Have a Whale of a Time
12 September, 2013
During the summer there was an archaeological dig at the Links of Noltland on Westray, one of the Orkney Islands. This is part of an ongoing project to investigate one of Scotland’s most important prehistoric settlements.
Until recently, like Skara Brae on the Orkney mainland, these Neolithic and Bronze Age remains were buried in the sand. However, recent storms have uncovered them and threaten their existence.
On 21 September, the Orkney Rangers will be hosting an open day where some of the results of this fascinating dig will be discussed.
The most famous finds at the site were tiny stone figurines, among them the ‘Westray Wife’ or ‘Orkney Venus’. But the found objects that interested me the most were the whale bones.
‘The site is coastal and we frequently find whale but no definite signs of hunting,’ explains Graeme Wilson of EASE Archaeology, who have been excavating the site for Historic Scotland since 2000.
‘They were probably taking advantage of strandings. One animal would have represented a huge resource for the people living here 5,000 years ago. Some of the pieces are very large and obviously come from big specimens.
‘One picture shows a vertebra that was found inside a small, stone-lined cell, within the body of the wall of a house,’ he adds. ‘It’s not clear what it was used for. There are no obvious signs of working, but the long spines have been cut away. It could have been used as a working surface or even as a seat!’
Other finds at the site include cups made from whalebone and a vertebrae that was part of the hinge for a door.
‘The other picture is of a long whale rib found lying on the floor of another building,’ Graeme explains. ‘This is not in good condition, but it can be seen between the black and white scales. When we lifted this it was over 2m long. The most likely explanation for this is that it formed part of the roof, which then collapsed.
‘Most of the other pieces are relatively small,’ Graeme continues. ‘We have one small piece built into a wall, which looks as though it was placed in order to hold something – a bit like a prehistoric Rawlplug …’
Whales can still be seen in the waters around Orkney. Some 28 species of cetacean have been recorded, and about 20 of them are seen regularly. They include common and Risso’s dolphin; and sperm, humped back, fin and minke whales.
For more information on the Links of Noltland, check their website: www.linksofnoltland.co.uk