Lost Rowiegar bones recovered

A box of lost Stone Age human remains from Orkney has been discovered in an Aberdeen museum.

The bones, from the 1937 excavation of the Howe o’ Rowiegar, a chambereed cairn in Rousay, were sent to Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum shortly after the completion of the site investigations.

But the ensuing years saw an number of bones in the collection separated, and some mislaid. Their whereabouts remained a mystery until recently, when medical physicist and archaeological enthusiast, Meg Hutchinson, took steps to gather together all the scattered artefacts. As a result, she has now been able to create a plan of the stalled cairn, showing, as near as possible from the notes made at the time of excavation, how the bones were found arranged in the structure.

Their rediscovery will allow the bones to be carbon dated, giving an idea of their age, and therefore the time period in which they were interred in the tomb. Modern forensic tests, such as tooth enamel analysis, will also be able to show whether the remains were from folk who grew up and died in Rousay, or had come from further afield.

This is particularly interesting given the idea that human remains in the Neolithic may have been ritually moved from cairn to cairn, perhaps area to area.

An intriguing aspect of the rediscovery is that all the skulls appear to have been deliberately smashed.

Although this could be as a result of a later Iron Age incursion into the cairn, which saw the construction of an earth house, it remains possible that the destruction of an individual’s skull was part of the Neolithic funerary rite – perhaps akin to freeing the spirit, or soul.

Unfortunately, however, there have been no examples of similar practices found at other cairns in Orkney. Therefore, the significance, if any, remains unclear.

Other Orkney remains held by the Marischal Museum include a skull from Lairo in Rousay, three skulls from the Knowe of Yarso as well as Sanday, West Puldrite in Rendall, and Newark in South Ronaldsay.

County archaeologist, Julie Gibson said: “Meg Hutchinson really has to be congratulated for her efforts. Her dedicated persistence in the pursuit of these bones, tracking them on their various journeys through the years, has really paid off.”