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Much of a recent windy week in Orkney was spent crawling on all fours through the low, extruded passages of Neolithic buildings. The abundance and integrity of structures dating to around 3,500 BC is mind boggling. However, sitting on a five thousand year old bench sheltering from the wind inside the Knap of Howar, I found myself idly wondering how I would arrange things if this were my house. The features of everyday life are easy to recognise in the hearth, work bench, bed box, partitions, even the Stone Age built-in storage wall. On the remote island of Papa Westray, the visitor is free to explore, occupy, experience and imagine unsupervised, unencumbered by interpretation boards and visitor centres, happening across ancient sites almost inadvertently whilst walking on the beach.

cuween hill cairn

The exposure, repair and presentation of these ancient buildings is emphatically archaeological rather than sociological or architectural. ‘Waste’ has been cut away, sifted and ‘finds’ squirreled away to the museum. Excavation has systematically removed rather than expressed layers accumulated over millennia, two hundred and twenty generations, the slow chaos of time. The focus of exposure is single-minded and thorough. The subject is scraped clean, fallen walls reconstructed and shattered stones carefully pinned in bronze and steel. Completing this process of monumentalisation is the addition of a sign post and the isolation of the site from its context within a neatly mown lawn enclosed by a cow-proof fence.

All this contrasts with the faded photograph of the archaeological dig in process on the pin board in the local youth hostel. Here, the tussocky skin of the field is drawn back to reveal a mosaic of shattered stone plates inset amongst sand and earth. Look closely and outlines of volumes begin to emerge. At this point the site is still loaded with potential, more question than answer.

The freedom to explore these extraordinary ancient buildings is refreshing, but the effects of visitors and weather on ancient stones, previously protected by earth and sand, are apparent. Many of the monuments have significant areas of rebuild, but new sections are almost impossible to identify. Two of the burial chambers we visited had been given smart concrete lids, cheerfully cast on top of five thousand year old walls. One lid incorporates a couple of roof lights to alleviate the brooding gloom of the tomb interior. The other has a clever trap door to spare visitors the indignity of crawling through the entrance passage on hands and knees.

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Where might archaeology and building conservation converge? There is an important place for the philosophy of building conservation in the revelation, care and presentation of ancient architecture. An emphasis on repair rather than restoration would acknowledge that neither aesthetic judgment nor archaeological proof can justify the reproduction of worn or missing parts. Fitting new to old without parody would reduce confusion over authenticity. A sense of appropriateness and the importance of reversibility would hopefully stem the future incidence of burial tombs with concrete lids.

In looking beyond the purely archaeological we appreciate the richness of Neolithic sites as living buildings rather than monuments, and the Knap of Howar, a home built five thousand years ago, becomes extraordinary precisely because of its ordinariness.

Katy knitting in the Knap of Howar

Katy knitting in the Knap of Howar

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