Orkney’s world-heritage listed Neolithic landscape still holds secrets about our earliest societies, and a new book published today, Friday, December 12, tells the story of three recent finds.
Between Tomb and Cist by archaeologist Beverley Ballin Smith reports on the Historic Scotland funded investigation of the funerary monuments of Crantit, Kewing and Nether Onston, Orkney.
The Crantit site, in particular, thrilled archaeologists when it was uncovered by ploughing in a field not far from Kirkwall in 1998. The structure had lain hidden, untouched, for millennia and excavations quickly revealed that it was far more than a burial chamber.
Neolithic tombs in Orkney were designed with an almost standard set of architectural features; most of which seem to reflect a desire for visual prominence and display, such as at Maeshowe. In contrast, Crantit seems to reflect a change to a style of burial architecture that sought to move away from grand statements about the dead. It was constructed underground and almost hidden away in the earth.
The book’s author, Beverley Ballin Smith, said: “I think the architecture of the tomb tells us of discord or disharmony between old belief systems and changes to those beliefs that were beginning to affect the way people were buried. The tomb crosses the boundaries between monumental tombs (old beliefs) and the much smaller and later cists (new beliefs). It broke rules and created new ones.
“Crantit seems to express the mourners’ beliefs, taboos and superstitions, and their ways of caring for and curating the dead. In the detailing of the design, we see also evidence of their excellent architectural workmanship. However, some of the ideas and practices remain enigmatic, such as the markings on the stone within the burial chamber and the possible ritual offering of the polished stone ball.”
Ms Ballin Smith’s book analyses the three sites that were discovered by accident between 1998 and 2002, during ploughing and landscaping activities.
All three sites are around 4-5000 years old, spanning from the end of the late Neolithic to sometime during the end of the early Bronze Age. Together they demonstrate changes in burial customs and beliefs, and therefore also reflect changes in society.
Finds from the sites, including human skulls and bones, along with woven materials, reveal a gradual movement away from interment in a grave to a society where cremation became the dominant practice. The evidence shows that these changes were not straightforward: old and new practices existed together and the changes were gradual and Ms Ballin Smith explores this theory in her book.
Between Tomb and Cist is published by The Orcadian and will be launched at the Orcadian Bookshop Gallery, Kirkwall on Friday 12 December. The book retails for £25 and is available from www.orcadian.co.uk/shop.