Wideford Hill settlement – Orkney’s first evidence of Neolithic wooden structures

“The density of occupation around Wideford Hill, and the apparent longevity of activity associated with different forms of house structures in this area is significant. People were repeatedly drawn to dwell on the lower hillsides overlooking the Bay of Firth…”
Seren Griffiths.
Beside the ocean of time: A chronology of Neolithic burial
monuments and houses in Orkney
(2016)
Neolithic sites around the Bay of Firth

From timber to stone

By Sigurd Towrie

The Wideford Hill settlement was one of four investigated around the Bay of Firth as part of the Cuween-Wideford Landscape project. [1]

The site, in use from c3600-2900BC, lies at the north-western foot of the hill, south-west of Crossiecrown and east of the Stonehall settlement. Its discovery and excavation in 2002-2003 revealed a missing chapter from the biography of Neolithic Orkney – timber houses.

Why was that important?

Even today, 20 years after the final excavation season, you will still find repeated references to the idea that Neolithic Orcadians built in stone because it was the only material available to them.

Over the years palaeoenvironmental work has debunked the notion of a treeless Orkney in the Neolithic but until the start of the 21st century evidence of timber being used in construction had proved elusive. Not least because, unlike the stone structures we all know today, wooden buildings leave no trace above ground – and not that much beneath.

Rendall’s ‘treasure’ map

Robert Rendall's original plan of the Wideford Hill flint scatter.
Robert Rendall’s original map of the Wideford Hill flint scatter.

The story of the settlement’s discovery goes back to September 1929, when Orcadian Robert Rendall discovered a flint scatter in a field that had been ploughed for the first time.

An accomplished naturalist, Rendall had an interest in archaeology and diligently recorded the surface material on a plan of the area.

He returned to his “flint field” between 1930 and 1933, adding stone tools and pottery to his record of the site. Unfortunately, although his recording of the assemblage was first-class, Rendall did not provide the exact location.

The only clues were the name Wideford Hill on his plan and the presence of the Kirkwall-Stromness road.

Fast forward 73 years and, working with Rendall’s plan, the Cuween-Wideford team investigated several fields adjacent to the road in an attempt to re-locate the “flint-field”.

Although a portion was found in 1994, evidence of archaeological deposits proved elusive.

But just as hope was fading, a second, later, map by Rendall turned up in September 2002. It showed a high concentration of artefacts over 100 metres to the west of the team’s investigation area.

Geophysical survey and a trial trench in a raised area – described as a  “hummock” by Rendall – finally provided the long-awaited evidence of Neolithic occupation.

Rendall's later plan of the area allowed the excavation team to pinpoint the occupation area. (Picture courtesy of the Orkney Museum)
Rendall’s later map of the area allowed the excavation team to pinpoint the occupation area. (Picture courtesy of the Orkney Museum)

The site was found to have been extensively damaged over the years, and little remained of the archaeological remains. But, much to their surprise and delight, it soon became clear that the excavators were dealing with the ephemeral remains of wooden buildings.

Dating to around 3600BC, the earliest houses at this site were timber, post-built structures. Nothing survived above ground, the only evidence of three sub-circular buildings being post-holes and central hearths scooped into their floors. Excavation suggested these wooden houses had a short lifespan and were replaced (at another location) rather than refurbished at the end of their life. [2]

This contrasts with the pattern noted in later Neolithic settlements, where stone buildings were rebuilt on the site of their predecessors.

The excavation team had no doubt that more timber structures lay outside their trenches. Rendall’s records of the extensive flint scatters showed they were spread out, extending around 300 metres from the north-eastern corner of the field.

This surface material had appeared in clusters, suggesting individual, dispersed dwellings. Alternatively, the flint scatters could be indicative of a smaller number of timber buildings shifting around the area over time. [3]

Whatever the settlement pattern, excavation suggested that around 3300BC, the timber structures began to be replaced by stone-built dwellings replicating the architecture of the only stone buildings erected by this time – chambered cairns [3]. Two stone structures were found, standing side by side, with a third suggested to the west.

The stone phase of the village lasted until c2900BC.

The excavated structures

The wooden buildings discovered in the excavated area at Wideford Hill. Timber Structure One (red), Timber Structure Two (green) and Timber Structure Three (blue).
The wooden buildings discovered in the excavated area at Wideford Hill. Timber Structure One (red), Timber Structure Two (green) and Timber Structure Three (blue). (Richards and Jones 2016)

Based on the post-holes, Timber Structure One was a small circular building, with a diameter slightly more than 3.5 metres and covering an area of c13 square metres. A scoop hearth had been cut into the floor towards the centre of the interior with a possible “porch” on the south-western side.

