Archaeologists’ delight as Minehowe gives up more of its secrets

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The skull of the Minehowe skeleton. At the bottom of the picture, on the chest, is the fragment of deer skull/antler, with the six distinctive drill marks clearly visible.

A rare Iron Age burial is causing great excitement among the experts working at Minehowe — and, as usual, has raised more questions about life around the Iron Age site.

Archaeologists returned to the Tankerness site last week and, by Monday, had discovered a complete human skeleton, buried in the floor of the metalworking structure outside Minehowe’s circular ditch.

This “workshop” has been the focus of excavations for the past few years and work was due to finish this year.

As work continued on the site, among the expected metalworking artefacts, such as crucibles, the diggers chanced upon a damaged skull.

At first it was thought that the fragments were merely the latest in a series of disarticulated bones already found on site.

But, as the meticulous excavation progressed, the outline of a complete skeleton, thought to date from the third to fifth century AD, became apparent.

Just over 5ft long, the complete skeleton had been completely revealed by Wednesday morning.

Two decorative, bronze toe-rings were found on the feet, while a piece of deer skull/antler, drilled with six holes, lay on the chest.

“This really is an incredible discovery,” explained Jane Downes, from Orkney College.

“It’s so rare to find Iron Age burials in Scotland, let alone Orkney.”

Picture Sigurd Towrie

The Minehowe skeleton revealed.

She explained that the rubble covering the grave had broken the skull, but otherwise the burial is in remarkable condition.

The body was interred on its back, with arms by the side, some time after the initial construction of the structure. After the burial, use of the building continued, presumably as normal.

Why the corpse was buried in the floor, and the significance of this act remains a mystery.

Fragmented human and animal remains have been found buried in the floors of earlier Iron Age structures elsewhere in Scotland, and given the “magical” connotations surrounding metalworking — in particular the slightly dangerous process of converting the stone and ore into metal and art — could the Minehowe burial have had a “magical” purpose?

Was the individual interred beneath the metalworkers’ feet perhaps protecting the structure or watching over the proceedings within?

It will take a full examination before the sex of the body can be determined, although it is suspected the remains belonged to a female in her late teens or early 20s.

Modern forensic archaeological techniques could also provide archaeologists with a wealth of information about the individual and life in Orkney at the time.

The remains could yield information such as the cause of death, the individual’s medical history and diet, and even whether he or she was from Orkney.

From the condition of the remains it could also be possible to ascertain elements such as whether the individual was a manual worker, and possibly the type of work undertaken.

Nick Card, Orkney Archaeological Trust’s projects manager, said: “This is definitely one of the most significant finds in Orkney in recent years.

“Not only do we have a complete burial, complete with grave goods, from the Iron Age — a time from which human remains are comparatively rare — but the fact it’s associated with the structure is particularly interesting and makes it unique in Orkney.”

Postscript (August 20, 2004): As suspected, preliminary studies of the skeleton recovered from Minehowe have confirmed it belonged to a young woman.

The woman, who was in her late teens or early twenties, also suffered from back problems, said Orkney archaeologist Julie Gibson.

The remains, which had been buried into the floor of a metalworking building on the Tankerness site, have now been transferred to the University of Bradford for further forensic examination.

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