Knowes of Trotty gives up Bronze Age treasures

Orkney Archaeological Trust's project manager, Nick Card, shows a young visitor the Trotty burial cist

Orkney Archaeological Trust’s project manager, Nick Card, shows a young visitor the Trotty burial cist.

A cache of lost Bronze Age artefacts, including three tiny fragments of gold, has been recovered from the Knowes of Trotty – almost 150 years after antiquarians first broke into the burial mound.

By the end of last week, the gold fragments, five triangular amber beads and a rectangular spacer plate had been found in the main mound at the barrow cemetery, in Harray.

The beads are undoubtedly those referred to in a brief report, by local antiquarian and Orkney sheriff clerk, George Petrie, of the original 1858 “excavation”,

Explaining that the mound was opened by the owner of the farm, Petrie wrote: “It is probable that a number of beads have been lost among the debris which got into the grave.”

With this in mind, Nick Card, Orkney Archaeological Trust’s project manager, and archaeologist, Judith Robertson, were hoping not only to locate the missing beads, but also source enough cremated bone to allow the burial to be radiocarbon dated.

After locating the original excavation shaft, the painstaking work began to remove and examine the soil dumped back into mound by the Victorian explorers.

Reaching the bottom of the barrow, and approaching the rectangular stone cist, the damage caused in 1858 became clear.

Nick explained: “Under all the 19th century backfill the cist lid had been smashed when they tried to get into the cist. It seems that they have just gone in and jemmied the lid off to get to the interior.”

“Then, when they had finished, they filled the hole they had dug with whatever they could find. Because of this we are in a position now where we just can’t tell what is original and what has been disturbed.”

He added: “For example, we have no idea how the 1858 excavators found the cist. Were the contents sitting in an “empty” chamber, the stone lid forming a tight seal, or was it already full of debris?”

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The site of the excavation – the primary burial barrow at the Knowes o’ Trotty

Nick also suspects that 19th century excavators were not the first who had attempted to enter the barrow. A few fragments of wood also turned in this backfill but it is also unclear whether these date from the 19th century or were part of the original burial.

Once inside the cist, Nick and Judith started coming across the lost beads, carefully removing them one by one. Being made of amber – fossilized tree resin – it had been feared that little, if anything, would remain of the ancient beads.

But to the excavators’ delight they were in a remarkable state of preservation.

The beads, like those unearthed in 1858, are of a style and design found in Wessex, England. This would imply they were originally fashioned in England, probably part of a necklace that was brought to Orkney at some point in its life.

It seems likely that the necklace was old by the time it was place in the burial cist – perhaps and heirloom passed down through the generations. The age of the artefact is clear from the wearing on the surviving beads. It is not clear whether the necklace was complete when it was placed in the burial cist or whether it was deposited is broken fragments.

This year’s gold find is probably a fragment of the discs removed in 1858. These were made from paper-thin sheets of gold, decorated with concentric circles of zig-zags and lines. The largest of the undamaged discs had a diameter of 76mm and was holed in the middle.

They are thought to be covers for decorative “buttons”, also similar to those found in Wessex. The style, however, is different enough to suggest that it was made by a craftsman attempting to copy the Wessex style.

The 2005 artefacts have been sent to the National Museums of Scotland to allow conservation work to be carried out. Thereafter they will return to Orkney, their final fate resting on a decision by the finds disposal panel, a national body that decides on which museums will receive artefacts.

Aside from the artefacts discovered, the excavation has revealed the extent and sophistication of the barrow itself. A thick capping of subsoil covered a carefully built cairn constructed of slabs of stone angled outwards from the centre.

Two upright stones flank the large rectangular burial cist. This had then been surrounded by masonry before being covered in earth. In its day, the barrow would have been quite striking in the landscape, appearing as a conical mound on top of a stone-clad earthen platform.

Picture: 59 Degrees North

A view of the burial cist, showing the two flanking “standing stones”

The two “standing” stones inside the barrow are intriguing as there are, as yet, no parallels in Orkney’s archaeology, and they don’t appear to have been structurally necessary.

Their appearance led to the 19th century antiquarians describing the site as appearing like a hybrid stalled cair/cist.

Nick said: “I don’t know of any other site with the same form of construction. The big stones could be structural but I’m wondering if they have a more symbolic role.”

The positioning of the twin stones bears a marked resemblance to the uprights found in Orkney’s stalled burial cairns, although typical of the early Neolithic period, these predate the Trotty cemetery by centuries.

However, the Knowes of Trotty is one of the earliest groups of barrows in Orkney, and marks a transition from the burial practices of the Neolithic, when the dead were interred in mass communal tombs, to individual barrow burials and cremations.

But although funerary practice was changing, Bronze Age discoveries within chambered cairns in Orkney has shown that the structures retained some significance, were used, and may have still had a place in the rituals of the period.

Did the Knowes of Trotty stones represent some form of doorway – a symbolic entrance to the Otherworld? Or were they dividing up the interior of the barrow in some way that was significant to the Bronze Age people who used the cemetery?

With every shovelful of soil from the barrow being sieved and sorted by hand, the site has provided a good quantity of cremated bone. This, it is hoped, will allow the site to be accurately dated. The present the dates used for the cemetery (2000BC-1600BC) are estimations.

The three-week excavation was supported by Orkney Archaeological Trust, Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College and Historic Scotland.

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