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Orkney's Archaeology


This is a brief introduction to Orkney's archaeology, most of which is abridged (under the terms of the Open Government Licence) from Caroline Wickham-Jones'  'Monuments of Orkney A Visitors Guide' and the author is thanked for facilitating this - it's a good little book and well worth buying as an introduction to Orkney.


The archaeological sites of Orkney offer an unusually complete record. Elsewhere in Scotland, poor preservation means that the traces of our ancestors are rarely complete: we may have tombs but not houses; or ceremonial sites and not much else. In Orkney, through a combination of exceptional conditions and the common use of stone as a building material, the traces of all major strands of life have survived. Visiting the monuments of ancient Orkney provides an intimate glimpse of the past.


The archaeological record of Orkney comprises remains from the earliest farmers, around 4000 BC, until recent times. Orkney was first inhabited shortly after the end of the last Ice Age by bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, but they left little trace of their passing. In contrast, the Neolithic communities who farmed here left prominent sites like Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar to provide an unprecedented view of life and death. Recent research suggests that Neolithic Orkney was prosperous and important, with wide reaching connections. Around 400 - 200 BC, the Iron Age inhabitants of Orkney built tall stone towers, brochs, as a symbol of their wealth and power. By the 9th century AD, the Picts had left a rich heritage of artwork in precious metal and stone. Christianity first came to Orkney around now, though it was only fully embraced during the Norse period. The Norse earldom placed Orkney at the heart of political and economic affairs.


Mesolithic Orkney (7000–4000 BC)


More than 60 islands make up the archipelago of Orkney, of which 20 are inhabited today, though most bear traces of settlement in the past. The natural resources of Orkney are plentiful and have helped to foster a thriving community through the ages. The Orkney islands lie in the Gulf Stream, the warmer waters of which not only brought abundant marine resources but also helped to maintain a more benign environment on land despite the high latitude – 59° North.

Today the waters between the islands are treacherous, known for their strong currents and high energy. However, 9,000 years ago, when people first arrived here, the sea level was lower. Instead of an archipelago they found a single large island. Throughout the subsequent millennia, gradually rising sea levels have shaped the familiar geography of Orkney; the sea level reached its present height around 4,000 years ago. In recent millennia, the islands have offered relatively easy access to the sea. Natural harbours and wide sandy beaches meant that a maritime culture has always been important. Nevertheless, navigation requires skill and can be dangerous. Stories of shipwreck abound and it should not be forgotten that the sea can divide as well as unite. The relatively uniform sandstone geology of Orkney provided a natural building stone for early settlers. Other resources included fertile soils, abundant fresh water, a range of local mammals such as boar and red deer, and, initially, vegetation. Research indicates that woodland was commonplace at the time of the earliest inhabitants of Orkney. The early landscape included open grassland as well as trees; there was hazel, birch and willow, and heath lands on the higher hills and moors.

Orkney only took on its windswept, treeless aspect with the arrival of the Neolithic farmers 6,000 years ago. They cleared land for fields and grazing and inadvertently opened clearings to the impact of the wind. It is very difficult to regenerate woodland in Orkney once tree cover lessens. Some animals, such as foxes, are not present today, and may never have been found here, but the farmers bought their own stock. Domestic cattle, sheep and pigs flourished.

Prior to the farmers, Orkney was inhabited by groups of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers; communities which led a mobile lifestyle and harvested what they needed to survive from the land. It is likely that the first inhabitants of Orkney were displaced peoples, the descendants of those who, at the height of the last Ice Age, had inhabited Doggerland (a landmass on the site of what is now the North Sea). As conditions in Doggerland deteriorated, it became too wet to support the herds and traditional way of life of those who hunted them. So both animals and people scattered and moved away. In time some arrived in Orkney, using skin or timber craft to cross the narrow waters of the Pentland Firth. They bought their old ways and tools with them, and it is interesting that recent excavations on Mesolithic sites at Links House in Stronsay and Long Howe in Tankerness have demonstrated clear similarities between the stone tools used in Orkney and those used by some of the earliest settlers in Scandinavia. Both groups may have a shared ancestry in Doggerland and the northern European Plain.

