Week 7: Quanterness (Maeshowe tomb)

Quanterness was opened and investigated in the 1800s by George Barry and reinvestigated by Colin Renfrew in 1972. The Maeshowe type tomb is located on the lower slope of Wideford Hill. The tomb measures 1.8 X 6.4 meters north-south.  As it can be seen in the picture, there are six side chambers and out of the six only four of them have the roofs intact.

This picture shows the plan of the tomb. out of the 6 side chambers 2 are collapsed. source: http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/maeshowe_tombs-quanterness.htm

During the reinvestigation by Renfrew, southern chamber was excavated and contained a crouched skeleton covered by slabs while in the central chamber similar burial was found but placed in a stone-lined cist. The pits were covered by 3 layers of deposit containing about 90% of the human bones recovered from this tomb. The scattered bones belonged to about 157 individuals and represented both genders and all age group from infants to adults. Along with the human remains animal bones were also recovered, mostly of domestic animals like sheep and cattle. Artefacts like grooved ware sherds, an antler hammer and domestic tools were also found in this tomb. The domestic animal bones suggests that foods were offered and grave good as a part of rituals. In this tomb there were evidences of both excarnation as well as direct interment (Crouched skeleton). According to Odyssey, there were some evidence of burning the dead in the later periods.

I will try to more collect articles (peer reviewed) on dating of the bones and artefacts of this tomb.


Odessy adventures in archeology (2012). Available from http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/maeshowe_tombs-quanterness.htm

Renfrew, C., Harkness, D. and Switsur, R. (1976). Quanterness, radiocarbon and the Orkney cairns. Antiquity, 50, pp 194-204. Available from http://journals.cambridge.org/action/loginShibb?jid=AQY


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.



Week 3: Orkney Island’s importance

Orkney is an archipelago located in the Northern Isles of Scotland. Only 20 out of approximately 70 of its islands are inhabited. Orkney is rich in prehistoric archaeological records. Orkney used to be inhabited by tribes of people. It contains the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” which is listed in UNESCO world heritage site and as a whole approximately 3000 Neolithic sites have be found till now. The site consists of four sites: Maeshowe, Standing stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae (http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/index/heritage/worldheritage/world-heritage-sites-in-scotland/neolithic-orkney.htm) . Ness of Brodgar, which is not listed on the UNESCO world heritage, is also another important site and possibly of religious importance at the Neolithic period as evident from the ceremonial complex and about 300 cattle bones discovered (possibly sacrificed).

Ness of Brodgar (Source: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/61-1301/features/327-scotland-orkney-neolithic-brodgar)
Ness of Brodgar (Source: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/61-1301/features/327-scotland-orkney-neolithic-brodgar)

The houses, monuments, potteries, weapons and wall arts are important as it enables us to picture how their lifestyle was 5000 years ago. Tombs containing both human and animal skeletal remains  have also been excavated example the tomb of eagles and the tomb of the otters. Approximately 16000 and 3000 human skeletons were collected from the tomb of eagles and the tomb of the otters (Creation research society and Banks chambered tomb) . The bones are also of importance as it can tell when the person died, if it was because of pathological reason or violence. From the bones we can estimate their age, sex, diet, his/her identity etc. How tombs and chambers were used for burial of the dead shows the importance of the living and the dead even at that period of time.

I will try to focus more on the skeletal remains found in the tomb of the otters and look for possible links to the Neolithic period’s culture and lifestyle.


Week 2

This week I contacted my partner through text message and because we both have different university timetables therefore it will be a bit difficult for us to meet in person very often, we have decided to communicate through phone and messages. We have also agreed to collect any information regarding our case study of ancient human skeletal remains of Orkney Isle,  individually and then later arrange a date to meet up and combine our finds like articles, videos and images. Then we will be discussing and planning for our video presentation in November.

I have also collected few articles but have not finished going through them all but hopefully will be able to do so and collect more and reliable sources in next few weeks. The links to the articles are listed below. I will also try and track down primary sources of these articles.

  1. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1554511844?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:primo&accountid=14987
  2. http://www.creationresearch.org/crsq/articles/39/39_2/tomb_eagles.htm
  3. https://bonesdontlie.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/charnel-houses-ancient-medieval-and-modern/
  4. http://www.scotsman.com/news/charnel-house-gives-up-its-secret-1-000-human-bones-1-1691696#axzz3p2tbRaVN

Week 1: Introduction to the case study

On 03/10/2015, our first session for the module, we were introduced to anthropology. As a class we came up with a list of evidence and what we want to know about a person. The list are as follows:

  • cultural and historical record
  • Palynology for pollen evidence
  • DNA from hair, bones and flesh
  • geographical location
  • Teeth and bones for age, sex, height, weight and identification
  • Any marks or wound on the body
  • Possesions e.g. clothes, bags, weapons

For this session we looked at the “Otzi: Iceman” case. We read several research papers on the topic and collected as much findings as possible to narrow down his possible identity, origin, lifestyle and possible cause of his death.

For the anthropology case study my group has been assigned the topic “Ancient human skeletal remains of the Orkney Isles”. I will start off by reading general articles around the topic and get so idea about it. To collect information on the topic I will use the library’s search, google scholar and PubMed for peer reviewed and reliable sources. We will also be considering the list above while working on our case study.