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  Minehowe - The Underground Enigma

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the 2000 excavation

At the end of June 2000, four weeks of intensive archaeological work at Minehowe drew to a close.

Although an air of mystery remained around the ancient underground chamber, the excavation revealed evidence of a site that was soon heralded as "the heart of Iron Age Orkney".

Although all eyes were originally on the underground chamber, the 2000 excavations uncovered finds that categorically answered the one question that had puzzled archaeologists since the howe was reopened in 1999 - how old is it?

As originally expected, Minehowe turned out to be an Iron Age construction, dating from the middle or later years of the period, from around 200BC to 500AD.

Of particular interest were the artefacts and evidence found around the outside of the chamber, evidence provided the experts with a clearer understanding of various elements of Iron Age culture.

Throughout the excavation, a more elaborate, and fascinating, view of the area surrounding Minehowe emerged. This showed that the underground structure was merely a small part of what appeared to have been a prestigious and powerful Iron Age settlement.

Lying around 300 metres from Minehowe, were the remains of what was thought to be a broch. Were the inhabitants of the broch using the natural mound, now known as Longhowe, as a ceremonial walkway through the water and marshlands that then surrounded their stronghold?

The scale of the ditch

It had originally been thought that, because of the similarities between the Minehowe ditch and the one surrounding the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Tankerness site may have dated from the Neolithic period. The dig, however, ruled this idea out and placed Minehowe and its surrounding structures firmly in the Iron Age.

Orkney archaeologist Julie Gibson explained: "At the beginning we didn't know if this monument was all of a piece or whether it had possibly been a Neolithic ditch and chambered cairn which had been reinhabited by the Iron Age people.

"However now the excavations are complete and we have as yet no evidence of Neolithic working here at all. That isn't to preclude the possibility but it now seems extremely unlikely."

More information about the monument's enclosing ditch - first revealed by geophysicist John Gater in 1999 - was also gathered and proved particularly interesting.

Encircling the base of the howe, the 18 feet wide ditch was found to have been dug out to a depth of around 14 feet. The ditch surrounded Minehowe, leaving a single entrance causeway, built up with stonework at the sides, to allow access to the monument.

Evidence of ancient metalworking

The remains of an Iron Age roundhouse, lying beneath the remains of a later Pictish house, were found a short distance from Minehowe's entrance causeway.

Around this building, the excavators uncovered what has so far been the biggest example of Iron Age metalworking in Orkney.

Julie Gibson regarded the discovery of this area as particularly significant, particularly as it might shed light on the craft of these Iron Age metalworkers.

"We've got this great workshop interest here." she said. "Basically we've found all the stuff that goes with metalworking - ore, furnace bases, crucibles, moulds, bits of metalwork and whetstones. So we've found this metalworking area on the outside that is particularly important because all that's been found before is the artefacts. Evidence of the creation of these artefacts, however, is a not as common which makes this area extremely interesting to us. Most of our material that we've got at the moment has come out of the middens there."

"There's the sort of things you find in very special places in brochs set aside for metalworking but here off course we've got our broch separated from the metalworking area and from the ritual area (Minehowe) so I think we can maybe get some more answers about the thought that went into metalworking. Was it regarded as an almost "magical" process in a sense or a slightly dangerous process in this conversion of the stone and ore into metal and art?"

"This area is going to be important as it gives us an impression of how Iron Age people were thinking about this metalworking process as well as what they were actually doing. All of which is virtually unknown."

But although the evidence shows these early metalworkers were extremely active in the area surrounding Minehowe, when it comes to the actual quantity of the goods being produced, the experts could only guess.

"Basically, with these buildings we've only just scratched the surface." said Julie. "We haven't got down into them at all. What we have done is established that they are there and established roughly what was going on but there's no tangible links to the structures at present."

Around the howe

Most of the excavation work took place around the outside of Minehowe, with only a few excursions made inside the actual chamber.

Although it had been thought there was originally some sort of structure over the entrance to Minehowe's chamber, the investigations proved inconclusive.

"There doesn't appear to have been major structures at the front as far as that trench leads us to believe, so we haven't got that circular building with a knob on the top, but we may have something over to one side. We're just not certain." said Julie Gibson.

However, immediately before the entrance a curious flat stone was found and when carefully lifted revealed a small bowl-shaped scoop of earth. This scoop was filled with ash which is thought might have been the remains of a cremation.

