Westray archaeologists excavating ‘the best-preserved Bronze Age building’ uncovered in the county to date
By Hazel Moore, EASE Archaeology
The site lies on the periphery of the prehistoric landscape at the Links — an eight hectare site that is being rapidly uncovered through the erosion of the sand dunes.
Rescue investigations by EASE Archaeology, on behalf of Historic Scotland, have now uncovered the exceptional remains of over 30 buildings, together with field systems, middens and cemeteries dating from around 3000 BC to 1000 BC.
The most recent discovery, and one of the most remarkable to date, is that of an almost complete and very rare Bronze Age ritual building.
The building is encased within a stony mound. Although identified previously as a probable site of archaeological interest, it had not been investigated until now.
Standing less than five metres from the coast edge, the mound has lost all of its vegetation cover in the last two to three years and is now eroding away very rapidly.
Work in May this year uncovered stonework eroding out of the coast edge in front of the mound.
This was revealed, through excavation, to be an almost perfectly preserved well house with a stairway leading down to 2.5-metre-deep cistern and would originally have been roofed.
At the same time, an assessment of the mound indicated that it contained a stone structure.
This was partially built into a sand dune and was found to be at immediate risk from erosion.
With the threat to its survival, it was decided that the time was right to investigate the remains in greater detail.
In addition to what this site might be able to tell us about ritual life in the Bronze Age, the fact that this example lies within a contemporary landscape would allow us to compare architectural styles, use of space, material culture and range of activities and thereby set the findings within a wider context.
This is an extremely rare opportunity since Bronze Age settlement remains are very poorly represented in the Orcadian archaeological record.
On the face of it, the mound of stone suggested that this site was likely to be a “burnt mound” — a type of site generally interpreted as a cooking place.
In essence, such sites comprise a fireplace, a water tank and a pile of burnt stone and little else.
Through experimentation, and by reference to Medieval Irish literature, it is deduced that stones were roasted on a hearth before being placed in the tank.
Through this process, it is possible to bring the water to boiling point and maintain the temperature through the addition of further hot stone.
The hot water could then be used to cook large quantities of food.
It may also have been used for brewing, bathing, textile working or any other of a range of activities for which hot water is required.
In most cases, however, excavations of such sites have found very little evidence to support any of these theories.
The debris from this process, quantities of fractured heat-damaged stone and ash, was usually dumped around the cooking area, often forming a U-shaped bank, which served to provide some shelter.
The larger scale of the cooking facilities, as compared to those found inside houses of the period, suggest that this was to cater for communal gatherings rather for than everyday requirements.
Most such sites appear to have been used only occasionally, but to have remained in use over many generations.
There is much evidence to indicate that communal gatherings, with feasting and the consumption of alcohol, were an important part of Bronze Age society throughout Europe.
In the British Isles, burnt mounds are the most common manifestation of this activity.
Frequently unloved and undervalued by archaeologists, possibly due to the scarcity of artefacts associated with them, burnt mounds are usually investigated in isolation from contemporary settlement and they remain rather enigmatic monuments.
In a small number of cases, however, more elaborate buildings have been found in association with burnt mounds. These are rare and largely confined to Orkney and Shetland.
Recent excavations in Shetland, at Tangwick, Eshaness, and Creuster, Bressay, undertaken by EASE Archaeology, together with the findings from Meur, in Sanday, by Headland Archaeology, are examples of this type.
The burnt mound at Liddle, close to the Tomb of the Eagles, in South Ronaldsay, and Toogs, in Shetland, are other such examples. It was John Hedges, excavator of both the Liddle and Toogs sites, who first began to speculate on what these more architecturally complex remains might represent.
With so little Bronze Age settlement then known in Orkney, it was suggested that perhaps these may even have been houses — perhaps of a semi-nomadic people.
Since then, and particularly in Shetland, many more Bronze Age houses have been investigated, and dated, and we can now see that burnt mounds functioned alongside permanent settlements and were very often themselves in use over extended periods of time — hundreds of years in some cases.
In the case of the more elaborate sites, of which Links of Noltland is certainly the finest yet uncovered, the architectural complexity and longevity suggests that these were non-domestic buildings of great importance to the communities which built and used them.
The Noltland building, which is entirely encased inside the mound, would originally have been entered via a doorway in the side of the mound and then along a narrow stone passage, some ten-metres long. Most of this passage survives with its roof intact.
At the inner end of the passage, an antechamber contained a furnace-like fireplace and a side cell with a window into a larger main chamber. The main chamber was dominated by a large tank, set into the floor, around which four roofed cells provided accommodation for participants.
This part of the building survives to the level of the roof, although the central roof had collapsed inwards in antiquity, possibly as the result of a massive sandstorm.
With the interior becoming engulfed with sand, the building was not subsequently disturbed and was found with two intact Bronze Age pots set over the filled-in interior — possibly placed there as a votive offering.
Surviving in such good condition, it is possible to appreciate the sophistication of the building and to draw comparisons with structures from chambered cairns to souterrains and wheelhouses.
Work continues to reveal floors and interiors and hopefully to gather evidence on the activities carried out here some 4,000 years ago.
Already it is apparent that this structure has much in common with the Shetland examples — to the extent that they would appear to share a common blueprint.
The hidden nature of the building, together with its restricted access and tightly packed cells, suggests that it served a more specialised function than most burnt mounds and that rather than being a gathering place for the many, it was used by a more select group.
Feasting may well have figured large. Other possibilities, including use as a sweat-lodge/sauna are also likely.
It could be suspected that a ritual aspect is implicated by the extreme elaboration of the architecture.
From other times and places, we know that such places are frequently associated with the performance of rites of passage and spiritual activities.
In Scandinavia, for example, saunas represent “safe” places associated with cleansing and healing, but also where deals are done and important discussions take place.
More traditionally, they were used by women as places to give birth, by the sick and elderly as a fitting place to die, and where bodies were taken before burial.
In Native American traditions, the architecture of the sweat lodge is heavily prescribed and rituals concerned with the spirit world are enacted.
In the cold, windy conditions in which the Bronze Age people at Noltland lived, the concept of an underground building, filled with with fire and steam, is likely to have stirred the imagination.
It may even have been consciously designed as a stage for ritual activity — perhaps in the form of a cult house or sanctuary.
There is much yet to investigate, but already the findings are that this is undoubtedly the best-preserved Bronze Age building yet uncovered in Orkney — a Bronze Age Skara Brae, which has been preserved through a rare set of circumstances — with the ability to shed much new light on the life and ritual of a small farming community living through a period of immense environmental change.