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23 March 2008
Early settlement site unearthed in Orkney

There's a new contender for Orkney's earliest settlement, following a two week investigation in Stronsay (Scotland). Naomi Woodward, who discovered two tiny flint arrowheads in Stronsay last year, returned to the island at the beginning of March. There, with five other archaeologists, she discovered a huge quantity of flint, together with what could be the county's only example of in-situ Mesolithic settlement activity.
     The Mesolithic period, from around 9000 BCE-4000 BCE is renowned for its scarcity of evidence. The people of the period were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small groups and moving around, according to the season and availability of food supplies. Because of their itinerant lifestyle, they left little trace for the modern archaeologist. The Stronsay flint cache looks like representing a temporary camp – erected, possibly during a hunting expedition, on a landmass that would eventually become Stronsay.
     In foul weather conditions, a number of one-metre square test pits were opened over a 60 metre area. The results left the excavators in no doubt that there had been early activity. Naomi explained: "We've got over a thousand pieces of flint - lots of very fine blades and microliths and the debitage you get from flint knapping. Links House, where we were excavating, was the site where we discovered the tanged points last year, but a second location of Millfield, where another tang was discovered in the 1920s, is 2km away. The artefacts we were getting were quite different from the normal Mesolithic artefacts, and this could mean the site might be a bit earlier than we were first anticipating. We knew as soon as we started retrieving material that what we were getting was quite a bit earlier than your typical Neolithic material - because it was just so fine. Even the flints we picked up at Longhowe, near Minehowe, last summer were quite different."
     Although dating evidence is needed to confirm it, the site is possibly older than the one found at Longhowe last year, which has been dated to 6820-6660 BCE. "I think that it is quite early Mesolithic, dating from between 9000 BCE-7000 BCE, but we'll need to wait for dates before we can know for sure. There's an awful lot more work to do." It is hoped these dates will come from deposits retrieved from a number of post-holes found on the site.
     This settlement was no village in the sense of Skara Brae, or Barnhouse. Instead it was probably a temporary camp used by a wandering group of hunter-gatherers. From a survey of the surrounding landscape, it would appear that the camp was established in a landscape considerably different to what it is today. In the Mesolithic the site was probably some distance from the coast and by an inland loch  - which has long since dried up - providing the hunters with an ideal seasonal base for their expeditions. "There's a lot of evidence for something happening there, which we can't ignore now," said Naomi. "But now we've proved there's something there, the next step is to go out and excavate it further." This excavation, however, will have to wait until a source of funding can be found.

Source: Orkneyjar (20 March 2008)

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