Smerquoy stone confirmed as Orkney’s oldest piece of art

The decorated stone from Smerquoy, St Ola. (Picture: Christopher Gee)

The decorated stone from Smerquoy, St Ola. (Picture: Christopher Gee)

A decorated stone found in St Ola last year, during excavations on the remains of a well-preserved Neolithic Structure, has been provisionally dated to 3200BC.

The date places the stone firmly in the early Neolithic and, as such, is the earliest example of Stone Age art uncovered in the county to date – predating sites like Maeshowe by around 200 years.

The two-week excavation at Smerquoy, at the foot of Wideford Hill, last June, revealed the outline of a rectangular structure, with long walls that bow gently outwards in plan. At the time, the similarities between other known early Neolithic houses in Orkney, such as the Knap of Howar in Papa Westray, was noted.

This has also been confirmed, with a provisional date for the construction of the structure radiocarbon dated to between 3300BC and 3200BC – roughly contemporary to the Knap of Howar in Papa Westray — acclaimed to be the oldest standing buildings in northern Europe

The decorated stone came from the west of the structure’s entrance, set into the lowest course of the wall, facing inwards.

It had been carefully decorated by pecking a design into its face — two curved vertical and parallel curved lines started extending down from horizontal curved lines.

These parallel curved lines joined together at the bottom of the stone, giving the appearance of a heart shape, with two pairs of roughly circular indentations at the centre terminus of the two curved lines.

Although the design is reminiscent of the “eyebrow” motifs found in the Neolithic tomb on the Holm of Papa Westray, and, by association, the Orkney Venus, the Smerquoy stone predates these by centuries.

The design is also similar to the more ornate, and later, horned spirals on the Pierowall stone and the Eday Manse stone and, according to Christopher Gee, one of the archaeologists working on the site, may represent the earliest dated example of this particularly Orcadian motif.

Mr Gee added: “There was also later activity on the site dating to 2500BC-2400BC.

“So we have a long period of occupation at the site, and possibly, as we might see this year, stretching back even earlier with evidence of what appears be a timber structure, defined by postholes, some metres upslope from the stone house.”

In 2003, Professor Colin Richards — who is also involved in the Smerquoy excavation — uncovered evidence of wooden structures at the bottom of the northern face of Wideford Hill.

A series of postholes clearly showed the position of circular structures.

The lack of stone foundations suggests these buildings were wooden — one of which was, going by the diameter of its supporting posts, described at the time as “fairly substantial”.

Professor Richards said this week: “It now seems we have conclusive evidence for an early ‘pre-stone’ phase of Neolithic settlement in Orkney.

“Just to make matters even more fascinating, the first stone houses replicated the architecture of the tombs, demonstrating a very different and complex relationship between the living and the dead.”

  •  The excavation team hope to return to Smerquoy in June.
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