Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an incredibly rare 5,000-year-old Neolithic chambered cairn that was largely destroyed, without record, in the 19th century.
The three-week excavation in Holm, a parish in Orkney’s East Mainland, was directed by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, National Museums Scotland, and Professor Vicki Cummings, Cardiff University.
It revealed traces of a substantial cairn, over 15 metres in diameter, that contains a stone chamber accessed through a seven-metre-long passage.
The large sub-rectangular chamber was surrounded by six smaller side cells that once had corbelled stone roofs.
Most survive as upstanding monuments, but the Holm cairn was buried beneath a pasture field as it was largely destroyed in the late 18th or early 19th century to supply building stone for a nearby farmhouse.
Further digging in the ruins by the farmer’s son in 1896 revealed traces of walling and located a stone macehead and ball, and eight skeletons. These discoveries were reported in The Orkney Herald newspaper by the local antiquary James Walls Cursiter, who speculated that the site was a ruined tomb.
The nature of the 1896 discoveries prompted a search for the findspot so that the character of the earlier discoveries could be clarified. Geophysical surveys were carried out by ORCA in 2021 with the current excavation targetting anomalies revealed by those.
Despite extensive modern disturbance, 14 articulated skeletons of men, women and children were found in one of the side cells, along with other disarticulated remains.
Other human remains and artefacts, including pottery, stone tools and a bone pin, were recovered from the Victorian backfill by students from the University of Central Lancashire and local volunteers.
Although commonly referred to as “tombs”, very few of Orkney’s chambered cairns were found to contain human remains – and those that did were excavated in the 19th or early 20th centuries.
The fact the Holm chamber contained 14 articulated skeletons, as well as disarticulated remains, is therefore not only exciting but particularly significant. With modern scientific techniques, including DNA analysis, these could reveal much about the life of those placed within the structure. This includes information such as their health, where they grew up and how, if at all, they were related.
Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark said: “Orkney is exceptionally rich in archaeology, but we never expected to find a tomb of this size in a such a small-scale excavation.
“It’s incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record, but fortunately just enough stonework has survived for us to be able understand the size, form and construction of this tomb.”
Professor Vicki Cummings added: “The preservation of so many human remains in one part of the monument is amazing, especially since the stone has been mostly robbed for building material. It is incredibly rare to find these tomb deposits, even in well-preserved chambered tombs and these remains will enable new insights into all aspects of these peoples’ lives.”