Untangling the history of the Cantick mound

By Dan Lee
(Archaeological Project Officer, ORCA)

A view over the excavation site, showing clearly the sequence of walling. (ORCA)

Another season of excavations at Cantick, South Walls, concluded last week, following the continued investigation of a prehistoric burial mound.

A team from ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology) based at Orkney College were joined by students from Aberdeen and Durham Universities. Local volunteers also received field training in Hoy, funded by the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme.

The excavation continued last year’s work investigating part of the Bronze Age funerary landscape on the peninsula.

A large burial mound that is situated on the southern cliff top was excavated and was found to contain a complex of central cists, set within a circular, stone-constructed mound.

Excavations last year revealed that this mound had a considerable history of burials, along with refurbishment and maintenance of the mound structure. The most striking phase of this occurred when straight retaining walls were constructed around the outside, turning a round mound into a square. The central cists, or stone burial boxes, contained cremation burials, however there was evidence for inhumation burials as well in the form of unburnt human bone. This was found within the upper disturbed layers, but analysis has revealed that they probably represent the remains of two adults and two perinatal (around birth) burials.

Not only did the burial mound display a remarkable change in architecture, from round to square, but also contained evidence for different burial rites; cremation and inhumation.

Last season’s excavations, then, posed a series of questions. The cist complex and cremation burials appeared to be Bronze Age but did they have origins in the Neolithic? The square outer revetment wall was certainly a secondary addition, but did it date to the Iron Age, following the square barrow tradition such as that in East Yorkshire, or the Pictish period with parallels found in Caithness and Shetland? Could it be that the square mound was unique to Cantick?

This year’s excavations aimed to address these questions and untangle the complex history of the mound.

Cist complex (ORCA)

The two quadrants excavated last season were reopened. They were extended in the corners with the aim of examining more of the external area of the mound and in the centre to investigate the central cists. The mound had been investigated by antiquarians and the central area consisted of loose, stony material with some large bounding slabs. Excavation continued here throughout the two weeks to try and define this important area.

A large, rectangular, box cist was exposed last season in the south west part of the mound. The bulk of the perinatal bones were found within the upper disturbed fill. The contents of the cist were excavated this season and more perinatal bones were found in the same area. While these did not represent an undisturbed burial, the concentration of small delicate bones in one location suggests that they had not been moved far. It seems that very young babies were buried in the top of the mound, perhaps during the Iron Age or later periods. In some societies young children were not considered truly human until they reached a certain age and were buried in peripheral places such as within old mounds or ditches.

The contents of the cist had been previously disturbed- first by otters and then antiquarians. The loose fill of the cist was removed revealing the disturbed remains of a cremation burial.

But among the burnt bone fragments were thousands of tiny broken fish bones that could only derive from otter sprait. This suggests that the cist was used as a holt by otters in the past. The top of the cist must have been accessible from the surface at that time implying a lower height of the mound. The cist was then disturbed by treasure hunters and filled with spoil.

The different phases of the mound were established in the main trench sections. These have provided important insights into the construction and modification of the external walls and significant clues as to their date.

The original mound was constructed on a slight platform of scalped glacial till. A preparation layer of grey clay was laid on the platform before the main mound core and revetment wall was constructed. A second revetment wall was then constructed outside. The primary mound was probably constructed around a central cist or chamber, but this could not be established this season.

The practice of preparing areas for construction in this manner and the presence of multiple revetment walls of this scale certainly finds parallels in the Orcadian Neolithic rather than Bronze Age. The secondary square wall was constructed above the outer primary revetment wall. The lower part of the mound appeared to have been levelled prior to this.


Decorated Bronze Age pot rim (Picture: ORCA)

A decorated fragment of Bronze Age pottery, typical in funerary contexts, was recovered from the layer below the later wall, suggesting a prehistoric date for this activity. The pottery, however, could have been caught up in later material and this phase could still belong to later periods.

A small pit, cut into the glacial till to the north-west of the mound, held the promise of an undisturbed buried cremation urn. However, the initial excitement of such a find was dampened as the fill of the pit contained nothing more than a flat slab.

Excavation in the central area continued in earnest with the hope of locating any central burials. The loose backfill was removed revealing that the large central slabs that had been assumed to form part of a large central cist were set onto a lower layer of fill. A large broken back slab was also found. This suggests that all the cist slabs visible in the top of the mound are later additions to a more ancient mound.

It seems that the burial mound was constructed in the Neolithic and dramatically rebuilt and reused throughout the Bronze Age. The fill of the central area contained the odd unburnt adult human bone suggesting that inhumation burials may have been disturbed in this area.

Excavating the central area (ORCA)

Undisturbed deposits were encountered in the base of the central area, but these will have to be returned to next year. The burial mound at Cantick certainly has a complex history of use that spans several hundred or even thousands of years.

It seems that a small Neolithic tomb was extensively refurbished during the Bronze Age, with the insertion of several box cists.The construction of the square outer mound probably occurred at this time, perhaps corresponding with a change in burial rite. It is still possible, however, that this occurred during the Iron Age or Pictish periods.

Perhaps the perinatal burials were inserted into the mound at this time by the community living at Hestigeo broch when the mound was starting to weather. Whatever the date of the square wall it is certainly unique to Cantick within Orkney.

The true sequence may only be established by radiocarbon dating the burials. The secrets of the primary Neolithic tomb await excavation.

The Cantick Project was funded by Orkney Islands Council, the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The excavators would like to extend their thanks to Eddie Doherty, the landowner.


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