Taversoe Tuick Tomb

Our chambered tomb at Swandro is, like most of Orkney's chambered tombs, only built on one level. Not far from Swandro there is however a very unusual two storey tomb at Taversoe Tuick, which was reused in the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age aspects tend to get overlooked, but the following discussion is extracted with permission from a recent PhD thesis (for the full thesis see: https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/28679) References are at the bottom and most of the papers can be freely downloaded at the links given there.

Taversoe Tuick, Rousay is a two storied Neolithic tomb that was first excavated by the landowner after its chance discovery in 1898, and then re-excavated in 1937 preparatory to its consolidation for public display (Grant 1939; Reynolds 1985; Turner 1903). The lower chamber is partly rock-cut into the hillside and has its own entrance; the slab roof of the lower chamber partly supports the upper.

Taversoe Tuick tomb showing the lower entrance
Taversoe Tuick tomb showing the lower entrance

The 1898 excavation found crouched burials and Unstan Ware Neolithic pottery in the lower chamber; the inhumations are now lost (ibid; Davidson & Henshall 1989, 163). The lower passageway is partially blocked by a large stone 0.30m high, which is bonded into the side walls forming a low threshold; between the external entrance to the lower passageway and this threshold stone were found at least two cremations under inverted urns; on the inner (chamber) side of this stone three further heaps of unburnt human bone were identified.

Unfortunately all of these deposits are also now lost (Davidson & Henshall 1989, 161-63; Reynolds 1985, 122; Turner 1903, 77).

The upper chamber contained three cists set c.30cm above its floor on a layer of earth, each containing cremations, probably within clay urns (Reynolds 1985; Turner 1903). Portions of these cremations survive and have been dated to 2130 – 1740 cal BC (Sheridan 2003). The entrance passageway to the upper chamber was blocked at the time of its discovery; when this blocking was removed 35 stone disc beads and a pumice ‘pendant’ were found near the outer end of the passageway c.0.30m above the floor (Grant 1939, plate LXVI). These disc beads find parallels in the Early Bronze Age.

Upper chamber at Taversoe Tuick now, originally there was no access to the lower chamber from the upper
Upper chamber at Taversoe Tuick now, originally there was no access to the lower chamber from the upper

It is thus clear, despite the subsequent attrition of the record, that there was major Bronze Age activity at Taversoe Tuick. What appears to have been overlooked in Grant’s (1939) excavation report is the full extent of the remodelling that is described there. Grant noted a spread of cairn material outside the walls of the upper chamber and that:

A curious alley, clear of stones, and roughly bordered with boulders (not building slabs) leads though the stony area to the cairn’s wall (ibid, 158).

This ‘curious alley’ shows very clearly in the excavation photographs, as does the cairn material (ibid, plates LXIII & LXIV). The cairn material was subsequently ignored: Grant appears to have considered it as nothing more than a natural collapse of the tomb. It appears from the photographs and plans (ibid) however that major remodelling took place at Taversoe Tuick during the Early Bronze Age, including:

  • Partial filling of the upper chamber during its use, or intentional backfilling later at the end of its primary use, with a layer of earth.

  • Secondary construction of cists inside the upper chamber 2130 – 1740 cal BC.

  • Blocking of upper passageway and deposition of the discs beads and pumice pendant.

  • Destruction and levelling of the upper chamber sealing the cists.

  • Remodelling of cairn material into a kerb (?) barrow.

  • Insertion of cremations under inverted urns in the outer part of the lower passageway.

Taversoe Tuick thus underwent complete modification from Neolithic chambered tomb to Bronze Age burial place in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium cal BC, and it appears likely that its upper chamber was still accessible until this date; and the lower chamber passage at least.

Lower chamber at Taversoe Tuick tomb
Lower chamber at Taversoe Tuick tomb

The threshold stone in the lower passageway, built as part of the original passageway construction, may have been part of a barrier to prevent e.g. animal ingress into the lower chamber during its primary use in the Neolithic. (There was no evidence for gnaw marks on the human bones at Isbister (Lawrence 2006) implying a barrier to prevent at least canine access to the tomb).

The outer entrance to the lower passageway was subsequently covered by accumulated overburden but it is clear from the original description (Reynolds 1985; Turner 1903, 76-7) that the passageway itself had not been filled in; both the heaps of unburnt bone and the inverted cremation urns in the lower passageway were clearly visible when the tomb was first opened. The unburnt bone may have been a post-Neolithic addition to the tomb, as were the cremations; absolute dating has been rendered impossible by their loss. It appears then that the lower passageway, remaining accessible, was in effect functionally akin to a reusable cist during (probably) the Early Bronze Age.


Davidson, J L & Henshall, A S 1989 The Chambered Cairns of Orkney, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Grant, W G 1939 Excavations on behalf of H.M. Office of Works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 73, 155 – 66

Lawrence, D 2006 Neolithic mortuary practice in Orkney Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 47 – 60

Reynolds, D M 1985 ‘How we found a tumulus’ a story of the Orkney Islands – the Journal of Lady Burroughs, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 115 – 125

Sheridan, A 2003 The National Museums of Scotland Radiocarbon Dating Programmes: Results obtained during 2002/3 Discovery and Excavation in Scotland New Series Vol 4, Council for Scottish Archaeology, 167 – 9

Turner, W 1903 An Account of a Chambered Cairn and Cremation Cists at Taversoe Tuick, near Trumland House, in the Island of Rousay, Orkney, excavated by Lieutenant-General Traill Burroughs, C. B. of Rousay, in 1898, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 37, 73 – 82