The traditional understanding of the Neolithic period in Orkney has long been of a game of two halves, with each half represented by completely different cultural packages. The ‘early’ phase, in the 4th millennium BC, was associated with simple, single farmsteads and ‘stalled’ burial cairns (so-called because their interiors are divided into compartments using upright stones projecting from the side walls). They also contain Unstan ware pottery, a shallow, round-bottomed form with decoration limited to a collar below the rim. Sweeping in at the turn of the 3rd millennium BC, the late Neolithic apparently brought with it villages, passage-grave tombs, and flat-bottomed, ornately decorated Grooved ware pottery. With no clear sign of a transition between these two phenomena, it was suggested that this break might represent the arrival of a new group replacing the earlier culture. Recent analysis, however, is presenting a more nuanced picture. New dating evidence confirms an idea originally suggested by Colin Renfrew, blurring the lines between ‘early’ and ‘late’ Neolithic categories.
It was to explore the idea of ‘two Neolithics’ further, and to learn more about 3rd millennium BC activity beyond known monuments and settlement complexes such as Barnhouse (CA 131) and the Ness of Brodgar (CA 246) that the Cuween-Wideford Landscape Project was set up in 1994. The University of Glasgow-funded initiative initially focused on Stonehall Farm, Mainland – where promising magnetic signals were found to represent the well-preserved remains of a mid to late 4th millennium BC dispersed settlement that had graduated to a late Neolithic village in the late 3rd millennium BC – but the Project was soon uncovering traces of similarly early activity at other sites. The programme of excavation, fieldwalking, and geophysical survey quickly expanded to investigate the whole of the Bay of Firth – an area of Mainland surrounded by hills, about 7km east of the Stenness-Brodgar ritual complex. Now published in a mighty new monograph, the team’s findings would prove revolutionary.
A tomb of one’s own
A major milestone came while investigating several Neolithic stone structures at Wideford Hill in 2002. On what was intended to be the last day of fieldwork, the team realised that these buildings did not represent the earliest phase of occupation on the site: there were traces of older timber structures beneath. This pattern was repeated across Orkney, emerging at Green, Eday, Ha’Breck, Wyre, and within the Bay of Firth at Smerquoy (CA 291) in 2013, while the stone houses at the Knap of Howar, an early Neolithic settlement on Papa Westray, also appear to represent secondary activity; although no tell-tale postholes have yet been spotted here, the dwellings stand amid the remains of earlier midden material. This was a completely unexpected development, as wooden structures were not previously thought to have been part of the Orcadian Neolithic. Yet here was undisputable evidence of extensive earlier activity.
These discoveries would also shake another long-held belief about Neolithic Orkney: that stalled cairns and stone houses came together as a package to mark the start of the period. At early Neolithic sites like the Knap of Howar, Stonehall Meadow, Smerquoy, and the Knowes of Trotty, they even use the same architecture, dividing their internal space using pairs of orthostats. It had been suggested that these tombs were mimicking domestic architecture, creating ‘houses for the dead’. Yet new dating evidence has turned this picture completely on its head.
Radiocarbon dating places the earliest stalled cairns in c.3600-3500 BC – but samples taken during the project reveal that stone houses do not start to appear until around 300 years later. Instead, the tomb-builders seem to have lived in the timber houses identified nearby. It appears that burial cairns were not modelled on dwellings, but the other way around. So why were people choosing to build and live in houses designed to look like tombs?
It could be that their driving impulse was to demonstrate genealogical links, the team suggests. Settlements born out of small kinship groups were expanding and beginning to incorporate ‘outsiders’, looking back to their ancestors and fusing past and present generations in the fabric of their homes – ‘a desire to materially highlight ancestry and descent,’ as Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University, co-editor of the monograph, describes it.
If Orkney’s earliest settlements emphasised blood relationships, however, the shift to stone might reflect a change of direction. Building in wood gives any structure a finite lifespan, and those excavated during the project show frequently shifting footprints, and little sign of decayed posts being replaced. Building in stone, however, roots a structure in one location. Indeed, continuity seems to have been accorded much greater importance during this period, as at several sites the team noted building materials being recycled again and again as the settlements expand.
It is also worth noting that the excavated stone structures are generally significantly larger than the timber buildings that they replaced, meaning that they could have accommodated many more people. Given that building in stone would have been much more labour-intensive (both in terms of procuring raw materials and in raising the house itself) than with wood, it seems likely that we are seeing the results of cooperation between larger groups. Might this hint at the advent of a more collectivist style of living, of bigger social units being brought together – and into being?
