“Unique” Bronze Age burial site unearthed in St Ola field

Picture: Frank Bradford

The burial site, showing the central cist, still covered by a stone slab. The paved are and, immediately in front of the cist, the cobbled stonework.

Given the frequency and number of discoveries of Bronze Age cist burials, there is a real danger of taking them for granted.

I almost did this myself this week, upon hearing of another unearthed in St Ola. But on visiting the site, I witnessed a beautiful little monument that showed a more personal side to Bronze Age life in Orkney.

Archaeologists were alerted to the site after a rare, square pot was found during ploughing in a field at Quanterness, St Ola. The pot fragments were , alongside an area of cremated human remains.

The find resulted in an excavation by the Orkney Archaeological Trust, in conjunction with the University of Manchester, which revealed a beautifully constructed stone burial cist, surrounded by an ornate paved and cobbled area. And it seems likely that it is just one of a number on the ness.

In a field overlooking the sea towards Rendall, there are a number of other areas of scattered stone, which could be similar funerary constructions, marking the site as a Bronze Age cemetery on the outskirts of the prehistoric settlement at Crossiecrown.

Documenting the site was Dr Colin Richards, a well-known visitor to Orkney, who expressed his delight at the find.

“It really has been great to be working with this. I was actually only up here to do a bit of writing and take for photographs for a forthcoming book. But this is just so great; I’m just so pleased to have been involved. It’s truly lovely and is honestly really like nothing a lot of us have ever seen here before.

“This is one of those occasions where we really have the farmer, in this case, Scott Harcus, to thank for this,” he added. “Scott has very kindly let us disrupt his farm work by carrying out this excavation in his newly-sown field.”

He said: “What we seem to have is a cemetery site that is directly related to the nearby Crossiecrown settlement.

“The burials here probably represent the period towards the end of the village’s life, perhaps around 1700BC.”

Picture: Frank Bradford/59 Degrees North

Another view of the cist burial.

“The site itself is a central cist burial,” said Dr Richards. “This was probably covered by a small cairn, perhaps with more pebbles or stones placed on top, but nothing too big. The cairn was then surrounded by a paved area, which incorporated areas of cobbling using stones from the shore.”

Surrounding the entire paved area was a stone kerb, low wall or bank, the outside of which appears to have been paved too.

The work that went into creating the little funerary monument is clear – the decoration clearly showing a reverence for the person whose remains were buried within.

Incorporated, or perhaps abandoned, in the lower stonework of the kerb was a stone ard, an agricultural implement often found associated with other Bronze Age burials. The significance of the ard, in this context, is not fully understood. Given its role as a means of digging furrows for the sowing of seed, the implement may represent fertility, or rebirth.

Dr Richards explained how the latest discovery fitted into the prehistoric land use of the area.

“We know that Crossiecrown was founded very early on in the Neolithic period because we have Unstan Ware, a type of early pottery, which shows it was started about the same time as the nearby Wideford and Stonehall settlements.

“Around about 3,000BC, they built the Quanterness chambered cairn, which was sporadically used over 300 or 400 years. The last burial in the Quanterness cairn was an individual — the grave of one person cut into the top of the cairn. This dated from approximately 2,600BC.”

Over the centuries, the chambered cairns, and the practice of communal burial, fell out of fashion. By the Bronze Age (1800BC – 600BC) the practice of individual cremations became more prevalent. With this change, the importance placed on the individual, and possibly their place within society, became more important.

At Quanterness, this is reflected in the elaborate care taken in creating the “ornamental” grave setting and seems to show that they were perhaps starting to commemorate individuals.

But although it is known that the dead of the period were being cremated, there has been no sign of a cremation pyre in the vicinity of Crossiecrown or Quanterness yet.

One intriguing factor is the cist’s locations. Whereas the earlier chambered cairns, in their elevated positions above all three settlements, were meant to be viewed from the land, Dr Richards suggested that the Bronze Age barrows were meant to be seen from the sea.

Now that the exploratory excavation is complete, the site will be covered over again.

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