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Cairn (Prehistoric), Henge (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age)

Site Name Cairnpapple

Classification Cairn (Prehistoric), Henge (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age)

Alternative Name(s) Cairnpapple Hill; Cairniepapple

Canmore ID 47919

Site Number NS97SE 16

NGR NS 9872 7173

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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

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Administrative Areas

  • Council West Lothian
  • Parish Torphichen
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District West Lothian
  • Former County West Lothian

Recording Your Heritage Online


The most important mainland archaeological site in Scotland, Cairnpapple was a centre of worship and burial for over 3000 years. First the burial ground, then a henge of 24 large stones, and then an enormous cairn; in all five phases of ritual burial and cremations, with concentric rings of pits, ditching and banking. Excavated 1947

Taken from "West Lothian: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Stuart Eydmann, Richard Jaques and Charles McKean, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press

Archaeology Notes

NS97SE 16 9872 7173.

(NS 9872 7173) Henge & Cairn (NR)

(Undated) OS map annotation.

A complex site on the summit of Cairnpapple Hill excavated by Piggott in 1947-8, was found to have five distinct periods ranging from c 2000 BC to c 1400 BC. The first period was represented by a cremation cemetery followed by a Class II henge, within which was an oval setting of 24 standing stones, containing two burials each accompanied by a beaker.

In Period 3, the standing stones were taken down and a cairn, 50' in diameter, was built to cover two cists, one containing a food vessel. The cairn was subsequently enlarged to twice its original diameter, and covered two cinerary urns, each inverted over a cremated burial. The final period is represented by four undatable inhumation burials with the skeletons laid out in extended position.

S Piggott 1950; 1951; J N G Ritchie and A Ritchie 1972.

See DoE guide.

S Piggott 1951.

As described.

Resurveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS(JP) 20 August 1974.

NS 9872 7148 A watching brief was maintained during the excavation of the track for a new footpath. The path was located 25m to the S of the henge and joined the Custodian's office to an already existing gravel path. Removal of the turf and a small depth of dark brown topsoil revealed the surface of a subsoil horizon of reddish brown grit and gravel. Examination of the surface revealed no obvious archaeological features. No finds were recovered.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewart 2000

The capstone of the smaller Cist B from the penultimate cairn, long thought to have been destroyed and/or lost, has been relocated (Dr S Sweeney-Turner) intact and on-site. Given that it is not indicated on Piggott's original excavation plan, the stone appears to have been moved after excavation in 1948 (see Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 1947-48, Vol. 82, 97-8; plate XXIV and RCAHMS collections no.WL 1832) to its current position as the Westernmost stone in the kerb of the final cairn in the Bronze Age sequence, where it has been overlooked for the last 55 years. However, it is clearly not a kerbstone, and matches Piggott's 1948 photographs perfectly. The stone has suffered weather damage at what is currently its Southern end, but is otherwise as Piggott described it - a squarish sandstone slab almost 5 x 5 feet, and approximately 1.5 foot thick. The fate of the stones from the cist walls is still uncertain.

Information via e-mail from Dr S Sweeney-Turner [Cairnpapple site custodian] to RCAHMS, 15 October 2003


Photographic Record (1929)

Aerial Photography (26 April 1946)

Aerial Photography (15 August 1947)

Excavation (1947 - 1948)

Excavated by Piggott in 1947-8

S Piggott 1950; 1951

Photographic Record (1948)

Aerial Photography (6 July 1949)

Photographic Survey (1955)

Aerial Photography (1955)

Excavation (27 February 1964)

Photographic Record (1965)

Aerial Photography (1971)

Aerial Photography (1972)

Field Visit (20 August 1974)

Resurveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS(JP) 20 August 1974.

Aerial Photography (1974)

Publication Account (1985)

On a clear day the view from Cairnpapple's bleak and rounded hilltop ranges from the Bass Rock in the North Sea to Goatfell and the mountains of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, south to the Border hills, and northwest beyond Stirling to the Trossachs and Schiehallion. Few better spots in central Scotland could have been chosen for rituals, burials or assemblies of the highest order.

Of the five main phases at Cairnpapple (best revealed from on top of the reconstructed cairn), the most recent comprises the group of four rectangular full-length graves almost due east, close to the ditchprobably

iron age, maybe early first millennium AD.