The Mesolithic population of Orkney is likely to have been small, perhaps only a few families, and we do not know whether they spent the whole year here. It is quite possible that they also travelled around the northern parts of mainland Scotland. Communities were fluid: at times a family group might live together; at other times they separated to exploit different environmental niches in different places. Occasionally, larger groups gathered, to exchange resources, gossip and partners. The Mesolithic lifestyle was well adapted to mobility. Shelters were made of local materials such as hides and timber, easy to pack up and move on. Tools and goods were portable, and boats are likely to have played an important role. Much of the material culture was made from organic items such as wood, skins, grasses, bone and shell, so that little has survived. In Orkney the archaeological invisibility of the Mesolithic has been compounded by the rise in sea levels and the submergence of the coastal lands where they tended to settle and roam. The Mesolithic settlers of Orkney did not build permanent monuments; they had a close relationship with the natural world within which they lived. Orkney had plenty to offer, though there is little trace of their passing. In most cases, an assemblage of stone tools, collected from the fields during ploughing, provides the only hint of a way of life that lasted for several millennia.

The arrival of the first Neolithic farmers brings one of the greatest mysteries. What happened to the hunters who had lived here for so many years before? Did they take on the new ways and just abandon their old lifestyle? Such wholesale change seems unlikely. The islands provided a finite resource, and one which was dwindling as sea levels rose. This was a time of great stress for the Mesolithic population as new peoples with very different ways took over and their traditional homelands disappeared.  


Neolithic Settlers (4000 - 2450 BC)


The arrival of new settlers 6,000 years ago heralded a dramatic change for Orkney. We don’t know how many people were involved, but in their boats they brought animals: domestic cattle and sheep, together with seed corn and a completely new suite of tools and goods. These people were farmers and they quickly settled among the fertile hills and sandy bays of Orkney. With the arrival of farming, the face of Orkney changed. The woodland was gradually cleared and herds and crops thrived. Permanent homesteads appeared, together with fields, boundaries and trackways. In time great stone monuments were erected as markers across the landscape. The earliest Neolithic farmers used timber to erect small permanent dwellings. Timber homesteads have been excavated at Ha’Breck on Wyre, and Wideford on the Mainland. In time, as timber grew scarce, building techniques were adapted to use stone. The local Orkney sandstone fractures naturally into slabs that are ideal for the construction of walling, slabbed floors, and even furniture. Stone buildings from the Early Neolithic have been excavated at Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, Green on Eday, and Stonehall on Mainland. Later on in the Neolithic, villages developed. There are several Neolithic village sites across Orkney, including Pool on Sanday, Rinyo on Rousay, Links of Noltland on Westray and, of course, Skara Brae and Barnhouse on Mainland.

Individual villages may have been home to as many as 80–100 people and there has been some debate as to whether village communities were the norm across Neolithic Britain. There is little evidence for village settlements elsewhere, but few places have such good preservation as Orkney. In most areas timber remains have long since disappeared. Recent findings of a settlement of timber dwellings at Durrington Walls in the south of England suggest that larger communities may not be as rare as once supposed. The houses of Neolithic Orkney are striking in their uniformity. Wherever they lived, it appears that the Neolithic farmers had a clear idea of what a home should be. The earlier houses are long ovoid buildings, divided internally into two or three sections, with a central hearth and furnishings such as beds and cupboards. Later houses are more squat in shape, with a central hearth and stone built beds. A dresser lay at the far end of the room, and other furnishings included watertight pits and storage areas. Small cells led off the central area, some of which were used as internal latrines.

The uniformity of house design suggests a conservative, essentially egalitarian society that conformed to strict ideals. Nevertheless, there are indications that the picture was not so simple and it is important not to forget the ways in which people express themselves through decoration and detail. At Skara Brae the houses were designed to be locked from the inside, suggesting a need for personal space and privacy, while the construction and use of large stone monuments and ceremonial sites suggests the existence of some form of burgeoning social or political hierarchy. The everyday goods of the farmers were quite different from those of the Mesolithic hunters. They included new objects and styles; fashion had changed. New tools, for different tasks, were made of stone, bone and antler, as well as wood. New materials included the use of clay to make pottery which was often highly decorated. The earliest pots have round bases and are known today as Unstan Ware after a prominent Early Neolithic site. Later Neolithic pottery was flat based and often bucket shaped, it was highly decorated and today we call it Grooved Ware. In addition to the utilitarian needs of daily life, jewellery has been found in large quantity, often made of fine bone and including beads and polished pins with ornate heads. There are suggestions of an aesthetic side to life in the use of colour. Small pots containing pigment made of haematite and ochre were found at Skara Brae, and at Ness of Brodgar and Links of Noltland pigment was applied to parts of the walling. The settlement sites are usually associated with midden deposits: household rubbish which was carefully managed and used in building and farming work. Today the midden is a rich source of information; analysis of animal bones sheds light on dietary habits, organic materials help us to understand the environment, information on certain plants and fungi used for medicinal purposes has been preserved.


