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6 August 2006
Neolithic site confirmed at Orcadian Bronze Age cemetery

Questions surrounding an 'unusual' building at the Knowes o' Trotty Bronze Age cemetery (Harray, Scotland) have been answered at least partially. The structure has turned out to be an early Neolithic house, which predates the Harray cemetery by approximately 1,500 years. Dating from around 3,500 BCE, the structure resembles the Knap o' Howar in Papa Westray. The house, and the various finds from within, is also very similar to buildings excavated at Stonehall in Firth.
     The house was originally discovered during an exploratory dig at the Knowes o' Trotty in 2002. Subsequent excavations left the archaeologists puzzled as to its origin and purpose. But returning to the site this year it became clear that a Stone Age settlement was once sited at the foot of the Ward of Redland. Dr Jane Downes, of Orkney College, and Orkney Archaeological Trust's Nick Card, led the excavators. They extended the previous trenches to clarify the extent and layout of the building. It was oblong in shape and measured approximately 7m x 4m.
     The different wall constructions showed that multiple phases of occupation, with a large central hearth typical of Neolithic dwellings throughout Orkney dominating the floorspace. A second doorway in the structure was particularly intriguing. Built into the south-west corner of the building, it led into a small, stone cell dug into the slope of the hill.
     Jane Downes explained: "From a preliminary look around the area, it looks like this house was once part of a larger Neolithic settlement. We're not certain as to how the house fitted in with the later, Bronze Age, use of the area as a cemetery, although it seems likely that it had fallen into disrepair and was later 'adopted' by the people of the Bronze Age." The key to this later use may lie in "cult houses" found in Bronze Age Scandinavia, and this adds to growing evidence that prehistoric Orkney was part of a "northern" world.
     Another interesting possibility is that the site's Neolithic significance carried over to the Bronze Age and led to its "reuse" as a cemetery. Given the sheer size of the primary burial barrow at the Knowes, for example, it is tempting to wonder whether the Bronze Age builders may have incorporated an existing Stone Age tomb into their scheme.
     The Knowes o' Trotty is one of the earliest groups of barrows in Orkney, and marks a transition from the burial practices of the Neolithic, when the dead were interred in mass communal tombs, to individual barrow burials and cremations. But although funerary practice was changing, Bronze Age discoveries inside Orkney's chambered cairns has shown that the structures retained some significance, were used, and may still have had a place in the rituals of the period. The presence of a chambered tomb, which would have served the people of the Neolithic settlement centuries before, could have led to the site being chosen for the cemetery.

Source: Orkneyjar (3 August 2006)

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