Confirmation that the building was Early Neolithic came from the contents of the fireplace, which contained a sherd of Unstan Ware pottery at its lowest level. The radiocarbon date from the pot sherd provided a date of c3400-3300BC for the hearth.

Some of the Early Neolithic post-holes at the settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)
Some of the post-hole forming Timber Structure Three. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The walls and roof of the building were supported by a ring of five posts. Charcoal recovered from a post-hole suggested the posts were made of birch, with woven panels of hazel and willow used for the walls. The small structure’s roofing material perhaps included heather, charred evidence of which was also found within. [3]

Given the charcoal, the structure was presumably burnt down at the end of its life. The remains of the timber posts, however, were left in place to decay. As we will see, this practice allowed the excavation team to recognise the horizon between timber and stone structures at Wideford.

Another possible timber structure lay to the east. Although, like its neighbours, it may have begun life as a circular building post-holes on either side suggest it was remodelled into a longer, rectangular building, perhaps like that subsequently encountered at the Braes of Ha’Breck, on the island of Wyre [4]. That said, the post-holes to the east may also represent a separate building. [3]

Charred grain at the bottom of a sealed post-hole in the area yielded the earliest radiocarbon date on site – 3620-3350BC. [3]

This building (or buildings) also produced 6,000 charred grains – mostly naked barley – from a post-hole. This, together with that recovered from other post-holes, resulted in a substantial quantity of burnt cereal – at the time, the largest quantity recorded from an Early Neolithic site in Orkney. [3]

The quantity of grain recovered suggested that cereal cultivation was of particular importance during the timber phase at the Wideford Hill settlement. This fits the pattern noted elsewhere – where livestock rearing takes precedence in the later Neolithic (c3000-2500BC). [7]

Excavation at the settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)
Excavation at the settlement. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

A third confirmed wooden building, to the north-west of Timber Structure One, was again represented by five post-holes and a scoop hearth. With a floor area of just eight square metres, this building was smaller and less substantial than its neighbour.

However, it was clearly regarded as significant to some because they raised a stone house over its remains, centring their new building on the original’s hearth, which remained in use. To create a level surface a clay floor was laid over the in-situ stumps of the wooden posts.

The fact these had not decayed suggests the stone structure was raised relatively soon after its timber predecessor was dismantled. A large chunk of birch charcoal under the later clay floor again suggested that burning played a part in its destruction. [3]

As is the case in the later, stone Neolithic dwellings, the re-use of hearths – or hearthstones – “provides a dominant symbol of continuity” and the evidence from Wideford Hill suggests a rapid switch from timber construction to stone. [3]

Stone Structure One and the foundation slabs of Stone Structure Two. (Richards and Jones 2016)
Stone Structure One and the foundation slabs of Stone Structure Two. (Richards and Jones 2016)

Although Stone Structure One was in poor condition – only a section of its eastern wall had survived – it was clear that it was sub-rectangular in plan and aligned roughly north-south. Charred grain from a second, later, hearth in the building provided a date of c.3340-2920BC. [3]

In contrast to other known Early Neolithic buildings in Orkney, Stone Structure One had no evidence of orthostatic dividers inside. This suggests their introduction into domestic architecture was a later development.

Excavation under way at the settlement site. (Sigurd Towrie)
Excavation under way at the settlement site. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The building was possibly a double-house – akin to the Red and Grey Houses at Crossiecrown – with a second structure immediately to the west. A third stone structure stood to the east, separated from Stone Structure One by a stone-covered drain.

At some point in One’s life, its neighbour was demolished, its remains cleared, and a rammed-stone surface laid on top. Because of this, little could be learned about the form and role of Stone Structure Two.  

The open area created beside Stone Structure One was heavily compacted. It had clearly seen regular and repeated use and the recovered assemblage included large quantities of pottery and broken and burnt stone and flint tools.

The quantity of the latter led to the suggestion they had been deliberately broken to be incorporated into the working surface. [3]

This was a marked contrast to the ephemeral activity noted around Wideford Hill’s timber structures and suggests the open area was a predecessor of the communal working spaces at later settlement sites – notably Barnhouse. [3]

Stone Structure One and the work area to its east. (Richards and Jones 2016)

While the switch to stone is argued to represent continuity and a link to the past, the same has been argued for the working area:

“Marking particular places, time and time again, through sequential deposition hints at new material discourses coming into existence emphasising place and continuity. In short, materials were literally thrown down after use to be absorbed and incorporated as part of an assemblage incorporating people things and memories. Because of the episodic re-surfacing, the various artefacts fused within the rammed-stone deposit become ‘fossilised’ and spatially representative of sequential activities occurring in the work area.”  [3]

The sequence

The nature of the timber phase at Wideford Hill was not clear. Because the evidence pointed at settlement moving around the area – as houses went out of use and others were built – it proved difficult to estimate how many were in use at any one time.

It is possible that only a few were occupied concurrently. Alternatively, the different buildings were perhaps in use at the same time but had different roles. [3]

Whatever the situation, the short-lived timber buildings were not large and therefore unlikely to have housed extended family groups. [3]

What is clear is that with the wooden buildings the importance of re-using place was not a factor – although it could be argued that by remaining in the same general area the occupants maintained the same links to their predecessors.

Referring to the concentration of settlement around the Bay of Firth, Seren Griffiths pointed out: “…the density of structures in plan and the associated midden deposits demonstrate that this was a desirable or favoured location and remained so for many years.” [5]

In this respect, the use of timber is interesting and regarded by the excavation team as very significant. Building in wood creates structures with a limited lifespan. The buildings, like their occupants, will age and decay. Although this explains the replacement of buildings, why were they not rebuilt or repaired?

There could be other factors that had to be considered. Perhaps the old house had to be allowed to die, perhaps burned and dismantled after its life? Or was it considered inauspicious to re-use a building, or site, for several other reasons?

The switch from timber to stone at Wideford Hill was subsequently noted at the nearby Smerquoy settlement and the Braes of Ha’Breck. [4]

This change, it is argued, was unrelated to dwindling woodland:

“Even if a decline in available timber in Orkney was a factor in this process (and judging from recent research, it is not) this does not account for the complete change in architecture between the timber and stone houses as witnessed at Wideford Hill.”  [3]

Indeed, charcoal recovered from the site included willow, birch and hazel, confirming woodland suitable for construction timber was available at least until the middle of the fourth millennium BC. In addition, the fact the posts were not removed for re-use suggests a plentiful supply of wood.

So, if a lack of wood was not behind the change, what was?

Current thinking points to a shift in society – one in which notions of ancestry, origins and descent became increasingly important.

Central to this are the chambered cairns – one of which sit on the upper slopes of Wideford Hill, above two known settlement areas.

Until the Cuween-Wideford Landscape project excavations, it had long been accepted that the architecture of chambered cairns had been adopted from that of the domestic house. As such, as far back as 1937, chambered cairns were heralded “houses for the dead” [6] — structures based on the dwellings of the living.

It is now argued, however, that the opposite was the case, and it was the cairns that influenced earliest stone dwellings – resulting in the house occupants living “within the tomb and within the past.” [3]

The switch to stone architecture resulted in a more durable, long-lasting structure – one that, like the chambered cairn, was fixed to one place. At the same time, the stone houses were bigger than their timber predecessors so could accommodate more people.

With the advent of stone dwellings, the concepts of “continuity and place” took centre stage as the “notion of the house as characterised by transience and renewal” was replaced with “strategies concerned with maintenance, refurbishment and reconstruction”. [3]

Notes

  • [1] Between 1994 and 2013, the Cuween-Wideford Neolithic Landscape Project, led by Professor Colin Richards, identified and excavated four Neolithic settlements (Stonehall, Smerquoy, Crossiecrown and Wideford Hill) in the vicinity of Wideford Hill, and three others further afield (Varmedale, Muckquoy and the Knowes of Trotty). Another suspected settlement site lies on the eastern side of Wideford Hill.
  • [2] 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.
  • [3] Richards, C. and Jones, A. M. (2016) Houses of the Dead: the transition from wood to stone architecture at Wideford Hill. 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.
  • [4] Thomas, A. and Lee, D. (2012) Orkney’s first farmers: early Neolithic settlement on Wyre. Current Archaeology 268, 12–19.
  • [5] 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.
  • [6] Callander, J.G. and Grant, W.G. (1937) Long Stalled Cairn at Blackhammer, Rousay, Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 71, 297-308.
  • [7] 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. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney. Windgather Press.

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