Neolithic Burials


As the new farmers became established in Orkney they began to build great monuments which served as markers in the landscape. Massive tombs, with a central stone chamber reached by a short passage and covered with layers of clay and turf, were used to inter the bones of the ancestors and create a sense of place for each community. The early Neolithic tombs were divided internally  As the new farmers became established in Orkney they began to build great monuments which served as markers in the landscape. Massive tombs, with a central stone chamber reached by a short passage and covered with layers of clay and turf, were used to inter the bones of the ancestors and create a sense of place for each community.

The early Neolithic tombs were divided internally by upright stone slabs, perhaps mimicking the division of space inside a house. They vary greatly in size, from the majestic remains of Midhowe on Rousay, to the small mound at Unstan in Mainland. Some incorporated intricate patterning in their masonry: these sites were intended to impress. Later tombs comprise a series of smaller cells leading off a central chamber. It has been suggested that the differences in style of the tombs reflect the more general differences in domestic architecture of the time and that the tombs should be regarded as ‘houses for the dead’. We can never know the precise meaning behind these sites, but they were clearly used as much by the living as by the deceased. They could be entered repeatedly, and, in some cases, it was possible to seal the entrance from the inside. The interior space could accommodate several living people, and the repository of ancestral bones is likely to have been only part of their function. These sites were a focus for community activity, though access may have been restricted to a privileged few, while most people congregated outside. Contrary to popular excarnation myths, the complete body of the deceased were taken into the tombs and placed in a foetal position on their sides, known as a crouched burial. Subsequently the bones were sometimes moved after the flesh had rotted away naturally, it is unclear whether this was to allow further burials to be inserted or was part of funerary rituals.

The transformation from cadaver to skeleton may have been considered highly symbolic, representing preservation of the essential spirit of the ancestors, who would then become objects of reverence for the future. Analysis suggests that not everyone was buried in a tomb, begging the questions of where the rest of the population was laid to rest and on what grounds the selection was made. Detailed examination of the bones from the tombs of Isbister and Quanterness suggests that many of those interred had suffered from debilitating diseases such as scurvy, though this may not have been an average sector of society.  The prevalence of scurvy in the bones from the tomb at Isbister seems surprising. Nevertheless, isotope analysis of Neolithic skeletons across Britain suggests that at this time there was a dramatic change in diet as people switched from eating marine food such as fish and seal meat, to a predominantly terrestrial diet based on cattle and sheep. Add to this the reduction of wild plant foods in favour of home-grown grain such as barley and the result is a considerable loss of vitamin C from the diet. Scurvy may simply be the result of the Neolithic farmers not eating their greens!  


Neolithic Ceremonial Sites


As the farming communities became established, so new types of site appeared. In addition to the great stone tombs, people were building ceremonial sites, of which the best known in Orkney are also the earliest, and most important. Circular ditches, defined by an external earthen bank and enclosing wide platforms, were dug along the narrow spit of land that stretched between the marshy open waters of the area now known as Brodgar and Stenness. These sites are known as henges and they represent a considerable investment of communal time and effort, probably the coming together of Neolithic communities from right across Orkney. The best known of the henge sites are the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, but it is possible that the circular feature surrounding the tomb of Maeshowe also started life as a henge, and there is another henge to the north at the Ring of Bookan. Together these sites make up the ceremonial heartland of Neolithic Orkney. It is striking that no other henge sites are known in Orkney, suggesting that this area was particularly important for farming communities from right across the isles. With time, the henges at Brodgar and Stenness were embellished by the addition of standing stones. Today these form great circles that mimic the rounded form of the henges but it is possible that the circle was less important than the actual act of bringing and raising the stones. The stone circles are impressive monuments today, but we see them only in their ultimate form; they underwent many years of activity before they reached this stage and their final, ‘finished’ appearance may be misleading. The precise function of henge sites remains unknown, but they seem to have served as centres, probably used for many different activities, just as we use our communal spaces (churches, theatres, leisure centres) for a variety of different occasions. It is possible that at certain times access to the interior was restricted; the use of fire and smoke inside the closely spaced stones would have been quite magical to those watching from outside, especially if combined with music, colour and dance. The ditch and bank helped to demarcate the heart of the site, while at the same time the bank might aid viewing. At other times activities might have been quieter and involve fewer members of the community. The limitations to our understanding of sites like these have been highlighted by the discovery of a new site in close proximity to the others.


