Smerquoy excavation diary — Entry One


A two-week excavation of a Neolithic settlement site in St Ola got under way on Saturday, May 11. The site, at Smerquoy (pictured above), was reported to archaeologist Christopher Gee, several years ago, by the landowner, Billy Sinclair.

A visit to the area resulted in the discovery of several hammer stones, a saddle quern rubber, pottery and flint.

A systematic fieldwalk brought to light flint scrapers, a flint knife, a possible mace, an Iron Age glass bead(!) and a small Neolithic axe lying among the stubble. A magnetometer survey then showed up positive anomalies consistent with areas of occupation in the areas of the finds.

For the duration of the excavation, Christopher will keep us up to date with regular updates, the first of which is below.

The probable early Neolithic house today, Monday.

The probable early Neolithic house today, Monday.

Colin, Mahri and I met early on Saturday morning, armed with the magnetometer survey and surface finds distribution, with the hope of removing the turf to reveal a Neolithic house.

An area in the corner of the field where several flint scrapers had been found in an area of strong strong magnetic response (often a sign of habitation and activity).

After a patch of natural looking clay was exposed, I became slightly nervous that we were going to have a group of volunteers turning up for two weeks with nothing to dig. There was plenty of ashy midden though. After a tense few minutes, we heard the digger bucket skimming over the top of sizeable stones.

The polished macehead.

The polished macehead.

The volunteers arrived and shortly after the remains of the ploughsoil was cleaned off the midden-like layers. A few upright stones were visible here and there. We moved on to the more stony section of trench where, after a short time cleaning off the ploughsoil, several parts of gently curving stone walls were exposed. Our hopes had been met.

Today, after a little more cleaning what we can see is a rectangular shaped structure with long walls that bow gently outwards in plan. It seems what we probably have is an early Neolithic house similar in size and shape to the one which is being investigated at Ha’breck in Wyre for example.

It is likely to date between around 3500BC and 3200BC, and have been the home of some of Orkney’s very first farmers.

Professor Colin Richards  discusses  the site and the mace with Billy Sinclair, the landowner.

Professor Colin Richards discusses the site and the mace with Billy Sinclair, the landowner.

Bets are on now as to how many courses high the stone walls still stand – Giles has proposed eight and I’m just saying they are probably quite high so we’ll have to wait and see.

In the north corner of the building are some orthostats – upright stones – that form small recesses. I am looking forward to seeing if they contain anything.

Outside the building to its north west there is what may be a levelled surface and on its south-east a stone capped drain looks as if it runs past the gable.

A very successful two days was concluded when Joyce excavated part of a beautiful, polished stone mace – so some late Neolithic activity at the site as well. It was suggested that the mace may relate to a leveling of the area in the late Neolithic, when the early Neolithic house was already a ruin, and the geophysics results do show more structures immediately to the south-east.

More details to follow over the coming days.

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