orkney.

Although dating evidence is needed to confirm it, the site is possibly older than the one found at Longhowe last year, which has been dated to 6820-6660BC.

“I think that it is quite early Mesolithic, dating from between 9000BC-7000BC, but we’ll need to wait for dates before we can know for sure. There’s an awful lot more work to do.”

It is hoped these dates will come from deposits retrieved from a number of post-holes found on the site.

“The post-holes, although they’re very truncated by ploughing, are potentially very exciting,” Naomi said. “We’re hoping we can get some charcoal deposits that will allow the site to be carbon-dated. Depending on these results, we could have Orkney’s first in situ evidence of Mesolithic ‘settlement’.”

But this settlement was no village in the sense of Skara Brae, or Barnhouse. Instead it was probably a temporary camp used by a wandering group of hunter-gatherers.

From a survey of the surrounding landscape, it would appear that the camp was established in a landscape considerably different to what it is today.

Down on the beach, the excavators noted an area of peat eroding out into the bay. This peat deposit could mean that, back in the Mesolithic, the site was some distance from the coast and by an inland loch  – which has long since dried up – providing the hunters with an ideal seasonal base for their expeditions.

“There’s a lot of evidence for something happening there, which we can’t ignore now,” said Naomi. “But now we’ve proved there’s something there, the next step is to go out and excavate it further.”

This excavation, however, will have to wait until a source of funding can be found.

The excavation was facilitated by Orkney College and the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) and funded by Orkney Islands Council and Historic Scotland.

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