The Ness of Brodgar


The excavation at the Ness of Brodgar have been attracting a lot of attention recently - you may have seen television coverage of the site, with TV presenter Neil Oliver. The Ness of Brodgar is also featured in a major ne three-part BBC documentary to air in January 2017, called Operation Orkney. This will again be presented by Neil Oliver and naturalist Chris Packham. The site is sometimes referred to as 'Orkney's Neolithic cathedral' or simply 'Orkney's stone age temple'. In addition to lots of press coverage from previous years - Current Archaeology, British Archaeology etc, in August 2014 the Ness of Brodgar and Orkney had a major feature (and was the cover story!) in the  National Geographic magazine.

The site at Ness of Brodgar was clearly an integral part of the ceremonial complex, but it lay invisible until work by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) started to reveal its complexities in 2002. Ness of Brodgar represents a previously unknown type of site; it comprises a number of monumental stone buildings apparently enclosed by broad stone walls. The site is striking not just for the size and grandeur of its conception, but also for the way in which it underwent repeated re-modelling. Activity at the Ness of Brodgar seems to have taken place over a thousand years, from 3300 BC, and represents a considerable input of design and organisation. It is perhaps shocking to realise that the stone circles may only represent the visible part of sites that were originally much larger and more complex. The remains of Neolithic Orkney are outstanding and for the visitor they evoke a strong sense of the sophistication of life in the past.  


World Heritage Orkney


In 1999 the area encompassing Skara Brae, Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness was designated as The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, also incorporating the Watch Stone and the Barnhouse Stone. World Heritage status is a tremendous accolade, afforded to very few sites worldwide. There are five World Heritage Sites in Scotland, and 22 others throughout the UK. In Orkney, World Heritage designation has sparked a detailed programme of research as we seek to find out more about these sites and the wider society of which they were part.  


Copper Age/Bronze Age Orkney (2450 - 800BC)


The introduction of a new material – metal in the form of copper, then bronze – leads us to name this period the Bronze Age, though in reality metal objects impacted little on local farmers. Copper and bronze goods were initially scarce in Orkney, but there were other changes afoot. Village settlements seem to have been abandoned in favour of scattered farmsteads. There were new pottery types and new styles of stone tools. Craft skills developed and values in society shifted from the communal towards the individual. There also seems to have been a change in belief and ceremony. Many ceremonial sites were remodelled and there was a shift away from the heartland at Brodgar. Many of the communal chambered tombs were closed, while individual burials became common. Most comprised small circular settings known as barrows, but occasionally large mounds were raised, such as those by the Ring of Brodgar.

Scattered around Orkney are burnt mounds, small stone structures with mounds of burnt stone, usually incorporating fresh water. Some were domestic dwellings; others were specialised and have been interpreted as sweat lodges or saunas. Some may have been feasting places. By the 1st millennium BC, metal objects were more commonplace and included pieces made of iron. This facilitated the rising importance of individuals and increasing social stratification.


Iron Age Orkney (800BC - 800AD)


In Iron Age Orkney, villages once again became the norm, often clustered around a prominent circular tower, known today as a broch. Brochs were built of local stone and represent a remarkable architectural achievement; some still survive to a considerable height. Broch villages made a clear statement about the wealth and resources of a community. The Iron Age was a time of conspicuous wealth and this is also reflected in smaller objects. Fine metal jewellery has been found as well as weaponry and there is evidence for local metalworking. Increasing uncertainty is reflected in the rise of defended settlements such as brochs, crannogs or island dwellings, and promontory forts.

Underground chambers known as earth houses, or souterrains, date from this time, and are found across Orkney and may have been used primarily for ritual purposes.


The Picts


Pictish villages and farmsteads have been recorded, consisting of cellular stone-built houses divided into individual rooms. Communities focused on farming, but there was a strong social hierarchy: local aristocracies were able to accumulate considerable wealth. Fine metalwork has been recovered, including both weaponry and ornaments, and illustration shows elaborate styles of dress. For the first time Orkney identified with a wider nation: the Pictish domain extended as far south as Fife and comprised many strongholds, each offering allegiance to local kings. In the 8th century, Christianity first came to Orkney. The Picts are known for their striking artwork. Several Pictish symbol stones have been found in Orkney.


