Around the Ness: Knowes and barrows

“We know little about most of the mounds around the Ring, though the clustering is enough to demonstrate that proximity was important.”

Mark Edmonds. Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. 2019.
 
A section of Lieut. Thomas' 1849 map, showing the tumuli around the Ring of Brodgar.

A section of Lieut. Thomas’ 1849 map, showing the tumuli around the Ring of Brodgar.

By Sigurd Towrie

Although the Ring of Brodgar dominates the surrounding area, the stone circle is but the tip of an archaeological iceberg.

Erected in the Late Neolithic, it is clear, and perhaps not surprising, that the ring remained a site of special significance well into the Bronze Age. We know this because of the number of Bronze Age barrows that cluster around it. These are in addition to four very large mounds – one of which is perhaps contemporary with the stone circle and another that may pre-date it.

Because of the barrow cemeteries raised around them, we know that Neolithic sites across Orkney became a focus for Bronze Age activity. Being interred in the vicinity of a monument was clearly desirable and probably had social connotations – connecting the deceased, and perhaps more importantly their surviving families, to those who had gone before and bringing into play notions of belonging, ancestry and links to events from a semi-legendary past.

The largest of the mounds around the Ring of Brodgar are the four known as Salt Knowe [1], Fresh Knowe, South Knowe and Plumcake Mound – all of which were targeted by antiquarians in the 19th century.

Mounds and barrows around the Ring of Brodgar.

Mounds and barrows around the Ring of Brodgar.

Salt Knowe

Salt Knowe from the Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Salt Knowe from the Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Prominent on the flat ground 100 metres (109 yards) to the south-west of the Ring of Brodgar, the huge artificial mound known as Salt Knowe is arguably the most striking landscape feature around the stone circle.

Salt Knowe. (ORCA)

Salt Knowe. (ORCA)

Measuring around 37 metres (121 feet) by 33 metres (108 feet) and about five metres high (16 feet), the mound’s position by the eastern shore of the brackish Stenness loch is undoubtedly the origin of its name. How old that name is, however, is not clear.

The sheer size of Salt Knowe, matched only by Maeshowe, led to the belief that the mound housed a Neolithic chambered cairn. However, a combination of modern research and antiquarian “excavation” has suggested this is not the case.

Ground-penetrating radar scans of the knowe, carried out by the Orkney College geophysics unit in 2008, showed that it appeared to be nothing more than a massive mound of earth, with no central structure. A survey around base, however, revealed a number of possible pits and a ditch.

The 21st century findings tie in with a letter written to The Orcadian newspaper, in 1861, by the antiquarian James Farrer. Farrer, who was responsible for excavating Maeshowe, also delved into the tumuli around the Ring of Brodgar.

Salt Knowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

Salt Knowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

He wrote: “Certain it is that no stones of large dimensions are found at any depth in either of the tumuli. In each of them I have made an excavation, and find remains of animal, but no human bones; in each also the bones are chiefly in the upper part of the mound. The workmen have in both instances penetrated the subsoil, to the depth of 22 feet from the top and over an area of nine feet square in the tumulus…”

There is a Bronze Age cist on top of the mound, but it is not clear when, or by whom, it was uncovered.

Salt Knowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

Salt Knowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

Salt Knowe was long assumed, like the other mounds around the Ring of Brodgar, to date to somewhere between 2500BC and 1500BC – a fairly broad-brush dating that takes in the end of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. The truth, however, is that we do not know a date for the mound, although it may be contemporary to the Ring of Brodgar.

The modern survey work together with Farrer’s findings, or rather lack of them, has led to the suggestion that Salt Knowe may be a monumental mound similar to several found in Late Neolithic complexes across Britain, e.g. Droughduil mound at Dunragit in Galloway, Knowlton Great Barrow in Dorset, the Hatfield Barrow at Marden, and Silbury Hill, near Avebury [2].

Salt Knowe. (ORCA)

Salt Knowe. (ORCA)

The construction of Salt Knowe was a truly monumental undertaking and the effort required to excavate and transport the construction material – perhaps from the digging of the Brodgar ditch – speaks volumes. The result was a prominent and highly visible platform on which “to speak, to see and to be seen” [2].

