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Papa Westray, Knap Of Howar

Settlement (Neolithic), Lithic Implement(S) (Flint)(Neolithic), Lithic Implement(S) (Chert)(Neolithic)

Site Name Papa Westray, Knap Of Howar

Classification Settlement (Neolithic), Lithic Implement(S) (Flint)(Neolithic), Lithic Implement(S) (Chert)(Neolithic)

Alternative Name(s) Holland Farm; Knap Of Hower

Canmore ID 2848

Site Number HY45SE 1

NGR HY 4830 5180

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/2848

Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Papa Westray
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

HY45SE 1 4830 5180.

(HY 483 518) Knap of Howar (NR)

OS 1"map, 1958.

Knap of Howar was excavated by Traill and Kirkness about 1937, and was shown to consist of two inter-connected dry-stone buildings exhibiting Iron Age features, overlying an earlier kitchen midden. Finds, contemporary with the broch period, were donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) in 1937.

W Traill and W Kirkness 1937; RCAHMS 1946, visited 19 July 1935.

HY 4830 5181. Two IA dwellings at the Knap of Howar as described and illustrated above. In the cliff face immediately S of the modern fence surrounding the site are large deposits of midden material suggesting more extensive settlement.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (NKB) 1 July 1970.

The remains of two oblong stone-built houses represent a Neolithic farmstead dating from the later fourth millennium BC. Excavated in the 1930s and the 1970s, the house-walls survive to a maximum height of 1.6m and enclose areas of about 10.0m by 5.0m (house 1) and about 7.5m by 3.0m (house 2), divided into room s by upright stone slabs. They were furnished with hearths, pits, built-in cupboards, stone and possibly wooden benches. The walls have a core of midden derived from an earlier structural period, but the artefacts and radiocarbon dates from the primary and secondary middens demonstrate cultural and chronological uniformity.

The mode of subsistence was primarily pastoral, rearing cattle, sheep and pigs, but there was some evidence for cereal cultivation and for exploitation of marine resources, especially fish and shell-fish. The use of Unstan ware links the settlement with stalled cairns, and there are few similarities with contemporary grooved ware settlements such as Skara Brae. The finds are in the NMAS: AB 1615; HD 62 8-46, 1899-1900, 2003-16, 2020-9.

RCAHMS 1983.

(Location cited as HY 483 518). This monument is situated on the W coast of Papa Westray. At the time of occupation, it was apparently separated from the sandy shore by an extensive system of sand dunes, and probably lay in pastureland with a few small freshwater pools nearby. Papa Westray may still have been joined to Westray. The monument was formerly covered by almost 3m depth of sand, and the tautologous name ('knoll of mounds') probably well expresses its appearance prior to the exposure (by coastal erosion) of walling and an extensive midden and the initial excavations (by W Traill and W Kirkness) in 1929. These exposed of two substantial stone-built houses. In the absence of dating evidence, the monument was assigned to the broch period. The remains were taken into Office of Works guardianship in 1937; a protective seawall was built to the S and minor consolidation works effected.

In 1973 and 1975 Dr A Ritchie conducted further excavations to obtain dating evidence and consolidate collapsed areas of walling. The interiors of both houses were re-excavated, some 8.5m length of collapsed house wall were examined, about 36 sq m of midden were investigated, and 15 test-pits were dug to ascertain the extent of the midden. A simple stratigraphic sequence was established:

1. (Period I). A layer of midden material (0.4m thick) represents the primary phase of activity. Apart of the remains of stone paving, there is no evidence of contemporary construction; further structures of this phase may have been lost to the sea.

2. (Period II). The two surviving houses were built on top of the earlier midden, house 1 being the earlier. An upper layer of midden material (0.2m thick) was contemporary.

Both the archaeological evidence and the radiocarbon dates demonstrate that there was no cultural or significant chronological difference between the two major periods of activity on the site. A series of nine radiocarbon determinations places the occupation between 3700 and 2800 cal BC.