Some 1500 or so years earlier, but very much visible to succeeding generations, the site was dominated by a huge 30m diameter stone cairn overlying the west part of the massive ditch and supported by the outer kerb of rounded boulders some 14m away from the present cairn. Two cremations in inverted pottery cinerary urns had been placed in shallow pits within. Neither survives, but the massive effort required to build the cairn must have reflected the status of the intended occupants-for normally such urns were placed simply in existing cairns, in natural knolls or merely holes in the ground.

The cairn was an enlargement of an earlier one, 15m across, the basis of today's reconstruction, and dating perhaps to around 1800-1700 BC. One of two graves in this earlier cairn has been retained-a short cist for a crouched burial, lined with stone slabs and drystone walling. A stone with three cup-marks was found; also a pottery Food Vessel on a small ledge. Curiously, the second cist contained cremated remains-some overlap of cultural tradition maybe separated a little in time?

These bronze-age round cairns reflected a complete change of site function. The first overlies two socket holes for an earlier ring of standing stones-which were evidently taken down and re-used as a massive retaining kerb to support the weight of the cairn.

The previous phase at Cairnpapple was characterised by explicit ritual and ceremony rather than simple burial. Late on in this phase, perhaps c1900 BC, two small rock-cut graves for crouched burials had certainly been constructed on the site-one of which, perhaps covered by a small mound outlined by its oval stone kerb, was subsequently incorporated and preserved within the later cairn and was marked by a single standing stone. But in essence, phase two comprised a massive oval enclosure containing an eggshaped setting (cf Burgh Hill, no. 100), 35m by 28m, of 24 standing stones close to the inner edge of a wide rock-cut ditch, upcast to give an external bank. There are two causewayed entrances, to north and south, and in the centre there may have been a small, rectangular stone setting.

The first, original phase was far less impressive-seven small pits in an irregular arc within what subsequently became the western segment of the enlarged round cairn. A setting of three large stones close by was probably associated. Amongst the mixture of cremated bones and rubble, a small bone or antler pin was found; also stone axe chips; one of which came from the neolithic 'factory' at Great Langdale in Cumbria-a site dated to c2800/2700 BC.

Cairnpapple, therefore, was a focus of prehistoric man's attention, on and off, for nearly 3000 years.

Information from 'Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Lothian and Borders', (1985).

Photographic Record (August 1988)

Aerial Photography (1991)

Photographic Record (1 March 1992)

Watching Brief (2000)

NS 9872 7148 A watching brief was maintained during the excavation of the track for a new footpath. The path was located 25m to the S of the henge and joined the Custodian's office to an already existing gravel path. Removal of the turf and a small depth of dark brown topsoil revealed the surface of a subsoil horizon of reddish brown grit and gravel. Examination of the surface revealed no obvious archaeological features. No finds were recovered.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewart 2000

Geophysical Survey (1 August 2018 - 3 August 2018)

NS 9872 7173 A geophysical survey was undertaken, 1–3

August 2018, of a 1ha area to the E of Cairnpapple Hill

Ceremonial Complex, in advance of the construction of a

fence to either side of a path leading from the car park to

the monument.

Although a gradiometer survey would normally be

considered the most appropriate technique for identifying

possible ditches and pit type features, the underlying

igneous geology, which is outcropping in places, would

probably swamp the readings. In addition, an EM

transmitter adjacent to the site may also have affected a

gradiometer survey. A 0.5m twin probe resistance survey

was therefore undertaken, as this technique is less affected

by geology and can still identify cut features.

The resistance data are dominated by broad variations

in the background level of response caused by variations

in the depth of the shallow bedrock. Very high values

have been recorded in the E of the area over an igneous

intrusion. Natural responses have also been recorded in

the W of the area and strong anomalies associated with

the path and a former fence/trackway, are also very clear.

However, in the W of the area a cluster of possible

pit type anomalies has been recorded, which may be

of archaeological interest. Although interpretation is

cautious, there is some coherence to the responses. Several

short ditch-type responses have also been noted. However,

these are adjacent to the path and they may well have a

modern origin.

Archive: Rose Geophysical Consultants

Funder: CFA Archaeology on behalf of HES

Susan Ovenden - Rose Geophysical Consultants

(Source: DES vol 19)

Aerial Photography


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