Quanterness dig reveals suspected chambered cairn

Suspected chambered cairn in St Ola, Orkney

The remains of the 2.5 metre long entrance passage can be seen in the bottom right of the picture, leading through a thick wall to the central chamber.

An exploratory excavation to study the remains of a suspected chambered cairn drew to a close this week.

The badly-deteriorated structure, at Ramberry, Quanterness, St Ola, lies a few hundred yards from the ornate Bronze Age burial site uncovered a few weeks ago.

The lower courses of the stonework were all that remained, covered in collapsed masonry. Although the rear of the structure has been practically destroyed, enough of the building survived to give an indication of its original layout.

The building was round, but according to Nick Card, of Orkney Archaeological Trust, is of a style not yet encountered.

Nick explained: “It seems to contain elements of both domestic and ritual structures but there is a distinct lack of domestic or ritual debris. It could be that we’re looking a new type of ritual monument.”

Unfortunately, the lack of pottery means the site cannot be dated, although it remains very likely that it was constructed in the Neolithic.

Entrance to the interior of the cairn, which had a diameter of approximately five metres, was by a 2.5 metre long passageway. Like the Isbister cairn in South Ronaldsay – the renowned Tomb of the Eagles – the Ramberry cairn was aligned to the south-east, and the direction of the midwinter sunrise.

This passage, and its alignment, are typical of chambered cairns. A fact that, said Nick Card, together with the lack of domestic waste, suggests the structure had some funerary or ritual function.

Lying by the shore, close to the site of the Neolithic settlement at Crossiecrown, it seems likely that the cairn was part of village life – perhaps one of a number of ritual or ceremonial structures, or repositories for the dead. But there was also a distinct lack of material that could have been related to the structure’s use as a tomb or shrine. There were no human remains, cremated or otherwise, and as mentioned previously, no pottery.

But were these cleared out when the chamber went out of use?

It is possible, as it appears that the structure was deliberately dismantled. Whether this had some ritual significance is not clear, but the redundant building was then left to decay.

It was revisited at some point in the Bronze Age (1800-600BC), when a stone setting was built on the site, which by then had been practically levelled, and an ard – the agricultural tool also found in the nearby barrow burials – deposited.

The purpose of the stone setting, and the insertion of the ard, remains open to speculation.

The excavation was funded by Orkney Archaeological Trust and Historic Scotland. Thanks also go to the Friends of Orkney Archaeological Trust for assistance and the provision of volunteer diggers.

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