Agents of transformation – chambered cairns in Neolithic Orkney

The presence of two main styles of Neolithic chambered cairn in Orkney has led to years of debate on their dates, use and development.

Here, Sigurd looks at current thinking on Orkney’s cairns, particularly in light of a recent programme of date re-analysis, which is challenging decades-old assumptions regarding the structures, as well as Neolithic society in the islands.

Maeshowe interior. (Jim Richardson)
Maeshowe interior. (📷 Jim Richardson)

Chambered cairns are found in distinct clusters across Britain and Ireland — notably south-west England, Northern Ireland and western and northern Scotland. In Orkney, they remain the most common, and highly visual, signs of the Orcadian Neolithic (c3700-2500BC).

Sites of fascination since the 19th century, antiquarian investigations saw the term “tomb” attached to the monuments, which led to an inevitable colouring of their interpretation. The problem with the word “tomb” is that it implies a sole funerary function and the permanent interment of corpses.

While there is no doubt that human remains played a part in the lives of some cairns, they were not mere mausoleums.

A more neutral term,” suggested Richard Bradley, “is to describe these constructions as ‘mortuary monuments'” (1998: 54), but, again, this may be over-emphasising the role of the dead — particularly given the fact that few examples in Orkney have actually yielded human remains (Crozier et al. 2016: 198).

It seems more likely that they served as monuments for events relating to both the living and the dead.

Many attempts to understand cairns have undoubtedly simplified their roles, assuming, based on architectural similarity, that they all served the same purpose, despite variations in layout, location and content.


Although the complexity and design of chambered cairns varies across Britain and Ireland, they generally followed the same basic layout — a stone-built chamber, enclosed by a cairn. While attention tends to concentrate to the interior architecture, it is also likely that the exteriors played a major role in their function.  Not only did the encapsulating mound ensure the monument was clearly visible in the landscape, it formed a physical barrier separating the chamber and its contents from the outside world.

Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairn

In northern Scotland, Caithness and Sutherland are dominated by Orkney-Cromarty cairns (Henshall 1963). These are also found in Orkney, along with the Maeshowe-type (ibid) — although the former considerably outnumber the latter.

Maeshowe-type Chambered Cairn

These forced typologies led to assumptions about the age and development of cairns — particularly that the Orkney-Cromarty cairns evolved, over centuries, into the Maeshowe-type structures (Renfrew 1979: 210).

Doubt has been cast on this model by a re-analysis of Orkney radiocarbon and luminescence dates, which has prompted “a radical reassessment” of Neolithic Orkney (Bayliss et al 2017: 1182).

Rather than Renfrew’s evolution, the Times of Their Lives (ToTL) project posits that both styles were first built in the middle of the fourth millennium BC — “although, with current evidence, it is not possible to state which came first” (ibid: 1178).

So, we have a situation where both groups were used concurrently, with deposition of human remains in Orkney-Cromarty structures ending around 2900BC — four centuries before the practice ceased in the Maeshowe group (ibid: 1182).

With both styles, however, activity continued around the structures after these dates, specifically the deposition of animal remains (ibid: 1178).

The Midhowe chambered cairn, Rousay, showing the interior divided by pairs of orthostats. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Midhowe stalled cairn, Rousay, showing the interior divided by pairs of orthostats. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The Orkney-Cromarty cairns are made up of a rectangular chamber, divided into stalled “compartments” by orthostat pairs.

The number of compartments varies from as few as three — e.g. Bigland Round (Davidson & Henshall 1989: 101-102) to the 26 encountered at the Knowe of Ramsay (ibid: 135-136).

Covered by round or rectangular cairns, these linear structures can also incorporate shelf-like structures and feature end chambers dominated by large, monumental back slabs.

