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Archaeological investigations 1773 – 2003 and beyond: an intriguing steatite urn from Orkney

Alison Sheridan,
National Museums of Scotland (NMS)



This contribution, offered to Daphne with very best wishes, is a story of amazing coincidences and an account of work in progress. It concerns a small steatite urn, found between 1773 and 1779 in a cist near Stromness.

The urn contained cremated human bones and had been wrapped in an animal hide. It has been in the collections of the Museum of Antiquities, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (MoA) since 1 July 1829, when it was donated by the antiquarian and numismatist Adam de Cardonnell (also known as Adam Mansfeldt [Mansfield] de Cardonnell Lawson). De Cardonnell was a founding member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SAS), and between 1782 and 1784 was the curator of the newly-formed SAS collection, which forms the heart of today’s National Museums of Scotland collections.

He retired from Scotland to Newcastle, and that is how the urn came to be in its current location.

In the summer of 2003 Andrew Martin, Depute Librarian of the NMS Library, rang me about some watercolour images of archaeological sites and artefacts that de Cardonnell had painted for his hand-written publication, Relicta Antiqua (c1790-1800).

Some of the images – including one of this urn, as it turned out (Fig 1, no. 1) – were being scanned in for a project to highlight the Treasures of the Scottish national collections for an initiative called ‘Resources for Learning in Scotland’ (now available on-line, www.rls.org.uk, project 672, The Scottish Collections, pages 10-11), and Andrew needed someone to check the accompanying text. Two days later, my colleague Fraser Hunter, who had recently been on a study visit to the MoA to investigate the de Cardonnell link and knew that I was interested in specimens of Scottish human remains for a current radiocarbon dating project, drew my attention to an note by J D Cowen in Archaeologia Aeliana (45, 1967) about ‘A steatite vessel from Orkney’. To my amazement, this was the very same urn! Through the kindness of the MoA curator Lindsay Allason-Jones, and with SAS funding, I was then able to arrange for: i) the radiocarbon dating of a fragment of cremated bone found within the urn, at the University of Groningen, and ii) examination of a sample of the animal hide, to facilitate its identification as to species. Work is still in progress – and from Daphne’s point of view, the most interesting part, the osteological identification of the cremated bones, is still to be done – but the story so far is worth recounting.

Discovery and initial accounts of the urn

Fig 1 Watercolour from de Cardonnell’s Relicta Antiqua, showing steatite urn from Orkney (no 1)

According to Cowen’s research, the original account of the discovery of this urn was a manuscript written by the antiquarian George Low[e] (1747–95), minister of Birsay and Harray. The manuscript in question is now missing, but it was cited by another antiquarian, Richard Gough, who in 1789, in his updated version of William Camden’s Britannia (1st Ed, Vol 3, p724), wrote ‘In another hillock [close by Stromness] opened at a small distance [from other tumuli] was a small stone chest about a foot square, containing a small quantity of the inclosed earth. Near the centre was a large coffin, in which was an urn wrapped up in leather with a small stone cover, and containing ashes and bones’. Cowen was able to link this account to de Cardonnell because a note, written by de Cardonnell on a packet containing fragments of the animal hide, referred to the Gough account. From considering Low’s known movements and activities, Cowen deduced that the urn must have been found between 1773 and 1779.

What Cowen did not know was that the NMS library contains, in the archives passed to it by the SAS, a copy of de Cardonnell’s Relicta Antiqua. The urn is featured in Plate 10 of Volume 1. The caption reads: ‘Fig. 1 is an Urn found in Orkney, in a Tumulus opened close by Stromness, it was inclosed in a large stone Coffin and was wrapt up in the Hide of some Animal, the hair short and very soft, of a dark chestnut Colour, the Urn was filled with Ashes & bits of burnt bones. It is made of gritty Clay much discoloured and had a Cover of Slate, its height is 8 inches & 6½ In. wide at top.’ At the end of the caption for the next urn (which does not make it clear whether the latter had also been found in Orkney), he adds, in typical antiquarian manner of the time, ‘These two are Danish’.

