Crossiecrown settlement – part one

“Towards the end of the 4th millennium BC, when the inhabitants of Crossiecrown looked to the south-west, the familiar sight of the great passage grave of Quanterness greeted their eyes lying on the lower northern slopes of Wideford Hill.
“[T]his must have been a reassuring sight, as its presence spoke of continuity, identity and connections. Continuity and identity existed in the knowledge that previous inhabitants of Crossiecrown, and perhaps other settlements in the Bay of Firth area, had built the monument and a number were actually resting within its dark interior.”
Crozier et al. 2016. Reorientating the Dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head [1]
Neolithic activity around the Bay of Firth, Orkney

The Red and the Grey Houses

By Sigurd Towrie

Throughout the Neolithic, the landscape around what is now the Bay of Firth was a well-populated area.

The latter half of the fourth millennium BC saw five known settlements founded around Wideford Hill, their occupants responsible for raising the three chambered cairns – Quanterness, Cuween and Wideford – that survive to this day.

Crossiecrown lay in the northern shadow of the hill, on low ground to the north-east of the Quanterness cairn.

Occupied from around 3300BC to 1800BC, the site spanned the Orcadian Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

In at least one phase of this long life, Crossiecrown, like the Ness of Brodgar complex beyond the hills to the west, may have been a meeting place – a focal point for the people of the area and beyond.

That phase was probably in the Late Neolithic when the site was dominated by a pair of substantial stone buildings of similar size and design and with facing entrances.

Crossiecrown was discovered in 1995 during a fieldwalking exercise.

The Cuween-Wideford Landscape project, with Professor Colin Richards at the helm, was looking at the range and density of prehistoric settlement around the Bay of Firth.

At the time, the presence of the Stonehall settlement, below Cuween Hill, had been confirmed and the evidence was pointing to another on the lower western slopes of Wideford Hill.

During fieldwalking, which concentrated on the land below and within sight of Quanterness, the landowner had highlighted a low, but large, mound. It stood in an area that took its name from a former “small farmhouse” to the south-east [2]Crossiecrown (or Crossiecroon, as it is known locally [1b]).

As expected, a wealth of flint and stone artefacts was recovered from the surface of the 40-metre-diameter mound. Subsequent geophysical survey confirmed it was made up of midden material piled around a series of possible buildings. [3]

After three seasons of excavation, the evidence pointed at a multi-phase site with occupation running from the fourth to the second millennium BC.

The early date for the settlement’s founding was confirmed by the presence of round-based pottery, including Unstan Ware, associated with the remnants of structural features cut into, and raised on glacial till.

Little of the earliest phases remained save “disjointed sections of masonry, paving, spreads of rubble and midden” [3]. This was put down to centuries of demolition and rebuilding at a settlement “obsessed with the continual recycling of building materials”. [4]

Dismantling the early structures had left sections of walling, some of which, as we’ve seen at the Ness of Brodgar, were incorporated into later structures. Occupation at Crossiecrown, it seems, was not unlike the Ness – a sequence of construction and reconstruction with new buildings raised on the old.

The complete demolition of the earlier phases – and the fact they lay under later material – meant what remained was very disturbed and difficult to interpret. It also meant it was impossible to tell whether Crossiecrown, like the nearby Wideford settlement, had a period of timber architecture.

The situation with the later structures was much the same. Early in the third millennium BC, for example, a cluster of four or five structures was built and gradually surrounded by thick layers of midden deposited up against their outer walls. Because these, like their predecessors, were dismantled after use, their existence is known only through geophysical survey. [3]

The relationship between Crossiecrown's Red (bottom right) and Grey houses.
The relationship between Crossiecrown’s Red (bottom right) and Grey houses. (Card et al. 2016)

More buildings followed, of which only two – the “Red House” and the “Grey House” – survived in a reasonable state of preservation.

With entrances facing each other, the Red and Grey houses formed a “double house” akin to Structures Fourteen and Sixteen at the Ness of Brodgar and Houses Two and Nine at Barnhouse.

