ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 52, April 2000


Dainty dishes on a tiny isle

Anna Ritchie recalls the pottery that dated the oldest standing building in western Europe

My favourite discoveries were made at Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, Orkney, in 1973 and 1975. The site is a Neolithic farmstead with the oldest standing buildings in North-West Europe, but before I worked there it was thought to date from the Iron Age.

Knap of Howar was first discovered through coastal erosion in the 1930s and was taken into state guardianship. But by the 1970s the two buildings were starting to collapse and we were excavating ahead of repairs. The site is right on the shore of the island and is constantly battered by the sea.

When I first went there it was a sunny day and there were seapink flowers growing on the walls. It was idyllic. You could still walk into both buildings. The doorway into the main dwelling was intact and the walls rose to the eaves. The only thing missing was the roof. There had been no datable finds from the first excavation, but the quality of stonework was so good that the excavators thought the buildings must be contemporary with brochs.

But when we began to excavate the midden material outside the buildings we came across sherds of Unstan ware pottery. This was the first inkling that what we had was not Iron Age but earlier - three and a half thousand years earlier. Later, radiocarbon dates placed the occupation between 3600-3100 BC.

I remember how excited I was when I first held a sherd of the Unstan ware in my hand. It was the first time this distinctive pottery had been found on a domestic site - previously it had only come from tombs. It was dark, and quite thin and finely decorated. The interesting thing was that whereas the pots from chambered tombs were thick and heavy, the domestic pots were really quite dainty with thin walls. It was fine tableware.

These were my favourite finds not only because of the unexpected dating, but because of the experience of being on a small island. It was a very special place, only about four miles long by one mile wide with about 80 inhabitants. One of the little problems was food. A steamer came just once a week bringing provisions for the island shop. So you'd be standing there and you'd see for example two cucumbers and you'd think - I wonder if someone on the island wants them? So you'd buy one and then hover at the door to see if anyone bought the other.

It's vastly too windy on the island to sleep in tents, but we were allowed to use one of the houses which was very comfortable and we had an oil-fired Aga. I had a one-year-old son by 1975 and only managed to excavate because my husband kindly came too and acted as house-husband. This was his summer holiday, poor man.

When the little aircraft that serves the island flew in to land on foggy days, it would be so low you'd think it was right overhead. It lands on a field, and the farmer has to get his sheep out every time the flight arrives. Once we were woken up in the middle of the night and told all cars were needed at the airfield. If there is an emergency and the plane has to come in at night, everyone on the island with a car has to go and position themselves in the field with their headlights on to guide the plane in to land. On this occasion it was a woman being rushed to hospital after a heart attack.

The discoveries at Knap of Howar led to my next excavation. Once we had Unstan ware we knew it was likely that the people were buried in a stalled cairn - because that's where the pottery is normally found - and the nearest one is on the Holm of Papa Westray, an even tinier island. We discovered there was an overlap in the dates so the people at Knap of Howar could possibly have used the cairn, but we couldn't prove it.

Anna Ritchie is a consultant archaeologist based in Edinburgh

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