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5000-year-old tomb discovered in Orkney

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an incredibly rare 5000-year-old Neolithic tomb that was largely destroyed without record in the 19th century.

A selection of press images can be found here.

The three-week excavation at Holm, East Mainland, Orkney, directed by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, National Museums Scotland, and Professor Vicki Cummings, Cardiff University, revealed traces of a substantial cairn over 15m in diameter that contains a stone structure accessed through a 7m long passage.

The surviving drystone walls revealed a large sub-rectangular stone chamber lay at the centre of the cairn. This was surrounded by six smaller side cells that once had corbelled stone roofs.

These features allow the tomb to be classed as a ‘Maes Howe-type’ passage grave. Only twelve tombs of this type are known in Orkney, including Maes Howe, Cuween and Quoyness. They are considered the pinnacle of Neolithic engineering in northern Britain.

Most of these tombs survive as upstanding monuments in Orkney, but the Holm tomb was buried beneath a pasture field as it was largely destroyed in the late 18th or early 19th century to supply building stone for a nearby farmhouse.
Further digging in the ruins by the farmer’s son in 1896 revealed traces of walling and located a stone macehead and ball, and eight skeletons. These discoveries were reported in The Orcadian by the local antiquary James Walls Cursiter, who speculated that the site was a ruined tomb.

The rare and unusual nature of the 1896 discoveries prompted the current search for the precise findspot so that the character of the earlier discoveries could be clarified. The current excavation targeting anomalies revealed on a geophysical survey undertaken in 2021.

Despite extensive modern disturbance, fourteen articulated skeletons of men, women and children and further disarticulated remains were located in one stone side cell.

Further human remains and artefacts, including pottery, stone tools and a bone pin, were recovered from the Victorian backfill of the tomb by students from the University of Central Lancashire and local volunteers.

Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark says:

‘Orkney is exceptionally rich in archaeology, but we never expected to find a tomb of this size in a such a small-scale excavation. It’s incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record, but fortunately just enough stonework has survived for us to be able understand the size, form and construction of this tomb.’

Prof. Vicki Cummings says:

‘The preservation of so many human remains in one part of the monument is amazing, especially since the stone has been mostly robbed for building material. It is incredibly rare to find these tomb deposits, even in well-preserved chambered tombs and these remains will enable new insights into all aspects of these peoples’ lives.’

Notes to editors

1. The excavation was part-funded by grants from the Society of Antiquaries of London and Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund, and support from the University of Central Lancashire.

2. The 2021 Geophysical Survey was undertaken by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA)