Orkney Islands in northern Scotland is famous for A surprisingly well preserved monument. Many of these date from the Neolithic period (10,000 BC to 2,200 BC), consist of stone circles and chambered tombs, and are still prominent in the landscape. A chambered tomb is a monument built of stone with a chamber area designed to house the remains of the deceased.
Graves used for burial chambers have been stolen in many parts of Britain, including the Orkney Islands, but most sites appear to have been less seriously affected than in other parts of the country.
In 2020, one of my team came across a series of letters held in the National Museums of Scotland’s library relating to a dispute over some Neolithic objects discovered in the Orkney Islands in the 19th century. did.
This led to a newspaper article in the Orkney Herald in 1896. There, experts in Orkney antiques, james walls cursor He came across a series of archaeological discoveries made by a landowner’s son at Holme, on the eastern side of mainland Orkney.
The finds included: mace head made of gneiss (metamorphic rock with unique striped patterns), an ordinary stone ball and 8 skeletons. They were discovered within the ruins of a cairn that had previously supplied stone to build nearby farmhouses. The existing stone structures were interpreted by Krushita to be the remains of an “indoor tomb”.
This discovery was quickly forgotten. Coincidentally, a recently discovered archaeological notebook belonging to Crusiter revealed further details of the find. This included a sketch of the monument and, most importantly, the approximate location where it was discovered.
All of this seemed to suggest that, although largely destroyed, there were likely some unknown chamber tombs that remained and were waiting to be rediscovered.
discovery of the grave
In 2022, a geophysical survey was conducted at the same location described by Cursiter. Among other features, these surveys almost pinpointed a substantial archaeological anomaly at the top of a prominent mound at the location described as the monument’s location.
In 2023, we decided to open the ditch to see if anything survived. When we arrived on the scene, it was not what we expected. All that remained on the ground was a small dome of grass, clearly plowed over over the years. In a field full of grassy knolls, it was hard to understand how exceptional this was. Still, the site was highly visible and commanded views of the landscape in many directions, comparable to other passage tombs in the area. A passage tomb is a type of chambered tomb with a long, narrow passage leading to a central chamber with smaller chambers separate from the main chamber.
We peeled away the lawn and soon landed on heavily disturbed soil containing broken Victorian pottery and stone rubble. This came from a nearby farmer who stole stones from graves to build barns. There was no garbage collection at that time, so the garbage was dumped in the fields. However, scattered among this recent material were small bone fragments that appeared to be much older.
As we dug deeper, we began to see the lower wall of a stone structure exactly as Mr. Cursiter had described it. Many of the bones within the stone structure were highly fragmentary, which seemed to support his idea that the monument was largely destroyed in the 19th century.
However, in one of the side rooms away from the main passage, it was largely filled with small stone rubble that had accumulated from the demolition of the intact side room, which would once have had a high roof. We discovered a perfectly preserved and undisturbed Neolithic tomb deposit. .
This consisted of at least 14 burials of seven adults and seven children. The skeletons were placed in different positions. Two were placed on their sides in a squat (knees to chest), and the other was placed on their stomach with their knees tightly bent and pulled tightly against their chest. They were placed in the grave hugging each other, with the ashes of two young children placed at their heads.
This level of preservation is astonishing. It is extremely rare to find grave deposits so intact and so well preserved.
In uncovering and excavating these sites, we discovered the tombs of the Lost Passage, but also made it clear that these finds would not be preserved forever. Earth added to the monument when the site was destroyed in Victorian times has continued to erode the bones ever since, so it is now a race against time to recover what survives.
Human bones allow us to discover many aspects of Neolithic people’s lives, such as what they ate and how they died. It also shows that there are still new and exciting discoveries to be made in a landscape where many monuments are very well preserved.
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