Rise of the ‘house societies’
Ultimately, the use of stone in house-building, and the gradual inclusion of non-kin members in small social groups living together, sets in motion a shift towards more nucleated settlements, while the idea of the house itself takes on a monumental character; by the turn of the 3rd millennium BC, we see small round houses clustering around one, larger, focal structure – dubbed the ‘Big House’ by the team – with the whole bound together by masses of midden material. The whole picture is one of a coherent, unified, and permanent settlement. The research team suggests that this change might represent a social shift: a move from small family groups towards larger communities made up of disparate members, following a model, first proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1980s, of ‘house societies’. This means a community based more on proximity and shared endeavours than blood ties, with social unity found through, and embodied in, the house.
Colin explained: ‘I think the formation of larger social units extending beyond kinship relations is a consequence of developing agricultural practices which necessarily involved the increased labour of a number of people. Once these new “house societies” came into being, origins and descent took on additional significance because such real and fictional relationships underpinned the new regime.’
‘It seems that places to the west, such as the outer Hebrides and even Ireland, may have assumed this role – for instance, in the mid-4th millennium BC, the distinctive Unstan ware in use in Orkney also occurs in the Hebrides. This continues in the late 4th millennium BC, when monuments such as stone circles and passage graves have distributions from Orkney to the outer and inner Hebrides, and to Ireland,’ he added. ‘In short, as a necessary social strategy, Neolithic people in Orkney may have always been concerned with their different origins – where they came from – and through special artefacts and monuments identified and displayed their roots and claims of genealogical links extending back to remote homelands. It should be also considered that these different homelands related to a number of different groups who landed on Orcadian shores throughout the 4th millennium BC: for example, the carved stone balls we know from Orkney have a very different distribution in eastern Scotland.’
While, by the late Neolithic period, architecture had moved away from obvious links with tombs, perhaps reflecting the aforementioned shift away from prioritising blood ties, in other respects the idea of the ‘house of the dead’ seems to have taken on a more literal idea, bound up in the centrality of the ‘Big House’ at the heart of the settlement. Inside these structures, connections to the dead are even more explicit, with human remains sometimes incorporated into their construction. At Skara Brae, for example, ‘Hut 7’ contained a capped burial cist beneath one of its box beds, while Barnhouse’s ‘House 2’ included a large capstone-covered cavity, about 1m square, containing fragments of decayed bone.
Instead of merely living in houses resembling tombs, their occupants now coexisted with the dead themselves – an impulse that seems to have continued across Britain well into later prehistory. At sites as far apart as Canada Farm in Dorset (CA 279) and Cladh Hallan on South Uist (CA 273), we see evidence of Bronze Age human remains being manipulated, preserved, and curated, with bodies and body parts buried beneath or incorporated into dwellings. Recent research by Tom Booth at the Natural History Museum in London, for instance, has revealed that deliberate mummification of human remains was much more widespread during this period than previously thought (CA 309).
‘The question of “living with the dead” is a fascinating one,’ said Colin. ‘Undoubtedly the move away from the employment of orthostats to subdivide domestic space can be seen as gradually minimising the importance of living within a house resembling a stalled cairn, and, interestingly, it is from this point that the house becomes particularly important and “monumental”. Certainly, the presence of human remains and fine objects within “big houses” could be seen as a form of “symbolic storage” – a material manifestation of the house society.’
Analysis of pottery recovered during the project by Andrew M Jones and Richard Jones provides further insights into the cultural changes that were taking place at this time – lending further credence to suggestions that these ‘watershed’ moments were not in fact as clear-cut as they might appear. Rather, the excavation of sites like Crossiecrown – which preserved a complete sequence of pottery production over the course of the Neolithic period – indicates that degrees of overlap do exist between the two traditions, suggesting practices changing within a society rather than a cultural break.
For example, some of the examples of Unstan ware at Crossiecrown show signs of experimentation, hinting at tentative steps from round-bottomed forms towards the flat-bottomed style embodied in later Grooved ware. Pots with rounded interiors and squared-off exteriors, and those with rounded interiors and footed exteriors, point to a community familiar with techniques associated with round-bottomed vessels but who were beginning to try ways of stabilising them. Perhaps this was related to a change in the role and use of pottery, especially its display – maybe pots were now being placed in positions where the whole body of the pot was visible. Once flat- bottomed pots come fully into use in Orkney, round-bottomed forms gradually disappear; but these findings suggest a more subtle transition than was previously assumed. This confirms a similar local tradition of ceramic experimentation and changing shapes, noticed by Ann MacSween a number of years ago, at another long-lived Orcadian Neolithic settlement at Pool, on the island of Sanday.
