Stromness earth-house hints at major prehistoric settlement

By Sigurd Towrie

The chance discovery of a prehistoric earth-house in Stromness, this week,is pointing at a substantial settlement by the shore of the Stenness loch.

As is fairly commonplace in Orkney, cattle collapsed the underground structure in a grass field belonging to a Stromness farmer.

Following closer inspection by an Orkney College geophysics team and the county archaeologist, Julie Gibson, she said it turns out to be an earth-house, complete with pillars, multiple-slabbed and clay-topped roof and small aumbry.

She continued: “The hole in the ground is about two metres by 1.5 metres. Inside, there is a beautiful broken water-worn lintel, plus other trimmed-to-fit slabs.

“Some flaked stone tools lie scattered in amongst the ploughed soil. Within the hole, a semi-collapsed roof slab lies precariously. Inspection shows rock cut sides to one side, but the others cannot be seen.”

She said the geophysics team carried out magnetometry on the area, indicating the remains of a substantial Bronze Age, or early Iron Age, settlement.

“This structure is in the corner of a large circular building some 15 metres across, with another almost attached, and a small cell,” the county archaeologist added.

The farmer, who has asked not to be named at this time, said the discovery was made earlier this month, and he alerted the archaeology team last week.

“At first I thought it was just a great big hole, but I could see it wasn’t a drain so decided to investigate further to see what it was. After a week, or two, I managed to get in touch with Julie Gibson and they seem quite excited about it.”

The area has been fenced off in the meantime and the farmer is keen to assist with any further investigations.

“It makes you wonder what else is down there,” he said. “Ask me about Skara Brae and I really do not know an awful lot about it, but when you have something on your own ground it makes you kind of interested — to realise folk had been out there working and building things long before you were even thought of.”

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