About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Minehowe - The Underground Enigma

The Minehowe bodies

To date, the remains of three people have been found at Minehowe.

These finds were particularly exciting given the paucity of Iron Age remains in Scotland, let alone Orkney. 

The discoveries have also prompted the idea that the area may house a cemetery, similar to the one found at the Knowe o' Skea in Westray. There, around 100 Iron Age bodies were found in an area containing metalworking "workshops", similar to the one at Minehowe. This appears to point again at a link between the process of working metal and Iron Age burial rites or conceptions of death.

In August 2004, a new chapter in the story of Minehowe began.

Then, a rare Iron Age burial caused great excitement among the archaeologists excavating the site — and as usual raised more questions about life in the Iron Age.

The complete skeleton of a young woman, thought to date from the 100BC-100AD, was found buried in the floor of the metalworking structure that stood outside Minehowe's circular ditch.

Just over 5ft high, the woman was aged betweeb 16 and 20and had two decorative copper-allow toe-rings on the feet. A piece of deer antler, drilled with six holes, lay on her chest.

Her body had been laid carefully on its back, with arms by the side, some time after the initial construction of the metalworking structure. After her burial, use of the building continued, presumably as normal.

Why the corpse was buried in the floor, and the significance of this act, remains a mystery.

Fragmented human and animal remains have been found buried in the floors of Iron Age structures elsewhere in Scotland. Given the “magical” connotations surrounding metalworking — in particular the slightly dangerous process of converting the stone and ore into metal and art — could the Minehowe burial have had a “magical” purpose?

Was the woman buried beneath the feet of the metalworkers perhaps protecting the structure or watching over the proceedings within?

A second burial

Then a year later, and with only days to go in the 2005 excavation, a second Iron Age burial was revealed.

The skeleton of an adult male was found buried in rubble outside the metalworking building. Approximately 5ft 7 inches tall, the man was in a stone-covered pit, lying in a semi-foetal position. His left arm was bent so his hand rested at his chin, the other twisted under his chest.

Early indications were that the man was stocky and well-built. Wear on his teeth seemed to indicate a "gritty" diet, high in roughage, which is consistent with the quantities of grain found around Minehowe.

But although the man he had been buried only a few feet away from where the woman, there was a distinct difference in the manner of his burial.

His had the appearance of a haphazard burial, at least when compared to the woman, who was regally lying on her back, hands by her sides.

From the position of his skeleton, it would appear that the man was unceremoniously "dumped" into his final resting place - a grave too small for his body - before being covered by a cairn of large stones.

The baby

Perhaps the most perplexing discovery was in 2003, when a single infant burial was unearthed in a trench dug to investigate Minehowe's encircling ditch.

The trench, opened to the south-west of the underground chamber, revealed a number of upright stones in the ditch fill. Originally it was thought this could have been another of the alcove-type "shrines" discovered at the rear of the mound in 2000. But as the trench was extended a more puzzling sequence of structures came to light.

First to see the light of day was a circular, stone-lined, pit, approximately 1.5 metres in diameter and 0.5 metres deep. At the top of this circular "container" lay the fragile remains of a baby boy. Later examination revealed that the infant had either been stillborn or died very close to birth.

The pit is thought to date from the very late Iron Age, by which time Minehowe's ditch would have been filled in and all but invisible. The archaeologists were expecting to find more remains as they dug deeper but found nothing.

Section Contents

External Link

  Back a page