Smerquoy excavation diary — Entry Eight

Peck decorated stone in the entrance to the early Neolithic house (Picture Chris Gee)

Peck decorated stone in the entrance to the early Neolithic house (Picture Chris Gee)

May 25
Mairi Robertson Carrey

We were stunned to discover a decorated stone on our last day on site at Smerquoy “hoose”.

We were looking forward to a final day of recording and photographing the features cut into the floor. Orkney volunteer Alan, was cleaning up an area to be photographed by Colin within the house, at the west of the entrance, when Colin suddenly pointed to where Alan was working and said: “Look at that. What is it – a peck-marked stone?”

Colin, Billy, Alan and myself found ourselves peering closely in amazement at a stone set at the foundation of the entrance wall.

What we could see emerging, into the glorious Orkney sunlight, were marks pecked out on the face of the stone. But what were they?

At first glance, a horizontal curved line, a couple of dot-like marks in the stone … astonishing!

Tantalisingly, the lower part of the stone lay partially buried beneath the floor surface, and the marks continued further down the buried face of the stone … further trowelling was required to expose more of the facing of the stone. What was about to be revealed?

Some rapid trowelling by Alan exposed more of the surface of the stone.

Detail of pecking on the decorated stone (Picture: Chris Gee)

Detail of pecking on the decorated stone (Picture: Chris Gee)

As our eyes adjusted to squinting into the strong sunshine, two curved vertical and parallel curved lines started extending down from the horizontal curved lines as more of the facing of the stone became exposed.

These parallel curved lines joined together at the bottom of the stone. This design appears to look similar to a heart-shape, but did not meet in the centre, instead having two pairs of roughly circular indentations at the centre at terminus of the two curved lines.

Within 20 minutes or so of discovery, the light changed and it was barely possible to distinguish the decoration which had been so startlingly obvious earlier. Luckily, we have photographs taken as the design started to emerge.

This intriguing decoration provoked much discussion about an “eyebrow” motif similar to that found at the Neolithic tomb on the Holm of Papa Westray, also the Westray figurine.

Yet our decorated stone is located in an early Neolithic house, whereas all other decoration occurs in Late Neolithic contexts – this is a stunning discovery!

Beyond the last day of our dig at Smerquoy, the search for meaning about the nature of the space within the “hoose” will continue. The decorated stone, its location at the entrance, almost touching the floor, and facing into the hoose will provoke much interest.

Witnessing such a discovery at Smerquoy was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I will certainly never forget. I was fortunate to see a copy of Brodgar Poems, by George Mackay Brown last Sunday, one line stayed with me:

Stone Sips the brim of darkness.
The stone tree
Will have tonight its star-leaves.

Brodgar Poems, 1992

Much time has passed since the Smerquoy decorated stone sipped the brim of darkness, I would like to think it perhaps marked the birth of the hoose?

Tonight the decorated stone will have its star-leaves.

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