Houses of the dead?

Tombs of the Isles - House of the dead?

The arrival of agriculture brought a different way of perceiving, and interacting with, the landscape. While the hunting, fishing and gathering of their Mesolithic predecessors continued to an extent, the new farming communities were bound, by necessity, to a sedentary lifestyle.

Farmers must invest time and effort in their land if they are to be successful — and, by extension, survive.

This forced attachment to an area of land, and the timescales involved in working and improving it, is behind the idea that the concept of ancestors was an important element in agrarian societies.

This led to the suggestion that chambered cairns were built as different groups claimed land (Renfrew 1976) and that the physical presence of genealogical forebears legitimised these claims (Chapman 1981; Bradley 1984). These “ancestors” were represented by the remains of the dead, housed in structures that were visible indicators of their builders’ right to be there.

But where human remains have been found in Orkney’s chambered cairns it is clear the structures were not simply built and left alone. They were re-entered regularly — not just for the deposition of corpses but to interact with earlier bones.

The interior of the Unstan stalled cairn, looking towards the northern end compartment. ((Adam Stanford.

At the Holm of Papa Westray North, Anna Ritchie had no doubt that human remains were being manipulated — a fact her excavation “proved beyond doubt” (2009).

This interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggested Colin Richards (1988) and perhaps explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts (e.g. Skara Brae, Knap of Howar). This points at remains being removed from cairns, relocated and possibly exchanged — perhaps to bring “life” to a new building or cairn, sealing agreements or even as some form of spiritual protection.

It is clear that only a fraction of the dead was placed in cairns (Cummings 2016), so why were these individuals selected? In some cases, they may have represented generic ancestors, but perhaps not always.

Instead, we may need to step back from the “spectre” of the “omnipresent ancestor” (Whitley 2002: 119) and recognise that there may have been different processes for dealing with the dead and that these involved different structures.

To Miles Russell, cairns were “community archives” (2002) that held the bones of individuals “considered to be representative of the community” (2002). The human element, he suggests, was just one of a number of deposits (e.g. pottery, artefacts and animal remains) that defined the relevant social group. These individuals were not necessarily the “great and the good” and “may not have gone willingly” to their deaths (2002).

According to David Lawrence, injuries noted within the Isbister and Rowiegar bone assemblages in Orkney are unlikely to have ritual causes (2012: 524) but instead suggests violence and strife within the communities (ibid).

These interments were perhaps attempts to “contain” the bodies of those who had met unnatural or untimely deaths (Fowler 2010).

But given the number of cairns across Orkney — and the concentration in some areas — can they all represent ancestral markers?

According to Vicki Cummings, the idea that each community had their own chambered cairn, with each one serving the same purpose, requires rethinking (2016).

She suggests that groups built multiple monuments for different reasons, such as “social upheaval, violent episodes, dealing with ‘difficult’ deaths or to create new lineage groups.” (ibid). These “fulfilled different social needs in each community,” and their “meanings and importance to a group varied considerably.” (ibid).

As sites of transformation — the place where the body of known individuals passed into the realm of the dead — they were perhaps also the venues for ceremonies involving the living, such as rites of passage, fertility or even conduits to “converse” with deities or spirits.

In addition, as has been argued for the Ring of Brodgar (Downes et al 2013), perhaps the act of constructing the cairn was the significant factor and not necessarily the end product (McFadyen 2006).

These roles are too subtle to recognise, or understand, through archaeological analysis of architecture, material contents, orientation and landscape position alone. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Although it is likely that cairns had more than one function, archaeological work in Orkney does suggest a major element was providing links to the past, kinship and descent (Richards & Jones 2016).


  • Bradley, R. (1984) The social foundations of prehistoric Britain. Harlow: Longman
  • ​Chapman, R. (1981) The emergence of formal disposal areas and the ‘problem’of megalithic tombs in prehistoric Europe. The archaeology of death, 71-81
  • Downes, J., Richards, C., Brown, J., Cresswell, A.J., Ellen, R., Davies, A.D., Hall, A., McCulloch, R., Sanderson, D.C. and Simpson, I.A. (2013) Investigating the Great Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. In Richards C. (Ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, 90-118. Oxford: Windgather Press
  • Fowler, C. (2010) Pattern and diversity in the early Neolithic mortuary practices of Britain and Ireland: contextualising the treatment of the dead. Documenta Praehistoria 37, 1-22
  • Lawrence, D. (2012) Orkney’s first farmers: Reconstructing biographies from osteological analysis to gain insights into life and society in a Neolithic community on the edge of Atlantic Europe. Volumes One and Two.
  • McFadyen, L. (2006) Building techniques, quick and slow architectures and Early Neolithic long barrow sites in southern Britain. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 21, 70-81.
  • Renfrew, C. (1976) Megaliths, territories and populations. In S. De Laet (ed) Acculturation and continuity in Atlantic Europe, 198-220. Bruges: De Tempel
  • ​         —. (1979) Investigations in Orkney (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London)
  • Richards, C. (1988) An Archaeological Study of Neolithic Orkney: Architecture, Order and Social Order.
  • Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press.
  • Ritchie, A. and Ashmore, P. (2009) On the Fringe of Neolithic Europe: excavation of a chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray, Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
  • Russell, M. (2002) Monuments of the British Neolithic: The roots of architecture. Tempus Pub Limited
  • Whitley, J. (2002) Too many ancestors. Antiquity 76 (291), 119-126