30 August 2009
Racing against time to save prehistoric Orkney site
The site at the Links of Noltland on the island of Westray on the northern fringes of the Orkney islands (Scotland) is emerging as one of the UK's most important prehistoric digs: over the last 30 years archaeologists have uncovered a complex of neolithic and bronze age houses, field systems, rich middens and possibly ceremonial buildings dating to 3,500 BCE. Even before the recently found prehistoric figurine emerged (as we reported last week), Noltland had revealed glimpses of this slowly evolving society: they kept red deer, primitive rough-haired sheep, pigs and cattle; harvested shellfish; planted wheat nourished with domestic waste and animal dung; used whalebone for rafters, tools and clothing pins; made beads; and embellished their tools with carvings and lumps of the ochre-coloured haematite imported from nearby Hoy.
Over the last 30 years, the north Atlantic wind has remorselessly swept away thousands of tonnes of sand at Noltland, excavating dunes and finally exposing several thousand years of early human civilisation. But the wind now threatens to destroy the site, which sits just tens of metres from the surf. The gales are becoming more intense. It is a crisis increasingly common for coastline archaeological sites around Britain. Since the early 1980s, the land surface at Noltland has dropped by up to 10m (33ft), exposing what now appears to be a significant neolithic township. There are at least five neolithic houses and six later bronze age buildings on Noltland, and evidence of several others are emerging from under the sand.
The dig is being led by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson, a wife and husband team hired by the site's owners, the government agency Historic Scotland. They have worked on Noltland for 10 years and have watched, with mounting anxiety, as the wind has stripped the site. "It's pretty disastrous," says Moore. "It's just all going; I don't think there's anything we can do to stop it either. This is why we're here. Everything is being stripped away - it's being exposed and washed out." The islands were inhabited, like much of western Scotland's coastline and all its island groups, because Britain's sheltered coastal waters acted as prehistory's motorways: inland were steep mountains, unfordable rivers, thick forests and wolves. In a world without roads and railways, the Hebridean islands, the Orkney archipelago and Shetlands offered accessible and abundant sources of shelter and food.
The team is currently working on one of the most significant buildings on the site, a neolithic structure 22x21m (72x69ft). Formed with three concentric walls, the building - probably a home - seems to be square with rounded edges, complete with alcoves and a passage. Advance scans by a geophysics survey team have shown that the walls survive to a height of 80cm (31in), and the task now is to uncover the structure. "It would have been quite impressive but whether it's a powerful individual or a communal building, like a tribal longhouse, we don't know," Wilson explains. "Given that the whole thing is major and 'show-offy', the actual living space inside is quite small." After it was abandoned, this building was covered by a vast midden or rubbish dump. But this rich mixture of organic waste, earth and rubbish reveals a wealth of artefacts - including the figurine found earlier this month.
Inside the site hut are trays piled with finds. Some hold shards of pottery, others fragments of animal bone, horns, shell and crude stone tools. The latest midden has revealed human remains, including a child's milk tooth. "We've found human skull fragments which seem to be actually built into the structure of the wall, which seems to be pretty unusual and interesting," says Wilson. They also recently made an equally puzzling discovery: at least 10 cattle skulls were inserted in the earth packed within the walls, their horns pointing downwards. One test pit established that this had been a heavily cultivated area for several millennia. In some areas, even gouging your heel through the thin veneer of sand exposes dark earth of an ancient midden underneath. Soil scientists are now studying this residue closely. "That's why this site is so important, because the neolithic soils are surviving," says Moore.
Nearby are other, previously excavated neolithic and bronze age buildings now covered by protective sheeting. The steadily eroding sand allows glimpses of their walls. If Historic Scotland can find the funds, they could be reopened for public exhibition. "This is a live site," Moore adds, "the real thing, and it's eroding in front of us. It's a rescue situation. If you're lucky enough to come up here and see it, it's a very rare opportunity. It's so short-lived and it's not going to survive."
Source: The Guardian (28 August 2009)