Since we’re not digging at the moment I thought this might be a good time to catch you all up on some of the background to the dig, so that when we come back (hopefully – subject to funding) next July you’ll all be up to speed and ready to dive right in to the regular dig diary.
If we were still on site we wouldn’t be digging today anyway as it’s a Saturday, so if it helps you can pretend we’re still digging but this is our day off – puts me in mind of seeing a Motörhead gig many years ago when they’d just had The Bomber stolen - the inimitable Lemmy announced that even if the Bomber hadn’t been stolen they wouldn’t have been able to get it in as the hall as was too small, so we should just imagine that it was parked up on the lorry outside:
You may need to work with me on this one! Anyway back to the archaeology – as regular readers will know one of the most threatened parts of the site is our Neolithic chambered tomb.
Maeshowe was the first known chambered tomb in Orkney to be ‘excavated’ – or rather howked open by Norsemen in search of treasure. The Orkneyinga Saga records that Earl Harald and his men took shelter from a storm inside Maeshowe (Orkhaugr) at Yuletide 1153 and two men went mad whilst they were there.
The site had presumably been open for a while before this event, but although there’s lots of 12th century runic inscriptions inside including the famous: ‘Jerusalem-travellers broke Orkhaugr. Hlif, the Earl’s housekeeper, carved’ there’s none that tell you what they found apart from general boasting that there was treasure but someone else had got to it first & a nice little carving of a dragon or lion:
Jumping forward a bit, the first recorded excavation of a chambered tomb was at Quanterness just outside Kirkwall, sometime just before 1805, planned and described as a ‘Pict’s House’ (a generic term in the North for any kind if antiquity from broch to settlement to chambered tomb) by George Barry, although he didn’t realise it was a tomb – you would’ve thought the number of burials would’ve given the game away but apparently not.
It’s not a bad illustration though – you can at least tell that it’s a Maeshowe-type tomb, which is likely the same type we’ve got at Swandro, the concentric circular walls at Swandro are a bit of a giveaway but you can’t be sure until we can get in there & dig it. Chambered tomb excavations really got going in the middle of the 19th century with the work of George Petrie and James Farrer but we’ll save that for another day as I’ve got to go & make the tea– watch this space!