Neolithic homes, 19th c. whale skeletons found on Orkney

Archaeologists excavating Cata Sand, a bay on the Orkney island of Sanday, have unearthed the remains of an Early Neolithic house and at least a dozen 19th century whale skeletons. The prehistoric structure dates to between 3400 and 3100 B.C. and is fairly extensive with its original hearth and remains of walls. Northwest of the core structures is a second hearth that archaeologists believe is from a later expansion and reconstruction of the house.

Prof [Colin] Richards said: “The early Neolithic house is both interesting and unusual in having been built on a deep layer of sand, which rests on rounded beach stones.

“At least two construction phases have now been recognised. The primary house has a stone set hearth, internal pits and boxes, and remains of the lower courses of a double-faced thick stone outer wall and small dividing stones, which partition the house into different living areas. This phase of the structure is comparable with examples of dwellings at Stonehall, Mainland and Knap of Howar, Papa Westray. Although excavations at Pool uncovered some early Neolithic structures in the 1980s, this is the first ‘classic’ early Neolithic house to be discovered in Sanday.”

A number of artifacts have been found in the remains of the house — pottery fragments, flint knapping debris, animal bones, Skaill knives — and they are all well preserved, which is particularly key for the bones because time, soil and the elements have chewed up organic remains at other Neolithic sites in Orkney. The rich red-brown floors in the house indicate they have a rich complement of organic remains for researchers to study in the lab.

A team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute (UHI), the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and specialists from other institutions have been excavating the site since mid-August using a geophysical survey and midden finds from a previous exploration as their guide. When the site was discovered by UHI and UCLan researchers in November of last year, their survey found evidence of a large settlement they thought might date to the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-2000 BC). This was a transitional period which saw a great deal of social upheaval in Northern Scotland, so archaeologists were excited at the prospect of discoveries from so significant a time. If the dating on the Neolithic structure proves accurate, even though it will be earlier than expected nobody will be disappointed because it such a rare find in unusually good condition.

Sandy beaches are never easy to excavate, and the team has to do battle with the constant erosive action of wind and water. To top it off, the site is in the intertidal zone which means it is fully submerged twice a day. With less than a month to dig — the excavation is scheduled to end on September 8th — researchers are working assiduously to uncover as much of its archaeological material as they can.

The whales are an even more unexpected find, especially so many of them. The bones have been unearthed in two large cut pits. Local traditions suggest they are the detritus of a practice known as “ca,” from a word meaning “driven,” in which whales, dozens, even hundreds at a time, were chased towards the shore until they beached themselves. There they were butchered for their blubber, a valuable source of oil that was used in lamps, motors, soaps, even margarine. It smelled terrible burning, however, and I don’t even want to know what whale margarine tastes like, so when less unpleasant replacements were invented in the 20th century, the popularity of whale oil cratered.

The Cata Sand site is open to visitors. If you happen to be in the Sanday area, park in the parking lot and walk the western side to the highest dune. If it’s raining they won’t be there, but otherwise you can perch on the dude and see the excavation team at work.

5 thoughts on “Neolithic homes, 19th c. whale skeletons found on Orkney

  1. Can we choose which dude we park on to watch the excavation? And does this service cost anything? I’d bring my dude a sandwich anyway, maybe a drink if he’s a nice dude. 😉

  2. Without reasonable doubt, after thirty-one days out of sight of land, a group of whaling Indian Stoneagers claimed possession of Scotland “and whatever Continent would be connected to it” on behalf of their divine and earthly leaders :yes:


    Pliny the Elder about 77 AD, in Naturalis historia (2,67):

    “idem Nepos de septentrionali circuitu tradit Quinto Metello Celeri, Afrani in consulatu collegae, sed tum Galliae proconsuli, Indos a rege Sueborum dono datos, qui ex India commercii causa navigantes tempestatibus essent in Germaniam abrepti. sic maria circumfusa undique dividuo globo partem orbis auferunt nobis, nec inde huc ne hinc illo pervio tractu.”

    “The said Nepos, speaking of the circle of the Great Bear [Ursa Major], reports that Quintus Metellus Celerus, a colleague to Afranius in consulship, but then a proconsul in Gallia, was made a present by the king of the Suebians of Indians, who -when coming by boat from India for trading purposes- were driven by storms to Germany. So water and waves enclosing that part of the globe exclude us, if there is no way open from there to here or to them.”

    PS: “Hic sunt Balaenae” :skull:

  3. Is the name of the sad bar related to the word for whale chasing: ‘ca’ and ‘cata’?

    And can you make oil from dudes one has accidentally parked instead of pearched on? And does it taste good on sandwiches? :giggle:

  4. Note to Self:

    “de septentrionali circuitu” talks “about the Ursa Major” that the Romans knew as “septem triones” or “septentriones”.

    However, ‘septentrianalis’ does also mean ‘nordic’ and, thus, Pliny is letting Nepos talk about the Arctic Circle.

    In other words: As far as I can tell now, there simply is no “circle of the great bear” :no: – Sorry for that !

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