Revealing life in prehistoric Westray

By Sigurd Towrie

After almost 20 years writing about Orkney’s rich and varied archaeology, I’ll admit that sometimes I have to take a step back and remember that it’s not just about impressive artefacts and structures.

There were real people behind these amazing finds. People not that different from us.

This was driven home last week, on a visit to the ongoing excavations at the Links of Noltland, Westray.

There, in an area of eroding dunes, the story of a prehistoric farming community is coming together as the excavators recover huge quantities of incredibly well-preserved items – from domestic refuse to exquisitely worked beads and tools.

My last visit to the Links was in 2004. Back then the extent of the erosion affecting the site was a sobering, and depressing sight. But fortunately, archaeologists returned to the site in February 2007 — 26 years after the original excavations — mobilised after concerns that recently exposed archaeology faced obliteration.

First recorded by the 19th century antiquarian George Petrie, the presence of important archaeological remains had been known about for years. But it was only in the 20th century that excavations were carried out, when the National Museum, under the direction of Dr David Clarke, investigated the site between 1978 and 1981. But this programme of work was never completed and the findings have yet to be published.

In 1984, the site, and a large surrounding area, was designated as a Property in Care (PIC), managed on behalf of the state by Historic Scotland.

Erosion at the Links continued to be a cause for concern for years, but in October, 2006, an archaeological assessment was carried out by EASE Archaeology — well known in Westray for their previous work at the Knowe o’ Skea and Langskaill.

Picture SIgurd TowrieAs a result of this survey, a decision was made to excavate as a matter of urgency. Leading the Historic Scotland excavations since 2007 are Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson, of EASE Archaeology.

The Links hit the national headlines last year with the discovery of the “Orkney Venus” figurine, with a second — but broken — figurine uncovered earlier this summer.

On last week’s visit, I was in illustrious company — county archaeologist Julie Gibson, Dr Jane Downes of Orkney College, Professor Mark Edmonds, Professor Scott Pike, of Willamette University, from Oregon, USA, and Dr Colin Richards, of the University of Manchester.

The rain that accompanied our arrival on site soon gave way to glorious sunshine and, piece-by-piece, we witnessed the story of a Neolithic settlement continue to, slowly and methodically, unfold before us.

But for this excavation report, I can happily take a step back and leave it to the expert, Dr Colin Richards.

Colin is a regular, and welcome, visitor to the county.

He discovered the Barnhouse Settlement, in the 1980s, and has excavated numerous Orcadian sites — including the Ring of Brodgar in 2008, at Stonehall, Firth, and Vestrafiold in Sandwick.

An illuminating excavation

By Dr Colin Richards
University of Manchester

Picture Sigurd Towrie

Some of the massive number of daily finds from the Links of Noltland.

Standing in the rain, waiting for a tour of the Links of Noltland excavations, one could be forgiven for wondering why the large pile of stones, with walls running at different angles, had any significance whatsoever.

Then you remember that what is being looked at are the remains of houses — dwellings where Neolithic Orcadians lived several thousand years ago.

After an absence of over 30 years, the return of archaeologists to the Links of Noltland, Westray, has reaped rich rewards. Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson head a team that have been investigating this late Neolithic settlement for two years.

During this time, they have unearthed a series of houses, associated middens and activity areas. This is precious indeed, because it gives us a glimpse into the lives of a small, coastal community, who lived by the Atlantic coast 5,000 years ago.

Just like today, cattle were herded, sheep tended and the daily tasks of fabricating tools and preparing food took up the majority of people’s time.

The remains of such ordinary tasks are clearly seen in the amazing spread of artefacts – dropped where they were used so many years ago. When looking at these remains, the question that constantly comes to mind is what was life really like back in the Neolithic?

The superb preservation of bone, shell and other materials, allows Hazel and Graeme to view Neolithic prehistoric life in a way that has not been possible since excavations at Pool and Toftsness, in Sanday, in the 1980s or Skara Brae, in the late 1920s.

The picture being so far uncovered is strangely mixed and contradictory.

On the one hand the vast dumps of limpets and animal bone, broken to extract the last bit of marrow, suggests a fairly impoverished existence.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

The inverted cattle skulls found within the wall core of an early Neolithic house. (Sigurd Towrie)

On the other hand, the 30 plus cattle skulls placed within the wall core of an early house, is indicative of a substantial slaughtering of beasts.

This is reminiscent of the mass slaughtering of cattle to accompany a few rich “Beaker” burials of the late third millennium BC further south.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

A closer view of one of the skulls. (Sigurd Towrie)

Accepting that, just as today, cattle represented portable wealth in the late Neolithic, this is an amazing sacrifice of that wealth.

It reveals to us that status and social position may have been attained not just by possession, but by such conspicuous displays of sacrifice.

For instance, you may no longer have a large number of cattle, but everyone knows you were wealthy enough to be able to slaughter many beasts – and provide a lavish feast for many folk.

A similar practice may account for the piles of complete red deer carcases found at previous excavations at the Links of Noltland and at the Bay of Skaill, on the Mainland.

But there is more to this act.

In many ways, the deposition of cattle skulls, in the wall cavity of a house, is incomprehensible to us. But, here we have to confront the fact that these people had an entirely different understanding of their world and, correspondingly, a different set of religious beliefs.

The interesting feature is that the skulls were out of sight, hidden from view within the wall.

In fact, they acted as a form of “wrapping” the house, so what supernatural qualities did the skulls posses and how did they protect the inhabitants?

Equally, was this a normal practice or was this house special?

We will have to await further houses to be uncovered at the Links for an answer.

Given the excavation of a number of late Neolithic settlements on the Mainland in recent years — Barnhouse, Stonehall, Crossiecrown, and currently the amazing Ness of Brodgar, to name a few, it is both refreshing and illuminating to have such a thorough examination of a settlement in the Northern Iisles.

It is easy to forget that life was just as important for those living alongside the ocean on Westray, as it was for those Neolithic Orcadians who lived in the shadow of the great monuments at Stenness and Brodgar.

We look forward to more surprises from the Links over the next few years.

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