Crantit chambered cairn

“From the outset the evidence has defined the Crantit tomb as a small, discrete and subterranean structure, which did not require the resources needed for the construction of a large and prominent structure.”
(Beverley Ballin Smith. Between Tomb and Cist. 2014)

By Sigurd Towrie

St Ola map

In April 1998, the discovery of a prehistoric chambered tomb on the outskirts of Kirkwall caused great excitement in archaeological circles.

Although there is no shortage of chambered cairns in Orkney, most of the known examples had been opened by 19th century antiquaries. The Crantit chamber had lain undisturbed since it was sealed, so hopes were high that it would contain the untouched remains of early Orcadians.

Not only that but being the first “tomb” found in “modern” times, there was the added possibility of untainted DNA samples, skeletal remains, and perhaps even fingerprints or footprints. So, the cairn was carefully sealed again to prevent contamination until a complete excavation could be undertaken.

Led by archaeologist Beverley Ballin Smith, this highly anticipated excavation took place over eight weeks in 1998/1999. [1]

Built on a sloping, east-facing field, overlooking the valley between Scapa and Kirkwall, the chamber was discovered after a tractor broke through one of its capstones.

Daylight streamed into the underground chamber for the first time in millennia.

Initially it was thought the tractor had revealed a burial cist – others had been found in the area in the 19th and 20th centuries. But closer investigation revealed otherwise.

It was not only archaeologists who travelled north to Orkney for the eagerly anticipated dig.

As well as television cameras – the excavation was to be the subject of the BBC programme Meet the Ancestors – there was a scenes of crime officer from the Strathclyde police force. This forensic expert’s role was to record the interior of the undisturbed chamber before entry and subsequently work with the archaeologists to prevent “modern” contamination of the site.

Guided by the police officer, and clad in full forensic protective suits, the excavators moved in. The cairn was opened, revealing for the first time its internal layout. It was very small and partitioned with stone slabs into three stalled compartments.

Inside, there were indeed human remains, but in a very poor condition and certainly not what had been hoped for — the Crantit cairn did not contain entire bodies but only a few disarticulated bones.

The structure

Layout of the Crantit chambered cairn. (After Ballin Smith 2014)
Layout of the Crantit chambered cairn. (Redrawn after Ballin Smith 2014)

Although, on the surface, the Crantit structure was reminiscent of a few Orcadian chambered cairns, it is unlike any other – although it could be argued that elements of its layout are akin to the subterranean Calf of Eday South-East.

When it comes to chambered cairns, Crantit is no Maeshowe. It was a small, cramped space – not particularly well-built and perhaps hastily constructed.

It was subterranean, constructed in a pit dug into the slope. Roofed with stone slabs, the chamber was only a metre high at most, divided into three cells and a central area by four orthostats radiating from the inner walls. [2]

A passage ran from the south-eastern end, but as we will see there are doubts as to whether this was ever used as, or intended to be, an entrance.

The blocking material place at the end of the entrance panel. (Ballin Smith 2014)
The blocking material place at the end of the entrance panel. (Ballin Smith 2014)

The chamber was devoid of any diagnostic material, e.g., pottery, that would allow it to be dated, the excavators suggesting that “the balance of evidence [points] to this tomb being built sometime in the Late Neolithic.” [2]

The only artefact within was a plain stone ball, which had been placed on a wallhead in the northern cell.

The builders appear to have gone through the motions of creating a recognisable chambered cairn, albeit small, with all the expected features – an entrance passage and cells.

Crantit’s entrance, for example, was left unfinished and deliberately blocked by two skins of masonry. Although the sealing of chambered cairn entrances after abandonment is relatively common, the Crantit passage was blocked off before the roof was placed on the chamber.

The position of the blocking material, and analysis of the floor surface beneath it, led the excavators to conclude that it was unlikely the passage was used for any length of time – if at all.

They proposed that the human remains were placed within the chamber after the insertion of the blocking material and before the final roof slab was put in place.