Another unexpected aspect of the ceramic finds was the discovery of Beaker pottery at Crossiecrown, Colin added – and what it tells us about Orkney’s relationships with its neighbours at the end of the Neolithic period.
‘The fact that many of the large late Neolithic settlements in Orkney are generally abandoned c.2400 BC is fascinating,’ he said. ‘This fits into a broader pattern of social change in Britain and Ireland at this time, which coincides with the arrival of beakers – but curiously, apart from a few examples (Crossiecrown being one), there are very few beakers and no “classic” Beaker burials in Orkney; with the notable exception of the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery, copper, gold, or bronze objects are also rare. Instead, at this time the inhabitants of Orkney seem to look north to Shetland. We see for the first time similarities in house architecture between Orkney and Shetland (where double houses emerge), while steatite (soap stone) from Shetland is used as temper in Orcadian pottery, and we even have complete imported vessels made from this material. After over a thousand years of being fully engaged with mainland Britain and Ireland, and probably being the origin place for Grooved ware, stone maceheads, and stone circles, Orkney becomes insular and strangely “impoverished”. Could we even be seeing climatic conditions changing rapidly at this time in the Northern Isles?’
Such insights dramatically change our perceptions of Orkney and its place in the world during the Neolithic period – but there was one further surprise to come. Thanks to the dominance of the Knap of Howar – which, until the onset of the project, was the only fully excavated early Neolithic settlement in Orkney – in the archaeological literature, together with the iconic status of Skara Brae, the predominant impression of Orcadian Neolithic settlements is that they were mostly coastal. Not so, argues the Bay of Firth team: with the exception of Crossiecrown, none of the Bay of Firth sites discovered during their project lie near the sea, and, given that the local sea-level at the time was 2m lower than it is today, they would have been located even further inland. Instead, Orkney’s 4th millennium BC inhabitants seem to have preferred to build their homes at the foot of a hill, overlooking cultivatable land.
‘This trend came as a complete surprise, but the clue for the location of early Neolithic settlement is fresh water,’ said Colin. ‘Situated at the base of hills, each of the Bay of Firth settlements have extensive views and ready access to springs and water running off the hills. This leads to some of the most sophisticated hydrological systems imaginable. For example, in the “Smerquoy Hoose” Christopher Gee uncovered a channel running through the house, along which fresh water would have flowed. Water from this channel could be diverted into a large adjacent pit, where we discovered heat-fractured stones. Clearly, this was a method of heating water within the house – hot and cold running water!’
This small observation just goes to show how a substantial research project can completely alter our most basic assumptions of Neolithic daily life. Other ‘basic assumptions’ to be discarded include any notion of Orkney having been through two separate Neolithics, Colin concluded.
‘I think we can forget about “two Neolithics”. However, having said that, I suspect things are far from straightforward in understanding the processes of populating Neolithic Orkney,’ he said. ‘For example, undoubtedly the first Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney come from elsewhere; there is minimal evidence for late Mesolithic occupation. Also, these are islands, and the first farmers certainly came by boat. But once agriculture was established, should we then consider this process of colonisation finished? Almost certainly not – consequently a much more fluid situation may have existed, with frequent landings and people from different places becoming neighbours and intermarrying.
‘Rather than dispensing with an early and late Neolithic incursion by “cultural groups”, we have to consider the possibility of a far more complex scenario where people are frequently landing and being absorbed into local communities. However, this was no island idyll: recent reanalysis of skeletal material from Isbister and Cuween Hill chambered cairns has identified signs of violent trauma, while the tip of an arrowhead was lodged in the vertebra of an elderly man from Tullach of Assery B, Caithness. This suggests that daily life in the Neolithic Highlands and Islands was possibly not as peaceful as we may like to think. We may enjoy uncovering evidence and providing fresh interpretations of Neolithic Orkney, but we surely would not like to have lived there!’
Colin Richards and Richard Jones (eds), The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney, Windgather Press, ISBN 978-1909686892, £35.
All images: Colin Richards, unless otherwise stated.