Neolithic ORCA Outreach Research Tombs of the Isles

‘Tombs of the Isles’ project relaunch on the horizon

A project to celebrate, research and share the stories of the Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney's North Isles is about to get under way.
Midhowe Stalled Cairn, Rousay, Orkney. (Dan Lee)

A project to celebrate, research and share the stories of the Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney’s North Isles is about to get under way.

Led by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), part of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Tombs of the Isles was commissioned by the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme (NILPS) in early 2020, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

Now being relaunched, the project will see a programme of research, walks, arts workshops, archaeological fieldwork (survey, geophysics, excavation) and school workshops explore some of the most iconic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney and bring the lesser known sites into the spotlight.

With the help of island-based archaeologists, the project will create island-specific “Tomb Archives” and undertake new fieldwork, which will feed into the creation of a new “Tombs Trail”.

New 3D models of tombs will be hosted on digital tablets and online for heritage centres and schools. Other activities will include public talks, training workshops (research, field techniques), creative workshops (rock art) and a short-course on Neolithic archaeology.

In all, the project will bring together what we know about the tombs of the isles, undertake new research, and create new ways of sharing their stories.

Launch events in the North Isles are planned for November/December 2021 and early 2022, so watch this space for more details.

Decorated internal stone at the Holm of Papa Westray tomb. (Antonia Thomas)

Few can doubt the importance of archaeology and heritage to the community and economy of Orkney and the Neolithic sits at the heart of the imagination and identity of the islands.

Beginning some 5,500 years ago and spanning a staggering 2,500 years, the Neolithic was when people first farmed the land, grew crops, made pottery and adopted new forms of objects such as polished axes and maceheads.

Entrance to the Quoyness chambered tomb, Sanday, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Neolithic was also a time when people’s relationship with the dead and their ancestors changed. People were buried communally in tombs, where bones and other offerings were jumbled together into one ancestral place.

Midhowe Stalls. (Sigurd Towrie)
“Stalls” inside the Midhowe chambered cairn, Rousay, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)

In Orkney, there are over 81 stone-built tombs of various architectural styles – “Maeshowe”, “Orkney-Cromarty” and “Bookan” types – with over 53 of these located in the North Isles (Rousay, 16, Eday, 12 and Westray, 9, have particularly high numbers).

The Tombs of the Isles project takes a community-focused approach to Neolithic funerary sites in Orkney. The project team will work with islanders to explore burial monuments in the North Isles, conduct new and original research and put this into a regional and national context.

If you live in Orkney’s North Isles and would like to get involved or find out more, please email: Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk

Inside Quoyness chambered tomb, Sanday, Orkney. (Antonia Thomas)

Dan Lee, ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, said: “We are really looking forward to working with islanders to celebrate the amazing Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney, and bring some of these less-explored sites into focus. Who knows what new stories they can tell?”

Andy Golightly, NILPS programme manager, added: ”This is a really good opportunity for people living in the North Isles, to work with Orkney College to learn more about the unique tombs on their Isles and possibly gain new skills and experience.

“Having the information produced, displayed and available locally will also benefit visitors to the isles, opening up more of the islands’ history to a wider audience.” 

More information on this project at https://www.nilps.co.uk/projects/tombs-of-the-isles