Fig 2 Label on a wrapper containing fragments of the animal hide

This account tallies with Gough’s. Relicta Antiqua was compiled between c1790 and 1800, and it is likely that the urn was already in de Cardonnell’s possession when he drew and described it. (Some of the other items featured in his publication had simply been borrowed.) We can say that because we know that de Cardonnell was already residing in Newcastle by 1793, when he was an Honorary Member of the Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society, his address being given as Chirton [House]. On what must be a second wrapper containing remains of the animal hide, he had written: ‘Remains of the Hide supposed to be of the deer in which the stone Urn was wrapped which was found in Orkney and which I now have’ (Fig 2). It is, arguably, unlikely that the urn returned to Orkney (or elsewhere) in the interval between the publication of Relicta Antiqua and its donation to the MoA in 1829.

According to Cowen’s description, the urn is 190.5 mm (7½″) high, with a rim diameter of 165 mm (6½″) and a base diameter of c 127 mm (5″). The wall thickness is c 13 mm (½″) at the rim, increasing substantially towards the base (although this is not reflected in the accompanying illustration, Fig 3). The material is steatite – which must have been imported to Orkney from Shetland, as steatite does not outcrop in Orkney – and, as Cowen notes, the exterior is covered with faint toolmarks in ‘an irregular, all-over scale pattern’. Although de Cardonnell had described the material as ‘gritty clay’ in Relicta Antiqua, it is clear from his inscription on the wrapper that he realised it was actually of stone.

Fig 3    Illustration of the urn, by Miss Hurrell; from Archaeologia Aeliana 45. Reproduced by courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

It appears that some of the urn’s contents may have gone astray, since Cowen refers only to ‘a handful of calcined bones’, whereas de Cardonnell had implied that it had been full. As for the ‘deer’ hide cover, it seems that only part of this was ever in de Cardonnell’s possession.

Research on the urn, 2003–present

My interest in this urn was triggered not only by the realisation that it still existed, but also because I am currently co-ordinating an NMS radiocarbon dating programme, the Dating Cremated Bones Project, which is co-funded by the SAS (with additional assistance from Historic Scotland, Aberdeenshire Archaeology and the University of Groningen). This project takes advantage of a recent development in radiocarbon dating, refined in Groningen

University by Jan Lanting and Dr Johannes van der Plicht, which allows the dating of cremated bone by investigating its structural carbonate (bio-apatite: Lanting et al 2001). This technique is far more reliable than previous attempts to date charred and burnt bone, which focused on organic carbonate (Aerts et al 2001). The NMS project has been examining various kinds of Bronze Age and Neolithic funerary material, and one of its main aims has been to establish a reliable typochronology of the various urn types in use in Scotland. Many of the results have already been published (eg Sheridan 2003), and more are about to appear (Sheridan in press a, b).

The use of steatite vessels as cinerary urns is known only from the Northern Isles and from Eigg (Wilson 1863, 206–7), although a sandstone version of a large Orcadian urn form (complete with sandstone ‘accessory vessel’) is known from Aucorn in Caithness, and is on display in the Museum of Scotland. In Orkney, steatite urns fall into two broad size categories: large (up to 600 x 600 mm) and small (the ‘de Cardonnell’ urn being among the smallest). Some Orcadian steatite urns, both large and small, have one or more grooves just below their rim on the exterior; others, like the de Cardonnell urn, have not. Many have toolmarks, and, as Audrey Henshall has noted (1963, 150), many have sooting on their exterior, as if they had formerly been used as domestic cooking vessels.

The results of the NMS Dating Cremated Bones Project had so far established that steatite urns were in use in Orkney from 2100/2000 BC (at Quandale mound 8), with examples ranging in date down to c 1500 BC (‘Orkney’, findspot unspecified; Sheridan 2003, figs 13.13, 13.14). These findings are consistent with the results obtained for Jane Downes from the large urn found in 1994 in a barrow at Linga F[i]old (Downes 1995): alder charcoal from this urn produced dates in the second quarter of the second millennium BC (Downes pers comm). The NMS project had also included a date for a steatite urn from Uyea in Shetland: cremated bone from this urn produced a date of 790–410 cal BC, significantly later than the latest dated Orkney urn (Sheridan 2003, figs 13.13, 13.14).

