Tombs of the Isles

This 2.5-year project will celebrate, research and share the stories of Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney.
Interior of Quoyness, Sanday. (Antonia Thomas)
Tombs of the Isles Logo

Relaunched in 2021, this 2.5-year project will celebrate, research and share the stories of Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney.

An activities programme of research, walks, arts workshops, archaeological fieldwork (survey, geophysics, excavation) and school workshops will explore well- and lesser-known burial monuments, setting them in a wider context.

But we need your help!

With the help of island-based archaeologists, we will create island specific Tomb Archives and undertake new fieldwork which will feed into the creation of an up-to-date catalogue of these monuments.

New 3D models of tombs will be created and hosted. 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.

Mount Maesry, Sanday. (Dan Lee)

Where will the project take place?

All inhabited islands north of the Orkney Mainland: Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre, Shapinsay, Westray, Papa Westray, Eday, Sanday, Stronsay and North Ronaldsay.

When will this happen?

  • 2021-22 Activities, fieldwork, 3D models, school outreach
  • 2022-23 Tombs Trail, technical reports, sharing the results

What about the Neolithic?

The Neolithic sits at the heart of the imagination and identity of Orkney.

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.

It is also the time when communities started to build substantial permanent houses, first of timber and then stone, for both the living and the dead.

Quoyness Interior. (Antonia Thomas)
Quoyness interior. (Antonia Thomas)

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

In Orkney, there are over 81 stone-built tombs of various architectural styles – ‘Maeshowe’, ‘Stalled’ and ‘Bookan’ types – with 53 of these (65%) located in the North Isles (Rousay, 16, Eday, 12 and Westray, 9, with particularly high numbers).

In Orkney, there has been a long history of investigations into tombs and more recently settlements and houses.

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.

  • Where are our tombs?
  • What are our tombs like, how were they built?
  • What was in our tombs? Where is this material now?
  • What were they used for?
  • Are there any stories about our tombs?
  • How could we investigate the tombs?
  • How can we celebrate our tombs?
Knucker Hill, Westray. (Dan Lee)


Learn new skills, get training in archaeology, meet new people, try new things!

  • Tomb archives & supported research – research what we know about your tombs.
  • Walks – visit your tombs with archaeologists and record what they are like now.
  • 3D Models – new 3D models will be made, with demonstration workshops.
  • Survey your tombs – undertake measured survey at selected sites.
  • Geophysics – undertake geophysical survey at selected sites.
  • Excavation – link up with existing projects to explore selected tombs.
  • Art & Archaeology workshops – explore rock art and your creative side at selected tombs.
  • Interpretation posters –new posters for heritage centres and schools will be produced.
Lum Head, Westray
Lum Head, Westray. (Dan Lee)

How do I get involved?

Contact us for more information and get signed up to the mailing list!

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology
UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College, Kirkwall
Facebook: Archaeology Institute UHI
Twitter: @UHIArchaeology
Tel: 01856 569345

Project partners: National Museum of Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland, University of Bradford, University of Lancashire.
Funding: North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme.