A tractor was lumbering towards me, so I pulled into a passing place. It was silage-cutting time on Westray, one of the most northerly islands of Orkney. The driver waved, but I stayed put after he’d passed. The morning cloud was lifting, and the passing place was on the crest of a hill giving views over much of the island’s north side. A cruise liner was anchored out in the bay, a small one, nothing like the vast multi-storey jobs that arrive at Kirkwall during the summer, landing thousands of passengers into its narrow streets.
Immediately to the left the land sloped towards a loch. Halfway down the slope, a field away, was a farm of the typical arrangement, a modernish bungalow next to old outbuildings roofed in flagstone. From its washing line a pair of blue workmen’s trousers flew like a banner. Surrounding the loch were fields, some with cattle, some with bales rolled in plastic, a few with ripe barley. The field nearest the road had been cut, and a flock of peewits explored the stubble. Other than the peat-covered hill in the centre of the island where sheep grazed and the community wind-turbines turned, all the land I could see was fenced with stone dykes or barbed wire. ‘Squared off’, they say here. On the other side of the road, slightly uphill, a great yellow bull rested. He was the colour of honeycomb, with a brassy ring through his nose.
I drove on down through the town of Pierowall, three-quarters of a mile of small houses and stores on the shoreside. The stone and harling are plain grey; the town looks like it has been washed up by the tide. Because the tide was low, plains of mustard-gold seaweed were exposed, with a few seals hauled out. A half-mile out of town, past a gloomy castle, the road turned sharp left and rose to serve the last few farms. A small sign pointing right indicated a track that led to a beach. On one side more pale cows were grazing, on the other, another farm with its tractor in the dungy yard, more ancient and decrepit outbuildings.
‘Links of Noltland’, the sign had said. It means something like ‘the sandy dunes of the land of the cattle’ in a mix of Scots, Norse and English. At the track’s end, a beat-up white minibus was already parked. It was the western edge of a long lovely bay, half a mile of creamy sand. Big breakers were driving ashore. Heaps of tangle had been freshly delivered by the tide but no one was collecting it. In the recent past it would have been scooped up for fertiliser; in the remote past, before peat ever formed on the hills, it would have gone for fuel.
The links are above the beach, and they’re fenced off. I floundered through the sand up towards a gate. A sign explaining something about sand-dunes had been so sandblasted it was illegible. Beyond the fence, I could see spoil heaps, and a few figures wrapped against sand and wind, intent on the ground beneath their feet. Here also was that symbol of the globalised world, the shipping container. Two shipping containers, in fact, blue ones, parked in the sand, serving as office and mess-hut and store.
The Links of Noltland archaeological dig was begun almost a decade ago. Its directors are Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson, a couple who now live on Westray and have established family life here. Hazel is small of stature, with coppery hair and very bright blue eyes. Her accent is a broad Dublin. She does most of the guided-touring, when required, and led me to the east side where we had an overview of the site. Before us, eight or ten people were at work, some drawing plans, some scraping with trowels. There were a few sections of wall, low and freshly exposed, stones everywhere, wheelbarrows, buckets.
She explained that a dune system which had existed for millennia had recently been obliterated by the wind. A natural cycle had been interrupted. In the space of fifteen or twenty years the dunes collapsed, the vegetation vanished. Now Orkney is a windy place, storms are not unknown, but the interim archaeological report on the site called this sustained erosion ‘exceptional and unprecedented’. It’s happening everywhere. With the sand and vegetation scoured away, a surface was exposed which was recognised as an extensive Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement: houses, workshops, walls, even field systems and soil. But having been exposed, those remains too were immediately vulnerable to the wind. ‘This whole site is not going to last,’ Hazel said. ‘It’s something we’re seeing throughout Scotland. The archaeology we are digging has been buried for five thousand years, and it has never been exposed like this in all that time. What’s happening is significant really to … well, to archaeology, but also to us, the human race.’
When the scale of the site was realised, Historic Scotland commissioned excavations to record, and maybe protect, what remained before it was lost. There have now been nine summers of excavations – no one could have predicted that, least of all Historic Scotland’s accountants – and new features are still coming to light. The active part of the site we were looking at had an unpeeled look. Other parts of the site were protected by black plastic weighed down by tyres and stones. The parts under wraps were mostly Bronze Age, the exposed areas which were being worked on were Neolithic. One or other would have been exciting, but here were both.
It appears that these first farmers built a hefty enclosing wall, and within it several discrete houses with yards and passageways and ‘activity areas’. Then they just kept building on top of it. ‘How many layers of occupation have you gone down already?’ I asked Hazel and she sucked in her breath. ‘A simple answer? Three or four layers, within the enclosure. A metre and a half in depth. But they didn’t raze the place then start again. Buildings just fell out of use, or were closed, or robbed of stone or re-invented and rebuilt. It was in use for about seven hundred years.’
