Orkney within the north of Scotland is famend for its remarkably well-preserved monuments. Many of those are Neolithic (10,000 BC to 2,200 BC) and include stone circles and chambered tombs, that are nonetheless extremely seen within the panorama. Chambered tombs are monuments constructed of stone with a chamber space designed to carry the stays of the lifeless.
In many components of Britain, chambered tombs have been robbed for stone, and whereas this was additionally the case on Orkney, most websites don’t appear to have been as badly affected as in different components of the nation.
In 2020 one in all my workforce encountered a sequence of letters preserved in National Museums Scotland’s library referring to a dispute over some Neolithic objects found in Orkney within the nineteenth century.
This led us to a newspaper account within the Orkney Herald in 1896, which reported that Orkney antiques specialist James Walls Cursiter had encountered a sequence of archaeological discoveries made by the son of the landowner at Holm, on the east aspect of Orkney’s mainland.
The finds included a mace-head created from gneiss (a metamorphic rock with a definite banding), a plain stone ball and eight skeletons. They have been discovered throughout the ruins of a stone mound that had beforehand equipped stone to construct a close-by farmhouse. The surviving stonework was interpreted by Cursiter because the stays of a “chambered burial mound”.
This discovery was quickly forgotten. By coincidence, a not too long ago found archaeological pocket book belonging to Cursiter revealed additional particulars of the finds. This included a sketch of the monument and, most significantly, an approximate location of the invention.
All of this appeared to recommend that there might be an unknown chambered tomb, largely destroyed, however surviving to some extent however awaiting rediscovery.
Discovering the tomb
In 2022 a geophysical survey was carried out in the identical location as described by Cursiter. Among different options, these surveys positioned a considerable archaeological anomaly on prime of a distinguished mound virtually exactly within the location described as a place of the monument.
In 2023, we determined to open up a trench to see if something survived. When we arrived on the website, it didn’t look promising. All that remained on the bottom was a really slight grassy dome which had clearly been ploughed through the years. In a discipline of many grassy knolls, it was laborious to see how this was something distinctive. Yet, the placement was fairly distinguished, with views out over the panorama in lots of instructions, similar to different passage tombs within the space. A passage tomb is a sort of chambered tomb with a protracted skinny passage resulting in a central chamber with smaller cells off the principle chamber.
As we peeled off the turf, we rapidly got here down onto closely disturbed soil containing smashed Victorian ceramics and stone rubble. This got here from a close-by farmhouse that had robbed stone from the tomb as a way to construct their barn. There was no garbage assortment then, so their waste went out on to the fields. But scattered amongst this current materials have been small fragments of bone which appeared a lot older.
As we dug additional down, we began to come across the decrease partitions of a stone construction, precisely as described by Cursiter. Much of the bone throughout the stone construction was extremely fragmentary, which appeared to strengthen the concept this monument had been largely destroyed within the nineteenth century.
However, in one of many aspect cells off the principle passage – which was largely stuffed with small stone rubble that collected from the dismantling of an intact aspect cell which might as soon as have had a excessive roof – we discovered a wonderfully preserved and undisturbed Neolithic tomb deposit.
This consisted of a minimal of 14 burials of seven adults and 7 kids. The skeletons have been positioned in a wide range of totally different positions. Two have been crouched (knees to chest) and laid on their aspect, whereas one other was tightly flexed with the knees pulled tight to the chest, and positioned face down. Two have been positioned within the grave embracing each other, with the stays of two younger kids positioned on their heads.
This degree of preservation is exceptional. It is sort of uncommon to seek out tomb deposits intact and so effectively preserved.
In revealing and excavating these stays, we have now discovered a misplaced passage tomb, but additionally revealed that these finds won’t be preserved endlessly. The soil added into the monument through the Victorian destruction of the location has been eroding the bones ever since, so it’s now a race towards time to retrieve what survives.
The human stays will allow to us uncover many alternative points of peoples’ lives within the Neolithic age, together with what they ate and the way they died. It additionally reveals that in a panorama the place many monuments are exceptionally effectively preserved, there are nonetheless new and thrilling discoveries to be made.
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Vicki Cummings receives funding from Society of Antiquaries of London and Orkney Islands Council for work on this undertaking