Minehowe and the broch connection

Although the focus of the excavation was not directly on the underground chamber, the archaeologists now have a clear idea of the relationship between Minehowe and the other elements found in the ancient landscape.

Julie Gibson explained: "It's quite interesting in terms of the entire monument being a ritual area. The monument doesn't just consist of the underground structure - the monument consists of this great ditch and the underground structure and other things, including the niche at the rear of the howe, the paving and the deposition of this ashy material. Whatever this ash was it was definitely disposed off in that way - whether it was a cremation or the product of burning some other substance that was special and then was deposited there."

"What we've begun to see is that Minehowe is somehow connected to the nearby broch, which is less that 300 metres away, in that the entrance to the monument leads down towards Longhowe and then at the other end of Longhowe you have the broch with its external defences leading up onto the mound - so in a sense Longhowe a path between the broch and Minehowe. This is a physical link between the two which we didn't know about before."

Roman connections....

The discovery of artefacts with a distinctly Roman origin - a fibula brooch, pottery fragments and glass - is also helping the archaeologists build up a picture of how the area was used in the Iron Age.

"What is particularly interesting about the Roman finds is that we put in two very small ditches and out of the one very small ditch section we've found the fibula brooch, the glass and two or three other bits of pottery that were Roman. Now that's quite a lot given the amount of area that we've opened up which has the potential to produce these finds. Had we opened more we may well have found more of these high-class trading goods."

"These Roman finds are only paralleled in broch sites in Orkney. So what we're beginning to get is a clear link between the broch and this site (Minehowe) - a link that is making the explanation of these funny wells in brochs clearer as ritual by dint of inference from this. All in all the site is extremely important in that it is going to give us an insight into the rituals of the Iron Age period - rituals which at the moment are not really understood at all."

A ritual landscape?

An important result of the Minehowe excavation was the confirmation that the Iron Age community who were reusing a landscape that had already been used by their Bronze Age ancestors still appeared to have some reverence for those who had gone before.

According to Julie Gibson it was clear that in creating their ceremonial walkway across the top of Longhowe to Minehowe, the Iron Age builders were leaving the Bronze Age cist burials undisturbed.

She said: "We can now see that the Iron Age builders built their causeway across the top of Longhowe through what was previously a Bronze Age ritual landscape to an Iron Age ritual landscape of their own."

When it came to the most important discovery of the excavation, Julie was in no doubt.

"I think it has to be the metalworking area - it's going to prove very exciting in the future. As objects I can't decide between the fibula brooch and the bronze stud but I think that it's the totality of it, the sheer enormity of the monument that is the "star find" and its connection to the broch, I think that's the key thing."

Focus on the East Mainland

For Tom Muir, who grew up in the shadow of Minehowe, the attention the site has brought to the East Mainland is well deserved and long overdue.

"There has always been this sort of intellectual snobbery going on from way, way back." He said. "The West Mainland has all the really well known sites and even as far back as the 1800s the East Mainland was being dismissed as insignificant.

A prime example of this attitude can be found within the pages of the Third Statistical Account that relates an account made by the Reverend Charles Clouston of Sandwick in 1862.

In his guide to the East Mainland he states:

"The traveller may with ease ride round all the East Mainland in the course of a day: but we have nothing to hold out as an inducement for undertaking such a journey."

In other words, the Reverend Clouston was telling his readers not to bother!

Tom continued: "Whereas the archaeology of the East Mainland isn't maybe as conspicuous as the West Mainland, with your stone circles and suchlike, there is an awful lot out here. It usually just lying there and if it's ever been looked at, it was just delved into by antiquarians of the nineteenth century - much like Dingieshowe was - or more often than not its existence was just recorded and it was left.

"The one thing that this excavation really has done for me personally is having toured around Tankerness and Toab with Dr Colin Richards, you start looking for the lumps and bumps whereas before you just drove past and you never thought about it. The amount of mounds around that area is staggering. Even the natural glacial ones like Longhowe and the one at the back of Kirkyard all have activity on top of them - there are either settlements or in the case of Longhowe there's these Bronze Age cist burials."

"So this was a burial place for people in the Bronze Age, then you have this chamber with the ditch around it being constructed in the Iron Age as a sort of significant religious centre of some sort but considered special. And then you had a medieval chapel in the area and nowadays you've got the kirkyard. So local folks still see it as a special place because it's the final resting place of their ancestors and their families."

"It gives a nice feeling of continuity from the Bronze Age right through to the present day that this small area has always been set aside as somewhere a bit special."