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  Minehowe - The Underground Enigma

The original excavation

When news of Minehowe hit the world's headlines in 1999, the chamber was not actually a new discovery - it was originally uncovered and "excavated" in 1946.

Leafing through the pages of The Orcadian newspaper archives, we can read a graphic account of the structure's discovery, and subsequent excavation, by Mr and Mrs J.W. Tait, Quoyburray, Tankerness.

Aided by Mr Alfred Harcus, the "teacher of manual work" at Kirkwall Grammar School, the 1946 Minehowe investigations were prompted by a story Mrs Tait had heard from one of her older neighbours.

This yarn told how an unfortunate cow had once vanished into a hole on the top of the 40-foot mound.

From this, her knowledge of local history, and some intriguing accounts of "mysterious things happening to people working near the howies," Mrs Tait persuaded her husband to investigate.

On April 24, 1946, digging began on one of the smaller mounds.

Between April and July of that year, the friends and neighbours of the Taits worked tirelessly on the howe. One man dug at a time while the remainder hauled up the earth with buckets and ropes.

The Orcadian newspaper of August 29, 1946, christened the discovery "the Orkney Mystery of the 29 Steps" and told fascinated readers how the jubilant diggers brought back to the surface "stone axes, knives, hammers and a piece of clay urn," as well as the "hundreds of bones and other relics strewn about the floor of this chamber."

The report went on to explain that among the items found were "curious polished stones, two teeth and some bones."

Another hole revealed quantities of cockle shells, a find which convinced the excavators they were working on an ancient dwelling.

Throughout the excavation Mrs Tait recorded the day-to-day progress of the dig in a diary, excerpts of which made it onto the pages of The Orcadian.

Despite the fact that the initial work was tedious and revealed nothing, Mrs Tait remained convinced something lay within the mound. The first entry within her diary records:

"No results or prospects in view, but old folk, on their memories of local tales, assured me that if we dug further we would find something."

The second entry takes two lines:

Wednesday, April 24 We dug a little further in the same spot, with little enthusiasm and no progress. Volunteers had come along to help and those who stayed longest to see the work through were Robert Garrioch of Hawell; Gordon Bews, Crofty; James Work, Nearhouse and William Shearer of Little Twiness.
Friday, April 26 Kirkwall Holiday - very cold! A reconnaissance of the Howes by A. Harcus (the boss) to see what would be a likely spot for an entrance to the imagined dwellings. With our curiosity somewhat roused, we arranged to proceed into these mounds still further.
Saturday, April 27 Too many helpers for the Lang Howe. For quicker results we transferred some workers to the "Mine" or "Mamie' Howe". They worked with great zeal. At about 9.30 pm James Miller (who had relieved A. Harcus at digging) discovered a hole. His attention was attracted by small stones rumbling into a deep hole. He tied a stone to a string to plumb the depth of what might be a deep exit or entrance to - who knows - a fortress, cell or chapel. Since that discovery work on Lang Howe has been forsaken and everything concentrated at the fruitful point. It soon began to yield results.
Monday, April 29 No great progress; just a few spoonfuls of earth removed (oh, vile sarcasm). Started another excavation on top of the howe.
Tuesday, April 30 A great night. They came to a lintel and, with the aid of torches, could see about 14 feet down into an open space. The exit, or hole to this entrance is roughly five and a half feet deep. All left for home highly satisfied with their discovery."

Their morale lifted by the discovery, the excavators worked slowly and methodically, slowly revealing more and more of the ancient structure and reaching deeper into the mound.
Wednesday, May 1

Taking earth out bucketful by bucketful, we uncovered a stone platform, and with further clearance, came on a stone flag resembling a step. A. Harcus is fully convinced this is the place to investigate first, but he said we must go no further until we made it safe by taking more earth away from the face of the hole that revealed this exciting prehistoric place.

This meant a tedious job over a number of evenings. The entrance was most inconvenient - low and narrow, like the passage way into Maeshowe. But in the job of clearing, the diggers brought to light different materials from the long dead past. There were curious polished stones (fairly common in Orkney excavations), two teeth and some bones. Another hole produced quantities of cockle shells, making the supposition stronger that this was some kind of dwelling.

