Chambered Cairn, Cist(s)
- Council Orkney Islands
- Parish Kirkwall And St Ola
- Former Region Orkney Islands Area
- Former District Orkney
- Former County Orkney
HY 440 098 In April 1998 a Neolithic chambered tomb was found just outside Kirkwall, and a five week season of excavation was undertaken later that summer. The tomb had been inserted into subsoil, possibly a drumlin, on an E-facing hillside. It measured c 3 x 3m and comprised three cells with an entrance, arranged in a clover-leaf formation. The height of the tomb did not exceed 1m. It was constructed of coursed drystone masonry with orthostatic partitions. The wall-heads were corbelled to receive the roof, which was constructed of six large flagstones, found largely intact. The drumlin into which the tomb was constructed was enhanced with stone forming a low cairn of stone with clay. The cairn has not been fully explored, but initial observations indicate it is over 25m in diameter. No revetment walls or external entrance passage have been found in the cairn material. A narrow gap formed between the uppermost roof slab and a notch in the entrance lintel suggest a 'light box'. The exact orientation and function of this feature is still under analysis.
The restricted area immediately outside the tomb entrance, formed between the entrance and the cut in the subsoil, was blocked by a series of horizontally laid blocking stones. Matching this on the inside of the tomb, and filling the internal entrance passage, was a tightly fitting but stepped blocking which was inserted from the inside. Preliminary results of the excavation suggest that the internal blocking provided a stepped access from the roof into the tomb interior. The uppermost of the roofing stones had been fitted so that while the tomb was in use it was possible to slide it to one side. After the final use of the tomb, the roof was capped by a 40?50cm layer of clay and stone.
Deposits within the tomb were minimal. The floor was virtually clean and no artefacts were recovered on it. However, in two cells the remains of four individuals were encountered. The human remains were in an extremely poor condition. Alternating wet and dry conditions may account for the poor preservation. Extensive sampling within the tomb for soil micromorphological analysis has taken place.
External to the tomb and also inserted into the cairn material were two cists and one cremation. One cist survived only partially intact as at least one side slab had been previously removed by ploughing. One side of the cist was revetted by a small wall of coursed masonry. Human teeth were the only remains to be found in the deposits within this cist.
The second cist had exceptional preservation. It contained the remains of two large deposits of human bone, one of which had been encased in a finely woven basket of plant fibres. Cramp, possibly melted copper and other residues, was also found in the cist. The cist lay at an angle within the cairn material, with one side propped by two leaning stones. It was also capped by two flagstones laid on top of each other, but separated by a vertical stone. The cut within the cairn material was backfilled with loose rubble and some clay.
Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Orkney Ice-cream, A plant.
B Ballin-Smith, J Duncan and C Richards 1998
HY 440 098 A second and final season of archaeological work at the tomb took place in July 1999 (see Ballin-Smith, Duncan and Richards 1998). There were several outstanding questions from the first season. The entrance area of the tomb was complex with its two blockings and the lack of any formal external approach to the tomb. The floor of the tomb and the construction of its walls were also features which demanded further investigation. There was also the question of whether there were other satellite Bronze Age cists, additional to those found previously. Finally, there was the mound the tomb was dug into: was this a man-made or natural feature?
Further geophysical work was undertaken in a much wider area around the tomb, but no further cists were located. A hillock in the neighbouring field was also surveyed but with no positive results.
A JCB was used to reopen a 1998 trench excavated from the tomb and extend it northwards off the mound. The trench revealed a complex slice of Ice Age activity, of scoured bedrock and deposits (2m thick) of clay and stone. It is clear that our Neolithic ancestors had little to do with the accumulation of material on the hillside; they seemed to have chosen the hillock and simply dug into it.
In order to solve the problems of how the tomb was constructed and the nature of the material into which it was dug, further exploratory work was undertaken on its floor, the base of some of the orthostats and at the back of the N chamber wall. All the evidence pointed to a hole, of just the right size, being dug through a natural deposit of clay and stone. Walls were built up from the floor of the cut without any foundations, and the orthostats (the upright stones dividing the floor area into chambers) were only dug a few centimetres into the subsoil. The uneven floor of the tomb was then given a thin clay covering which masked most of its inconsistencies. The narrow gap between the hole and the walls was filled in with loose rubble to the height of the wall.
The entrance area of the tomb was re-explored, drawing the conclusion that it was used for access into the tomb during construction and interment of the human remains. It also provided the support for the lintel, the light-box and part of the roof structure. Given the lack of any accumulation of deposits on the floor of the tomb and in the vicinity of the entrance, it would seem that the use of the tomb was limited to a short period, perhaps a single season. Once the light-box had been seen to be functioning (over part of the winter months) and the remains of the ancestors placed on the floor of the tomb, the entrance was blocked both internally and externally. The light-box was blocked with clay and the tomb roof was covered with clay and stone. The house for the dead was locked away from the living.
Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Orkney Icecream, A plant.
B Ballin-Smith 1999