Cata Sand - the Discovery
The site at Cata Sand in Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney, was discovered by four intrepid archaeologists – Professors Jane Downes and Colin Richards, together with Chris Gee, of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Professor Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire – as they trekked across the sands one December day in 2015, in the teeth of a howling gale. They were walking out to visit the nearby Neolithic tomb of Tres Ness which was known to be eroding at the cliff face, but as they walked they began to spot prehistoric coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune – Grithies Dune – where an eagle-eyed Chris spotted some orthostats (upright stones), with patches of reddened soil and walling:
Settlement!! they thought, excited at the prospect of perhaps having discovered remnant of the elusive late Neolithic/early Bronze Age transition period…and which ultimately proved to be an early Neolithic house complex (c. 3,300-3,400 BC), and a deposit of dozens of 18th or 19th century AD pilot whales dumped into pits cut through the Neolithic house.
When the discovery was first made it was immediately recognised that the archaeological remains were in a vulnerable situation, exposed to winds and lying in the intertidal zone. Both the actions of wind and sea were causing visible erosion, and it became clear that the site had been exposed only fairly recently. Exposure occurred probably during the major storm in 2012, when wind and waves removed not only part of the large dune but removed over half of Grithies Dunes, revealing the remains of the Neolithic houses. We knew therefore that we had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community getting a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.
During 2017 and 2018 the team excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses; progress is slow due to the neverending blowing sand, and working between tidal inundations. Sea level rises and increased storminess (both relatable to climate change) mean the site will very soon have vanished completely. The aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.
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