Back at the Smerquoy Neolithic site

by Christopher Gee and Dr Vicki Cummings

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Work resumed at the site of Smerquoy, on the Orkney Mainland, at the start of this month, involving a team of archaeologists from the UHI Orkney College, the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire, as well as volunteers.

Excavations in previous years uncovered the remains of early Neolithic houses, alongside more ephemeral remains and structures.

In this final year we hope to understand the sequence of house construction across the site and definitively date the different phases of use.

Progress has been slowed by some mixed weather in the first week, including heavy rain, thick mist and strong gales. Nevertheless there have been some very exciting finds.

Upon cleaning the site at the start of the week a new house (“Ali’s Hoose”) was immediately apparent underneath a large scoop in the hillside identified the previous year. The remarkable thing about this house was that it had been extensively robbed of its stone walls and then buried with a c30cm thick layer of redeposited glacial till.

This house is stratigraphically low down and will be the last structure examined this year.

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There was further excitement a few days later when the walls of another badly robbed house were found towards the bottom of another large scoop in the hillside identified last year and known as Structure Two, or “Hoose o Brodie”.

All but the very bottom layer of this house has been robbed away, and is, in some places, completely missing, destroyed by later Neolithic activity in the same location. Yet more new structural remains were found as the team worked in gale-force winds.

A round-based rim shard.

A round-based rim shard.

A third structure (“Billy’s Hoose”) partly disappearing underneath the north-western edge of the trench during last year’s campaign has hopefully been completely uncovered with this season’s trench extension; an extension executed to the usual high standards we are accustomed to from Ali Miller.

The structure now revealed partly overlies the clay which was packed down over the remains of “Ali’s Hoose”.

From the small amount visible of Billy’s Hoose last year the provisional thinking was that it may have been the remains of yet another early Neolithic stone house.

However, from what has been revealed so far during cleaning it seems we may have a late Neolithic “rounded square” house, possibly similar in form to the larger second phase houses at Skara Brae.

It must be stressed that this is a provisional interpretation which may change over the next few days.

The quartz mace fragment.

The quartz mace fragment.

Michael’s recovery of a fragment of a polished-quartz mace, probably among one of the most spectacular maces in Neolithic Orkney, in the layer of overlying topsoil may also add weight to our interpretation of the structure as Late Neolithic.

Finds have been coming thick and fast.

Large amounts of pottery have been found, along with some stone tools including Skaill knives and finger stones.

We are familiar with these finger stones from previous years and they are known from Neolithic sites in Orkney, for example Braes of Habreck.

One particularly fine example of a finger stone/fine Knap o’ Howar borer was recovered on Tuesday.

It seems to show traces of usage in the form of circular striations on its end. A lovely paint pot stone dish was also found.

We will hope to post photographs of some of these objects in a future correspondence.

It is clear that Smerquoy was the focus for intense early Neolithic and possibly later Neolithic activity and the race is now on to find out as much as possible about this remarkable site by the end of the digging season this month.

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