House 1 was clearly the main dwelling house and remained in use throughout phase II. It is rectilinear on plan (with rounded corners both internally and externally), and measures 10m by 5m in overall floor area. The wall survives to a height of 1.6m and is 1.5m thick, being built with inner and outer drystone facings, and a core of midden material. The entrance (a paved and lintelled passage 1.7m long) survives at the W end. A further passage through the N wall leads into house 2. House 1 is divided into two rooms by a line of four upright slabs and (formerly) two timber posts. The outer (W) room was paved and furnished with a low stone bench of platform along the S wall; little remained of the original floor-deposit. The inner (E) room was had not been cleared out so thoroughly by the early excavators; a thin skin of original deposit survived with a hearth (in a shallow hollow) and a massive trough quern. The floor was unpaved, and surface grooving may indicate the former presence of a bench lining the walls. There was a small aumbry in the N wall.

House 2 was built alongside house 1, but their walls touched only at the conjoining passage. Although built in the same way, this house is smaller (measuring 7.5m by 3m internally) and less regular on plan; the walls survive to a height of 1.26m. It appears to have served a different function, and is divided by upright slabs into three rooms. The outer (W) room was featureless apart from the two doorways, one into house 1 and the other (a paved passage 1.5m long) through the W wall. The internal wall-face on either side of the main entrance exhibits post-and-panel technique, which is not found elsewhere. Both entrance passages had been carefully blocked in antiquity. The small innermost (E) room was evidently intended for storage: five 'cupboards', three shelves or aumbries and two pits were apparent. The central room was apparently the main working area; the floor deposits were 0.2m thick and undisturbed by the early excavators. Within this room there were two successive hearths, one of them measuring 0.7m by 0.65m with a substantial stone kerb and a boulder floor; the other was a shallow pit similar to that in house 1. The fuel burnt could not be determined by analysis of the surviving ash.

Both houses probably had hipped timber-framed roofs, possibly supported by partial corbelling of the walls and also by the tall upright slabs built into the walls and by the wooden posts in house 1. They were filled with sand when first discovered, and there is no evidence for the use of flagstone roofing; a simple covering of turf or thatch appears probable. The erosion-damaged wall-foundations and paving found by the early excavators outside the entrance to house 1 may represent the remains of a yard or annexe.

The houses were flanked by midden deposits which were spread to a uniform thickness of about 0.35m over an area of about 500 sq m. The lower layer belonged to the primary phase of settlement while the upper represented domestic refuse from the period of use of the houses. The contents of the two layers were virtually identical, being rich in artifacts and organic remains with the exception of plant material. The remains of a variety of fish (including saithe, wrasse, rockling, cod and ling) were identified, indicating both inshore and offshore fishing. Among the diverse remains of shellfish, limpets were predominant but oyster, winkle, cockle and razorshell were also significant. The direct contribution of shellfish to the economy was minimal, but they were apparently used as fishing bait and pottery filler. The bird remains included both freshwater and marine species; guillemot, razorbill, puffin and great auk being of potential value as sources of oil for lighting.

The faunal evidence suggests that the settlement formed a self-supporting agricultural unit of primarily pastoral character, being based on the raising of sheep and cattle in equal numbers. Both these animals show evidence of fairly recent domestication; the cattle were large and closely related to the aurochs while the sheep were a primitive form bearing poor wool. A few large pigs were kept and deer were hunted on occasion; the seal- and whalebones found were probably derived from carrion. Cereal cultivation may have been more important than the evidence suggests, the recovery of only scattered grains of wheat and barley being due to adverse soil conditions. Two querns were discovered, as well as stone 'seed-grinders' which may suggest the collection and use of wild plants as a plant source.

The extensive and varied artifactual assemblage is significant for the apparent absence of imports from beyond Orkney or even from beyond the local area. Some 700 pieces of flint and chert were recovered, all of them apparently derived from nearby beaches. One in seven displayed evidence of working; knives and scrapers were identified.

Portions of 78 pots (sometimes described as 'dainty bowls') were recognised, about 13 being bowls of Unstan type, 41 simple bowls (either plain or bearing restrained decoration) and about 9 bowls of shouldered or cordoned form. These vessels are characteristically smaller and thinner-walled than the tomb pottery of the same type. Petrological analysis indicates local manufacture.