The result obtained for a cremated bone sample from the de Cardonnell urn was intriguing: it came out at even later than this, as follows:

GrA-24015      1585±40 BP, AD 420-540 at 1s, AD 390-600 at 2s

Through the kindness of Jan Lanting and Dr Johannes van der Plicht at the Groningen laboratory, this sample is currently being re-dated, to double check the reliability of the determination. However, there are no grounds for suspecting that the date is faulty. Furthermore, as others had previously commented (Henshall 1963; Ritchie & Ritchie 1974), there is no a priori reason why the use of steatite urns should not extend into the first millennium AD, since dteatite vessels are known to have been used in domestic contexts during this millennium. (Steatite vessels were, of course, much used by Viking settlers in the Northern Isles, but generally these are of distinctly different shapes from the ones used as urns.) Evidence suggesting first millennium dates for certain steatite urns comes from:

  1. Oxtro in Orkney where, as Petrie pointed out (1890, 76), a cemetery of short cists overlay the remains of a broch. One of these cists contained a ‘stone urn containing ashes and fragments of bones’; another had a re-used fragment of a Pictish stone as its cover slab; and
  2. Uyea in Shetland, where another re-used fragment of a Pictish stone had been used as the cover of a steatite urn (Catalogue of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, 1892, 260, IB 18).

The other current strand of research into the de Cardonnell urn concerns the remains of the animal hide. An initial high-magnification image produced by the NMS scanning electron microscope (SEM) was sent to Dr Esther Cameron, specialist in animal fibre identification in Oxford. Unfortunately, Dr Cameron reported, the hair in question had lost its outer layer, and was therefore of low diagnostic value as far as ascertaining the species was concerned. Since then, further SEM images have been produced (Fig 4) and sent to Dr Cameron, and it is hoped that these may be a little more informative.

The final results will eventually be published in Archaeologia Aeliana.

Fig 4    SEM images of fibres and skin from the hide cover of the de Cardonnell urn. Scale bars: top L, 50μm; top R, 500 μm; bottom L, 1mm, bottom R, 100 μm. (1μm = 1/1000mm). Images: NMS


Serendipity is a surprisingly common phenomenon in archaeological research, and in this particular instance we have been able to learn a lot about a valuable fragment of Orkney’s past. Thanks to its careful recording by 18th century antiquarians, careful curation by MoA and careful investigation now, we are able to recognise the de Cardonnell urn as an exceptionally important item, which promises to deliver proof that the practice of using steatite vessels as cinerary urns in the Northern Isles had a remarkably long currency. Daphne, we shall keep you informed as to progress on its research!


  • Aerts, A T, Brindley, A L, Lanting, J N & van der Plicht, J 2001 ‘Radiocarbon dates on cremated bone from Sanaigmhor Warren, Islay’, Antiquity 75, 485–6.
  • Downes, J 1995 ‘Linga Fold’, Current Archaeology 142, 396–9.
  • Henshall,  A S 1963 The Chambered Tombs of Scotland. Volume 1. Edinburgh.
  • Lanting, J N, Aerts-Bijma, A T & van der Plicht, J 2001 ‘Dating of cremated bones’, Radiocarbon 43(2), 249–54.
  • Petrie, G 1890 ‘Notice of the brochs or large round towers of Orkney. With plans, sections, and drawings, and tables of measurements of Orkney and Shetland brochs’, Archaeologica Scotica 5, 71–94.
  • Ritchie, J N G & Ritchie, A 1974 ‘Excavation of a barrow at Queenafjold, Twatt, Orkney’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 105 (1972–4), 33–42.
  • Sheridan, J A 2003 ‘New dates for Scottish Bronze Age cinerary urns: results from the National Museums of Scotland Dating Cremated Bones Project’, in Gibson, A (ed), Prehistoric Pottery: People, Pattern and Purpose, 201–26. Oxford (BAR International Series 1156).
  • Sheridan, J A in press a ‘Dating the Scottish Bronze Age: “There is clearly much that the material can still tell us’, in Burgess, C (ed), [Festschrift for Colin Burgess].
  • Sheridan, J A in press b ‘The National Museums of Scotland Dating Cremated Bones Project: results obtained 2002/3’, Discovery & Excavation in Scotland 4.
  • Wilson, D 1863 Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. Volume 1. London & Cambridge, Mass.
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