A massive incised rock has recently been discovered at the northern end of the Bay of Skaill in Orkney – adding to evidence from an excavation in 1934-1935 which suggests that a significant prehistoric settlement, perhaps on a par with the nearby Neolithic remains of Skara Brae, was once located here.
Coastal erosion along the Bay of Skaill is a significant problem, the effects of which can be measured in days and weeks, instead of years, and it is not unusual to spot archaeology dropping on to the beach below. On a visit back in January, Sigurd Towrie from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute, who regularly keeps an eye on any potential destruction, noticed some cattle teeth and a mandible lying at the bottom of an eroding stretch of shoreline. With the light fading, Sigurd returned the next day.
This time, with the sun higher in the sky, he noticed that a large stone, located just to the right of the mandible, was carved with a pair of triangles and two rectangular bands. But with the incised lines appearing quite ephemeral, it was difficult to determine whether this was an example of intentional art or simply scratchmarks, perhaps from butchery. A third visit clarified the matter. In the interim, the weather had moved a stone that was previously lying on the surface – this change, together with the early morning light, revealed a far more extensive pattern of incisions than initially thought. It was now apparent that the triangles were part of a larger criss-crossed lozenge motif, and that there were more rectangular bands as well.
Sigurd’s suspicions were confirmed by Dr Antonia Thomas, UHI’s rock-art specialist, who noted that the design was very similar to some rock art recorded at Skara Brae – which is just over half a mile away on the southern end of the bay.
Unfortunately, the land around the stone has seen too much erosion to indicate what it might have originally been a part of, but it does help build up a bigger picture of this area of the Bay of Skaill. In 1934-1935, construction work nearby had revealed some walls, as well as a midden and four individual burials. The details from this excavation are vague, but one skeleton was identified as having been laid in a crouched position, perhaps suggesting a Bronze Age date. No other finds were reported that could confirm this, though.
This then raises the question: were these inhumations inserted into an abandoned Neolithic settlement, or could we be looking at a settlement that saw continuous occupation from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age? Only excavation can provide the answer, but based on the scale of the eroded section, and the apparent finds thus far, it does seem possible that these clues could point to a settlement similar to Skara Brae.