The Newark Project: the story so far. Summer exhibition 2022

The Newark Project: the story so far. Summer exhibition 2022

The summer exhibition for 2022 was meant to have coincided with the finish of the Newark Project, looking at the eroding cemetery in Deerness, which was in use from around 600-1400 AD. Originally excavated by Don Brothwell from the Natural History Museum in London between the years 1968-74, the Newark Project covers many aspects of the site’s history. The site will be written up and the skeletons that have already been recovered will be analysed in detail, using the latest in DNA technology. The site is currently in danger from coastal erosion and this aspect will also have to be addressed. The project was delayed by COVID-19, so this exhibition is not the final results but ‘the story so far’. This post gives you a taste of what is on display.

Don Brothwell overseeing the Newark excavation. Orkney Library & Archive, photo by Ernest Marwick.
Introduction to the exhibition.

Every place has a story and Newark in Deerness is no exception. Down by the shore, at the eastern end of the bay bearing the same name, tradition has it that centuries before there had been a small church with a graveyard. Such a building would have been a landmark from the sea, and there it is, clearly marked on 16th Century maps.

Over the years the coast has changed dramatically due to high tides and violent storms driven in by strong, southerly winds. The site has been under threat for some time, with erosion increasing drastically over the last hundred years.

In 1968, before more of the site could disappear, the eminent anthropologist, Professor Don Brothwell, started excavating the graveyard with the help of volunteers, including students from York University. The dig was financed by the Natural History Museum, London, and over several years more than 200 skeletons were removed and are still in their care. Since 2000, other skeletal material has been excavated and is now respectfully stored at the Orkney Museum. Carbon dating has given an astonishing range, from approximately 600AD to 1400AD, covering Pictish, Norse and Medieval periods. It is one of the earliest Christian graveyards in the North Atlantic region. In 2016 a Pictish sculptured cross fragment was discovered eroding from the banks, further underlining its importance.

For various reasons, Don Brothwell had not managed to complete/publish papers on all his Newark findings by the time of his death in 2016. The Newark Project has sought to rectify that, with new scientific research and the retrieval and archiving of as much information as possible. Thanks to a major grant from Historic Environment Scotland, the programme is underway. The culmination of the Newark project was to have been featured in this exhibition, but COVID-19 has played havoc with the timescale, so this is very much ‘the story so far’.

Earl Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of King James V, feud (leased) the land in Deerness to his son-in-law, Patrick Leslie (Lord Lindores), who built a fine manor house which was called New Wark (work) c.1580s. This building would be bought by John Covingtrie in 1716 and remained in the family until it was inherited by the Balfour family later that century. The house had been extended but had fallen into ruin by the close of the 18th century. No trace of the original building now remains.

Bone combs dating to the late Iron Age/Pictish and a stone, lignite bangle dating from the Mediaval Norse period (unfortunately broken during excavation).
Notebook belonging to the historian J. Storer Clouston mentions his observations at Newark. Orkney Library & Archive.
Earl Patrick Stewart renewed to fue (lease) of Newark to his brother-in-law, Lord Lindores, in 1591. Orkney Library & Archive.
Minutes from the Baron Court, held at Newark by John Covingtrie, 15th September 1718. Orkney Library & Archive.
Class 2 Pictish symbol stone shows a cross and animal motif. Found through coastal erosion in 2016. This is the first time that the stone has been displayed to the public.
The Newark Pictish symbol stone, showing both sides. Copyright John Borland.
There are also two Iron Age earth-houses on the site. Here is the entrance to one of them. Orkney Library & Archive, photo by Ernest Marwick.
Above and below, two more of Ernest Marwick’s photos of the excavation, c1970. Orkney Library & Archive.

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