Similarities to early Orcadian domestic architecture — specifically the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray — led to the notion that Orkney-Cromarty cairns were the first monumental mortuary structures in the north, dating from between 3750-3500BC in Caithness (Ashmore 1996: 29) and between 3600-3500BC in Orkney (Ritchie 2009: 26; Sheridan & Higham 2006: 202-203; 2007: 225; Barber 1997: 58-60).

Side cells are typical of the Maeshowe group, with one or more branching off from a central chamber. Access to the main chamber is by a long, low passage and the entire structure is covered by a circular cairn

Sticking to typology, Orkney-Cromarty cairns do not have side cells, although they are incorporated into “hybrid” chambers, such as Unstan (Davidson & Henshall 1989: 164-167) and Isbister (ibid: 125-130).

Plan of Maeshowe, showing the side-cells typical of this category of chambered cairn.
Plan of Maeshowe, showing the side-cells typical of this category of chambered cairn. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

While the Orkney-Cromarty style implies contacts with mainland Scotland, the Maeshowe cairns have been linked to relationships further afield, specifically Ireland.

Social standing

Irish passage grave architecture, it is suggested, was just one element copied by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadian groups looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition” (Schulting et al. 2010: 39).

This scramble for social standing in Orkney is echoed in the construction of “increasingly large and elaborate stalled cairns” (ibid: 40) as groups sought to outdo each other in the creation and maintenance of “exotic ancestral origin myths” from outside Orkney (Richards et al. 2016: 241).

The resultant “competitive, fluid and unstable” situation within Orcadian society (ibid: 243) saw “rivalries played out” as people invested “time and labour in monuments relating to deities, ancestors and origins that stretched well beyond the shores of Late Neolithic Orkney” (Bayliss et al. 2017: 1185).

Behind this hypothesis is the idea that cairns not only laid claim to land but emphasised the builders’ connection to it. Writing in 1954, Stuart Piggot planted the seed that the early British mortuary monuments were the burial places of the first Neolithic farmers — markers in a landscape being colonised by new people.

Inside the Cuween Hill cairn, showing the entrances to two of the three side chambers. (Sigurd Towrie)
Inside the Cuween Hill cairn, showing the entrances to two of the four side chambers. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The arrival of agriculture brought a different way of perceiving, and interacting with, the landscape. While the hunting, fishing and gathering of their Mesolithic predecessors continued to an extent, the new farming communities were bound, by necessity, to a sedentary lifestyle.

Farmers must invest time and effort in their land if they are to be successful — and, by extension, survive.

The anthropologist Meillassoux (1972: 99) proposed this forced attachment to their land, and the timescales involved, meant the concept of ancestors was more important to agrarian societies than Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

This led to the suggestion that cairns were built as different groups claimed land (Renfrew 1976) and that the physical presence of genealogical forebears legitimised these claims (Chapman 1981; Bradley 1984).

Housing the ancestors

These “ancestors” were represented by the remains of the dead, housed in structures that were visible indicators of their builders’ right to be there.

Whether this was an entirely new mindset remains open to debate, with suggestions that the creation of massive shell mounds in the Mesolithic might indicate their creators “had an understanding of the world that was not inconsistent with notions of Neolithic monumentality” (Cummings, 2000: 74).

These “enduring places on the landscape,” like the later Neolithic monuments, may not have been the simple detritus of shellfish gathering and consumption but a deliberate attempt to create permanent markers (Pollard 2000: 130) at significant areas, and which were repeatedly returned to and enhanced or altered (Mellars and Andrews 1987).

If these Mesolithic shell mounds were more than mere rubbish dumps, their roles were perhaps not unlike that of the Neolithic chambered cairns — both were bound up in social identity, remembrance and anchored the community responsible for them firmly to the locale.

Interacting with the dead

From the earliest antiquarian incursions into chambered caitns, it was noted that it was not only the number of bodies (if any) that differed but the nature of the assemblages. These varied from entire articulated skeletons, jumbled piles of disarticulated bone or neatly organised deposits.

