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Publication Account

Date 1996

Event ID 1016383

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


Like the burnt mound at Liddle (no. 59), the Isbister tomb is owned, and indeed was excavated, by the farmer, Mr R Simison, and there is a small display of finds at the farm, where visitors will be directed or taken to the tomb. The cairn is oval, though its shape is somewhat obscured by later additions, and the entrance to the chamber faces out to sea; the tomb is now quite close to precipitous cliffs and, even allowing for erosion, its situation must always have been spectacular.

The roof of the chamber had been removed in antiquity when the tomb was filled with stones and earth after the final burials, but there is now a modern roof. The design of the tomb shows it to be a hybrid, a stalled carn furnished with side-cells in the manner of the Maes Howe type; the main chamber is divided into three compartments by pairs of upright slabs, and there are three side-cells and a shelved compartment at either end of the chamber, making an overall length of just over 8m. Apart from the northern end-cell and the northeast side-cell , which had been disturbed and robbed prior ro the excavation, the rest of the tomb and its contents were intact, and the floor deposits yielded many human and animal bones and fishbones. The two western side-cells had been used primarily for human skulls. Particularly intriguing was the inclusion of carcases and talons of sea-eagles, perhaps a totemistic feature comparable to the dog skulls at Cuween (no.71) and the fish bones at Holm of Papa West ray North (no. 78), and Isbister has become popularly known as the Tomb of the Eagles. Analysis of the human bones suggests that around 340 people were buried in the tomb, though many individuals were represented by very few bones. It has been suggested that the bodies were excarnated elsewhere, and token deposits of bones taken into the tomb. A large amount of sherds from Unstan Ware bowls was also found in the tomb, mostly in a pile in the main chamber opposite the entrance. A series of radiocarbon dates indicates a very long period of use for the tomb of around 800 years after its construction in about 3000 BC.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

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