Orkney Quernstone Points To Settlement 500 Years Older Than Skara Brae

Archaeologists exploring on Orkney, the far-flung archipelago of the north east coast of Scotland, have discovered a settlement that they believe to be older than the world renowned Skara Brae Neolithic Village.

Skara Brae is the famous stone-built Neolithic settlement on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. While today this group of ancient stone-built houses, along with a workshop, is situated on the shore, when it was first occupied around 3180 BC it was located about a mile inland, separated from the coast by a large fresh water loch.

Now, an archaeologist has made the long-awaited announcement that the discovery of another group of ancient remains has been made at a newly discovered settlement in Orkney. And what was completely unexpected is that this site “pre-dates Skara Brae by hundreds of years,” according to a report in The Scotsman .

Reading A Lonely Saddle Stone From Deep-History

The new discovery was made after a farmer’s tractor collided with a huge prehistoric quernstone that was buried below the surface of a field near Saverock in St Ola. Now known as the “Saverock settlement”, earlier finds at this site include an arrowhead and pieces of broken clay vessels. Professor Chris Gee of the Archaeology Institute at University of Highlands and Islands has been investigating the area since 2014, and he told local media that he was amazed by the unearthing of the giant quernstone.

Chris Gee, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), with the massive saddle quern revealed by ploughing earlier this month. (Ragnhild Ljosland / Archaeology Orkney)

Chris Gee, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), with the massive saddle quern revealed by ploughing earlier this month. (Ragnhild Ljosland / Archaeology Orkney )

The quernstone, which is 87cm (35”) long and 60cm (24”) wide, is estimated to weigh over 200 kilograms (441 pounds) and was used by ancient farmers to grind corn. Saddle quernstones were one of the most important tools in the house, after the fire, with both practical and symbolic aspects. Dr Gee said finding the saddle quernstone “was just remarkable” and added that he finds it “amazing” that something like that, so ancient, could be found just below the plow line.

Now don’t for a second be thinking what’s all the fuss is about, for its “only a stone” after all. Saddle querns were one of the most important tools in the house, after the fire, and if you want to really get down to the nitty-gritty and want to know more about quern usage in the ancient world, and their symbolic aspects, you can watch my recent film explaining their uses just below.

Pushing Back Orkney’s Ancient Agri-Clock

What is really unusual about this new discovery is that this settlement was occupied between 3600-3200 BC, almost 500 hundred years before Skara Brae was first occupied around 3100 BC. Based on the evidence gathered so far Dr Gee told The Scotsman that he believes “two early Neolithic houses may have stood at Saverock” and this is the same living format as is seen at Knap of Howar , on the island of Papa Westray, which also has two buildings and dates from 3500 BC to 3100 BC.

This new discovery comes from a time before building techniques allowed for villages such as Skara Brae, which comprises 9 houses all interconnected with passages, tunnels and even a sewage system with subterranean drains. These two newly discovered houses were built when the inhabitants were still learning the values, attributes and dangers of building in square and rectangular shapes. That is to say, many roofs collapsed between the foundation of Saverock and those of Skara Brae.

The in-situ saddle quern looking towards Kirkwall, Orkney. (Ragnhild Ljosland / Archaeology Orkney)

The in-situ saddle quern looking towards Kirkwall, Orkney. (Ragnhild Ljosland / Archaeology Orkney )

2021: Year Of The Ancient Farmers

A reasonable question in all this is how do the archaeologists know that the settlement predates Skara Brae? Currently, this is speculation based on the similarities drawn between the two structures and the pair at Knap of Howar, on the island of Papa Westray. However, the archaeologists discovered charcoal beneath the quernstone which they hope can be carbon dated to accurately determine the age of the new Saverock site, and how it relates to the three other known early Neolithic settlements clustered around Wideford Hill.

Dr Gee believes there were many more early Neolithic sites in Orkney and noted “the more sites you find, the more you understand – and the more questions are raised.” It looks as if 2021 is going to be big in the north of Scotland as archaeologists learn the ancient origins of planting, and building.

Top Image: The Neolithic quernstone after recovery.        Source: Chris Gee / Archaeology Orkney

By Ashley Cowie

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