Thirty-five bone and stone artifacts (excluding flint) were recovered. A small polished stone axe found in the pottery midden was of fine-grained dolomite, apparently from a local source. The querns, hammerstones, seed-grinders and stone borers found were all worked from beach pebbles.

The bone assemblage included artifacts of both common and distinctive types: awls, pins, a needle and a dimpled gouge of unparalleled form. A whalebone spatula and a blubber knife were also found, as were perforated mallets (possibly to be seen as prototype maceheads) of antler and whalebone. Many of the bone tools are of types traditionally associated with leatherworking; some of the awls display evidence of wear.

The association of the settlement with Unstan ware suggests an association with the stalled cairns that contain pottery of this class. The architecturally-comparable use of slab-defined compartments and side-benches also links houses and cairns; the nearby stalled cairn of Holm of Papa Westray North (HY55SW 2) has been proposed as an associated mausoleum.

The following radiocarbon determinations (all derived from mixed animal bone) were obtained:

Lower midden 2820+/-180 bc Birm-816

Lower midden 2472+/-70 bc SRR-349

Midden filling wall of house 2 2320+/-100 bc Birm-813

Lower midden 2300+/-130 bc Birm-815

Midden filling wall of house 1 (= lower midden) 3756+/-85 bc SRR-347

(Re-run of SRR-347) 2131+/-65 bc SRR-452

Upper midden (contemporary with house 1) 2815+/-70 bc SRR-348

House 2, floor deposit 2740+/-130 bc Birm-814

House 1, floor deposit 2582+/-70 bc SRR-346

Upper midden (contemporary with house 1) 2501+/-70 bc SRR-344

House 1, floor deposit 2398+/-75 bc SRR-345

Chronologically, the later dates from Knap of Howar overlap the start of the sequence at Skara Brae (HY21NW 12.00).

Artifacts from this site are held in Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, and in the National Museums of Scotland.

A Ritchie 1984; A Ritchie 1985; D V Clarke and N Sharples 1985; C Renfrew and S Buteux 1985.

Lithic collections from a number of sites on Orkney, including Knap of Howar, were examined by Wickham-Jones, and the presence of mesolithic artefacts confirmed.

C R Wickham-Jones 1990.

Scheduled as Knap of Howar, houses.

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 6 June 1994.

Activities

Excavation (1937)

Knap of Howar was excavated by Traill and Kirkness about 1937. Finds, contemporary with the broch period, were donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) in 1937.

Source: W Traill and W Kirkness 1937

Excavation (1973 - 1975)

In 1973 and 1975 Dr A Ritchie conducted further excavations to obtain dating evidence and consolidate collapsed areas of walling. The interiors of both houses were re-excavated, some 8.5m length of collapsed house wall were examined, about 36 sq m of midden were investigated, and 15 test-pits were dug to ascertain the extent of the midden. A simple stratigraphic sequence was established:

1. (Period I). A layer of midden material (0.4m thick) represents the primary phase of activity. Apart of the remains of stone paving, there is no evidence of contemporary construction; further structures of this phase may have been lost to the sea.

2. (Period II). The two surviving houses were built on top of the earlier midden, house 1 being the earlier. An upper layer of midden material (0.2m thick) was contemporary.

Both the archaeological evidence and the radiocarbon dates demonstrate that there was no cultural or significant chronological difference between the two major periods of activity on the site. A series of nine radiocarbon determinations places the occupation between 3700 and 2800 cal BC.

House 1 was clearly the main dwelling house and remained in use throughout phase II. It is rectilinear on plan (with rounded corners both internally and externally), and measures 10m by 5m in overall floor area. The wall survives to a height of 1.6m and is 1.5m thick, being built with inner and outer drystone facings, and a core of midden material. The entrance (a paved and lintelled passage 1.7m long) survives at the W end. A further passage through the N wall leads into house 2. House 1 is divided into two rooms by a line of four upright slabs and (formerly) two timber posts. The outer (W) room was paved and furnished with a low stone bench of platform along the S wall; little remained of the original floor-deposit. The inner (E) room was had not been cleared out so thoroughly by the early excavators; a thin skin of original deposit survived with a hearth (in a shallow hollow) and a massive trough quern. The floor was unpaved, and surface grooving may indicate the former presence of a bench lining the walls. There was a small aumbry in the N wall.

