Antiquarian tomb investigations, or let's go howk a mound

Welcome back for Part 2 of our occasional series on the background to the dig – this week: how to dig a chambered tomb the James Farrer way.

James Farrer (MP for South Durham) was an antiquarian very active in Orkney in the mid-19th century, which is to say he was an enthusiastic mound-howker. Nowadays of course you can't just go around hacking holes in unsuspecting mounds on a whim, but back then there was nothing to stop you, all you needed was the landowner's permission and off you went. Sadly, although Farrer was an enthusiastic excavator, this wasn't matched by an enthusiasm for publication, and we have no idea of the final total of mounds he opened without record.

He employed local labourers each summer and selected the biggest and best mounds in a particular district for his attentions, for example in 1861, it was noted that:

'Mr Farrer expressed a desire to open all the larger tumuli in the vicinity of the circle of standing stones'.

His methods were fairly standard – massive excavation trenches across the middle of mounds, retrieve any interesting finds and move on. Most of the reports of Farrer's excavations come from George Petrie, a local antiquarian who did know what he was doing and made some very detailed records of his own and Farrer's excavations, unfortunately if Petrie wasn't there, then Farrer largely didn't bother too much. There are a series of reports from the Name Books of the Ordnance Survey, showing how active Farrer must have been, but not giving much detail, for example:

Linnabreck, Birsay: 'An excavation of these and several other tumuli in the locality was conducted By Mr Farrer MP in 1869; but nothing of interest was discovered in any of them'

Tumulus, NW of Linnabreck: 'An excavation of these was Conducted by Mr Farrer M.P. in 1869 when a Stone Cist was found in the largest. Nothing else of interest was discovered'.

'Nothing of interest discovered' could mean almost anything – there may have been human remains in these mounds since they were likely Bronze Age barrows, but most such burials in Orkney lack grave goods (which is all Farrer was really interested in), hence the 'nothing of interest'.

Farrer's best-known excavation was that at Maeshowe in 1861 which did get more or less published in his little book 'Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe' (which was privately printed and hence not many about, but you can download a free scanned version online). This book includes the best surviving painting of what Maeshowe looked like before it got Farrered, quite different to the rounded shape it now has thanks to its brick and concrete lid:

Maeshowe before excavation in the 19th century

Farrer's men located the entrance passageway but found it blocked with earth and stones and decided the easiest and quickest thing would be to go in through the roof of the chamber, which, as it turned out, had already either collapsed or been destroyed when the Vikings broke into it (see our previous diary entry for more info). We don’t know much about what Farrer found inside the tomb, but he didn't hang about, as he puts it: 'after a few days labour the whole of the rubbish filling the chamber was removed'. He did manage to publish quite a good picture of the inside of the now mostly cleared Maeshowe though:

Interior of Maeshowe after excavation

These days of course we do things rather differently, and it takes a great deal more time, effort and funding to excavate a chambered tomb.