Multiple burials recovered from chambered cairn

The remains of at least eight people have been recovered from the newly discovered chambered tomb at Banks, South Ronaldsay.

The last days of the rescue excavations have astonished archaeologists working on site. Originally it was thought that the conditions within the cells were so poor that only a few bones would remain. Instead in only a small area, scattered human remains were recovered.

The bones so far cover a range of ages at death, including the skull of a child about six years old.

One of the human skulls seen prior to the emergency excavation.

The burial chambers have been partially excavated by archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), in an effort to save at least some of the scientifically invaluable remains within.

Two of the original five chambers have been partially excavated and  samples have been taken from them and from parts of the passageways.

There is also evidence for prolonged ceremonies associated with the sealing up of the chambers.

County archaeologist, Julie Gibson said: “The speed with which ORCA have stepped into the breach has enabled a record to be made very quickly.All thanks to them, and to Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council for their support, which has bought us time.

“I am amazed at the good condition of the bones that have come out so far, but I am still anxious about the future – the constantly changing moisture levels in this site are going to lead to some pretty rapid deterioration, even if we have escaped the worst so far.”

It is 30 years since the last opportunity to study the undisturbed burials of a Neolithic community occurred in Scotland.

“Science has moved on a lot in the last few years,” said Mrs Gibson. “It is now possible to find out where someone grew up, for instance. And in the case of the Amesbury Archer, found near Stonehenge, it could be seen that he had travelled from the Alps. It is by no means certain that all the people in this tomb will have been born here, in Orkney.”

The actual conditions in the structure are being looked into by scientists from York University, who are studying decay in burial.

Closer to home, Dave Lawrence, an Orkney-based palaeopathologist, will be comparing the skeletal remains with others in Orkney and beyond. He will look closely at a range of evidence from the nearby – and probably contemporary – Isbister chambererd cairn, the Tomb of the Eagles, and compare any familial traits and pathologies.

Archaeologists hope to continue in the summer of 2011.

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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