House 2 was built alongside house 1, but their walls touched only at the conjoining passage. Although built in the same way, this house is smaller (measuring 7.5m by 3m internally) and less regular on plan; the walls survive to a height of 1.26m. It appears to have served a different function, and is divided by upright slabs into three rooms. The outer (W) room was featureless apart from the two doorways, one into house 1 and the other (a paved passage 1.5m long) through the W wall. The internal wall-face on either side of the main entrance exhibits post-and-panel technique, which is not found elsewhere. Both entrance passages had been carefully blocked in antiquity. The small innermost (E) room was evidently intended for storage: five 'cupboards', three shelves or aumbries and two pits were apparent. The central room was apparently the main working area; the floor deposits were 0.2m thick and undisturbed by the early excavators. Within this room there were two successive hearths, one of them measuring 0.7m by 0.65m with a substantial stone kerb and a boulder floor; the other was a shallow pit similar to that in house 1. The fuel burnt could not be determined by analysis of the surviving ash.

Both houses probably had hipped timber-framed roofs, possibly supported by partial corbelling of the walls and also by the tall upright slabs built into the walls and by the wooden posts in house 1. They were filled with sand when first discovered, and there is no evidence for the use of flagstone roofing; a simple covering of turf or thatch appears probable. The erosion-damaged wall-foundations and paving found by the early excavators outside the entrance to house 1 may represent the remains of a yard or annexe.

The houses were flanked by midden deposits which were spread to a uniform thickness of about 0.35m over an area of about 500 sq m. The lower layer belonged to the primary phase of settlement while the upper represented domestic refuse from the period of use of the houses. The contents of the two layers were virtually identical, being rich in artifacts and organic remains with the exception of plant material. The remains of a variety of fish (including saithe, wrasse, rockling, cod and ling) were identified, indicating both inshore and offshore fishing. Among the diverse remains of shellfish, limpets were predominant but oyster, winkle, cockle and razorshell were also significant. The direct contribution of shellfish to the economy was minimal, but they were apparently used as fishing bait and pottery filler. The bird remains included both freshwater and marine species; guillemot, razorbill, puffin and great auk being of potential value as sources of oil for lighting.

The faunal evidence suggests that the settlement formed a self-supporting agricultural unit of primarily pastoral character, being based on the raising of sheep and cattle in equal numbers. Both these animals show evidence of fairly recent domestication; the cattle were large and closely related to the aurochs while the sheep were a primitive form bearing poor wool. A few large pigs were kept and deer were hunted on occasion; the seal- and whalebones found were probably derived from carrion. Cereal cultivation may have been more important than the evidence suggests, the recovery of only scattered grains of wheat and barley being due to adverse soil conditions. Two querns were discovered, as well as stone 'seed-grinders' which may suggest the collection and use of wild plants as a plant source.

The extensive and varied artifactual assemblage is significant for the apparent absence of imports from beyond Orkney or even from beyond the local area. Some 700 pieces of flint and chert were recovered, all of them apparently derived from nearby beaches. One in seven displayed evidence of working; knives and scrapers were identified.

Portions of 78 pots (sometimes described as 'dainty bowls') were recognised, about 13 being bowls of Unstan type, 41 simple bowls (either plain or bearing restrained decoration) and about 9 bowls of shouldered or cordoned form. These vessels are characteristically smaller and thinner-walled than the tomb pottery of the same type. Petrological analysis indicates local manufacture.

Thirty-five bone and stone artifacts (excluding flint) were recovered. A small polished stone axe found in the pottery midden was of fine-grained dolomite, apparently from a local source. The querns, hammerstones, seed-grinders and stone borers found were all worked from beach pebbles.

The bone assemblage included artifacts of both common and distinctive types: awls, pins, a needle and a dimpled gouge of unparalleled form. A whalebone spatula and a blubber knife were also found, as were perforated mallets (possibly to be seen as prototype maceheads) of antler and whalebone. Many of the bone tools are of types traditionally associated with leatherworking; some of the awls display evidence of wear.

