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Unearthing Archaeology of Cata Sand

The excavation at Cata Sand, Sanday has unearthed a few surprises in the last few days – including the discovery of Early Neolithic Houses and the skeletons of around twelve whales from the nineteenth century.

Cata Sands A 001Archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the University of Central Lancashire, School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain and University of Cambridge, have now concluded that the structural remains are those of an Early Neolithic house (c.3400-3100BC) with associated occupation deposits, hearth and stone walls.

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. It is also contemporary with a stalled burial cairn situated just along the coast at Tresness, which is also being examined by the team.

Another rectangular setting of stones to the north-west is a second hearth that relates to an extension and reconstruction of the earlier house. This is remarkable and only seen at Ha’ Breck on the island of Wyre. A range of finds associated with the Neolithic house including some fragments of pottery, Skaill knives, a grinding stone, flint working remains and animal bones have also been unearthed.

More importantly, preservation is excellent and the floor deposits are a deep red-brown colour and are rich in organic remains. As the site is located on sand there is also good bone preservation, which is quite rare in other early Neolithic Orcadian settlements. This high degree of preservation will allow us to obtain a unique level of information regarding daily life within the Early Neolithic house.

Excavating this site has its challenges, not least that it is in the intertidal zone and is partly underwater twice a day!

Perhaps the most amazing and unexpected discovery has been to find two  large cut pits within the trench that contain the skeletons of a minimum number of twelve whales

Cata Sands B 001

The excavation team includes Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group,
University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan.

It also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage,
Galicia, Spain.

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