In brief, as Graeme put it later, with Links of Noltland, they have a second chance at Skara Brae. That Neolithic village was excavated in the 1930s, but not before it had been plundered. ‘Everything that was chucked away at Skara Brae, or not recognised, we have here,’ he said. This season they were concentrating on three or four houses, early ones. Each was the property, so to speak, of its own archaeologist. They could tell one house from another, and identify Neolithic fads and changes of mind. They could find the homely features that make Skara Brae so popular: each house has an entranceway, and often a dresser, or stone shelves. There are bed-recesses, and in the centre of the clay floor, more often than not, a square hearth contained within kerb-stones. As we toured the site I was aghast to see the orange earth of a hearth being trowelled away. A neolithic hearth! But I was told not to worry, they were certain there was another older one beneath.
Graeme’s concern was the enclosing wall. He showed me how it had been traced and exposed around two thirds of the site. It was almost a metre wide, two skins of stone packed with a core of clay. In places it stood intact a few courses high, in others it seemed just a strew of rubble. Where it had been excavated, you could admire the sharp Neolithic stonework, clean and unweathered. In other places you could walk on its remains as if it was a crazy-paving garden path. This enclosure wall vanished on the site’s west side. It looked as though it was heading beyond the dig’s defined area. Today, this was the job in hand. One of the excavating team, Dan O’Meara, had dug a trial trench where they suspected the wall might run, and sure enough, when he got down deep enough, there it was. The problem was, if the wall maintained its circle, it would be lying under the spoil heaps, something that couldn’t have been foreseen when work began. Graeme had arranged for a local farmer to come with a small JCB to bulldoze away the heaps, so they could excavate underneath, find the enclosure wall, and finally get the full measure of the Neolithic settlement. If the wall was where they expected, there would be room enough within its embrace for two more houses, or structures of some sort, also currently buried.
‘Is that exciting?’ I asked. Well yes, of course. But new developments were also a bit of a headache. Historic Scotland had told the team repeatedly that this season must be the last. The last with HS funding, that is, not least because Historic Scotland no longer exists. Last year the Scottish government amalgamated it with another body to form Historic Environment Scotland, presumably to save money.
‘If HES pull out, where can you turn?’I asked.
‘Well, a couple of months ago we’d have said Europe, but that’s not going to happen now.’
‘You can’t mean it’ll just get covered in sand again?’
‘No – it won’t be covered in sand. It would be safe if it was packed with sand. It will just be destroyed by the wind. But, for now, if there are new structures, our job is to excavate them, so we’ll just get on with it.’ That was a phrase I heard several times over the next couple of weeks. If I asked how life was for people in the Neolithic or Bronze Age, chances are I’d receive the reply: ‘People just got on with it. They didn’t know they were “Neolithic” or “Bronze Age”.’ The phrase also differentiated Links of Noltland from other Orkney excavations, especially that at Ness of Brodgar, on the Orkney mainland. There, plumb in the middle of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site, a dig is being conducted with the emphasis on ceremony, centralised power and alleged uniqueness. A BBC team has spent all summer filming at Ness of Brodgar, there are guided tours several times a day, bus loads arrive from cruise liners after visiting Skara Brae. At Links, a more workaday, domestic life is being revealed.
Daily life meant farming. There were sheep and especially cattle, here, in the Neolithic. The place is littered with bone. Put in a trowel, out comes a bit of animal bone. The first cattle were almost certainly brought by boat, which must have been a major undertaking. Are we to imagine a pioneer generation of farmer-settlers arriving from we don’t quite know where, with cattle and sheep bound in the bottom on their log-boats, with tools and equipment and seed? So it would appear. An island shore with fresh water and no predators must have seemed attractive.
I went to the site’s west side, the side with the emerging wall and still hidden structures, to help with the preparatory work for the arrival of the JCB. I spent the afternoon trowelling back a ‘deposition layer’ with Annamaria Diana from Sicily, known as Anna, who had just completed her PhD in human osteoarchaeology. We trowelled out earth and occasional pieces of flint, which we had to bag and label as ‘small finds’. I liked the texture of flint tumbling under the trowel. They were little knapped-off pieces, brownish-pink or orangey in colour. The Neolithic people probably found nodules on the shore, part of the island’s bounty.
‘I don’t mind not finding anything much,’ Anna said. ‘I enjoy the colours of the earth. The smell of the earth. But not this dung smell!’ It’s true, there was a dung smell. The farmer on the hill was spraying his fields. We could see the red tractor and trailer climb the small field, turn, and climb down again. I thought the smell was quite appropriate, a sort of scratch’n’sniff archaeology. In its Neolithic day, the whole place would have reeked of dung and smoke.
‘And smelly humans,’ Anna said.
‘What do you think this settlement was like?’ I asked her.
‘Gorgeous, I think. I envy them.’
‘But they died young?’
‘On average. Almost everyone had arthritis by their twenties.’
Working like this meant kneeling with our backs to the sea. You could forget it was there, except when you stood, stiffly, to empty a bucket or barrow. Then you could see the ocean, all the way to the northern horizon, with gannets diving and a lobster boat working the creels.