Archaeologists ponder Iron Age burial ritual at the Knowe o’ Skea

After four weeks of excavation at the Knowe o’ Skea, in Westray, archaeologists Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore can boast a remarkable statistic.

The burials they have unearthed at the Berstness site make up an incredible 90 per cent of the known Iron Age remains found in Scotland, to date.

And this year, the bodies are still turning up.

Prior to the start of work in 2000, Iron Age burials were rare – in the whole of Scotland, let alone Orkney.

But all that changed when Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore, from Edinburgh-based EASE Archaeology, moved in on the knowe, a small eroding headland off the south-western tip of Westray.

The archaeologists were soon overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of human remains covering the mound. Before long it became clear that the site was a funerary complex – a cemetery used for centuries to bury the dead.

This year’s first season of excavation at the Knowe o’ Skea in Westray. The first month-long dig focused on one of the two later buildings outside the central structure. (Picture: EASE Archaeology)

Key to the site was a structure at the centre of the mound. Dating from at least 200BC, this building remained the focus of the cemetery until it was abandoned some time in the 7th or 8th centuries AD.

Some time after its initial construction, a series of buildings was erected in the space to the north of the central structure. Here, the archaeologists uncovered a series of human graves, each burial placed in the rubble of earlier buildings and subsequently built over with each alteration or addition to the site.

The burials, of which over 100 have been recovered so far, had no real pattern, other than the fact that the adults were buried near the wall of the central structure, while the infants, which make up 60 per cent of the burials, were in their own, separate area.

As well as complete burials, which usually saw the bodies interred on their sides in a foetal position, there were deposits of disarticulated human remains, some of which were deliberately incorporated into walls and floors of the surrounding buildings.

Work this year has concentrated one of the two later buildings.

The archaeologists were working down through the structure to allow them access to the earlier structures beneath. As expected, this revealed another batch of ancient bodies –both adult and infant.

Graeme Wilson explained: “The children had their own space, while the adults were placed at the back of the building. From the remains, it appears that the ‘important’ people were buried near the wall – much in the same way that in later Christian burials, the important people were interred in, or near, a church’s wall.

“The method of burial varied, but generally the adults were tightly crouched and lying on their sides. The apparent ‘un-natural’ positions of the corpses suggest that the bodies were tightly bound, or wrapped, after death.

“The infants, on the other hand, were placed vertically into narrow holes in the rubble.”

Hazel Moore said: “These are not nice, decorative, or ornamental, graves. The graves were fairly rough, with the bodies just buried into the rubble of the older buildings. They were loosely covered with stone, but not necessarily covered over. There’s just no apparent importance placed on making these lovely graves.”

Instead, she said, it seems that the location of the grave was more significant to the people of Iron Age Westray than the grave itself.

“The place must have stunk when it was in use. With all those dead bodies, decomposing under loose coverings of stone and rubble,” she said.

But this stench, as well as the site’s location, may have added to the otherworldly aura of the site.

The apparently callous attitude to the dead, by our modern standards at least, is also evident in the treatment of some of the corpses.  What appears to be knife marks on the arm of one, for example, appears to be post-mortem and was perhaps caused by the deliberate severing of tendons to get the body to lie correctly.

One of the most intriguing of this year’s excavated graves was found under the floor of one of the two external buildings. Interred in the west-facing entrance passage was a crouched adult. At its feet lay the dismembered remains of an otter, its jawbone laid out at angles to the dead person’s feet. Then, further down lay the remains of a sheep.

Previous animal burials found on the site, a sheep and a cow, have since been dated to 300AD.

Work continued on the site while it was being used as a cemetery. As the dead were left in their rough graves, the buildings were continually worked on and maintained. Not only were the external buildings used for metalworking, but one also appears to have been lived in.

Was it a temporary dwelling used by grieving families? Or did it have something to do with the rites and customs surrounding death?

Why did this area – a sea-locked peninsula – become such a focus for burials? What was the significance of the building? Why the profusion of burials? And why was being buried in it so important?

At present we don’t know the answers. But it is possible that the actual act of burial was the last of a series of rituals surrounding the treatment and handling the Iron Age dead.

From the rough nature of the burials, could it be that it was not the final act of burial was not that significant? Instead, was it more important that the bodies were involved in a series of rituals before their final inhumation?

A possibility is that the bodies were placed in the structure for a specific reason – to preserve them in readiness for later ritual. The key to this lies in the site’s name.

“Skea” is probably a corruption of the Orkney dialect word “skyo”, which referred to a hut of loose stones that allowed the wind to penetrate and dry out fish and meat.

Obviously, the current name reflects the knowe’s medieval function as a place for drying fish, but could the headland’s exposed position have been utilised in earlier times, perhaps to dry out, or mummify corpses? Corpses which were then integral to the Iron Age funerary rituals?

This idea has a more recent parallel on the island of Stroma, in the Pentland Firth, between Orkney and Caithness.

There, in the 17th century, a broch-like mausoleum was erect by the island’s owners, the Kennedies of Carmunk. According to a church account of the time:

“The coffins are laid on stools above the ground; but the vaults being on the sea edge, and the rapid tides of the Pentland running by it, there is such a saltish air continually as has converted the bodies into mummies”.

Writing in 1762, one Bishop Forbes referred to same structure, stating that:

“The island is famous for having the dead bodies of men, women and children above ground, entire, and to be seen for 70 or 80 years, free of all corruption, without embalming or any other art whatsoever, but owing, it is thought, to the plenty of nitre that is there.”

Whatever the truth, the Knowe o’ Skea remains one of Orkney’s most enigmatic archaeological sites and one which, it is hoped, will continue to shed light on a hitherto unknown element of Iron Age life.

Graeme and Hazel will return to Westray on August 28, for a second programme of excavations on the Knowe. The next phase will involve removing one of the most recent structures to access the older phases of building that lie beneath. It is hoped a public open day will be held at the end of this dig.

The 2006 excavation was supported by Orkney Islands Council, Historic Scotland and Orkney Archaeological Trust.

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