The summer of 2000 saw excavations begin on what were soon to become two of Orkney’s most enigmatic archaeological sites.
Now, with the 2004 season of work finished on both, the parallels between the pair seem almost too good to be true. Not only is the Knowe o’ Skea proving to be incredibly significant in terms of Iron Age burial practice, but it could be the key to understanding some of the mysteries of Minehowe.
Led by Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore from Edinburgh-based EASE Archaeology, archaeologists first moved in on the Knowe , a small eroding headland off the south-west tip of Westray , when it became clear it was under threat from severe coastal erosion .
Back then the mound was thought to house a 5,000-year-old Neolithic burial chamber. Human finger and toe bones found scattered across the surface of the mound were thought to be the result of excarnation – a burial rite that saw corpses left outside to decay before the defleshed bones were gathered and transferred to the tomb.
However, subsequent work showed that all was not as originally seemed.
The 2001 excavation revealed a well-preserved angular structure, surrounded by a number of other buildings. From the finds uncovered, including a double-sided comb, weaving sword, spindle whorl and pin, it became clear that the site actually dated from around 700AD – thousands of years later than first thought.
The building was found to have undergone a series of extensive modifications over a considerable period of time – at least 500 years. The walls, carefully constructed from quarried stone, survive to one metre high and are incredibly thick, up to six metres in places.
This thickness was seen to be the result of the building’s exterior face being added to on at least four different occasions, and in relatively quick succession.
From the outside, the building is roughly circular but with a rounded-corner, rectangular interior. Fittings such as Skara Brae type box beds and a central hearth seemed to hint that the structure was simply a house.
But why build a dwelling in such an exposed, remote location?
The distinct lack of domestic items, such as pottery, tools or refuse, also seemed to indicate the structure had a different role.
Not to mention the bodies.
The sheer quantity of human remains found on the knowe leaves us in no doubt that the site is a funerary complex – a cemetery site used for centuries to bury the dead.
A wide range of human burials has been unearthed outside the central structure with over one hundred individuals recovered. Sixty per cent of these burials belonged to very young, or newborn babies.
As well as complete burials, which usually saw the bodies interred on their sides in a foetal position, there are deposits of disarticulated human remains, some of which were deliberately incorporated into walls and floors of the surrounding buildings.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these depositions was the insertion of a human corpse and a cow under the wall of the main monument – which is now seen as some sort of mortuary structure.
However, despite the huge number of remains outside, the interior of the chamber was free from burials, suggesting it was perhaps or seen as holy or sacred – a place reserved for funeral ceremonies.
The bulk of the burials were found with no grave goods, although some had been interred with joints of meat. Collections of shells in some of the infant graves may also have had some significance.
However, visiting the site last Thursday, work was under way carefully excavating the cemetery’s latest body. Painstakingly working on the remains, Orkney College post-graduate student Sean Mullins had already discovered a fine pin by the bones – a pin that was perhaps used to fasten a burial shroud around the tightly crouched corpse.
This seemingly minor discovery turned out to be particularly significant.
The 2004 excavations have shown that the two buildings outside the mortuary structure were metalworking “workshops”, similar to the one investigated at Minehowe. Among the finds in these was a mould for a pin identical to the one recovered from the new grave.
So at the Knowe o’ Skea, just as at Minehowe, there appears to be a clear link between the process of working metal and Iron Age burial rites or conceptions of death.
Given the fact that the archaeological evidence at the Knowe o’ Skea points to intermittent periods of use, were these workshops concerned solely with the manufacture of items relating to death and burial?
Or was metalworking itself somehow related to death. Perhaps in a similar vein to the Minehowe workshop burial discovered this year, three human skulls were found built into the walls of the knowe’s earliest workshop.
But the parallels between Minehowe and the Knowe o’ Skea continue.
Just as the Minehowe metalworking took place in the vicinity of a “stairway into the earth”, in the middle Iron Age, the Knowe o’ Skea mortuary building was modified to incorporate a set of stairs leading to a small interior chamber.
This passage leads to a rough chamber, which, because it served no practical purpose, does not appear to have been a functional addition to the structure.
Although it could simply be that the users were trying to replicate the “look” of a broch, it could be that the stairs, or passage, were ritually significant to the metalworking structure and perhaps the mortuary practices of the Iron Age inhabitants of Berstness.
But aside from the archaeology, perhaps the most exciting element of the excavation is the sheer quantity of human remains, and the information they could yield.
Iron Age burials in Orkney, as well as Scotland, are comparatively rare, so full forensic studies of the remains could reveal a wealth of information on the community who buried their dead on the ness.
As well as details such as age, sex, diet and health, already stimulating discussion on Westray is the apparent physical characteristics of some of the skulls.
With strong, prominent jaws and cleft chins, DNA analysis will reveal if and how the deceased were related and allow a comparison between the genetic makeup of the current Westray population. Isotope analysis will also hopefully reveal whether the Iron Age inhabitants grew up in Orkney.
Studies will also allow the archaeologists to answer some of the questions surrounding the sheer quantity of infant burials on the site. With more than half of the remains found belonging to newborn babies, the question has to be asked whether some form of infanticide was being practised.
Repugnant as this may seem to our modern minds, in fragile communities with limited or finite resources, controlling the population may have been an unfortunate but necessary requirement.
But as Hazel Moore stressed, there could be a less gruesome explanation – the high number of babies could, for example, simply relate to a high level of infant mortality.
Whatever the reason, it is now clear that the Knowe o’ Skea was once regarded as a special, perhaps sacred, site.
Away from the main area of settlement, thought to be around the farm of Langskaill to the north-west, the ness mirrors known Iron Age beliefs that islands, or tidal headlands, were ritually or religiously significant.
As far as the site is concerned there remains the possibility that the Iron Age structures sit on top of an earlier Neolithic chambered cairn.
A number of Bronze Age burials found on site, as well as the fact that another suspected chambered cairn sits on the headland directly opposite, seems to suggest that the Iron Age people of Westray were merely continuing an ancient tradition of disposing of the dead on the ness.
Leaving the knowe in the company of county archaeologist Julie Gibson , it was clear that in terms of Orkney archaeology, the Knowe o’ Skea was, and remains, a very special place.
The Knowe o’ Skea excavation was supported by Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and Orkney Archaeological Trust.