Week 6 Types of tombs in neolithic Orkney

Around 4000 BC settlements began in the islands. Earliest farming settlement discovered on the island of Papa Westray dated back to 3600 BC (Odyssey adventures in archaeology, 2012). Tombs in the megalithic and Neolithic were visible expression of a group’s ownership of the land, a home for the ancestral spirits. Apparently the tombs were of importance also because it marked a territory and promote strong bonds in the community.

The tombs were organised as two groups: Orkney-Cromarty Tombs and Maeshowe tombs. According to Reilly, Orkney- Cromarty type tombs were the earliest ones and architecturally basic while Maeshowe type came later and architecturally most impressive.

This map shows places where the two types of tombs were found. Source: http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/orkney-cromarty_cairns.htm

Below are the names of the tombs that I will try and look into for my wiki.

Orkney-Cromarty Tombs:

  • The tombs of Rousay
  • Unstan
  • Isbister, the tomb of the eagle
  • The Dwarfie Stane

Maeshowe Tombs:

  • Cuween Hill
  • Quoyness
  • Holm of Papa Westray
  • Quanterness
  • Maes Howe

In the tombs the human skeletons represented all age groups and both sexes. The bones were scattered and most of them were incomplete. This suggests that the burials were a 2 step process: first excarnation and then the bones were moved into the tombs (Odyssey adventures in archaeology, 2012). Grave goods like broken pottery, stone tools, and personal ornaments were also found inside the tombs. this indicates practice of funeral service at that time period. Animal bones were also found together with the skeletal remains this suggests involvement of ritual feasting or food offerings to the ancestors.


Reilly, S. (2003). Processing the dead in neolithic orkney. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 22 (2), 133- 154. Available from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.westminster.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/1468-0092.t01-1-00002/abstract

Odyssey adventures in archaeology (2012). Megalithic tombs of Orkney. Available from http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/orctombs.htm




week 5: Tomb of the otters

Tomb of the otters was discovered in September 2010 by Hamish Mowatt. Large quantity of Otter spraint and bones were found at this site hence the name “Tomb of the Otters”. The excavation of this tomb started in November 2010 by The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). It was found that the tomb is constructed within a quarry into the bedrock and consisted of 5 burial cells. The central chamber is aligned east to west and has an entrance leading to the north with 2 larger cells at either ends, a single cell to the north and 2 cells to the south. The north and the east cells contained human bones.

Map of the tomb of the otters

Excavation in March 2011 revealed more human remains, disarticulated human bones (dry and disjointed bone). Seven separate layers of deposits were found which contained approximately 2000 human bones and also Otter skulls and bones. The bones represented all parts of human skeleton and age ranges from babies to adult.

In March 2012, the third excavation, about 1000 more human bones were recovered in 3 separate layers and each layers with Otter spraint. A new chamber was also discovered with more human remains and otter spraint. Two human leg bones (one from top layer and another from the lower layer) from this excavation were carbon dated in December 2013 by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) and was found that bones dated over 300 year apart.

The skulls and spraint of Otters in each an every layers of deposit indicates that the tomb was left open and unattended. It is evident from the carbon dating of the leg bones (300 years apart) that the tomb was used for a long period of time and for special burials. The disarticulated bones also indicates possibility of excarnation of the corpse before being buried in this tomb.

All of the information provided in this blog on the tomb of the Otters are from  http://www.bankschamberedtomb.co.uk/carbon-dating/4582307413. Not much information about the human remains in the tomb of the Otters in particular could be found so we have decided to try and  cover the tombs of Orkney in general for our case study.

Note: I apologise for not being able to update my post last week due to personal reasons and also coursework due.