5000-Year-Old Neolithic Tomb and Human Remains Unearthed In Orkney
Archaeologists in the north of Scotland have unearthed the remains of an “exceptionally rare” Neolithic tomb dating back 5,000 years. Having suffered extensive damage in the 19th century, the researchers said the discovery of human remains and artifacts there is almost unheard of.
Holm is a parish on Mainland, Orkney, but separated from the mainland by Holm Sound. This historic waterway has since been blocked up by the Churchill Barriers, a series of causeways constructed during World War II to block German U-boat access to the Scapa Flow naval anchorage. Now, after a three-week archaeological excavation at Holm, archaeologists have announced their discovery of an “exceptionally rare” Neolithic stone burial chamber.
According to a National Museums of Scotland [NMS] article, the recent excavations were directed by Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark, National Museums Scotland, and Professor Vicki Cummings from Cardiff University. Dr. Anderson-Whymark said the tomb falls into the “Maes Howe-type” class of passage grave. Considered as having been built at the height of Neolithic engineering in Britain, only twelve tombs of this type have ever been unearthed in Orkney, including the examples at Maes Howe, Cuween and Quoyness”.
Scottish archaeologists examining the Neolithic tomb and artifacts discovered. (National Museums Scotland)
Measuring Up the Neolithic Tomb
Measuring over 15 meters (49 ft) in diameter, the stone structure was accessed through a 7-meter (23 ft) long passage. The remaining drystone walls encircle a large sub-rectangular chamber located at the geometrical center of the cairn, which is surrounded by six cells with ‘corbelled stone roofs.’ Corbelled stone roofs utilize flat stones, stacked horizontally, forming vaulted roofs without keystones.
The Holm tomb was discovered in a pasture field, and it is known that in the late 18th or early 19th century, its stones were repurposed as building materials in the construction of a nearby farmhouse. The NMS article says that in 1896 the farmer’s son “revealed traces of walling and located a stone macehead and ball, and eight skeletons”.
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Having Been Pillaged, This Is an Incredibly Rare Discovery
In 1896, local antiquarian, James Walls Cursiter, told The Orcadian newspaper, that he suspected the artifacts and bones had come from a hidden Neolithic tomb. Based on this 1896 account, in 2021, a team of researchers applied geophysics to the area, and successfully identified the tomb. Subsequently, among the discoveries are the remains of “fourteen articulated skeletons of men, women and children. Furthermore, heaps of disarticulated remains were discovered in one of the side cells”.
In one stone side cell human remains of 14 men, women and children were excavated on the site. (National Museums Scotland)
Further to these discoveries, students from the University of Central Lancashire and local volunteers, identified more human remains, pottery, stone tools and a bone pin, from the Victorian backfill of the tomb. Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark said he finds it “incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record.” Prof. Vicki Cummings concluded that discovering these types of artifacts and human remains “is incredibly rare,” even in well-preserved chambered tombs.
Experts estimate the findings promise to offer fresh perspectives on various aspects of these ancient people's lives. (National Museums Scotland)
Was This Tomb A “Hierophany,” or not?
Currently, the archaeologists have disclosed information about their discovery of human remains and material artifacts. However, greater treasures are yet to come, when archaeoastronomers begin measuring up the orientation and alignment of the tomb. The question is: did this stone tomb serve as a “hierophany,” like Maes Howe and others in its class?
A “hierophany” is a concept in religious studies that refers to a deliberate manifestation, or appearance, of the sacred or divine in the everyday world. Pyramids in Egypt, temples in Cambodia and both temples and pyramids in Central America were cardinally aligned to function as archaeological hierophanies, using light and shadow to express religious concepts in monumental architecture.
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Similarly, in the British Isles, Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe passage tomb in Orkney are archaeological hierophanies, in that they were aligned so that the first or last rays of the solstice sun shone along the passages and lit up symbolic stones in the inner chambers. Only time will tell, but it would be unusual if this stone tomb ‘does not’ have archaeoastronomical principles embedded into its ground plan.
Top image: Archaeologists unearthed the remains of an exceptionally uncommon Neolithic tomb dating back 5,000 years. Source: National Museums Scotland
By Ashley Cowie