‘Best Rescue Dig’ award for Links of Noltland excavations

Some of the EASE Archaeology team on site.

Some of the EASE Archaeology team at work on their award-winning excavation at the Links of Notland in Westray. From the left are: Hazel Moore, Kevin McNerney, Sean Rice, Dan O’Meara and Lewis Prentice.(EASE Archaeology)

The ongoing archaeological excavation at the Links of Noltland, in Westray, was named  “Best Rescue Dig of the Year” at last Friday’s  Current Archaeology Awards in London.

The dig, commissioned by Historic Scotland, is being carried out by Westray-based EASE Archaeology, and continues to shed valuable new light on domestic and ritual life in prehistoric Orkney.

The site has fallen victim to rapid coastal and wind erosion, and archaeologists face a race against time to uncover its secrets before it is lost to the elements.

Exposed to high winds, the dune system that has protected it for millennia is rapidly depleting.

The settlement has been closely monitored for change since the 1980s and, by 2005, the scale of erosion was accelerating at an unprecedented level, revealing spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological remains.

In response, Historic Scotland launched a rolling campaign of assessment and conservation works and rescue excavations undertaken by EASE Archaeology.

Commenting on their award, EASE Archaeology’s Hazel Moore said: “The whole team are delighted with the win — it recognises the hard work put in to digging at the site over the years, much of it under fairly extreme weather conditions!

“We are very thankful to all of the folk who supported us — both locally and from far and wide — and we hope to welcome many of them back to visit the site during the summer season.

“We are very pleased that it confirms the significant contribution made by Links of Noltland to our understanding of the lives of our early ancestors, and that it again highlights the richness and variety of Orkney’s heritage.”

Overlooking the North Atlantic, the Links of Noltland comprises the well-preserved remains of over 20 buildings — including Neolithic structures contemporary with, and comparable to, Skara Brae — together with extensive middens, field systems, and a Bronze Age cemetery.

Discoveries have included the celebrated “Orkney Venus”, as well as three other figurines, Grooved Ware pottery, carved stone balls and numerous decorative and everyday objects.

Current Archaeology magazine announced the winners of their 2014 awards at a ceremony  that was part of the Archaeology Live! conference, held at the University of London’s Senate House.

Voted for by subscribers and members of the public, the awards recognise the outstanding contributions to our understanding of the past made by the people, projects, and publications featured in the pages of Current Archaeology over the previous 12 months.

Richard Strachan, senior archaeologist at Historic Scotland and project manager of the Links of Noltland dig, collected the award.

He said: “I am delighted that this incredible project has been recognised with such a prestigious award. It is an endorsement of the  national and international significance of the site, and the hard work of those involved in the project, all of whom faced challenging conditions.

“Links of Noltland continues to surprise us, and is greatly enhancing our understanding of the Neolithic and Bronze Age.  It is a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in the project.”

Meanwhile, the EASE Archaeology team have been back on site, excavating a Bronze Age settlement.

The 2014 excavations have, so far, unearthed an exceptionally well-preserved farmhouse, surviving to almost half of its original height and surrounded by outbuildings.

This was built over the remains of two earlier buildings, which also appear to be very well preserved.

Hazel Moore explained: “The buildings lie on the top of an artificial mound made up of midden and refuse discarded by the inhabitants — and this is the key ingredient in finding out about daily life in the Bronze Age.

“For example, chaff from crop processing tells us what crops were cultivated and how they were processed; bones and shell reveal the daily  diet and provide insights into animal husbandry and butchery practice; bone and stone tools tell of  craft-working and working the earth, while the appearance at this period of steatite (soapstone)  vessels points to connections with Shetland, where this soft rock naturally occurs.

“What has not been found, however, is any evidence of Bronze! This is not unusual in Orkney — it is thought that very little of this material was in use here, and it probably had a very restricted availability through most of  Scotland also.”

The team finishes this section of the excavation programme on Friday, March 7, but hope to be back on site in the summer.

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