Prehistoric walled complex revealed on Firth farmland

The results of the geophysics scan by Christopher Gee of ORCA and James Moore of Archaeology Dept, Orkney College UHI. The houses are clearly visible and appear to be surrounded by a ditch or wall.

The results of the geophysics scan by Christopher Gee of ORCA and James Moore of Archaeology Dept, Orkney College UHI. The houses are clearly visible and appear to be surrounded by a ditch or wall.

What appears to be a massive, walled, Stone Age settlement in Firth will be investigated by archaeologists next month.

The exploratory excavation — a collaboration between Manchester University, the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology and Orkney College UHI — will be led by Professor Colin Richards.

Prof Richards, a regular visitor to the county, discovered and excavated the Barnhouse settlement, in Stenness, in the 1980s. Since then, he has excavated sites at Stonehall, Firth, Crossiecrown in St Ola and the Ring of Brodgar.

He explained: “A research project was undertaken between 1994 and 2003, examining the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age occupation around the Bay of Firth.

“Walking across the ploughed fields of Quanterness, Rennibister, and Stonehall, resulted in a number of settlements being located and excavated. Although this project is currently being written up, and nearing completion, two new sites have been discovered — one has been found by Christopher Gee, at the Braes of Smerquoy, the second by Eoin Scott on the lands of Redland in Firth.

“The Redland site, which appears as a low mound in the south-western part of the field, has actually been known for several years. In fact, it has been walked over twice before in the last five years, and flint, stone and pottery has been collected from the plough soil.

“Because the field lies within the study area, it was decided, with Eoin Scott’s and Robbie Tulloch’s kind permission, to undertake further investigations. The first stage involved a complete surface collection — this meant dividing the ground into five-metre squares and carefully picking up all the visible archaeological material.

“Christopher Gee, myself, and Mairi Robertson, aided by volunteers from the Orkney Archaeology Society and Orkney College UHI, walked the field, in mixed weather, between April 8 and April 10. An astonishing variety of material was picked up, including polished stone axes and chisels, flint tools and pottery.

“Together, the material shows the settlement to have been occupied for an extraordinary amount of time, spanning well over a thousand years from around 3300BC and 2000BC.”

The second part of the investigation involved a geophysical survey of the area by James Moore and Christopher Gee from Orkney College UHI.

Geophysical surveys measure differences in the magnetic field of the earth and is a technique that generally works well in Orkney, and some very good results have been obtained elsewhere.

Prof Richards continued: “After a long day working in damp conditions, the data was downloaded and processed by James and Christopher at Orkney College. To our great surprise, the clearest image of a 5,000-year-old Orcadian settlement appeared before their eyes.

“The clarity of the results is amazing — in fact it is, by far, the best geophysics scan I’ve seen. Not only can circular houses be seen, but, more importantly, the entire settlement, measuring around 100 metres (330 feet) across, appears to be surrounded by a ditch or wall.

“The results of the survey effectively make excavation unnecessary although it is important to see if the boundary is a wall or ditch — or both. Apart from the great wall enclosing the Ness of Brodgar settlement, nothing like this has been seen surrounding a late Neolithic settlement in Orkney before.

“From just a few pieces of flint and stone on the surface of a field, aided by sophisticated geophysical equipment, an exceptional discovery has been made that will make us rethink the nature of society at the end of the Neolithic. Not least, what forms of social tension lead people to build large walls around their places of settlement?

“Perhaps the late Neolithic period in Orkney was not quite the peaceful and comfortable place that sites like Skara Brae tend to suggest and archaeologists have imagined.”

The excavation is due to take place between May 12 and May 25.