Where disarticulated bone was encountered, skulls and longbones seemed to have been singled out and it was clear from their arrangement – that the remains had been deliberately re-ordered.  At the Knowe of Yarso, Rousay, for example, skulls had been placed around the edge of the chamber’s rear with other bones in the centre.

At Midhowe, among the remains of at least 25 individuals, nine articulated skeletons had been placed in a crouched/sitting position along the right-hand side of the chamber. There were also four heaps of bones, each representing one person, solitary skulls, and a mixed deposit containing the remains of two adults and a child.

This suggested that Neolithic chambered cairns were not simply built and left alone. They were clearly re-entered regularly — not just for the deposition of corpses but to interact with earlier skeletal material.

At the Holm of Papa Westray North, Anna Ritchie had no doubt that human remains were being manipulated — a fact her excavation “proved beyond doubt” (2009: 30).

Disarticulated bone that had been “pushed to the rear…in order to create space” was seen as evidence that cairns were re-entered regularly — not just to deposit new bodies but to interact with those already present (Richards 1993). This interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggests Colin Richards (1988: 114) and perhaps explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts (e.g. Skara Brae, Knap of Howar).

This points at remains being removed from cairns, relocated and possibly exchanged — perhaps to bring “life” to a new building or cairn, sealing agreements or even as some form of spiritual protection.

The disarticulated bone encountered over the years led to one of the most tenacious images of the Orcadian Neolithic — that of corpses being defleshed outside the cairn before some remains were transferred inside.  Following the excavation of Quanterness, in 1972-74, excarnation was cited as the reason for a lack of smaller bones (Renfrew et al. 1976) and this arguably reached its zenith following the excavation of the Isbister cairn, South Ronaldsay (Hedges 1984).

Doubt was cast on the idea of excarnation following a re-evaluation of the Quanterness bone assemblage, which now points to whole, fully fleshed, bodies being placed within the chambered cairn and left to decay — a process that may have been hastened by deliberate dismemberment (Crozier et al. 2016).

Skara Brae Neolithic settlement, Sandwick, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)
Skara Brae Neolithic settlement, Sandwick, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Where’s the Neolithic dead?

It is also clear that only a fraction of the Neolithic dead ended up in chambered cairns (Cummings 2016: 94).

We know this because where human remains have been found, the quantity could not possibly reflect the size of the populations that built or used the structures.

But if not all, then who? There is no answer to that question yet. What we can say is the few instances where remains were encountered, the skeletal assemblage represented men, women and children of all ages. Whether these represented status, lineages, a chosen few or something else entirely remains open to debate.

In some cases, they may have represented generic ancestors, but perhaps not always.

Instead, we may need to step back from the “spectre” of the “omnipresent ancestor” (Whitley 2002: 119) and recognise that there may have been different processes for dealing with the dead and that these involved different structures.

To Miles Russell, cairns were “community archives” (2002: 66) that held the bones of individuals “considered to be representative of the community” (2002: 68). The human element, he suggests, was just one of a number of deposits (e.g. pottery, artefacts and animal remains) that defined the relevant social group. These individuals were not necessarily the “great and the good” and “may not have gone willingly” to their deaths (2002: 68).

According to David Lawrence, injuries noted within the Isbister and Rowiegar bone assemblages in Orkney are unlikely to have ritual causes (2012: 524) but instead suggests violence and strife within the communities (ibid: 339). These interments were perhaps attempts to “contain” the bodies of those who had met unnatural or untimely deaths (Fowler 2010: 15).

But given the number of cairns across Orkney — and the concentration in some areas — can they all represent ancestral markers?

To Vicki Cummings, the idea that each community had their own chambered cairn, with each one serving the same purpose, requires rethinking (2016: 113). She suggests that groups built multiple monuments for different reasons, such as “social upheaval, violent episodes, dealing with ‘difficult’ deaths or to create new lineage groups.” (ibid: 113).

