The island of Papay, lying
about 20 miles to the north of Kirkwall, is home to 60 archaeological sites.
Among these are the
the earliest known dwellings in Orkney — and the oldest standing
buildings in northern Europe.
These structures, two oblong, stone-built houses,
date from approximately 3,600 BC and were continuously
by a series of Neolithic farmers for at least five centuries.
The buildings, on the island's west coast,
were uncovered in the 1930s when severe sea erosion revealed deposits
evidence of well-built, stone walls.
This chance discovery led to the excavation of
the site. After more than two metres of sand were removed, the
underlying building was revealed. This "building" actually turned out
to be two stone-built structures, placed side-by-side and linked
by a passage through the joined walls.
At the time of the excavation, a few artefacts
were uncovered but nothing that allowed the experts of the time
to date the site correctly. As a result they declared the Knap o'
Howar to be an Iron Age site.
More recent excavations, however, have shown
that the Knap o' Howar was in use between about 3,600 BC and 3,100
were probably part of a small farm, the home of a Neolithic Orcadian
family that remained in use for hundreds of years.
The two connected structures formed a dwelling
house and a multipurpose workshop/barn. With walls still standing
to a height of 1.6 metres (5 feet), the dwellinghouse is the largest
and best preserved of the two buildings. It is reasonably spacious
and divided into two
living areas by large upright stone slabs.
The outer chamber has a low stone bench running
along the wall, while excavations in the other chamber indicated
that it was probably a kitchen of sorts, with a central hearth and
footings for wooden benches.
The large stone quern, used for grinding
barley, together with a smaller variant still lie where they were
found all those years ago.
The "workshop" has a similar entrance
to the main house but was separated inside into three distinct areas
by a series of large stone slabs.
A few curious facts surround this
section of the structure - such as the fact that the door joining
the two sections was set in the workshop side. From this, it would
appear that the workshop went out of use during the life of the
main house, for both its entrances were found to have been blocked
The excavations also revealed that the current
houses were not the first on the site, but may actually have been
built upon the midden remains of an earlier, even older, structure.