The Norse Earls (AD 900–1050)  


The late 8th century AD brought newcomers to Orkney. The arrival of the Norse heralded considerable change and would have a lasting impact. By AD 900 there were Norse earls of Orkney whose allegiance lay in Norway, while their influence extended south to the Scottish mainland and west to the Hebrides. With its sheltered harbours and fertile fields, Orkney was well placed at the heart of a great seafaring nation. The precise interaction between the Norse and the local Picts has been much debated and it is striking how little Pictish culture survived into the Norse period. House types changed, Pictish art was no longer produced, people abandoned Christianity for older traditions, a new language was adopted and a new administrative system and local taxes initiated. It has been suggested that the local population may have been enslaved, as an alternative to wholesale massacre. Dwellings were long and spacious, built of stone foundations with turf walls and roofs. Internal fittings included central hearths, flanked by benches and platforms. Animals were kept in byres, and on higher-status sites subsidiary buildings housed separate cookhouses and saunas. Many Norsemen were farmers, living in scattered steadings, but one or two larger settlements developed. In Birsay there are remains of a large and wealthy settlement and it is recorded as a political centre before power shifted east to Kirkwall and St. Magnus’ Cathedral.

The ancient chambered tomb of Maeshowe was entered by the Vikings. They left an interesting legacy of graffiti on the stone walls: ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women’ ‘These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean’ ‘To the north-west is a great treasure hidden’  


The Sagas


The Icelandic sagas provide an important source of information about the Norse period, useful both for their account of events and for the remarkable detail of everyday life and concerns. Of particular interest with regard to Orkney is the Orkneyinga Saga, compiled in the late 12th century from earlier accounts and focusing on political history. Many of the locations mentioned in the saga may still be recognised; some still bear the same names. For the archaeologist it provides a rare chance to populate the excavation sites, and even name and describe some of the folk who lived here.


Heart of Neolithic Orkney sites


Skara Brae


Skara Brae was first discovered in 1850 when a great storm blew away the sand that had lain over it and from the start it was recognised as something special. The village comprised a group of dwellings set back from the sea and surrounded by farmland. The houses were built from a double skin of stone, with midden (decomposed refuse) packed into the cavity to provide stability and insulation. The doorways open to a central passageway that was roofed over with stone slabs. This passage served to allow movement about the settlement without going outside. Each house comprised a single room, about 6m by 6m, divided into separate zones. At the centre lay the hearth. On the wall opposite the door stood a stone dresser. To either side there were stone beds and other furnishings. Beside the dresser there were small, watertight troughs that may have been used to keep food or bait fresh. The roof may have been supported using timbers from driftwood (more abundant than today), or perhaps whalebone. Within the walls of each house lay one or more small cells. These were probably used for storage, but some had drains, suggesting that they were latrines.

In addition to stone tools of flint and chert, the inhabitants made and used clay pottery. Their pots were flat-bottomed and varied in size from tiny pinch pots to great bucket-like containers. Many were highly decorated – a style of pottery known as Grooved Ware. The people who lived here also used tools of bone and antler. The occupants were probably families, perhaps combining three or more generations. Dwelling in a single room seems a difficult concept today, but there are ways to make it work. Farmland surrounded the village and provided grazing for livestock: cattle; sheep and pigs. Crops were grown, & the residents fished, collected shellfish and trapped sea birds. Red deer were hunted, and wild plants gathered. Many examples of art have been found around the settlement. Most comprise finely incised lines on the stonework, some are pecked. The motifs are geometric and also occur on pottery and bone work. While their original meaning is lost, it is clear that these designs were recognisable and meaningful to the villagers. Skara Brae was inhabited for some 600 years between 3100 BC and 2500 BC. During this time coastal erosion bought the sea gradually closer and salt spray and wind began to affect the farmlands.


The Stones of Stenness


The Stones of Stenness probably represent some of the earliest activity on the Brodgar peninsula, at the epicentre of Neolithic Orkney. Radiocarbon dating indicates that work on the monument had started by 3100 BC. At this time the settlement at Barnhouse was well established and the ceremonial site at the Ness of Brodgar was under construction. This was originally the site of a henge: a level, circular platform surrounded by a ditch with an external bank, inside the ditch were twelve huge standing stones. Even without the standing stones it was an impressive monument, with a ditch that was over 2m deep and 7m wide.