The association of the settlement with Unstan ware suggests an association with the stalled cairns that contain pottery of this class. The architecturally-comparable use of slab-defined compartments and side-benches also links houses and cairns; the nearby stalled cairn of Holm of Papa Westray North (HY55SW 2) has been proposed as an associated mausoleum.

The following radiocarbon determinations (all derived from mixed animal bone) were obtained:

Lower midden 2820+/-180 bc Birm-816

Lower midden 2472+/-70 bc SRR-349

Midden filling wall of house 2 2320+/-100 bc Birm-813

Lower midden 2300+/-130 bc Birm-815

Midden filling wall of house 1 (= lower midden) 3756+/-85 bc SRR-347

(Re-run of SRR-347) 2131+/-65 bc SRR-452

Upper midden (contemporary with house 1) 2815+/-70 bc SRR-348

House 2, floor deposit 2740+/-130 bc Birm-814

House 1, floor deposit 2582+/-70 bc SRR-346

Upper midden (contemporary with house 1) 2501+/-70 bc SRR-344

House 1, floor deposit 2398+/-75 bc SRR-345

Chronologically, the later dates from Knap of Howar overlap the start of the sequence at Skara Brae (HY21NW 12.00).

Artifacts from this site are held in Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, and in the National Museums of Scotland.

A Ritchie 1984; A Ritchie 1985

Publication Account (1996)

Approaching across the field, this well-preserved neolithic farmstead is invisible until the visitor is almost upon it, for it lies in a sand-filled pocket of the landscape and, until first excavated in the early 1930s, it was hidden within a 4m thick blanket of windblown sand. The local topography is very different now from five and a half thousand years ago: environmental evidence, especially the shells of tiny landsnails, indicates that the farmstead lay not on the shore but in open grassland behind a protective system of sand-dunes. Even now the coast of neighbouring Westray is less than 2km away across a sound that is in places no more than 7m deep, and it is possible that in neolithic times the two islands were still joined together. Certainly proximity to a bay is implied by the presence in the midden of vast numbers of oyster shells, which thrive only in a sheltered habitat.

This was a small, single-family farmstead relying for a living on breeding cattle and sheep, fishing and growing wheat and barley. The two oblong buildings represent a dwelling-house and a multipurpose workshop-cum-barn, built side by side with an interconnecting passage allowing access from one to another; they were not the first structures on the site, for they were built into an existing midden, but any earlier buildings were either dismantled or have yet to be discovered. This midden material, compacted into a dense clayey consistency, provided an economic building material, for the thick house-walls have a core of midden, faced on either side with stone.

The dwelling-house is the larger and best-preserved of the two buildings, with its entrance intact and itswalls up to 1.6 m high; the doorway at the inner end of the lintelled entrance-passage is furnished with a sill, jambs and checks to take a wooden door which would be barred into position. Inside, the house is spacious, 10m by 5m, and divided by upright stone slabs (and, originally, timber posts) into two rooms, the outer having a low stone bench along one wall and the inner acting as the kitchen; excavation revealed traces of a central hearth, footings for wooden benches and post-holes for roof-supports. The great stone quem is still where it was found, along with another smaller quern: a rubbing-stone held in the hand would grind the grain in the hollowed trough. The workshop alongside has a similar though less well-preserved main entrance and, unexpectedly, the door closing the interlinking passage between the two buildings was set in the workshop rather than in the house. Here slabs divide the interior into three rooms, the innermost furnished with shelves and cupboards and the middle room acting as the main working area, round a central stone-built hearth.

Many domestic artefacts were recovered: bone and stone tools, sherds of decorative bowls and jars (known as Unstan Ware), all made on the site from local materials (NMS).

