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  The Crantit Cairn, St Ola

The Crantit lightbox - was it or wasn't it

Lightbox: 3D Graphic by Sigurd TowrieAlthough the contents of the Crantit cairn proved disappointing, the fact that its roof was still intact revealed one intriguing construction.

The south-east facing section of the cairn appeared to have a notch in the wall. Although it looked like no more than a broken stone, it seemed that the "notch" had been put there deliberately.

This immediately led to theories that the gap was a "lightbox" - an gap to allowed the rays of the rising sun to enter the cairn at specific times of the year.

Like Maeshowe and its midwinter alignment, the Crantit cairn, it was suggested, seemed to have an alignment of its own.


Enthusiasts made calculations, but the results led to some confusion as to the actual times the sun would have illuminated the chamber.

Differing accounts of the excavation give early February and November as the time of the alignment, while others declared mid-February and mid-October.

But there was a problem.

The fact that the tomb was sealed off meant that the entire roof area would have been covered in clay so the 'lightbox' would have been blocked. However, later archaeological work, in 1999, revealed otherwise.

The second major excavation was investigating a number of elements surrounding the design of the cairn. The lack of an obvious entrance to the tomb had puzzled archaeologists, so the 1999 dig concentrated mainly on how the cairn was built and its original appearance.

The investigation revealed that the cairn had not actually been covered by a mound, but had instead been dug into the ground. This seemed to indicate that it was never meant to be particularly visible from the surface. This fact marked the Crantit cairn as being hughly unusual. The majority of Orkney's chambered cairns are prominent structures, built on the surface and covered by mounds of earth.

As a subterranean chamber, the Crantit cairn had no entrance, in the sense of a door. During construction, access to the tomb was probably through the roof - but it was theorised that this would have been sealed up after the tomb received the remains of the dead.

The sealing of the tomb also seemed to have affected the cairn's lightbox. According to archaeologist, Beverly Ballin-Smith, the gap did function while the tomb was open but disappeared once it was sealed.

This then leads to the question, was the cairn reopened at certain times of the year?

And as for the alignment, what is the significance of the February and November sunrise? Did it mark the beginning and end of winter - a time of death and rebirth?

Or was their no significance to its alignment and the gap was merely a ventilation hole to allow the stench of human remains to clear?

Crantit must fall into the category of a site, which, even after archaeological work, left many questions unanswered. Who was the woman? Why was she in the chamber? Were the children hers - if not, who were they? Could it be that the fourth skull had been the woman's husband?

We will never know.