The Ring of Brodgar


This is a classic henge site, with a ditch surrounding the platform, and an outer bank. Twenty-seven of 60 possible standing stones survive, set around the circumference. The henge is 104m in diameter, the ditch is cut into bedrock, over 3m deep and 10m wide. There are two opposed entrances, with causeways across the ditch. The original nature of the ring remains obscure. To the south-east stands a single monolith, the Comet Stone. This may have been part of a larger setting and it reminds us that the ring is itself part of a greater complex of sites along the peninsula. There were many burials focused around the site during the Neolithic and into the Bronze Age. The four largest: Plumcake Knowe, Fresh Knowe, South Knowe and Salt Knowe were dug into long ago.


The Ness of Brodgar - Orkney's Neolithic Cathedral, aka Orkney's Stone Age Temple


Although only recently discovered and partly excavated, this ceremonial complex is among the most exciting discoveries of recent years, and may yet prove to be the most important monument in the whole Neolithic landscape. Until 2002, the existence of the Ness of Brodgar was completely unknown. The first hints occurred when geophysics revealed a series of strong anomalies indicative of prehistoric activity. This was confirmed the following year when a stone slab was pulled to the field surface by a plough. The scale of the site was not revealed until 2004. Further excavation has since revealed a complex of stone buildings, in use at least between 3200 BC and 2200 BC. To the north, it was separated from the Ring of Brodgar by a wide wall. The structures lying within the complex include several oval buildings, each divided into paired angular segments. Alongside these, and partially overlying one of them, stood a massive ceremonial hall, Structure 10. The hall is over 25m long by 20m wide. A rectangular outer wall, up to 5m wide in places, enclosed a rounded interior structure with an internal hearth, bays and fittings. To the south stood another massive stone wall, apparently bounding the land towards the Stones of Stenness. The stonework at Ness of Brodgar is finely worked. Considerable skill clearly went into design and construction, and there are indications of frequent alteration and rebuilding. The complex was certainly of the highest status – and smaller details have confirmed this. An unusually high number of incised stone slabs were found and there have also been examples of pecked art. Excitingly, traces of colour, probably from haematite and ochre, have survived on some of the stones. Elsewhere, stones of different colours were combined for effect. Within Structure 8, deposits of finely split slabs suggested the use of roof slates. The smaller finds all point to the status of the site; they include sherds from finely decorated pots, small stone axes, maceheads, objects made from whalebone and deposits of cattle bone, perhaps from ceremony or feasting. The excavations have only touched the tip of the iceberg; geophysics indicates a considerable depth and complexity of remains here. This, perhaps more than anywhere, was the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.




Maeshowe chambered tomb stands on a circular platform, surrounded by a ditch and an external bank. The tomb is thought to have been in use around 2700 BC, though work may have started around 3000 BC. At its heart stands the great chamber, built of local flagstone. The entrance passage is about 7m long and about a metre high; it restricts access in a way that contrasts sharply with the chamber beyond. At the entrance, a triangular stone is set into a niche in the wall; this could be drawn forward to block the passage. The passage is lined with great stone slabs running almost its full length, which would have required skilled engineering to set into place. The central chamber is 3.8m high; originally it would have been a little higher. Apart from the entrance wall, each of the walls is pierced by a single side cell. The cell walls are built of the same dressed stone as the central chamber, but their floors and roofs are formed of massive single slabs, not unlike the side walls of the passage. Above all is the turf-covered mound. Maeshowe would have been a dominant landmark in the Neolithic landscape. It seems to have been the only tomb built on this scale, suggesting that it played a pivotal role in Neolithic Orkney. The proximity of Maeshowe to the other monuments along the Brodgar peninsula suggests that it formed part of the great central complex of Neolithic Orkney.


The Knowe of Swandro in Rousay, the focus of the work of the Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust, has the potential to be an undisturbed Maeshowe type tomb.The Trust is racing against the Atlantic Ocean to excavate this site in advance of its total destruction.

These links will take you to a summary of each year's Knowe of Swandro excavation results


2010 DIG    2011 DIG 

2012 DIG    2013 DIG

2014 DIG    2015 DIG

2016 DIG    2017 DIG

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