By Dr Colin Richards
University of Manchester
As we all know, even today the ferry crossing between Eday and the Mainland takes over an hour. So was this considered a substantial journey during the Neolithic, some five and half thousand years ago?
This is an interesting question as it lies at the heart of how much contact and journeying occurred back in the distant past.
Today, many folk living on the Orkney Mainland have relatives on the outer isles — was this true back in the early Neolithic? Also, who were the first farmers — were they people already settled in Orkney or did they move into the islands from the Scottish mainland?
The only way to answer these questions is through archaeological evidence — and for this period it has been in very short supply.
Amazingly enough, with all the archaeological work occurring in Orkney over the past 20 years, we have very little information of what was actually happening in the early Neolithic (c. 3700-3300BC). Indeed, up until 15 years ago, there were only a couple of settlements known from this time. Both are in the North Isles — the Knap of Howar, in Papay, and Pool, in Sanday.
Then, several early Neolithic sites were discovered in quick succession on the Mainland — at Stonehall, Firth and Wideford Hill, St Ola, and, surprisingly, at the Knowes of Trotty, Harray.
Now two more important sites have been unearthed, one is at the Braes of Ha’breck, Wyre, which will be further examined by Antonia Thomas, of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, in September. The other at Green, Eday, is currently being excavated, and it was here that Dr Jane Downes of Orkney College, county archaeologist Julie Gibson and myself travelled to meet the excavators and see the site.
Eday is a beautiful island, and as Rosemary Hebden’s fascinating book rightly describes it: “Orkney’s best kept secret”.
Despite weather forecasts of heavy rain, when we stepped off the ferry, at the Eday terminal, blue skies and a hot sun greeted us.
Our welcome at Green was just as warm. The farm has recently changed hands and the new owners Val and Allan Welsh are as enthusiastic about the archaeology as the previous owner, Peter Mason, who originally discovered the site.
The excavations are taking place under the leadership of Mick Miles and Diana Coles (BEVARS) and they gave us an excellent tour.
People say size is not important, and this is certainly true of this site. The trench is not enormous, although it was being enlarged as we watched.
The main focus of the excavation has been a single, long, stone building, a farmhouse constructed out of colourful Eday sandstone. That this building survived is incredible as it lay just a few inches below the ground surface and this field has been ploughed until recently.
Consequently, masonry on one side of the entrance has been entirely removed, but the remainder is well-preserved. A large, well-constructed hearth lies centrally and it is easy to imagine the inhabitants sitting around the fireplace for warmth on a chilly evening. Although the rear of the house was in the process of being uncovered, it was quite clear from what was visible that the building was of a size to accommodate a family group.
The agriculture they practised would be familiar to the majority of Orcadian farmers today — a bit of arable, mainly barley, and herds of sheep and cattle.
From the types of finds being discovered by the excavation team, we know people lived in this beautiful location for many generations.
For me, what is most startling about the site is the house architecture. In the early Neolithic period, all the houses that have been found on different islands (apart from the Pool structures) are almost identical.
Houses are rectangular with the entrance at one end — often facing south-east. Internally, they are subdivided by large flagstones, set on edge, projecting inwards from the side-walls.
This layout can be seen clearly today at the Knap of Howar. The houses are divided into two or three areas where a range of household duties take place, such as preparing food, making clothes, weaving rope, etc. There are areas for cooking and places to sleep.
Overall, this description of the early Neolithic farmhouse sounds very familiar, it could almost exist today — but such familiarity is very deceptive. The architecture of the house is similar to the stalled tombs — such as Midhowe on Rousay — where the dead were placed. But the dead didn’t stay there.
It is clear that bodies were placed inside the tombs so the flesh could rot leaving just the skeleton. Then some of the bones were removed — but where to?
The only houses of this period where human bone survived were those at the Knap of Howar. When first excavated in 1929, fragments of human skull were recovered.
Could it be that remains of the dead were brought back into the houses where they had once lived, to reside again among the living? This is tantalising evidence.
There is one last point; the stalled tombs seem to be slightly older than the stone houses. If this is correct, the houses of the living were actually modelled on those of the dead — not the other way around, as had previously been thought.
We now have to imagine a farming household, like that living at Green, practising mixed agriculture and performing other familiar tasks — but sharing the living space with their ancestors, the bones of which were kept in the house, ever watchful and always present.
This was an extraordinary situation, but then of course, these were extraordinary people.
The continued excavations at Green will provide further evidence of life on Eday, 5,500 years ago. Finds being made suggest that while this is a local family group they had extensive contacts and relations throughout the islands.
To unearth the remains of their lives is, as Val and Allan Welsh said, “incredibly exciting”, a view shared by the entire excavation team. We wish them well for the remaining period of excavation.
Dr Colin Richards, from the University of Manchester, specialises in Neolithic archaeology, architecture and monumentality and ethnoarchaeology.
He has directed a series of large research projects in Orkney, initially concentrating on Neolithic settlements. The first project involved the discovery and excavation of a late Neolithic ‘village’ at Barnhouse in Stenness.
The second project continued research into Neolithic settlement on Mainland Orkney and resulted in the discovery of three further habitation sites – Stonehall, Wideford and Crossiecrown.
He has also been examining the construction of late Neolithic stone circles – in particular locating the quarries from which the massive monoliths are derived and the social processes of quarrying, moving and erecting the stones. A ‘megalithic’ quarry at Vestrafiold, West Mainland, Orkney, which supplied stones for the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, has been investigated and evidence recovered for the quarrying and moving of stones.