Search is on for Knowes of Trotty remains

On top of the knowe…

The search is on for a quantity of cremated human remains, first uncovered, almost 150 years ago,  in a Bronze Age burial cist, in Harray.

In 1858, the “proprietor of the farm” opened the largest mound at the Knowes of Trotty, a massive Bronze Age barrow cemetery. thought to date from between 2000BC and 1600BC.

Within the knowe, he discovered a stone cist containing four exquisitely crafted gold discs, along with 27 amber beads and a number of burnt human bones.

Undoubtedly astounded by the gold artefacts, the cremated remains were returned to the cist. In the 19th century, the tiny fragments of bone had no academic value.

But now, with the techniques available to the modern archaeologist, a fragment of cremated bone can allow the burial to be dated. This has prompted the search for the cist in the hope that a firm date can finally be attached to the Knowes.

A report presented to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland a few months after the find stated: “It is probable that a number of beads have been lost among the debris, which got into the grave”.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Working down through the top of the mound, the top of the cist originally opened in 1858 comes into view

Needless to say, it is hoped that these lost beads might also be located.

But this week, Nick Card, projects manager for Orkney Archaeological Trust, explained that the deteriorating condition of the mound was hampering the search.

He said: “We had been looking for the evidence of the original excavation so that we could retrace their steps. But it’s been very difficult because rabbit activity has damaged the mound so badly.”

But perseverance paid off and by Tuesday, the archaeologists had located the 19th century trench and were slowly working their way down to the stone cist. At the time of writing, the cist had not been reached, but a few fragments of bone had been found lying loose in the soil.

Carefully sifting through the soil for potential dating evidence this week was Dr Alison Sheridan of the National Museums of Scotland.

Dr Sheridan is at the forefront of a project to date cremation remains across Scotland. Her presence was an indicator of the significance of the site.

Having just uncovered a tiny bone fragment, unfortunately too small to be analysed, Dr Sheridan explained: “A decent size of bone for dating purposes would be 1.3 grams. This would allow us to attach a date to the cemetery.”

The excavation on the burial mound, thought to have been the first one on the site, has also revealed that a carefully constructed stone “cairn”, which was then covered in earth, had originally covered the burial.

The barrows themselves were built into the top of natural mounds, possibly to enhance the visual effect. On the main burial, the mound had been sculpted and revetted to suit the builders.

An enigmatic building

Picture: 59 Degrees North

The “funerary” building at Trotty. The curving outer walls are clearly visible.

Meanwhile, a short distance away, another trench is trying to shed light on a building to the north of the site.

The discovery of this, in 2002, was unusual, as structures are not commonly found at cemetery sites.

This year’s trench has shown it to be oblong in shape, measured at least 6.80 metres by 3.60 metres, with entrances in the north-east and south-west. The north-east facing entrance looked out directly at the hills.

The different wall constructions showed that there had been at least four phases of occupation, the latest of which included a hearth against the side of the wall.

A large rectangular central hearth was revealed from an earlier phase, surrounded by ash and charcoal that had been cleared out from the fireplace.

Picture: 59 Degrees North

Other interior features included a paved area and suspected drains. But the excavation revealed a scarcity of everyday debris, something that seems to point at a different, and infrequent, use.

Its position and orientation seems particularly significant, explained Orkney College’s Jane Downes, a specialist in Bronze Age funerary custom.

“We’re working very hard to find the shape and form of this building, but we’ve still quite a way to go with this structure to resolve what it was and what it was used for – but it was definitely not a domestic structure. Because of its position in relation to the cemetery we are fairly sure it’s not a normal house.

“We suspect it may have been used by people involved with the cemetery, or those undertaking activities relating to the cemetery and the funerals of the dead.”

Its design and position certainly seems to hint that it played an integral part in the practices and rituals surrounding the handling of the dead in the Bronze Age. The building lies at the north end of an impressive line of double burial mounds.

It remains possible that it was a place where bodies could be laid out prior to cremation, and where those related to the dead may have spent time around the funeral.

According to Jane, Bronze Age houses in the Northern Isles have generally been found to face the south. The Trotty structure is different; the door is towards the north-east, looking uphill and away from the burial mounds. It could instead be said to “symbolically” turn its back on the cemetery or the dead within.

Whatever its use, the structure appears to have been in use for some time, as the archaeologists have found evidence of a number of alterations through its life.

“We can see now that this was a multi-phase building,” explained Jane, “so it was undoubtedly in use for a very long period of time.”

A link between Orkney and Wessex?

Picture: 59 Degrees North

Dr Alison Sheridan, from the National Museums of Scotland, with one of the bone fragments found so far.

Previous surveys of the Knowes o’ Trotty have confirmed that the site was probably made up of 20 barrows – making it, said Jane Downes, one of the biggest Bronze Age cemeteries between Orkney and southern England.

This link between England and Orkney is further strengthened by the fact that the cemetery follows a design found around Stonehenge and artefacts from the Knowes are incredibly similar to finds from Wessex.

The gold disks found in 1858 were made from paper-thin sheets of gold, decorated with concentric circles of zig-zags and lines. They are thought to be covers for decorative “buttons”, similar to those found in Wessex. The style, however, was different enough to suggest that it was made by a craftsman attempting to copy the Wessex style.

The amber beads are also comparable to a style and design found in Wessex, which has led to the theory that the necklace was fashioned in England and later found its way north to Orkney.

However the necklace reached Orkney – whether it was made in Wessex, or was manufactured closer to home – it is clear that Orkney had some connection to the people of southern England.

Dr Alison Sheridan has her own idea on this.

She suggests that, at some point in the distant past, a group of Orcadians visited Wessex, where they picked up new ideas and fashions and took them back home. The Ring of Brodgar, in Stenness, she suggests, could be an Orcadian attempt to recreate the massive stone circle of Avebury.

One of the most common questions regarding the Knowes o’ Trotty is its apparent inaccessibility. Why build a grand cemetery in such a remote location? Visiting the site, the answer becomes clear. The question itself is one related to our modern perception of accessibility. If we can’t reach it quickly and by car, it’s remote.

The Knowes o’ Trotty is situated in a regal position, with a vast swathe of the Orkney Mainland stretching from the south-west to the north visible under a dominant sky. What better place to situate the prominent grave of a high-powered and wealthy individual, and others from his community.

The site has long been neglected, eclipsed by the gold treasures, which became its only claim to fame. Thankfully modern archaeological work is redressing this and elevating the Knowes o’ Trotty to its rightful place in Orkney’s archaeology.

The Knowes o’ Trotty excavations were supported by Orkney Archaeological Trust, Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College and Historic Scotland.


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