2022’s top ten – human remains between Structures Eight and Seventeen

The Structure Eight orthostatic box with suspect human femur fragment (highlighted) in situ. (Jo Bourne)

The Structure Seveteen orthostatic box with human femur fragment (highlighted) in situ. (Jo Bourne)

Excavation of an orthostatic box in 2022, introduced an intriguing new element into the relationship between Structures Seventeen and Eight.

The bone fragment after careful excavation and in the finds hut. (Sigurd Towrie)

The bone fragment after careful excavation and in the finds hut. (Sigurd Towrie)

The box – which was clearly, given its contents, not a hearth – had been placed on the remains of Seventeen’s northern wall before being covered over and Structure Eight built on top.

What was particularly interesting was that the box contained part of a human femur (leg bone). Only the ball that connected to the hipbone socket had survived.

But why was the femur of an apparently healthy young man, or at least part of it, placed in a box under the floor of Structure Eight? Was it alone or were there other remains which have since perished?

This interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggested Professor Colin Richards, and perhaps explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts (e.g. Stonehall, Skara Brae, Knap of Howar).

Were skeletal parts being removed from cairns, relocated and possibly exchanged? Perhaps to bring “life” to a new building, sealing agreements or even regarded as some form of “magical” protection.

The fragment of what appears to be human bone is carefully recovered by Rosalind, one of the finds team. (Jo Bourne)

The femur fragment is carefully recovered. (Jo Bourne)

However the femur ended up in the Structure Seventeen box, it is only the second example of a body part being associated with a building at the Ness – the first being the adult humerus deposited beneath one of the Structure Ten buttresses added, around 2800BC, during the building’s second phase rebuilding/remodelling.

The humerus was found beside a large spread of animal bone – mostly cattle – under the south-western buttress inside the building. It belonged to an adult and was radiocarbon dated to c2800BC – the same period that saw the interior of Structure Ten remodelled and four corner buttresses added. These turned the original, square interior space into a smaller, cruciform chamber.

Two of the buttresses had already produced exciting finds – such as our carved stone ball, a magnificent incised stone and an upright vessel with vertical “stitching” – all of them representing items deliberately deposited, presumably to mark the remodelling. In 2019, a sea eagle wing was also found under the south-western buttress.

The human arm bone under the buttress of Structure Ten.

Back in 2016, we pondered the significance of this single bone. Had it been relocated from a chambered tomb? Perhaps the remains of an ancestor?

But following radiocarbon dating this seems unlikely.

Whoever the arm bone belonged to had died around the same time as work was being carried out on Structure Ten. But what their relationship to the building and the site as a whole is something we will never know.

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