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South Ronaldsay, Isbister

Chambered Cairn (Neolithic)

Site Name South Ronaldsay, Isbister

Classification Chambered Cairn (Neolithic)

Alternative Name(s) Tomb Of The Eagles

Canmore ID 9554

Site Number ND48SE 1

NGR ND 4704 8449

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating


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

Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish South Ronaldsay
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

ND48SE 1 4704 8449

ND 469 843: An Orkney-Cromarty stalled cairn, in uncultivated ground about 220' from precipitous cliffs and about 100' OD. The cairn has a thin skin of turf over the stones, but has been much robbed except for part in the centre of the W side which is still about 10' high. The edge of the cairn is difficult to define; its length is about 135', its width about 50', with the long axis running N-S. Partial excavations were carried out by Ritchie in 1958, and have been filled in; the description is taken entirely from the report.

Two wall faces were exposed in the body of the cairn at the N end. They run transversely to the axis of the cairn, are built of horizontally laid slabs, and retain a height of 3' 3". Forty-two ft NNE of the N end of the chamber, a small orthostat projects through the turf, and excavation exposed a wall face of one or two courses stretching for 5'8" in a SSW direction.

Excavation revealed the northern part of a stalled chamber of at least four compartments, but its S end was not traced. The N end compartment alone was fully excavated. It is 3'8" long, 5'9" wide, and the wall stands 4'8" high. The next compartment measures 6'3" by 4'6", with the side walls 5'2" high. The third compartment is about 7'3" long. In the middle of the W wall of the second compartment was the entrance to a side cell, roughly 4'6" square and about 3' high. Opposite this entrance is another entry, probably the end of the entrance passage. This entrance was filled with earthy material and bones. The entrance to the cell and the cell itself was not filled up.

Finds from the site, in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS), include: three stone axes, a mace head, a polished stone knife, a cylindrical bone bead, a V-bored jet button and four pottery sherds, one probably from a carinated bowl. The skeletal remains included skulls representing thirty individuals and some human and animal bones.

P R Ritchie 1961; A S Henshall 1963.

The remains of a chambered cairn at ND 4704 8449; the E half of which has been completely eroded away exposing four slabs of the stalled chamber. The W half of the cairn is represented by a turf-covered mound of debris c.2.5m high, which appears to be two-tiered, suggesting that originally the cairn stood on a platform, although this appearance could be due to uneven slip or other disturbance. The effect, however, is of a distinct berm around the base of a probably originally circular mound which has been approximately 22.0m in diameter, with the platform possibly measuring about 40.0m overall.

The small orthostat to the NNE survives in situ, but there is no trace of the walling to the SW seen during excavation.

Surveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (IMT) 25 April 1973

Isbister, O-C round with projections: Since the last report, the cairn has been further excavated in 1976 and 78 by Mr R Simison, the landowner, in collaberation with NoSAS and IAM, revealing much of the chamber and part of the hornwork to the N of the cairn.

The cairn is estimated as about 15m in diameter and still standing c2.9m high. An entrance passage runs from the ENE at right angles to the axis and from the centre of the chamber, and survives for a length of 4m, 0.7m wide, and is still roofed at the inner end by a massive lintel at a height of 0.85m.

The chamber is 8.2m long overall, divided into five segments by three pairs of transversely-set orthostats which project only about 0.1m from the walls and so do not form stalls in the usual manner.The two end compartments are distinct from the central portion of the chamber. The latter is 6m long by 1.2 to 1.6m wide with drystone walls 2m high without corbelling. There are three side cells entered from the N and S ends of the W side, and from the N end of the E side of the chamber.

The end compartments measure about 1.8m wide by 1.2m deep, thus at ground level are wider than the central portion of the chamber. Each has a slab set on edge c.0.3m high across the entry. The backs of the compartments are formed by a vertical slab. A flagstone shelf is preserved in the S compartment about 1.2m above the floor and in the N compartment part of a similar shelf remains about 0.2m higher.

The side cells are entered by passages c.0.7m long by 0.5m wide and 0.7m high, each roofed by a single lintel. The floor areas are irregular in plan, being 1.5 to 2m in length, and roofed at a height of 1m by single capstones.

Part of the outer wall-face of the cairn is exposed on the NE for a length of about 10m and is 1.9m high above a level-projecting base of one course 0.1m high. On each side of the passage, an inner revetment wall is visible 0.9m high, and a third wall-face runs from the passage curving to approach close to the S end of the chamber. To the N of the passage a wall face at a different level is built round the back of the NE cell. The projecting 'horns' to the N and S of the cairn form a shallow forecourt c.110m across. Part of the N 'horn' has been exposed revealing a double-skinned wall 1.5m wide robbed to only 0.3m in height, and abutting against the N retaining wall of the cairn showing that it is later in construction.

The chamber is clearly not in the centre of the mound which measures overall some 27m, and there may be a second chamber to the W of the excavated area.

Human, animal, bird bones and skulls, as well as Unstan pottery, were found, and the extraordinary high proportion of white-tailed eagles talons suggests a symbolic purpose for the tomb. Tentative dating places the tomb as built c.3250 BC and in use until c.3000 BC.

Visited by OS (JLD) 15 May 1981

Planned further trenching in 1982-3 by Mr Simison has exposed other feature of the cairn.

1. On the W side a trench has revealed the uppermost courses of a wall-face at a height of about 2.5m above the chamber floor - at the highest part of the mound before this excavation. This, together with the exposed wall-face on the N, suggests that the chamber stood centrally within a cairn measuring c.16 x 11m.