These “fulfilled different social needs in each community,” and their “meanings and importance to a group varied considerably.” (ibid).

Maeshowe, Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)
Maeshowe, Stenness. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

As sites of transformation — the place where the body of known individuals passed into the realm of the dead — they were perhaps also the venues for ceremonies involving the living, such as rites of passage, fertility or even conduits to interact with deities or spirits.

In addition, as has been argued for the Ring of Brodgar (Downes et al. 2013: 118), perhaps the act of constructing the cairn was the significant factor and not necessarily the end product (McFadyen 2006).

These roles are too subtle to recognise, or understand, through archaeological analysis of architecture, material contents, orientation and landscape position alone. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Although it is likely that cairns had more than one function, archaeological work in Orkney does suggest a major element was providing links to the past, kinship and descent (Richards & Jones 2016: 40).

As mentioned previously, parallels with domestic architecture saw cairns heralded “houses for the dead” (Callander & Grant 1937: 305) — structures based on the dwellings of the living.

It is now clear, however, that the opposite was the case and it was the cairns that influenced the dwellings, meaning householders lived “within the tomb and within the past.” (Richards & Jones 2016: 40).

This maintenance of these ancestral links ties in with the seemingly volatile nature of Neolithic Orcadian society (Bayliss et al. 2017, Richards & Jones 2016).

Against this backdrop of intense competition, we must question whether human remains became regarded as a commodity of sorts — ancestral relics that could be used as a route to power — and that the role of cairns was manipulated as different groups vied for influence and prestige

The rise of the Maeshowe style suggests subtle changes in ideas and beliefs and arguably an element of control forced on society.

Where the exteriors of stalled cairns served as a stage for the activities outside and, to a certain degree, allowed audiences to experience what went on within, by the time the ditch around Maeshowe was dug, around 2600BC (Bayliss et al. 2017: 1179), onlookers were forcibly detached from proceedings (Richards 1988: 147).

This exclusion by architectural elements — the passage-way, ditch and bank — was surely linked to “a control over ritual knowledge as a source of knowledge within society” (ibid).

Wideford Hill chambered cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)
Wideford Hill chambered cairn. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

It is tempting to suggest these later ceremonies no longer relied on ancestral remains, given the absence of bone at Wideford Hill and Maeshowe, but may have instead focused on heirlooms or other such “objects of power”.

Given current thoughts on Neolithic Orkney (Bayliss et al. 2017, Richards and Jones 2016), it is hard not to see a theatrical situation where the majority were being manipulated by a select few as part of their ongoing quest for prestige.

If this were the case, it is somewhat ironic that chambered cairns, in their roles as agents of change and transformation, were ultimately part of the unsustainable situation blamed for the ultimate demise of Orkney’s influential place in prehistoric Britain.

While cairns undoubtedly linked the present to the past — be it real or a mythical construction — I would suggest they served numerous roles that not only varied by geography but perhaps also within each individual social group.

The decline of stalled cairns perhaps saw human remains become less important, making way for heirlooms or objects that highlighted origin myths outside Orkney.

Given Maeshowe’s solstice alignment, one cannot help but wonder whether, by the late Neolithic, sections of Orcadian society had gone as far as extending claimed ancestry to the semi-divine.

The fact that older structures remained a focus of activity, and that later cairns were revisited, hints at a reluctance to give up on “old ways” — particularly in the face of a disintegrating society losing links to areas that it had fought so hard to create and maintain.