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

Field Visit (1998)

This site was first excavated in the 1930's by the landowner William Traill (Traill and Kirkness, 1937). Further work was carried out in the 1970's when the site was prepared for consolidation. (Ritchie, 1984). It is now open to the public. The earlier phase of work involved clearing away an overburder of sand from the house interiors and locating the outer walls. Two houses were uncvovered and the presence of earlier midden deposits was noted. At this time, the site was thought to be of Iron age date. The site was taken into guardianship in 1937 and a sea wall was built in front of it to protect against coastal erosion. Subsequent work in the 1970's uncovered the houses more thoroughly and investigated the surrounding area. The construction of the houses has now been radiocarbon dated to later fourth millenium BC, making this the earliest settlement known in Orkney. The presence of midden deposits beneath the houses indicates that they were not the first settlement in this area. An examination of flint assemblage recovered from the site environs indicated the presence of mesolithic artefacts (Wickham-Jones, 1990). The larger of the houses measures 10m by 5m, is divided by upright slabs into two rooms and contains hearths, pits and built-in cupboards. It was interpreted as the main dwelling area.The smaller house, measuring 7.5m by 3m is interpreted as a storage and working area. It is also divided into twom chambers and is thought to be of slightly later date. Analyses of the recovered materials indicate a pastoral mode of subsistence with cattle sheep and pig rearing, along with some cereal of Unstan-type pottery being used in a domestic context.

Moore and Wilson, 1998

Orkney Coastal Zone Assessment

Note (January 2017)

A Neolithic settlement

The site, known as Knap of Howar, was excavated by archaeologists in the 1930s and again in the 1970s. They found two houses built on top of and surrounded by a large collection of waste material. Archaeologists used animal bones to radiocarbon date the site, revealing that people were living here between 5700 and 4300 years ago.

Both houses are rectangular with rounded corners and thick walls. The larger of the two buildings, thought to be the main house, had two rooms. In one room archaeologists discovered a low stone bench; in the other they found the remains of a fireplace and a quern-stone. The houses were connected by a small, narrow passageway. It appears that the smaller house was used for storage as it had many cupboards and shelves built into the thick walls. Archaeologists think that both of the houses would have had timber roofs covered with turf or thatch.

Resources and diet

Archaeologists can tell a lot from the waste that people leave behind. This was certainly the case for the excavations at the Knap of Howar. Firstly, the presence of a variety of fish bones – such as cod, saithe, rockling and wrasse – shows that the people who lived here were not just fishing from the coastline, but that they had the technology to fish offshore as well. Lots of different shellfish were also found including limpets, oysters, winkles and cockles. It’s likely that the shellfish meat was used as bait for catching fish and the shells were used in pottery making. The remains of both freshwater and marine birds were also discovered – including guillemot, razorbill, puffin and great auk. Archaeologists think that seabirds could have been a valuable source of oil used for lighting. A few bones from large marine species – including seal and whale - were also discovered. Although it’s thought likely that these were scavenged from the carcasses of animals found along the coast line, it appears they were hunting large land-based animals, especially deer.

As well as finding evidence from wild animals, the remains of early forms of cattle, sheep and pig were also recovered at Knap of Howar. The cattle had only recently been domesticated and probably looked more like the large – and now extinct – auroch than the cows we are familiar with today. As well as domesticating animals, the people who lived here were probably growing crops. Although only a few scattered grains of wheat and barley were found, the presence of quernstones and grinders – used for preparing the grains before consumption – suggests that some form of plants (whether wild or home grown) were included in their diet.

Archaeologists also found over 700 pieces of flint and chert at Knap of Howar. Around 100 of these appear to have been made into tools such as knives or scrapers. Tools made from other materials were also found, including a small polished stone shaped like an axehead, as well as hammerstones, pins, needles, and a spatula. Many of the tools were likely used for leatherworking, such as awls which are used for piercing holes. Around 80 fragments of pottery were also recovered including some which were decorated. Pottery specialists have identified that they were made from local material and were likely made at or close to the settlement.

The excavations at Knap of Howar revealed that the people who lived here were very resourceful. They knew how to make the most of natural resources. However, unlike their Mesolithic ancestors, they chose to settle in once place. They were part of the farming revolution; they started to shape and influence the world around them by domesticating animals and growing crops.

Knap of Howar is one of Historic Environment Scotland's properties in care and is both free to visit and open all year round. The Orkney Islands are also home to some of Scotland’s most famous Neolithic archaeology. On the mainland, you can visit ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site which includes the famous settlement site of Skara Brae.

Join us on our next journey when we look at burial traditions from the Neolithic. We will look at a chambered cairn from Caithness excavated by antiquarians in the late 1800’s which was the final resting place of multiple individuals.

Maya Hoole - Archaeology InSites project manager

References

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