An unrecorded example of Neolithic rock art was the surprise discovery of the day during a walk and talk for ourTombs of the Isles project.
The incised stone was spotted in the remains of the Onziebist cairn, in Egilsay, on Tuesday, June 6. The unexcavated structure survives as a disturbed mound perched atop a large, natural ridge in the south side of the island.
The bulk of the structure has been greatly disturbed making any detailed interpretation of the current remains impossible.
If, as has been suggested, Onziebist was a Maeshowe-type tomb, it would have side cells branching off from a rectangular or square central chamber. Access to the interior would have been via a long, low and narrow entrance passage – of which no trace is visible today.
Although unexcavated, the structure has clearly been explored in the past. A section of what is presumably a interior wall of the central chamber is visible and part of a side cell’s roof has been removed making it possible to see inside.
The side cell is rectangular at its base, measuring a mere 1.5 metres long by one metre wide. It was accessed by a narrow passage in its eastern side.
The one-metre-long passage is a mere 40cm at its widest and probably about one metre high. It is partially blocked by a layer of material/rubble covering the cell floor to an estimated depth of c.50cm.
Whether the cell infill represents a deliberate act of closure/sealing or accumulated over time is not clear but the fact the roof survived almost intact does make a good case for the former.
The cell is a beautiful example of corbelling – a technique in which stones are overlapped to create a beehive-like roof. At its highest point the roof is less than a metre above the current infill level, suggesting the chamber had an original height of around 1.3 metres.
While recording the cell’s condition it became clear that the face of a single stone forming part of the corbelled roof had incised “decoration”.
While nowhere near as accomplished as some of the examples found at the Ness of Brodgar, the design was familiar – a pair of rectangular bands with diagonal markings inside.
Although it initially looked like the lintel above the cell’s entrance was also marked, closer investigation revealed these to be natural.
Onziebist is one of the Hillocks of the Graand – from Old Norse grandi meaning beach – a series of rocky outcrops running north-south along an area of low ground.
Although the mounds leading to the chambered cairn are clearly natural, there may be traces of archaeology, possibly Bronze Age, on top of one.
The Onziebist cairn was raised on top of the largest, southernmost, outcrop – a location that would have greatly enhanced its prominence and perhaps its significance. Standing on the low ground at its eastern side the structure would have towered many metres above the viewer.
As well as being highly visible for miles around, the chamber itself would have had commanding views of Egilsay as well as the surrounding islands and the waterways between.
Visiting the site with the UHI Archaeology Institute team were members of the public who had signed up for the walk.
Earlier in the day, Dan Lee, ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, also gave a talk in the Egilsay community centre on the Neolithic chambered tombs and sites of Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre.
Many thanks to RSPB warden Vicky and all who turned out for what was a highly enjoyable (and exciting) day.