Since its “rediscovery” in 1999, there has been much head-scratching on the subject of Minehowe, in Tankerness.
What was the reason for a flight of stone steps leading underground?
But a site in Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, is providing intriguing parallels to the Tankerness Iron Age structure and the archaeologist in charge was in Orkney this week to give a talk on the site.
High Pasture Cave, or Uamh an Ard Achadh, to use its Gaelic name, is in southern Skye. There, in 2002, archaeologist Steven Birch discovered deposits had been disturbed in an abandoned passage.
The material, which included significant quantities of animal bone, shellfish remains, tools and pottery, had been cast aside by cavers attempting to clear a new passage in the cave system.
With Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose at the helm, a series of archaeological investigations followed, including a survey of the cave passages and the collection of material from the disturbed sediments. The recovered pottery from the site has since been dated to the late Bronze Age/Iron Age.
A detailed geophysics survey also revealed a complex of possible prehistoric structures on the surface, which may be contemporary with the deposits identified in the cave.
According to Mr Birch, the cave’s function seems to have changed over time. From a means of depositing domestic refuse, people eventually entered “this dark and strange world” for other reasons.
Recent work has revealed a stone-built passage descending, via a steep flight of steps, to the natural limestone cave below. Last year, the remains of three people — a woman, a child and a foetus — were found in the blocked stairwell. The burials were dated to the Iron Age.
Like Minehowe, metalworking residues have also been found.
Analysis of animal remains recovered suggests that feasting may have taken place at the site, and this, together with the deposits of fine quality artefacts, hints at the cave’s ritual importance to the people of the area.
The cave entrance, it is thought, may have provided access to the ‘underworld’ or ‘otherworld’, a liminal place where people held special feasts, made offerings to their gods and undertook the manufacture of metals.