Further reading


  • Ashmore, P. J. (1996) Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland. B. T. Batsford Ltd/Historic Scotland
  • Barber, J. (1997) The excavation of a stalled cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney Edinburgh: Star Monograph I
  • Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), 1171-1188
  • Bradley, R. (1984) The social foundations of prehistoric Britain. Harlow: Longman
  • ​ —. (1998) The Significance of Monuments: On the shaping of human experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Routledge.
  • Callander, J.G. and Grant, W.G. (1937) Long Stalled Cairn at Blackhammer, Rousay, Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 71, 297-308
  • Card, N. (2005) Excavation of Bookan chambered cairn, Sandwick, Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 135, 163–190
  • Chapman, R. (1981) The emergence of formal disposal areas and the ‘problem’of megalithic tombs in prehistoric Europe. The archaeology of death, 71-81
  • Corcoran, J.X.W.P. (1964) Excavation of three chambered cairns at Loch Calder, Caithness. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 98, 1-75
  • Crozier, R. (2016) Fragments of death — a taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney
  • —. (2016) Reorientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 196-223)
  • Cummings, V. (2000) The origins of monumentality? Mesolithic world views of the landscape in western Britain. In Mesolithic on the Move, papers presented at the Sixth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, Stockholm, 74-81
  • —. (2016) The Neolithic of Britain and Ireland. Routledge
  • Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Downes, J., Richards, C., Brown, J., Cresswell, A.J., Ellen, R., Davies, A.D., Hall, A., McCulloch, R., Sanderson, D.C. and Simpson, I.A. (2013) Investigating the Great Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. In Richards C. (Ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, 90-118. Oxford: Windgather Press
  • Fowler, C. (2010) Pattern and diversity in the early Neolithic mortuary practices of Britain and Ireland: contextualising the treatment of the dead. Documenta Praehistoria 37, 1-22
  • Henshall, A. (1963) The Chambered Tombs of Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • —. (1985) The Chambered Cairns. In The Prehistory of Orkney, ed Renfrew, C. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Lawrence, D. (2006) Neolithic mortuary practice in Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 136, 47-60.
  • ​       —. (2012) Orkney’s first farmers: Reconstructing biographies from osteological analysis to gain insights into life and society in a Neolithic community on the edge of Atlantic Europe. Volumes One and Two.
  • McFadyen, L. (2006) Building techniques, quick and slow architectures and Early Neolithic long barrow sites in southern Britain. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 21, 70-81.
  • Meillassoux, C. (1972) From reproduction to production: a Marxist approach to economic anthropology, Economy and Society 1: 93-105
  • Mellars, P. and Andrews, M.V. (1987). Excavations on Oronsay: prehistoric human ecology on a small island. Edinburgh University Press
  • Petrie, G. (1849) Letter to Daniel Wilson, quoted within Davidson & Henshall, 1989
  • Piggot, S. (1954) The Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press
  • Pollard. J. (2000) Ancestral places in the Mesolithic landscape. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 17, 123-138
  • Renfrew, C. (1976) Megaliths, territories and populations. In S. De Laet (ed) Acculturation and continuity in Atlantic Europe, 198-220. Bruges: De Tempel
  • —. (1979) Investigations in Orkney (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London)
  • Richards, C. (1988) An Archaeological Study of Neolithic Orkney: Architecture, Order and Social Order.
  • —. (1992) Doorways into another world: the Orkney-Cromarty chambered tombs. Vessels for the Ancestors, 62-76
  • —. (ed) (2013) Building the great stone circles of the north. Oxford: Windgather Press
  • Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press.
  • Ritchie, A. and Ashmore, P. (2009) On the Fringe of Neolithic Europe: excavation of a chambered cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray, Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
  • Russell, M. (2002) Monuments of the British Neolithic: The roots of architecture. Tempus Pub Limited
  • Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2010) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140, 1-50.
  • Sheridan, A. and Higham, T. (2006) The re-dating of some Scottish specimens by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU): results receiving during 2007, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 7, 202-209
  • —. (2007) The re-dating of some Scottish specimens by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU): results receiving during 2007, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 8, 225
  • Smith, M. and Brickley, M. (2009) People of the long barrows. Place: The History Press
  • Whitley, J. (2002) Too many ancestors. Antiquity 76 (291), 119-126

You may also like...