The Crossiecrown settlement – part two

“The families living around the bay would have seen each other across the slopes, they would have heard the calls and cries of their neighbours and by accident or design, they probably grazed the hills in common.
“There were many occasions across the year when tasks required people from different houses to work in combination, creating bonds that were no doubt realised in other ways as well.”
Mark Edmonds, Orcadia (2019)
The Red House at Crossiecrown under excavation.
The Red House at Crossiecrown under excavation. (📷 Card et al. 2016)

‘More than a dwelling’

By Sigurd Towrie
(Part one here)

Parallels with Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar hint that the Crossiecrown “double-house” was more than a dwelling. The quality of the internal stonework, the deposited artefacts and the fact the Red House had been “decorated” suggests we have another example of a “big house” – a structure with “enhanced ancestral significance and status”. [3]

Evidence from the Ness of Brodgar complex suggests that it was a meeting place and it may be that Crossiecrown had a similar role.

That was the conclusion reached by Andrew Jones, who felt the double-house marked “Crossiecrown out as a focal settlement for the region, around which several groups of people gathered, just as the double-hearth house at Barnhouse in the centre of Mainland Orkney was used as a gathering place”. [6]

This seems to be borne out by the pottery assemblage, which suggested large-scale communal consumption. [7]

House Two at the Barnhouse settlement during excavation
House Two at the Barnhouse settlement during excavation. Pictured directly opposite the entrance (at the top right of the photograph) are the remains of House Nine. (📷 Richards et al. 2016)

But despite the similarities to other sites there is one major difference – Crossiecrown’s double house was much later than the examples from Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar. At Barnhouse, House Two was abandoned, along with the surrounding dwellings, around 2900BC. [8]

Crossiecrown’s Red House, however, was constructed around 2900BC and remained in use, albeit with periods of modification and alteration, until c.2300BC – long after existing evidence suggests that the known settlement sites around the Ness of Brodgar had gone out of use. [8]

Final occupation

The proposed Bronze Age timber-and-turf structure represented by a shallow hollow. (Card et al. 2016)

The final phase of occupation at Crossiecrown was revealed in a shallow hollow dug into earlier midden deposits.

The sub-oval depression measured c.7m by 4m and was up to 0.3m deep. Excavated features encountered, together with late Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery and radiocarbon dates (1960–1740BC) suggested it represented the remains of a Bronze Age turf-and-timber building. [3]

All change

As we have seen at Neolithic settlement sites across Orkney, and the Ness of Brodgar in particular, the importance of place seems to have been paramount when it came to buildings.

We see this manifested in the dismantling of the old (dead?) building before the new is raised on the same spot.

In some cases, e.g. the Ness of Brodgar, the importance of re-using a site seems to have taken precedence over any requirement/desire for structural stability. Add the reincorporation of material from earlier buildings and we see thoughts of stability, identity and perhaps permanence coming to the fore.

The cell in northern area of the Grey House. Incised decoration was present on the stone to the left of the vertical scale (📷 Nick Card).

The new building, by occupying the space of its predecessor(s) and incorporating elements of it into its fabric, was perhaps a tangible, and visible, link to the past and its people.

Underlying the new structure was a metaphorical connection to the occupants’ forebears, perhaps not only emphasising their continuity, but place in society and the landscape.

While we have ample evidence of this across Neolithic Orkney, at Crossiecrown the re-use of building sites and materials was taken to an entirely new level. [3]

Although there was no doubt the settlement had a long history of occupation, the relationship between the fragmentary remains was difficult to unpick. The reason for this was simple – the “complete demolition of buildings and the recycling of stone”:

“[The Red and the Grey Houses] were surrounded not only by substantial accumulation of midden material but also by the structural vestiges of the previous inhabitants of Crossiecrown.
“During excavation these relics of past settlement were extremely difficult to unravel either stratigraphically or as coherent structural entities and consequently we are left with a series of discrete structural components. What can be surmised is that these isolated structural components comprise the remains of a sequential pattern of building, demolition and rebuilding across the entire central area of settlement mound at Crossiecrown.” [3]

In other words, episodes in which the entire site was levelled and reconstructed.

Excavating in the 1920s, Childe suggested something similar for Skara Brae, but this was criticised by Professor Colin Richards in the early 1990s:

“… to write in terms of entire phases of rebuilding as representative of the structural history of the settlement is misleading. It is quite improbable that the entire village was simultaneously demolished, levelled, and rebuilt.”  [9]

At Crossiecrown, however, it seems this is exactly what was happening. Or at the very least the site was repeatedly, and frequently, subjected to “episodes of substantial, if not total, rebuilding”. [3]

Was Crossiecrown continually occupied for c.1,500 years?

Or was occupation disjointed, as suggested by the fact that “particular phases” appeared “to concur with discontinuities in material culture”? [3]

“Judging from the spread of radiocarbon dates in conjunction with the range of ceramics and other forms of material culture, occupation of the site appears relatively continuous. Obviously, short-duration breaks and other junctures may be difficult to discern but no major abandonment layers were observed within the excavated areas.”  [3]

So, it seems that rather than episodic use, in which a return to the site was marked by the dismantling of earlier structures, the sequence at Crossiecrown relates to buildings being dismantled and replaced after their life.

Whatever the situation prior to the Red House’s construction, its use into the Bronze Age does mark Crossiecrown as different to most excavated Orcadian Neolithic settlements to date.

The suggested Orkney-wide disjuncture in settlement around 2800BC [8] and final abandonment of nucleated villages around 2500BC does not seem to have impacted activity at Crossiecrown. That said, we are again looking at a single area of a wider landscape – although the excavators discounted a shift in settlement. [3]

Although the condition of the remains makes it impossible to produce a fine-grained biography of Crossiecrown, what it beyond doubt is that the site was a focus of activity for at least 1,500 years. Barnhouse, in comparison, had a lifespan of four centuries.

“Just as today we know the site as Crossiecrown, so during the Neolithic period this was a named and widely known place. As with a number of Late Neolithic settlements, the inhabitants of the Red and Grey Houses lived among the detritus and dwelled within the materials of their predecessors. Yet, at Crossiecrown they could claim a degree of longevity of place unmatched by many other social groups in Neolithic Orkney.”  [3]


  • [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.
  • [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.
  • [7] Jones, A.M., Jones, R., Tully, G., Maritan, L., Mukherjee, A., Evershed, R., MacSween, A., Richards, C. and Towers, R. (2016) Prehistoric Pottery from Sites within the Bay of Firth: Stonehall, Crossiecrown, Wideford Hill, Brae of Smerquoy, Muckquoy, Ramberry and Knowes of Trotty. 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. 303-412.
  • [8] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
  • [9] Richards, C. (1991) Skara Brae: revisiting a Neolithic village in Orkney. In W. S. Hanson and E. A. Slater (eds) Scottish Archaeology: new perceptions, Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, 24–43.

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