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
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
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
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 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
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
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."
"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."