The pair were surrounded by the denuded remnants of other buildings and extensive middens, the latter providing radiocarbon dates from c.3320-2490BC. [3]

The Red and Grey Houses were of a similar design – both conforming to the architecture of the late fourth-early third millennium BC. Although the construction of the Red House pre-dated the Grey, it is thought they were, for a period at least, used concurrently. [3]

The latter, however, fell out of use. But after the Grey House’s abandonment activity in its neighbour continued into the Bronze Age.

The final occupation of the Red House was radiocarbon dated to around 2400-2200BC. [3]

The Red House

Closer view of the 'cushion stone' artefact in situ. (Jane Downes)
Plan of the later (modified) phase of the Red House. The area marked in red shows where the red-clay rendering had survived. (Card et al. 2016)

The Red House was well-built, with stonework on a par to the Ness of Brodgar and House Two at Barnhouse. In its final incarnation the building was sub-circular with an internal diameter of approximately nine metres and a single, off-centred entrance in its north-western side.

The excavators noted, however, that over its lifetime sections had seen repeated episodes of dismantling and reconstruction.  Like Structure One at the Ness of Brodgar it also appeared to have undergone extensive remodelling to its interior.

Before this redesign, the Red House may have shared the same elongated form and dual-cruciform layout as Barnhouse Two and Structure One and Fourteen at the Ness. This meant it also had a floor plan that paralleled that of the Quanterness chambered cairn [5], approximately 860 metres to the south-west and which contained pottery from both Barnhouse and Crossiecrown. [6]

Given the Red House – like the Ness’ piered buildings – was raised on the remains of its predecessor(s), architectural instability and subsidence may lie behind its rebuilding episodes.  Although the rear of the Red House was the focus for much of the reconstruction – which does suggest collapse [3] – as we have seen at the Ness change does not always need to be preceded by structural mishaps.

Despite being unaffected by the subsidence that plagued its neighbours, Structure One was still subjected to a series of major alterations.

Red House excavation plan. (Card et al. 2016. The settlement of Crossiecrown: The Grey and Red Houses)
Red House excavation plan. (Card et al. 2016)

Despite a life of structural modifications, the Red House’s interior remained much the same – a generally cruciform layout with recesses on either side of a large hearth (that was “unusually close to the entrance”) and one to its rear. Cuts in the rear recess floor may relate to a dismantled Skara Brae-type “dresser”. [3]

The bases of the right and left recesses were raised c.20cm above floor level and separated from the rest of the interior by orthostatic slabs. A polished stone axe had been deposited in the right-hand recess, with a worked stone ball adjacent to the divisional upright.

At the rear of the right-hand recess was a small, paved cell separated by a short wall. A stone mortar lay at the rear of the cell, which also contained a drain, which ran under the walls and out of the building.

Other finds from the building included stone implements, Grooved Ware pottery and burnt bone. Skaill knives were the most common tools found, along with stone discs and cobble tools. While most of the tools came from the building’s recesses, five had been buried in pits or boxes and two deposited in a drain. [3]

To the left of the entrance passage was a smaller raised recess. Paved, and containing a stone mortar, its rear wall still showed evidence of the red-clay “plaster” that gave the structure its name.

The red clay was either brought to site from some distance away or coloured using pigment derived from haematite, several pieces of which were found. [3]

Crossiecrown's 'Red House' under excavation.
Crossiecrown’s ‘Red House’ under excavation.

Three small orthostatic boxes had been inserted into the building’s floor, reminiscent of those still visible at Skara Brae and encountered in various structures at the Ness of Brodgar.

Although the Skara Brae examples have been interpreted as “limpet boxes” for decades, and more recently “tanks”, one of the Red Houses “boxes” contained a deposit of cremated bone and burnt material.

There is no doubt that some of the cremated bone was animal but it was impossible to tell whether the deposit contained human material. Evidence of heather and Scots pine charcoal was mixed with the deposits – a find consistent with the fuel used for cremation in the 2nd millennium BC.  This suggests at least one of the boxes contained a cremation deposit of some sort. [3]

It is interesting to note the human remains found in a similar – but much earlier – orthostatic box at the Ness of Brodgar in 2022. This box represented the horizon between the abandonment of Structure Eighteen and the construction of Eight.

