Knap of Howar – the oldest buildings in northern Europe

The Knap of Howard is a Neolithic site on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney, Scotland. These incredibly well-preserved remains are probably the oldest standing buildings in northern Europe that date to 3700-3500 BCE. The name comes from the Old Norse language meaning ‘mound of mounds’ or ‘large barrow’.

The island of Papa Westray’s original name was Papay Meiri, meaning ‘Big Island of the Papars’ in the Old Norse language. In the 12th century CE, the Papars were mentioned in the Scandinavian writings as Irish or Scottish monks, who left Iceland and inhabited the northern islands of the Orkneys.

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As the site is far older than the writings it is possible that these Papars were originally pagan priests who later converted to Christianity. However, it is impossible that Christian monks were the first residents of the Knap of Howar although the site is connected with later Christian activity. The first builders and inhabitants were probably a Neolithic Orcadian family of farmers.

The front of the structures

Archaeological evidence suggests that the inhabitants kept cattle, sheep, and pigs. They were also fishing and hunting seals and birds and farmed the land to produce barley and wheat.

The buildings on the island’s west coast were first excavated in 1929 when the owner of the land, William Traill, found evidence of well-built, stone walls. The underlying building showed two stone-built structures, placed side-by-side and linked by a passage through the joined walls. The passageway connecting the two buildings was blocked at some point probably on purpose.

The stone walls of the farmstead stand to a height of five feet. According to the evidence found in the form of post holes, the roof was probably made of turf. Both houses have low entrances facing the sea and no windows. They were probably illuminated by a hole in the roof.

The main house now looks out over the sea. Photo Credit

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Inside Knap of Howar. Photo Credit

The home was kept warm with a fire placed in the kitchen area. The kitchen, the stone beds and shelves are preserved intact. The beds were probably covered with heath to form mattresses. House one served as a living room for the family while house two was used as a workshop and a storage place.

House one is rectangular and has two rooms of 5 × 5,3 and 4.5 × 4,6 m. It is divided into two living areas by large upright stone blocks. House Two is smaller with measurements 7×3 meters. It was divided with thinner walls into three areas. Pottery and artifacts were also found all over the floor.

The entrance. Photo Credit

With the first excavation, Knap of Howar was said to date to the Iron Age. However, excavations in the 1970’s led by Anna Ritchie situated the stone buildings in the early Neolithic Age and additionally, showed that they were continually inhabited for over 900 years.

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Knap of Howar. Photo Credit

Ritchie’s archeological excavations found evidence of Unstan ware pottery shards, which indicates that the people had traded and were in contact with people of central Orkney and maybe further south. Perhaps it is weird that not a single tomb was found yet, but that may be due to the fact that the tombs which existed long ago fell into the sea through the erosion of the land or that they simply remain hidden.

Archeologists suggest that the present houses were not the first on the site, but could actually be built upon the midden remains of an earlier, even older, formation.Recent excavations on the main island of Orkney, have proved that entire settlements, of great importance, are probably still buried, waiting to be revealed.