2. Other trenches in the N, NW, SW and S have revealed a double-faced wall c.2m wide enclosing the cairn mound. At the N end this wall stands on redeposited material, and attains a height of 0.75m; it is assumed that it butted against the 'hornwork' wall which is thought to be an earlier feature although later than the cairn itself. About 2m W of this junction there was a gap in the wall spanned by a large lintel - now removed.

On the W side, the curving wall is 0.5m high, and reduces at the S end where the ground level rises, to only 0.25m high in two surviving courses. The cairn body rises from this wall, and also extends beyond it probably due to slip from the cairn mound.

Since 1981 it has been recognised that the postulated 'hornwork' on the S is a formation of natural rock under turf, and there was probably no wall built upon this to compliment the N wall. Also, the top of Ritchie's 2nd wall-face was noted in 1984, having been covered over in previous years.

Information from J L Davidson, 29 May 1984.

In 1987 guardianship of the tomb was received by Orkney Islands Council. They initiated a programme of archaeological excavation, consolidation and building works to display the site to the public. Partial excavation of the tomb masonry was necessary to house the foundations of a concrete roof for the central chamber. The walls were built up to meet the new roof and then the whole was covered with soil and grassed over. The excavation uncovered details not discovered during previous excavtions.

The excavated details have been preserved where possible and the entrance area has been partly rebuilt. Slate was used to mark the boundary between old and new masonry. Floor deposits in the main chamber and side cells has been left intact and reconstructed funeral deposits have been left in one cell to aid the visitor's understanding of the site.

B Smith 1990.

Orkney-Cromarty oval cairn with additions, and stalled chamber with cells.

Radiocarbon Dates:

GU 1179 Foundation deposit immediately prior to building of tomb

Human Bone 2480bc +- 55 3215BC +- 110

GU 1178 Foundation deposit immediately prior to building of tomb

Human Bone 2295bc +- 100 2965BC +- 115

GU 1182 Deposit under intact shelf, Stall 5 (same sample as Q 3013)

Human Bone 2530bc +- 80 3285BC +- 110

Q 3013 Deposit under intact shelf, Stall 5 (same sample as GU 1182)

GU 1185 Deposit in undisturbed Side cell 3 (same sample as Q 3016)

Human Bone 2470bc +- 95 3205BC +- 110

Q 3016 Deposit in undisturbed Side cell 3 (same sample as GU 1185)

Human Bone 2410bc +- 55 3110BC +- 110

GU 1180 Deposit on floor of undisturbed Stall 4

Human Bone 2470bc +- 90 3205BC +- 110

GU 1181 Deposit on floor of undisturbed Stall 4

Human Bone 2460bc +- 130 3190BC +- 145

GU 1184 deposit in undisturbed Side cell 3 (same sample as Q 3015)

Human Bone 2415bc +- 90 3120BC +- 110

Q 3015 Deposit in undisturbed Side cell 3 (same sample as GU 1184)

Human Bone 2310bc +- 55 2980BC +- 110

Q 3018 Backfill behind hornwork abutting tomb (same sample as GU 1190)

Deer bone 2335bc +- 45 3010BC +- 110

GU 1190 Backfill behind hornwork abutting tomb (same sample as Q 3018)

Deer bone 2310bc +- 55 2980BC +- 110

GU 1183 Deposit under intact shelf, Stall 5 (same sample as Q 3014)

Human Bone 1960bc +- 80 2470BC +- 110

Q 3014 Deposit under intact shelf, Stall 5 (same sample as GU 1183)

Human Bone 1880bc +- 50 2355BC +- 110

GU 1186 Stone infilling sealing tomb (same sample as Q 3017)

Human Bone 2090bc +- 100 2655BC +- 115

Q 3017 Stone infilling sealing tomb (same sample as GU 1186)

Human Bone 2080bc +- 50 2640BC +- 110

GU 1187 Cist burial inserted in backfill behind North hornwork

Human Bone 1300bc +- 55 1595BC +- 110

J L Davidson and A S Henshall 1989.


Publication Account (1996)

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).

Field Visit (August 1997)

This Orkney-Cromarty type cairn, known as the Tomb of the Eagles, is located above 30m high cliffs and had suffered some erosion prior to the first series of excavations, which took place in the 1950's (Ritchie, 1961). It was further investigated in the 1970's and the results have been published (Hedges 1983, Henshall, 1989). The entrance passage faces seaward and runs to the centre of the chamber. The chamber is 8.2m long and is divided into five segments by four pairs of transversely set orthostats. The two end compartments are structurally distinct from the central portion of the chamber. There are three side cells; two are located off the W side of the central chamber and one lies off the E side. A quantity of human and animal bones were found to have been deposited below the floor of the S end compartment during the construction of the tomb. Analysis of the bone indicated that it comprised the remains of fifteen humans and bones of the white-tailed sea-eagle. Within the central chamber were found the disarticulated remains of 342 individuals, along with charcoal, cremated bone, animal bone and peat ash. The cairn is encased around its W half by a rubble mound, 30m across, which was retained by a semi-circular wall. A forecourt at E side of the cairn exterior, although damaged by erosion, nonetheless yielded a rich assemblage of artefacts including three stone axes, a mace head a knife and a jet button. A quantity of animal bone also found there may be associated with sacrificial offerings. The earliest activity at this site has been radiocarbon dated to around 3150 BC and the tomb continued in use until about 2400 BC, when the chamber was deliberately filled in and sealed. At around 1600 BC a cist burial, containing the remains of three individuals, was inserted into the rubble mound. The site has been consolidated and is open to the public.

Moore and Wilson, 1997

Coastal Zone Assessment Survey


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