News

Cata Sands Dig, Sanday Gets Underway

The archaeology dig at the Neolithic houses found on the beach at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney is now underway. Teams from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire arrived on the island last weekend to uncover the site and begin a series of excavations centred on the sites at Cata Sand settlement and Tresness tomb.

Cata Sands

The exposed site at Cata Sand showing the Neolithic houses uncovered on the beach

This is the third year of the excavation and could not have taken place this year without the support of donations that flooded in following an online appeal. Sufficient funds to commence the dig and to undertake assessment of the animal and plant remains were raised and the team would like to express their gratitude for the donations from people all over the world.

Professor Jane Downes said:

“During 2017 and 2018 we excavated a much as we could of the early Neolithic houses, but progress was slow due to the never ending 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. Our aim is to complete the excavation of the house floors and associated pits and hearths before they disappear completely.”

“We had planned to return to Cata Sand to recover the final parts of the Neolithic houses in summer 2019, but had not been able to secure funding to enable us to rescue the last deposits and carry out final recording. These donations now allow us to complete sampling of the floor deposits which in turn will help to give a full picture of how these earliest farmers lived inside the houses.”

The archaeological site at Cata Sand on Sanday was discovered by four archaeologists – Prof. Jane Downes, Prof. Colin Richards, Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Prof. Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire as they trekked across the sands one December day in 2015 on their way to inspect the tomb at Tresness.

The team had been spotting coarse stone tools along the sands, which lie in the lee of a huge sand dune, as they walked along. Close to a point in the huge dune where it was breached during a storm in 2012 sits a small tuft of dune around which clustered 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 team first discovered the archaeological remains, they saw they 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. The team also knew therefore that they had to move quickly, and so returned in 2016 (March, bitterly cold and snowing!) to work with the Sanday community to obtain a better idea of what the site was, and how extensive it was.

Excavations over the next two seasons in 2017 and 2018 showed that the remains of a series of early Neolithic houses, more than 5,000 years old, with fragments of stone walling and stone-built hearths.

This was a first for Sanday and although the house remains are incredibly fragile and disappearing fast, floor deposits survive, and bones 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.

The team encountered a big surprise during the excavation of the Neolithic house when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug in more recent times through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried.

Cata Sands

Photographing the Neolithic houses at Cata Sand

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).

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