Another parallel to recent discoveries at the Ness relates to the Red House’s entrance, which was found to be c1.5 metres wide. This, noted the excavators, was “highly unusual in the context of late Neolithic house architecture where the width of entrance passages rarely exceeds a metre and more often are even narrower.” [3]

Until 2022, the doorways of structures at the Ness of Brodgar generally fell into Neolithic pattern noted above. Re-examining the stonework around Structure Eight’s single, northern entrance, however, it became clear that the incredibly narrow doorway was secondary, and that the original was at least two metres wide.

The position of the Red House’s entrance meant that people entered the right side of the interior. Unlike House Two at Barnhouse, however, there was no evidence of features that rigidly controlled movement through the interior.

Organic residue from the upper floor levels may also represent the residue of floor coverings, such as bracken and rushes. [3]

The Grey House

Plan of the Grey House and surrounding area.
Plan of the Grey House and surrounding area. (Card et al. 2016.)

Outside the Red House, the Grey House was not as well preserved – primarily because, after abandonment, its walls had been dismantled and the remains covered in midden. What survived, however, showed a building that was architecturally similar to its neighbour. [3]

The structure was built to the north-west, and directly opposite, the already standing Red House. Its south-eastern entrance faced its neighbour’s and was defined by a threshold slab c.0.64m in length. This suggests the Grey House’s entrance considerably smaller than that of the Red House.

A paved area lay between the two buildings.

Although ruinous, enough evidence survived to indicate the Grey House shared a similar floorplan to the Red House. Unlike the paired houses at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar, however, the Grey House was the roughly the same size as its contemporary.

Nick Card highlighting the position of the worked stone 'cushion stone' in the Grey House eastern recess. (Jane Downes)
Nick Card highlighting the position of the worked ‘pillow stone’ in the Grey House eastern recess. (📷 Jane Downes)
Closer view of the 'cushion stone' artefact in situ. (Jane Downes)
Closer view of the ‘pillow’ stone artefact in situ. (📷Jane Downes)

In its right-hand recess, was a worked-stone object closely resembling the ‘pillow’ stones from the Ness of Brodgar. Interestingly, this object had been deposited in the same position in the recess as the polished stone axe from the Red House. [3]

In the north-eastern corner – between the northern and eastern recesses – was a small, well-constructed and paved cell, akin to the one in the Red House. Measuring c.1m square, the cell featured incised stonework and contained a drain that ran under the exterior wall.

Also like the Red House, three stone boxes had been inserted into the floor and a cut in the rear recess suggested the presence of a “dresser”. Other pits in the floor may have represented the robbed-out remains of other stone boxes. [3]

After an unknown period standing beside the Red House, the Grey House was abandoned, and its walls dismantled. Over time midden material accumulated over the remains.

Grey House excavation plan. (Card et al. 2016. The settlement of Crossiecrown: The Grey and Red Houses)
Grey House excavation plan. (Card et al. 2016.)

Part Two


  • [1] Crozier, R., Richards, C., Robertson, J. and Challands, A., 2016. Re-orientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney,(1994-2014) (pp. 196-223). Windgather Press.
  • [1b] The second element, croon, is undoubtedly an anglicised version of cruan, meaning “the enclosure” – from Old Norse kró. The cross element is more difficult as there are no surviving references to a chapel in the area. It too may therefore relate to the Old Norse kró.
  • [2] Ordnance Survey Name Books. Orkney: Kirkwall and St Ola – Volume 12.
  • [3] Card, N., Downes, J., Richards, C., Jones, R., Challands, A., French, C. and Thomas, A. (2016) The settlement of Crossiecrown: The Grey and Red Houses. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press, pp.160–95.
  • [4] Richards, C., Downes, J., Gee, C. and Carter, S. (2016) Materializing Neolithic house societies in Orkney: introducing Varme Dale and Muckquoy. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press, pp.224–253
  • [5] Richards, C. (ed) (2005) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maes Howe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research: Cambridge.
  • [6] Jones, A.M. (2012) Prehistoric materialities: Becoming material in prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

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