Neolithic house at Cata Sand

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Braving bracing weather,archaeologists have excavated an early Neolithic house on Sanday, Orkney. (Image: UHI Archaeology Institute; Text: Gregory Morton)

Braving the inter-tidal waves at at Cata Sand beach on Sanday, Orkney, archaeologists have uncovered the first ‘classic’ early Neolithic house to be discovered on the island.

Dating from c.3400-3100 BC, the house’s remains comprise two construction layers, with internal structures ranging from a stone set hearth and various pits to partitioning walls. Its footprint yielded various artefacts including flint debitage, Skaill knives, a grinding stone, and animal bones.

The structure is particularly unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which itself rests on rounded beach stones, the team reports, but this sandy context has provided stellar preservation conditions, offering a unique level of information about daily life in an early Neolithic house.

Surprising discoveries were not limited to the prehistoric: as excavations progressed, two large pits were uncovered that contained  the deliberately buried bones of at least 12 whales. A local Orcadian suggested an explanation: a literary account of a visit to Sanday in 1875 describes a scene of 80 whales being driven ashore to be butchered for their blubber – a vital source of oil for lighting lamps. Colin Richards, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Highlands and Islands, told CA that ‘osteoarchaeological analysis of the whale bones will be the next step’.

The dig was a collaboration between the University of Highlands and Islands, the University of Central Lancashire, the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, and the University of Cambridge. The project team have promised us a fuller feature on the site, which will appear in a future issue of CA – watch this space!

This article was published in CA 332

Text by Gregory Morton

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