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  The Stonehall Neolithic Settlement

One of Orkney's recent archaeological discoveries was the Neolithic village at Stonehall, in the Mainland parish of Firth.

The excavations at Stonehall were carried out over a three year period. During the 1999 excavations, I spoke with Dr Colin Richards of Glasgow University, the excavation director, to get some idea of what had been uncovered.

On the scale of Orcadian archaeology, what marked Stonehall as significant was the length of time the settlement appeared to have been in use. The excavation had uncovered a range of Neolithic houses which indicates a continuity of settlement throughout the Neolithic period.

The Kist House

Perhaps the most interesting discovery at Stonehall was a late Neolithic structure of a type never before encountered in Orkney.

Lying in the shadow of the Cuween chambered tomb, the structure - a building with what appears to be a burial kist built into a raised floor - was unlike anything Dr Richards had encountered before.

He explained: "First we thought it was a house but now it seems to have kists in it. So it's not a dwelling house. It's literally a building where there were burials of some sort."

The "kist house" was built in the absolute centre of the settlement and trenches opened around it clearly revealed the lower course of another late Neolithic house with its entrance facing the enigmatic building. With its hearth, stone furniture and bed, this dwelling would have been very similar to those now found at Skara Brae in Sandwick.

But one thing set the kist house apart from the surrounding houses - the uncharacteristically shoddy workmanship.

Dr Richards explained: "It's not very well built and certainly wasn't as well built as a house. It's built on midden and they haven't bothered to put a decent clay foundation for the walls which they would normally do. So we can say it wasn't built as a dwelling."

When the kist was finally opened no remains, human or otherwise, were found and the excavation closed with Dr Richards admitting to being "quite puzzled" as to the structure's purpose.

An inversion of ideas?

"It must be to do with the dead because of the central kist. Having the kist where the hearth is in the other houses is, I think, really significant. When we think how important the fire was to the maintenance of life, they've substituted it for something to do with death. So it's a complete inversion." he said.

He added: "It may well be that it was somewhere where, when someone had died, the body was laid out, washed and dressed before being taken elsewhere."

As to the age of the mysterious structure, it was certainly from the Late Neolithic period, dating from around 3000 to 2500 BC but also contained another perplexing feature. A short distance from the kist and built into the floor was a bowl shaped depression formed of moulded clay. The purpose of this feature is not known but it may have had something to do with the activities carried out within the central structure.

Dr Richards went on: "The interesting thing is, we're constantly finding stuff that we do not understand. With a period like the Neolithic you get almost fooled into thinking we have some basic idea of what's going on, and then we look at something else and we're all at sea again."

"I think the reason for that is because to really understand something we have to make it familiar and if it's not familiar we simply do not understand it. All the time we're trying to make them like us but in reality these people were totally different."

The relationship to Cuween's cairn

What is particularly evident when visiting Stonehall is the site's position in relation to the nearby Cuween Cairn. Cut into the bedrock of the hill, the cairn is starkly silhouetted against the north-western horizon.

Whether this was deliberate is unclear but motioning over towards Wideford Hill, Dr Richards said: "The same goes for the other side of the valley over at Wideford. There's a settlement there in the same sort of position. From the location you see the Wideford Cairn silhouetted on the side of the hill. It's an interesting area and we're starting to understand how they were living in relation to the surrounding tombs."

The idea that the Neolithic chambered cairns acted as visible territorial markers for each individual community is a theory that Dr Richard thinks is far too simplistic.

"We've just assumed there's this one-to-one correlation, a bit like a graveyard with a township or village." he said.

"I think this is far more complicated and I wouldn't be surprised at all if there was this sort of general association between the tomb and the community but I think, given the materials we found in (the tombs) and the different architecture, that they could be related to different ancestors or different deities and so on. A far more complicated religious scheme than we give them credit for."

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See Also

External Links
Orkney Archaeological Trust - Stonehall Excavation Reports

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