The rediscovery of a Neolithic chambered cairn in the East Mainland is the subject of a free Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS) talk next week.
The 5,000-year-old structure, in Holm, was buried beneath a pasture field after 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, a stone macehead and ball, and eight skeletons. These were reported in The Orcadian newspaper by the local antiquary James Walls Cursiter, who speculated that the site was a ruined tomb.
The nature of the 19th century finds prompted a search for the site’s location. Geophysical surveys carried out in 2021 produced a candidate that was confirmed by excavation in August and September this year.
The three-week dig, directed by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, National Museums Scotland, and Professor Vicki Cummings, Cardiff University, revealed traces of a substantial cairn, over 15 metres in diameter, containing a stone chamber that was accessed by a seven-metre-long long passage.
The surviving walls indicated a large, sub-rectangular stone chamber surrounded by six smaller side cells that once had corbelled stone roofs.
The architecture places the structure within the Maeshowe-type category of Neolithic cairns – structures in which a central chamber, with side-cells branching off, is accessed by a low, long entrance passage. Only 12 of this type are known in Orkney, including Maeshowe itself, Quanterness, Cuween (Firth) and Quoyness (Sanday).
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 – of men, women and children – in one of the side cells, 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.
Further 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.
Dr Anderson-Whymark will give a talk on the excavation on Tuesday, November 7, 2023, at 7pm, in the King Street Halls, Kirkwall. The presentation is being recorded by OAS and will be put online as soon as possible afterwards.