Skeleton of Iron Age man recovered from Minehowe grave

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The second burial discovered at Minehowe.

At the end of last week, and days before the completion of this year’s Minehowe archaeological excavations, a second Iron Age burial was uncovered at the Tankerness site.

The discovery of a second burial is particularly exciting given the paucity of Iron Age remains in Scotland, let alone Orkney.

The remains of what appear to be an adult male were found buried into rubble outside a metalworking structure that has been the focus of attention for the past few years. The discovery once again hints at ritual practices surrounding the “mystical” nature of metalworking in the Iron Age

Approximately 5ft 7 inches tall, the man was found in a stone-covered pit, lying in a semi-foetal position. His left arm was bent so his hand rested at his chin, the other twisted under his chest.

If contemporary with the female remains found under the floor of the smithy last year, the latest skeleton could date from 100BC-100AD. But the similarities end there.

The man’s body had the appearance of a haphazard burial, at least when compared to the woman, who was regally lying on her back, hands by her sides, with a piece of decorated antler lying on her chest. She also wore a decorative toe-ring on each foot.

From the position of his skeleton, it would appear that the man was unceremoniously “dumped” into his final resting place – a grave too small for his body – before being covered by a cairn of large stones.

His remains are also in a poor condition, with archaeologists Nick Card, Judith Robertson and Sean Mullan working painstakingly to extract the skeleton from its earthen cocoon.

The rear of the skull has been badly damaged, while the pelvis had been crushed by one of the large covering stones.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Archaeologists Sean Mullan, left, and Judith Robertson carrying out the painstaking work to recover the skeletion.

Early indications are that the man, was stocky and well-built. Wear on his teeth would indicate a “gritty” diet, high in roughage, which is consistent with the quantities of grain found around the site.

Forensic tests, including DNA, isotope analysis of his teeth, and chemical analysis of his bones, will now be carried out to see what can be gleaned about the man, his life, and his connection, if any, to the woman under the floor.

Was he related? Was he born and brought up in Orkney? How was he involved in the metalworking activities on site? Time will tell.

Site co-director, Nick Card, said: “To have one skeleton is great but to have two is even better as it gives us something to use in comparison.”

The discovery has prompted the idea that the area may house a cemetery, similar to the one found at the Knowe o’ Skea, in Westray. There, around 100 Iron Age bodies were found in an area containing metalworking “workshops”, similar to the one at Minehowe.

This appears to point again at a link between the process of working metal and Iron Age burial rites or conceptions of death.

“There are definite parallels with the Knowe of Skea,” said Nick, “although the metalworking that was going on around Mine Howe was on a larger, semi-industrial, scale. But the association of burial and metalworking is definitely there.”

The Minehowe 2005 excavation was co-directed by Nick Card of Orkney Archaeological Trust and Jane Downes of Orkney College. Orkney Archaeological Trust, Orkney College, Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council supported the project.

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