Huge quernstone unearthed in Orkney reveals Early Neolithic site

The discovery indicates the presence of a settlement centuries older than the Stone Age site of Skara Brae.

A few miles from Kirkwall, on the mainland of Orkney, the recent discovery of a large prehistoric quernstone has provided new evidence for the presence of an Early Neolithic settlement at the site.

The saddle quern, which would have been used for grinding materials such as grain, surfaced during ploughing activity in a field near Saverock, St Ola. It was spotted by Chris Gee, Project Officer from the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), who has field-walked the area, after seasonal ploughing, since 2014.

The in-situ quernstone. PHOTO: Ragnhild Ljosland.

Last week, the quernstone was recovered from the field, and the enormity of the artefact was realised: it measures 60cm in width, 87cm in length, 46cm in depth, and weighs roughly 200kg. Pottery fragments were also discovered beneath the quernstone.

During previous investigations at the site, Gee, with the assistance of volunteers and UHI students, had identified a low mound surrounded by building stones, and unearthed a plethora of Neolithic artefacts, including a flint arrowhead, cobble stone flake knives, flint scrapers, hammer stones, a stone bead, and pottery sherds.

Based on the style of the arrowhead and pottery associated with the quernstone, the settlement at Saverock possibly dates to c. 3600-3200 BC, centuries earlier than Orkney’s most famous Stone Age settlement, Skara Brae.

The quernstone after recovery, bearing evidence of abrasion by grinding. PHOTO: Ragnhild Ljosland.

‘Saddle querns are generally fairly rare in the late Neolithic,’ said Chris Gee. ‘The size of the quern really emphasizes the central role of barley and other grains to the people that lived in the early farm houses at Saverock.’

Commenting on what further discoveries could be made, Chris told The Past that there is a possibility the lower courses of several Neolithic houses might be preserved beneath the mound of midden at the site.

Previous excavation work has uncovered three other Early Neolithic settlements near Saverock, clustered at the base of Wideford Hill. One of these sites was excavated in 2003, and yielded the first evidence of Neolithic timber-built structures in Orkney.   

Future radiocarbon analysis of the charcoal remains found beneath the quern should enable archaeologists to place the settlement within the context of the Early Neolithic landscape around Wideford Hill.