Monday, May 6 The space is clearing. Looking down tonight we could see a solid basement, built walls, lintels and jambs. A stairway was also revealed, and with enthusiasm the workers cleared off the earth that had lain so long on the eight stone steps.
Tuesday, May 7 More steps - down to the thirteenth, leading inside this chambered mound. They are able to crawl into the top passage, that winds for about 20 feet.
Thursday, May 9 Tonight we know there are three chambers, but it is not yet safe to go in.
Saturday, May 11 Councillor Flett, FSA (Scot) inspected our labours and seemed quite impressed, making us think it was not such a fruitless quest. Sixteen steps are now in sight, and we can enter the third and biggest apartment.
Tuesday, May 14 Wretchedly cold and showery. A. Harcus took a rough sketch and some measurements and Bill Shearer and Bob Garrioch plodded on with the digging.
Friday, May 17 From the 16th to the 24th step. It is still winding its way down into the bowels of the earth, and still a lasting wonder. I think that down below the parapet of this place we may light on yet more discoveries to show us how these ancient people lived. It is pleasant to imagine that the bones we are finding are from the tombs of a race of people that were beginning to make the first rude beginnings to the noble shrines like St Magnus Cathedral, and towards the amenities of civilised life today.
Wednesday, May 22 Weather still improving. They have now uncovered the 27th step and the staircase still winds its way down through the third chamber.
Thursday, May 30 The usual men began digging on top of another howe - the "Round Howe" as it is called. A foot down they came on a tomb with burnt bones, but nothing in the way of an entrance into the howe. The article in today's "Orcadian" roused a lot of comment, and many asked: "Who put it in?" No-one knew - not even A. Harcus, the culprit.
Wednesday, June 5 No work tonight, but the clearing away of the earth and rubble has made great strides in the past week. A letter from Mr James S. Richardson of the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments, Ministry of Works, Edinburgh, says he will pay an official visit on the 13th.
Wednesday, June 12 Weather improved and more earth brought out from the bottom. Still finding ashes, bones and stones. The men think they have come to a big stone bottom, but there is still a lot of rubbish to clear away.
Thursday, June 13 Mr Richardson and members of the Inspectorate came tonight. They declared themselves very much impressed by the way the work had been carried out, and by what has already been revealed. They want to have this scheduled as an ancient monument, which means the land will be fenced round and protected for all time. Mr Richardson said trenches should be dug on the side of the mound to see if it would bring to light (as he expects) the wall of a tower, like one of the old brochs.
Saturday, June 15 The men cleaned out the bottom of the beehive chamber. There is a large, thick flagstone forming the floor and from the last step there is a drop of five feet to the flag bottom. Mr Richardson thought it might be a well, but that would not have been my explanation.
Monday, June 24 The boss of the excavations has again resumed his duties after much interruption on school work.
Tuesday, June 25 A. Harcus and R. Garrioch did some cleaning of the interior passages, particularly of the spiral that winds down the beehive building. This one comes just about the turn of the stairs, 15th or 16th step down the spiral. The other passage is higher up and to one side. It doesn't seem so well made as the one they have been working at. A man can now crawl into it, and it seems to go about 20 to 30 feet further on. But it needs a great deal of cleaning.
Monday, July 1 A. Harcus paid a last visit before he goes on holiday. His instructions are that the passages are to be cleared of rubble and the top of the excavation cleaned up until he comes back to undertake a new campaign."

Whether this new campaign took place is not recorded but at some point shortly after the structure was filled in again - primarily because Mr Tait was worried his sheep might fall into the open mound.

Barrels were used to block up the staircase, the entrance covered over again and before long there was little visible evidence of the Tait's excavation.

Minehowe lay hidden for a further 50 years, its existence almost slipping into the realms of local legend.

But now, thanks to the work of local farmer Douglas Paterson, the extraordinary site is accessible once again and has been hailed as a site of international significance.

The first series of excavations around the mysterious structure began in May 2000. The four-week dig not only revealed that Minehowe was indeed from the middle to late Iron Age but that it was merely a small part in an incredible ancient landscape.

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