As Professor Mark Edmonds points out, “even today, the presence of one or two figures on the summit never fails to draw the eye.” [3]

The discovery of nine arm rings of Viking silver in the 17th century has become associated with Salt Knowe, although the earliest accounts are extremely vague as to the location of the find site: “In one of these Hillocks near the Circle of high stones at the North end of the Bridge of Stennis, there were found nine Fibula of silver, of the shape of a Horseshoe, but round…” [4]

One cannot help but wonder if tales of the silver hoard find lay behind Farrer’s assault on the Brodgar tumuli.

Plumcake Mound

The denuded remains of Plumcake Mound. (Sigurd Towrie)

The denuded remains of Plumcake Mound. (Sigurd Towrie)

This mound, which gained its unfortunate name from early antiquarians attempting to describe its original shape, covered a slightly smaller area than the neighbouring Fresh Knowe but is nowhere near its height.

Situated to the east of the Ring of Brodgar, beside the Harray loch, Plumcake Mound is a shadow of its former self. The ruins of what was once a substantial mound now measures around 22 metres (72ft) in diameter and less than two metres (6.5ft) in height.

Visiting in 1848, Lieutenant Thomas described the mound as a “tumulus of peculiar form” [5].

“It may be aptly compared to the shape of a plum-cake [6], for it is circular, and rises nearly perpendicular for five feet, when it becomes almost flat on the top, or rather is surmounted by a very depressed cone.” [5]

According to Thomas, the mound had a diameter of c19 metres (62ft), stood 2.74 metres high (9 ft) and “had never been explored” [5].

The sorry remains of the Plumcake Mound. (Sigurd Towrie)

The sorry remains of the Plumcake Mound. (Sigurd Towrie)

Its undisturbed state did not last long, however. In 1854, James Farrer secured permission to dig into the mound. Assisting him was the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie, who noted that someone had beaten them to it. Unperturbed, Farrer pressed on, all but hacking Plumcake Mound in half in his hunt for treasure.

Petrie wrote: “On the 27th July last [1854], upwards of twenty men commenced operations on the elliptical and “plum-cake” barrows, but their labours were chiefly directed to the latter, in which a trench of about 9 feet wide was cut through the centre from north-east to south-west…” [7]

That same afternoon, the diggers came across a cist, “placed 5 or 6 feet southwards from the centre” [7]. The interior of the cist was 0.76m long (2ft 6in), 0.6m wide (2ft) and 0.64m deep (2ft 1in) and held a steatite “urn” containing cremated bone [7].

An old photograph showing the aftermath of Farrer's excavation into the Plumcake Mound.

An old photograph showing the aftermath of Farrer’s excavation into the Plumcake Mound.

Steatite, or soapstone, does not outcrop in Orkney and the nearest source is Shetland. It was imported and used in Orkney from the Early Bronze Age. Its use in cremation urns suggests the material had some significance to the people of Orkney. In Shetland, steatite vessels were served domestic and funerary roles but in Orkney all have been found in mortuary contexts [8].

A second cist, roughly the same size, was found a short distance away. It contained a clay pot, also holding fragments of cremated bone [7]. Within the body of the mound itself, the excavators found a broken stone pestle, and “a block of stone, with two rows of incised rings round it.” [7]

The mounds surrounding the Ring of Brodgar had long been thought to be burial mounds of fallen viking warriors and were associated with a 10th century conflict between Earl Havard hinn arsæli and his nephew Einar klining.

According to the Saga of Olaf Trygvesson, the earl perished at a place in Stenness “now called Hávar∂steigar”.

The placename Howardsty survived until the 19th century – and is discussed here – but there is no agreement as to what it was applied to. Some accounts applied it to the Ring of Brodgar, others the land around it and in some cases the entire Ness. What this meant was that this was taken as proof that the mounds were “the tombs of the early Scandinavians” [5] with Thomas having little doubt that “Earl Havard was buried beneath one of the Stenness tumuli” [5].

The discovery of the Plumcake mound remains were subsequently regarded as confirmation of a Viking presence on the Ness – although we now know they probably date from the Bronze Age.

