Revolutionising chronologies of Neolithic Orkney

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The Standing Stones of Stenness, one of the Orcadian Neolithic sites used in the study. (Image: Colin Richards)

Orkney has long been renowned for its wealth of well preserved Neolithic sites, such as Skara Brae, and it seems that much is known about the time and region. But a new study by a team at Historic England has set out to challenge our current understanding of the chronology of the period by compiling over 600 radiocarbon dates from over 30 sites.

As part of a broader project, The Times of Their Lives, which is attempting to cement site chronologies throughout Neolithic Europe, the Orkney study has revealed that the area was likely first settled c.3600 BC and peak settlement appears to have been reached by c.3100-2900 BC with the creation of identifiable ‘villages’. But occupation does not appear to have been continuous. After this peak of village formation – by c.2800 BC – there was a period of abandonment and decline before a resurgence a couple of centuries later. 

‘Visitors come from all over the world to admire the wonderfully preserved archaeological remains of Orkney, in what may seem a timeless setting’, said Professor Alasdair Whittle, Principle Investigator of The Times of Their Lives project, ‘Our study underlines that the Neolithic past was often rapidly changing, and that what may appear to us to be enduring monuments were in fact part of a dynamic historical context.’ 

Most strikingly, the dates were also able to provide information on trade and competition between different communities as well as how it affected burial rituals and other cultural practices. In particular, it appears that there was significant overlap in the use of two well known burial types – passage graves and large stalled cairns. A similar overlap was also found between the early round-based pottery and the later flat-based Grooved Ware pottery that largely defined the Late Neolithic. The authors suggest that this may be due to competition between settlements and an attempt to differentiate themselves.  

The team was also able to precisely date the introduction of the vole in Orkney to early in the settlement period. Since this is a species that inhabits continental Europe, but not mainland Britain, it suggests that the vole was likely introduced through long-distance sea travel and possibly indicates cultural interactions between the Neolithic Orcadians and Europeans.  

‘Our study shows how much remains to be discovered in Orkney about the Neolithic period, even though it may appear well known,’ said Professor Colin Richards, co-author of the study, ‘This applies throughout the sequence, including in the period of decline at its end.’ 

Apart from its potential for redefining our knowledge of Neolithic Orkney, this project has also shown the impact that new archaeological scientific techniques can have. While previous radiocarbon studies had been done on many of the Orkney sites, advancements in both the radiocarbon technique and statistical modelling have allowed archaeologists to provide more precise chronologies. 

‘This study shows that new statistical analysis of the large numbers of radiocarbon dates that are now available in British archaeology really changes what we can know about our pasts. People in the Neolithic made choices, just like us, about all sorts of things – where to live, how to bury their dead, how to farm, where and when to gather together – and those choices are just beginning to come into view through archaeology,’ said Professor Alex Bayliss, who led the study,  ‘It’s an exciting time to be an archaeological scientist!’  

The full study, ‘Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney’, has recently been published in Antiquity (91).  

This article was published in CA 332

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