Prehistoric house discovered on site of new Total gas plant

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A previously unknown archaeological site has come to light during work on Total’s Laggan-Tormore gas plant. As a result, a team of archaeologists has been excavating a prehistoric house and other associated structures over the past six weeks.

The site was found by local archaeologist Rick Barton, one of a team of archaeologists working on the development for ORCA, the Orkney based archaeological contractor that has been employed by Total since the development started. The archaeological monitoring began back in January, with geophysical survey and coring which was carried out by the ORCA team in terrible weather. Since construction started the archaeologists have been observing the work as the earth moving machines strip the peat from the site in case there is any archaeology below the peat.

Rick Barton, who has been involved with the project all year, was watching the machines dig when a group of stones appeared under more than a metre of peat. “At first it was impossible to tell if it was really archaeology or not,” he said. “But I’m so pleased that it was.” After some further investigation, it became clear that the site was indeed real, at which point some additional archaeologists were brought in both from Shetland and Orkney.

The six week excavation has been directed by archaeologist Amanda Brend. The main building is probably 4-5,000 years old, has walls which include stone boulders and is between seven and eight metres wide.  There is a hearth in the centre of it. Although the site has been badly eroded by hillwash, there are traces of a possible floor surface and this has a lot of worked quartz and charcoal flecking in it. In addition, this week the team has discovered some large pieces of pottery. Quartz specialist Torben Ballin has had a preliminary look at some of the quartz and it is possible that some of it will help to date the site.

A few yards to the north, the team discovered a beautifully constructed, stone-lined, oval pit. Initially it looked like the base of a corn-drying kiln, although as the earliest known of is that at Old Scatness, which is around 2,000 years old, there was slight concern about this interpretation. Now that Linda Somerville has finished excavating the feature, she has discovered that there is a neatly paved floor to it, and it looks less like a corn-dryer. Linda has taken a lot of samples which will be analysed in the laboratory and might give more idea as to what this well constructed chamber was for.

On the southern side of the house there are two other structures. The larger may be a chambered cairn, although surprisingly it is built up against the side of the house. It is clearly later than the house and may have re-used some of the stone from the house. There were hints of a heel-shaped front and an internal chamber, as well as traces of a built outer edge. Adjacent to this there is what Amanda describes as a “trapezoidal feature”, a small diamond shaped feature about 1.8m x 1.3m. It had very clearly constructed edges constructed from boulders, and inside it was covered with fist sized pebbles which were mainly white. It is possible that this too was for burial. The team took it apart this week, but unfortunately there did not seem to be anything either inside or underneath it. Perhaps it was a platform for laying bodies on while they decomposed (possibly helped by birds) before some of the bones were buried in the chambered cairn.

Unfortunately it is not possible for visitors to see the site as it is in the middle of the development area. The archaeologists will dismantle large parts of the site in their quest to discover how the buildings were constructed and anything left will disappear under the gas plant. However, the team will be writing the excavation up and it will certainly contribute to what is known about Shetland’s early prehistoric past, a time from which remarkably little is known.

Meanwhile, the initial results from two pollen cores which were taken from the gas plant site in advance of the development have just become available. The bottom of the peat cores date to 9,725±40 and 9,065±35 years b.p. (before present, or in reality, before 1950). The areas had not originally looked very promising, but Dr Robert McCullagh of Stirling University, said: “They are complete Holocene sequences with a great palaeo record.” (In other words, an undisturbed plant record which dates back nearly 10,000 years). This too will cast new light on Shetland in the past.

The peat stripping at Sullom Voe is set to continue throughout the winter and sharp-eyed Rick Barton and his colleagues are hoping that even more archaeology to emerge from the peat. Time will tell.

By Val Turner


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