The Smerquoy Neolithic settlement

“The structures at Wideford and Smerquoy were built some way into the Neolithic, so unless the dead built monuments to themselves, there are older timber buildings out there waiting to be discovered.”
Mark Edmonds. Orcadia.(2019)
Neolithic sites around the Bay of Firth

By Sigurd Towrie

Five years after the Wideford Hill settlement excavations, fieldwalking along the hill’s south-western base recovered tantalising evidence a second Neolithic settlement on low ground beneath the nearby chambered cairn.

Ploughing in fields off the Brae of Smerquoy had revealed large stones and ashy deposits around a low mound.

Orcadian archaeologist Chris Gee was alerted to this and so, on learning they were to be ploughed again, put his legendary archaeological nose to work. Among the flint, pottery and stone tools found was a fragment of a polished sandstone axe.

The Smerquoy fieldwalking assemblage, together with geophysical surveys, strongly suggested the “presence of dispersed Neolithic occupation around a core settlement mound.” [1]

At the time it was thought (and widely accepted, based on the Knap of Howar) that Orkney’s first farmers lived in small, isolated farmsteads. Although the Wideford Hill settlement had suggested this was not the case, the excavation at Smerquoy confirmed it.

Work began in 2013, and although the remains of four other stone buildings were found nearby, the excavators focused on a stone-built Neolithic building they dubbed the “Smerquoy Hoose”.

Measuring c.9.5 metres long, four metres wide and with walls just under two metres thick, the sub-rectangular building had been filled with rubble after its life and was reasonably well-preserved – although its southern end had been badly damaged by ploughing and the insertion of a modern drain. [1]

To the south-east of the stone structure, and slightly upslope, work in 2014 yielded evidence of two sub-rectangular timber buildings that had been encased in a turf outer wall. [1]

The presence of these wooden buildings suggests the Smerquoy site, like the Wideford Hill settlement, three-quarters of a mile to the north, had a long history of occupation – perhaps beginning around 3700BC and running right through until the Bronze Age.

Like its northerly neighbour, the evidence pointed to Smerquoy sharing a shifting settlement pattern – but perhaps dispersed over a wider area – as well as a transition from timber to stone architecture. [1]

The ‘Smerquoy Hoose’

Phase one at the Smerquoy Hoose. (
Phase one at the Smerquoy Hoose. (Gee et al. 2016)

This structure was very similar to those found at the Knap of Howar, Stonehall and the Knowes of Trotty. It also had a long history of modification and reconstruction, with . radiocarbon dates suggesting it was in use – although not necessarily continuously – from c3300 until 1800BC. [2]

As well as containing the first excavated example of pick-dressed decoration from an Early Neolithic house – a “horned spiral” akin to those found at the Ness of Brodgar – the Smerquoy Hoose excavation highlighted how much planning went into the construction Neolithic dwellings.

The different roles of the interior areas had clearly been decided long before work began. An elaborate drainage system was laid out, and cut, in relation to the planned internal features; the divisional orthostats put in place and the yellow clay floor laid before the building’s walls were raised around them. [1]

The completed structure had two entrances – one in the northern wall, beside the north-western corner, and a second in the northern half of the western wall.

Decorated stone

The decorated stone from the Smerquoy Hoose's northern entrance. (Chris Gee)
The decorated stone from the Smerquoy Hoose’s northern entrance. (📷 Chris Gee)

The paved western entrance was presumably the main access point, but it was its northern counterpart that had been embellished by the inclusion of a decorated stone.

The decorated stone was in the lowest course of masonry. The depth of the floor deposits that partially covered the motif confirmed the stone had been in place from an early stage of the building’s life. Interestingly, a second design on the rear of the stone shows it had been decorated before its inclusion into the fabric of the building. And perhaps came from another, earlier structure. [1]

The interior

Excavation at Smerquoy getting under way in 2013. (Chris Gee)
Excavation at Smerquoy getting under way in 2013. (📷 Chris Gee)

Fitting the pattern for Early Neolithic stone structures elsewhere, the Smerquoy Hoose’s interior was divided by a pair of orthostats projecting from the centre of the side walls. A circular, scoop hearth lay between these, roughly in the centre of the building.

It is not clear whether the Smerquoy Hoose relates to the earliest phase of stone construction on site, but the presence of the scoop hearth suggests it might be.

The spatial divisions represented by the orthostats were also represented by the distinct differences in the northern and southern areas.

Although the orthostats were relatively subtle reminders of a building with two halves, an unmistakable element of this division was a row of stone uprights that ran across the width of the building, slightly to the north of the hearth.

This “barrier” not only separated the northern and southern sections (the inner and outer areas), but effectively controlled access between the two. Other orthostats projecting from the inner walls defined other, smaller, areas.

In the building’s early phase, multiple pits of varying sizes were dug into the floor of the southern half. Two perhaps representing post-holes while others probably held the round-bottomed pottery vessels used for food preparation.

The smallest appeared to relate to artefact deposition, with a polished stone axe fragment found in one. A large pit directly to the south of the hearth contained a pick-dressed stone that had been set on top of a broken hammerstone. [1]

The northern half also contained pits, but these were fewer in number. One in front of the western entrance probably held a covered threshold deposit – presumably organic material because nothing had survived. In addition, the complex system of drains cut into the northern floor suggests it was at least partially paved. [1]

Running water

Smerquoy Hoose drainage schematic. (After Gee et al. 2016)
Smerquoy Hoose drainage schematic. (After Gee et al. 2016)

This elaborate drainage system was a particularly interesting element of the Smerquoy excavation.

