Westray site is latest to produce Neolithic art

The peck-marked stone from the Links of Noltland. (EASE Archaeology)

It’s been a fine summer for stone age artwork in Orkney.

After examples turning up almost daily at the Ness of Brodgar, now a large piece of decorated stone has been discovered at one of Orkney’s most threatened sites — the Links of Noltland prehistoric settlement, in Westray.

Returning to Westray, for the Historic Scotland sponsored excavation, was a team from Edinburgh-based EASE Archaeology. The archaeologists concentrated, this year, on the unusual structure discovered last year. The exterior of this building had been carefully “decorated” using neatly-laid horizontal bands of masonry. While other houses of the period tended to be created with function, rather than looks, in mind, the Westray structure was built using dressed stone and was clearly meant to look impressive from the outside.

During the excavations, a decorated stone, measuring 45cm by 25cm, was discovered, with peck-marked designs – possibly made by striking it with a stone implement – including chevrons and an “S” shape.

Graeme Wilson, co-director of the excavation, said: “This is a fascinating find and is particularly exciting because we understand very little about Neolithic art. One idea is that communities identified themselves with particular designs, so it is possible that the ‘S’ shape was significant to the people here, as it has not been seen elsewhere in Orkney. Art may also have been used to mark boundaries and thresholds, in the landscape, in tombs and in domestic buildings.

“We think that this piece of stone would have been built into the wall, with the art facing outwards.”

Other finds have included bone pins and awls, hundreds of worked flints and sherds of decorated pottery.

The archaeologists are particularly pleased to have found large quantities of animal bones and shellfish.

Mr Wilson said: “Material like this rarely survives but the sandy conditions here were ideal for preservation. It will help us get a much better understanding of how this community used the land and sea, what they ate and the kind of lifestyles they had.”

The structure, which still has walls up to a metre high, was built as a rough square with rounded corners. It has internal measurements of around seven metres in each direction. Last year there was speculation that such a well-built structure may have been for ceremonial purposes. Opinion is now moving towards it being a high-status domestic building, but whether it was by a single family, or used communally, remains unclear.

Work is due to finish at the end of this week, with back-filling and sandbagging taking place to protect the building over the winter.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “This has been an extremely exciting year and confirms the importance of the Links of Noltland site.

“It is one of our highest archaeological priorities because climate change is rapidly eroding the sand dunes which have protected it for thousands of years.

“We very much look forward to the results of the post-excavation analysis, which will hopefully tell us more about the rock art and about the lives of the Neolithic community that thrived here.”

In October 2006, Historic Scotland commissioned an emergency assessment of the area after archaeological remains became exposed, due to wind erosion. The findings caused such concern that a first phase of rescue excavation took place in early 2007. The second phase, took place between September and November 2007.

Historic Scotland is currently preparing a management plan for the site, the first draft of which is due for completion at the end of March 2009, following which there will be a stakeholder consultation.

The results of the archaeological work will be fully published, along with the results from all the recent investigations on the site, once post-excavation work is complete.

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