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Shean, Stemster

Chambered Cairn (Neolithic)

Site Name Shean, Stemster

Classification Chambered Cairn (Neolithic)

Alternative Name(s) Sithean; Roadside

Canmore ID 8505

Site Number ND16SE 1

NGR ND 1742 6260

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Bower
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Caithness
  • Former County Caithness

Archaeology Notes

ND16SE 1 1742 6260

(ND 1742 6260) Mound (NR)

OS 6" map, Caithness, 2nd ed., (1907)

Shean, Stemster: This is the turf-covered and mutilated remains of a long cairn. The main axis is SSE-NNW, the former end rising into a circular mound with a height of about 8ft, but the rest of the cairn has been greatly disturbed and tails away to a height of only about 1ft.

The length is now 149ft, but the SSE end has been cut off square and somewhat curtailed by the construction of a large cistern immediately in front of it. The NNW end may also have been reduced by the track which passes behind the site. The width at the SSE end is 73ft, and at the NNW end, 33ft.

RCAHMS identified this site with that excavated by Tress Barry in 1904, although this is not certain. In the RCAHMS report of the excavation, mention is made of an inhumation in the chamber, and in the debris near the top of the cairn, another, apparently secondary unburnt interment, accompanied by pieces of an urn, now lost.

RCAHMS 1911; A S Henshall 1963.

A long cairn, as described by Henshall (1963). No trace of a chamber can now be seen. A stone projects through the turf at the SE end, and another larger stone lies at the NW side of the cairn.

Resurveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (R D) 10 November 1965

(ND 1742 6260) Long Cairn (NR)

OS 6" map, (1970)

No change to the previous field report.

Visited by OS (J M) 28 October 1981

Long cairn, 'Sithean'. Length: 51m. Long mound whose SW wider end is formed by a circular mound 15m in diameter and 2m high containing two hollows. Many depressions exist at the narrower end. Orientation SW-NE.

R J Mercer, NMRS MS/828/19, 1995.

Scheduled as Stemster, long cairn, 790m NNW of Roadside.

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 12 August 2005.


Note (January 2017)

Explanation and excavation

Caithness boasts one of the richest archaeological landscapes in Scotland. The countryside is littered with prehistoric remains, including numerous Neolithic tombs, commonly known as chambered cairns. These great mounds, made of stone and turf, have internal chambers and come in many shapes and sizes, including: round, oval, heel-shaped, ‘short horned’, long, rectangular, or ‘double horned’. Some are small and simple but others have multiple internal compartments and low, narrow passageway entrances. The flat nature of the available stone in Caithness provided Neolithic communities with the perfect building material to construct these spectacular, 5000 year old examples of architecture and engineering.

In the late 19th or early 20th century the chambered cairn at Stemster, Shean , was excavated by two of the most notable archaeologists of their time, John Nicolson and Sir Francis Tress Barry. Nicolson was a talented artist who recorded their findings through drawings and paintings. These fascinating illustrations provide the only surviving visual record of the excavation of the chambered cairn.

The long cairn at Stemster is about 46m long and sits in a prominent position on top of a gently rounded hill. Although now collapsed, there would once have been a stone-lined passageway, leading to an internal square chamber. The chamber was recorded as 8 foot in height, with two upright flagstones in each corner. The floor was paved with five large flagstones which stretched right across the chamber, from one side to the other. Nicolson and Tress Barry may have been the first people to enter the tomb in over 3000 years. Inside they uncovered the remains of a human skeleton in a crouched position. The body had been positioned in a corner of the chamber inside a ring of five small grey stones on a low slab. A clay pot had been buried with the bones. Later in the excavation a second burial was discovered, near the top of the cairn.

'Houses of the dead'

Archaeologists believe that these remarkable structures were ‘houses for the dead’ and a place of ceremony and worship. This suggests that the communities who built them had a belief in some kind of afterlife, although we may never know what that would have been or meant to them. Perhaps they were a place to keep the dead safe, or perhaps they were consider to be a place for souls to rest before passing on to the next life where they would join their kinsfolk? Alternatively, the tombs may have been constructed to keep the dead locked away, ensuring the safety of the living. Despite the variety of archaeological interpretations, all agree that these sites must have played a very important role in the lives of Bronze Age communities.

Maya Hoole - Archaeology InSites project manager


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