Fresh Knowe

Fresh Knowe, with the Comet Stone visible to the right. (Sigurd Towrie)

Fresh Knowe, with the Comet Stone visible to the right. (Sigurd Towrie)

Lying to the north-east of the Ring of Brodgar, and across the modern road that bisects the Ness, is the mound known as the Fresh Knowe. Today, it remains an imposing part of the landscape.

Fresh Knowe from the Comet Stone. (Sigurd Towrie)

Fresh Knowe from the Comet Stone. (Sigurd Towrie)

The mound is elliptical in shape, and measures 38 metres (124.7ft) by 26 metres (85.3ft) across, and 5.7 metres (18.7ft) high. In the 19th century, George Petrie noted there was a ridge along the top of the mound, about 6.7 metres long (22ft).

Fresh Knowe was targeted for investigation by Farrer at the same time he opened the Plumcake mound. Despite “a very considerable cut” made into the north end, nothing was found [7].

An opinion prevalent at the time was that the mound was nothing more than the pile of earth and stone – made from the material removed during the digging of the ditch. Petrie strongly disagreed, noting instead the “evidence of far more care in its construction than was likely to be expended on a mere heap of rubbish” [7]

This, together with the mound’s size and elongated shape, strongly suggests it may be a stalled chambered cairn [2].

Again, its title is fairly modern, presumably coined because of the mound’s location beside the freshwater loch. In 1851, Orcadian George Petrie does not give it a name – referring to it simply as the elliptical mound. Writing in 1892, George Marwick, from the neighbouring parish of Sandwick, referred to it as “Farrar’s Knowe” (sic) because of the “gentleman of that name [who had] opened it some years ago.” [9]

Fresh Knowe from the Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Fresh Knowe from the Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

South Knowe

South Knowe, behind some of the Ring of Brodgar megaliths. (Sigurd Towrie)

South Knowe, behind some of the Ring of Brodgar megaliths. (Sigurd Towrie)

South Knowe is the badly denuded mound outside the south-western section of the Ring of Brodgar’s encircling ditch.

South Knowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

South Knowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

Measuring c.20 metres (65.6ft) by c.18 metres (59ft), the knowe survives to a maximum height of 1.8 metres (5.9ft). The hollow at the top is the result of antiquarian activity in the 19th century. These excavations were not recorded so it is not clear whether anything was found within. Being so close to the Ring of Brodgar, South Knowe has suffered greatly over the past decade, with increased visitor numbers meaning thousands of people a week clamber over it in the summer months.

South Knowe is one piece of evidence in the case against a bank surrounding the Ring of Brodgar. Had a bank existed, South Knowe could not have been raised in its current position [10].

Bronze Age barrows

Bronze Age barrow on a ridge of high ground with the top of Ward Hill, Hoy, in the distance. (Sigurd Towrie)

Bronze Age barrow on a ridge of high ground with the top of Ward Hill, Hoy, in the distance. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Ness of Brodgar is covered in clusters of Bronze Age barrows. The Ring of Brodgar clearly remained a focus for Bronze Age activity, with two linear arrangements lying to the south and east of the stone circle.

These contain nine surviving barrows, of varying size and form, the largest, and most obvious, being the three to the south of the stone circle. Approaching the ring from the south-east, they are clearly visible, along with the flattened top of the South Knowe, on the crest of a ridge of land to the left of the ring.

Survey work suggests a number of barrows have been flattened. A number of the survivors were “investigated” in the past, but what was found in them, if anything, was not recorded.

Notes

  • [1] Knowe and howe are interchangeable in Orkney, both meaning mound.
  • [2] Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J. (2020) Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.
  • [3] Edmonds, M. (2019) Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. Head of Zeus Ltd.
  • [4] Wallace, J. (1693). A Description of the Isles of Orkney. W. Brown.
  • [5] Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
  • [6] Presumably this is where the mound’s present name came from.
  • [7] Petrie, G., 1859. Description of antiquities in Orkney recently examined, with illustrative drawings. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 2, pp. 56-62).
  • [8] Sharman, P., Clarke, A., MacSween, A., Roberts, J., Alldritt, D. and Photos-Jones, E. (2007) Excavation of a Bronze Age funerary site at Loth Road, Sanday, Orkney. In Scottish archaeological internet reports, 25.
  • [9] Marwick, G. (1892) The Standing Stones of Stenness – Traces of the Ancient Road from the Quarries. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [10] 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.

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