Chance discovery of massive Bronze Age settlement in Sanday

Prof Jane Downes examines one of the house structures revealed on the beach. Other houses represented by dark spreads of stone can be seen in the background, extending as far as the last visible sand dune. (Picture: Colin Richards)
Prof Jane Downes examines one of the house structures revealed on the beach. Other houses represented by dark spreads of stone can be seen in the background, extending as far as the last visible sand dune. (Picture: Colin Richards)

Archaeological discoveries are often made when least expected, and this is exactly what happened on Monday, in Sanday.

In very poor weather, Professor Jane Downes (University of the Highlands and Islands), Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester), Dr Vicki Cummings (University of Central Lancaster) and Christopher Gee (ORCA, UHI) were walking out to Tresness to examine the eroding stalled cairn on the point.

But en route, on Cata Sand, they discovered the remains of no less than 14 Bronze Age houses, distributed over a kilometre stretch of sand.

What this discovery reveals is that an entire Bronze Age landscape on Sanday was covered by as the sand dunes formed in the second millennium BC.

But it was the scale and density of occupation that really surprised the archaeologists as they proceeded along the ness. Not only are house structures present but working areas are also visible.

Professor Downes, who specialises in the Bronze Age, was stunned by the extent of the settlement area.

“This must be one of the biggest complexes of Bronze Age settlement in the Scottish isles, rivalling the spreads of hut circles in other parts of mainland Scotland,” she exclaimed.

Similar Bronze Age houses have been recently excavated at the Links of Noltland, Westray, but according to Professor Downes, the scale of the Sanday discoveries is unparalleled in Orkney.

Given their position in the intertidal zone, the settlement complex is under substantial thread from coastal erosion and it is only a matter of time before they will be further damaged and destroyed.