The Excavation: An early Neolithic settlement revealed

Geophysical survey using magnetometer showed the archaeological deposits were focussed at the Grithies Dune; the coarse stone tools we had found strewn along the sands denoted perhaps where tools were being manufactured from the cobbles that make up the gravel banks under the sands. The excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 revealed the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths showing the long rectangular form and layout typical of early Neolithic houses such as Knap of Howar on Papa Westray,  and several other houses discovered more recently on Mainland Orkney, and Wyre.

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This was a first for Sanday, as early Neolithic evidence at the multi-period site of Pool had been more ephemeral. Although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bone survives very well – this level of preservation offers a rare opportunity to be able to analyse plant and animal remains and find out how people sustained themselves in this dynamic environment. Two tiny and beautifully crafted shell beads were recovered from samples from the 2017 excavation: these give a rare glimpse into the exquisite craft skills that are lacking from other early Neolithic house sites.

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Above: looking across the Neolithic house at Cata Sand, exposed on the beach with the sand dunes in the background

Below: an aerial view of the house showing the layout with hearths and uprights stones protruding.The dark material in both shots is the prehistoric midden or rubbish heap, which still survives below the windblown sand on the beach.

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At the same time, over 2017 and 2018 excavation seasons, the team's explorations at the Tres Ness tomb have revealed that this tomb, rather than being a late Neolithic passage grave like Swandro – and Maeshowe – is a stalled tomb of early Neolithic form. This finding is significant for, before the large sand dune had accumulated which is relatively recently, Tresness and the contemporary settlement at Cata Sand would have been inter-visible and therefore part of the same landscape, and very probably built by the same community. Click here for freely available downloads of site reports and more information. 

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Above: surveying in progress around the site of the original discovery, the tide was in covering the sands of the bay when this was taken.

Cata Sand and Tres Ness investigations are run jointly by University of the Highlands and Islands (Profs Jane Downes and Colin Richards) and University of Central Lancashire (Prof. Vicki Cummings), with National Museums of Scotland (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark), a team of students from both institutions and volunteers from the Sanday Archaeology Group. The team would like to thank the landowners and the people of Sanday for their support during the project.