Living on the lower slopes of a hill, the writer is well aware of water run-off. Although the oldest section of my house was standing in 1808, its drainage is appalling compared to that which serviced the Smerquoy Hoose five millennia earlier!

Not only had the outer wall been designed to present water ingress and channels dug outside the building to carry away water, but the interior was served by three different drains.

Two of these were, as we will see, more than mere conduits for run-off from the neighbouring hill slopes – they may have provided running – perhaps even hot – water.

The first of the drains (A) lay at the rear of the building, adjacent to the pitted working area in the southern end. It was relatively simple and carried liquid – presumably associated with the activities in the area – under the south-western corner and out of the building.

Drain B was substantial channel that is thought to have carried running water, from the hillside,  through the northern half of the house and out its western side.

Drain C1 ran along the eastern side of the scoop hearth before joining a larger channel, C2, that funnelled the contents out the western side of the structure. While C1 may have directed liquids produced by hearth-side activities out of the house, C2 is altogether more interesting.

Drain C2 joined the easternmost of two large pits cut into the floor of the northern section. This suggested that the pit contained water (at least periodically) and that C2 was meant to carry away the overflow.

But what caused the pit to run over? From other sites (e.g. Structure Twelve at the Ness of Brodgar), we know that liquids were heated using hot stones. And it will come as no surprise that both the large Smerquoy pits contained fragments of heated igneous stone.

Dropping stones into a water-filled pit, however, will raise the water level, necessitating a channel to drain it away. Enter C2…

Directly north of the pits was Drain B, which was suggested to be the source of the water.

“There was some form of division between pit and channel allowing control of the flow,” wrote the excavators. When this aperture was open, the pit filled with water. Block it and the running water travelled straight through the building and out into a north-south drain outside. [1]

So not only did the Smerquoy Hoose have running water, but the occupants were able to heat it!

An intriguing element of the drainage system around the pits is its complexity. As we have seen, overflowing water from the pit – possibly warm – ran into Drain Three before exiting the house.

Speaking practically, the second, southern drain was unnecessary. The builders could easily have channelled the overflow back into the northern drain. So why go to the trouble?

The excavators proposed:

“[W]e appear to be confronted with a clear example of avoidance between the contents of two channels and some form of purity – pollution distinction must have underlain this decision. But this strategy of avoidance is apparently only necessary or active within the confines of the house, because after draining beneath the house wall in the respective conduits, both empty, and effectively combine, in the large external drain.” [1]


The Smerquoy Hoose underwent a series of alterations throughout its life.

Its original scoop hearth was filled in and replaced by a large, stone-built, rectangular hearth slightly to the south. Because the new hearth was aligned to the northern entrance, it lay askew to the line of the building. The hearth was replaced again later, straightening it up in relation to the wall lines.

The addition of the stone hearth was accompanied by the removal of some of the stone orthostats that had divided the interior into two distinct halves.

Smerquoy Hoose. Phase 2. (Gee et al. 2016)
Smerquoy Hoose. Phase 2. (Gee et al. 2016)

The importance of the drainage network is highlighted by the fact it remained in use throught, although was altered over time. Drain C1 was reworked at least two times to accommodate the insertion of the stone hearth. In its later phases, however, the role of Drain B changed from being a water source to a simple drainage channel. [1]

Later in the life of the Smerquoy Hoose a porch-like extension was added outside the northern entrance. Like the example added to Structure Twelve at the Ness of Brodgar, this “porch” was poorly built and butted up against the original building.

The presence of charcoal and ash suggests the “porch” contained a hearth, while a stone box had been cut into the floor. A broken quernstone lay beside the western wall and a “macehead-like” gneiss artefact on the opposite side. [1]

Phase Three - the addition of a porch-like structure on the north end. (Gee et al. 2016)
Phase Three – the addition of a porch-like structure on the north end. (Gee et al. 2016)

Decommissioned and dismantled

Three structures revealed at Smerquoy. (Colin Richards)
Three structures revealed at Smerquoy. (📷 Colin Richards)

Subsidence in the area around the external drain led to the collapse of the Smerquoy Hoose’s western wall. It is not clear, however, whether this occurred after the structure went out of use or was the catalyst for its abandonment.

Whatever the situation, the structure went out of use in the Late Neolithic. It was subsequently partially dismantled and filled with rubble and earth. This decommissioning seems to have been marked by the deposition of a broken gneiss macehead in the former entrance. [1]

After that it seems the site was used again, with Bronze Age radiocarbon dates associated with features on top of the ruined and buried structure. This took place from c2200BC and ended around 1800BC. [2]

“These results emphasise that the Smerquoy Hoose would probably have been evident as a stone structure, or ruined feature, for a significant time after its first construction in the early Neolithic.” [2]

A short distance to the north, excavation revealed what appeared to be an open-air working area, perhaps akin to that encountered at the Wideford Hill settlement. It had been created by laying clay over midden deposits and given the relationship between the clay and that used to cover the remains of the Smerquoy House porch/entrance suggests the working area postdates the building.

That this working area overlaid an earlier building (or buildings) is suggested by the fact it not only covered sections of masonry, but structural orthostats protruded above its surface.


  • [1] Gee, C., Richards, C. and Robertson, M. (2016) Local histories of passage grave building communities: Brae of Smerquoy. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.
  • [2] Griffiths, S. (2016). Beside the ocean of time: A chronology of Neolithic burial monuments and houses in Orkney. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.

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