Archaeologists battle the elements in rescue excavation

Looking back across the remains of the chambered tomb - from the badly damaged first chamber towards a deliberately blocked off side-passage leading to the second chamber and side cells. (Sigurd Towrie)

After a fortnight battling rain, hail and gale-force winds, a rescue excavation on a chambered tomb in South Ronaldsay is due to finish this week.

A team of archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) descended on the site, at Banks, at the end of October.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Plan of the Banks Tomb. (Dan Lee, ORCA)

Leading the excavation was ORCA’s Dan Lee.

“It was a rescue excavation to try and recover, and record, as much information as possible from a tomb that had been quite badly damaged by some landscaping work in the past. Although the JCB removed quite a lot of the mound’s structure, fortunately, the heart of the mound was untouched.”

The discovery of the 5,000-year-old tomb, by property owner Hamish Mowatt, in September prompted a race against time.

Human remains were known to be in at least one section of the structure, but the fact that the cell was filled with water led to fears they could be destroyed.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The main entrance passage, which has been deliberately backfilled at some point in prehistory.

The ORCA excavation team moved in, and it soon became clear that the structure is made up of five cells branching off from a “T” shaped entrance passage.

Dan explained: “I think the builders were using a natural mound, or ridge, which is interesting in itself. They quarried out quite a large hole down into the rock, and then constructed walls inside to form the five cells.

“This was particularly distinctive in the north cell, where we took a lintel off to get access. It was beautifully hewn out of solid rock, with these beautifully constructed side walls to the east and west.

“The wall courses were built from single slabs of stone, stepped in as the wall rises up – what we call corbelling. It was very finely constructed, paralleling the corbelling found within Maeshowe.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

A difficult job - removing the clay which was used to deliberately seal off the chamber, presumably at the end of its use.

“Once completed, I don’t think the finished tomb was that pronounced, although from the Tomb of the Eagles, for example, it was perhaps possible, if you knew where to look, to see it silhouetted against the sea.”

Although the tomb was found to contain some human remains – including skull and pelvis fragments – these probably relate to the decommissioning of the structure. At the end of its use, the tomb, in common with others in Orkney, was carefully and deliberately sealed up.

Stone slabs were “quite carefully” laid in the cells, with human remains placed on top. Then the entrance passage was filled in, although, it would appear, not in one fell swoop.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The entrance to a side passage, which branches off from the main north-south entrance passage.

Dan explained: “It seems that they backfilled the entrance passage to a certain level. What we found is that the upper backfill of stoney, grey material came down on a very carefully-laid layer of flat slabs which seem to have been laid on a layer of earlier material.”

On top of these slabs, the excavators found animal, perhaps otter, spraint, which would indicate the tomb stood open for a long enough period of time to allow these animals access.

“It seems to represent a halfway point, or a pause, in the process of backfilling the tomb. This is really interesting, because you might assume the backfilling was a single event.

“Instead, it seems it was a whole series of different stages – the careful placing of stones, the packing of clay into doorways, the laying down of slabs halfway through the backfilling – before the final deposits would have filled in and sealed off the cells.”

The excavation was sponsored by Orkney Islands Council and Historic Scotland, with assistance from Orkney College archaeology department and the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology.

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