There was no evidence of a cairn raised over the chamber, although it was not possible to rule out an earthen mound. This suggested that Crantit was not meant to be highly visible and “not designed to advertise its presence or status of the local community.” [2]

The designs on the incised orthostat. (Ballin Smith 2014)
The designs on the incised orthostat. (Ballin Smith 2014)

The ‘decorated’ stone

The eastern face of the orthostat separating the western and southern chambers had been lightly incised with two geometric designs.

Similar faint motifs are found within the Maeshowe, Cuween, Wideford, Quoyness and
the Holm of Papa Westray South chambered cairns:

“[A]lmost all of the designs comprising linear patterns of vague intersecting lines occasionally forming chevron or cross-and-lozenge motifs. They are mostly so lightly incised as to be barely visible, with many situated in tight corners or low to the ground, locations which are not easily seen.” [3]

Although it is possible the Crantit slab was marked before being incorporated into the chamber, the excavation team felt it was in place when the incisions were made – either during construction or while the chamber was in use. [2]

Human remains

Inside the chamber were four deposits of human bone:

  • Two groups of mixed bone in the north chamber (including three cranial fragments).
  • A cranium in the south chamber, beside an incised orthostat.
  • A single bone in the south-eastern end of the south cell.

These included upper and lower limbs, hands, feet, pelvis, rib and a single vertebra.

The poorly preserved human remains, including two crania fragments, in the north chamber. (Ballin Smith 2014)
The poorly preserved human remains, including two crania fragments, in the north chamber. (Ballin Smith 2014)

The lack of other bones was probably due to decay/decomposition but “the possibility of the burial of just a few selected body parts, or the token burial of just a few elements from each individual, cannot be excluded.” [2]

The bone assemblage represented a minimum of four people.

  • Cranium 1: Probable female. 35-45 years old. [north end of northern chamber]
  • Cranium 2: Teenager. 12-18 years old. [south end of northern chamber]
  • Cranium 3: Child. 5-6 years old. Ties in with teeth assemblage, which included several belonging to a six- to nine-year-old. [south end of northern chamber]
  • Cranium 4: Adult. [north end of southern chamber, adjacent to a decorated orthostat]

The nature of the burials, the excavators suggested, were more likely to represent a small family group than a large community.

Because of their preservation, the information retrievable from the skeletal remains was limited. Attempts to recover DNA failed due to the bones’ degraded condition. Fortunately, however, it was possible to glean some information from the cairn’s contents.

Chemical analysis of the floor suggested the corpses had been laid on their backs. At this point the chamber roof must have been put in place and the bodies left to decompose.

But the remains were not left. The roof slab must have been removed again to allow access and the skeletal material reorganised into the four deposits encountered by the excavators.

The Crantit chamber under excavation. (Ballin Smith 2014)
The Crantit chamber under excavation. (Ballin Smith 2014)

This assumes the bodies were interred, and therefore died, around the same time. If that were indeed the case it may go some way to explain the shoddy, “rushed nature” of the chamber’s construction. [2]

The excavators proposed that the tomb was hastily built, over a short time, after the death of its occupants. When that was, however, is not known. Not only did the chamber contain no dateable artefacts but the poor condition of the bones meant it could not be radiocarbon dated.

As we’ve seen above, the excavators’ conclusion was that the Crantit chamber dated from the late Neolithic, c3000-2500BC. They proposed it represented a transition – the change from the Neolithic chambered cairns to the cist burials of the Bronze Age.

“It may well be that the smaller subterranean-type tombs, like Crantit, are intermediary forms between the larger and more elaborate communal Orkney-Cromarty passage graves and the smaller, simpler individual cists.” [1]

It is also possible that Crantit represents a class, or style, of chambered cairn that, although atypical in the current archaeological record, was more common in the Neolithic. It may not have been the spectacular construction we have come to expect for the Orcadian Neolithic but did the job it was presumably built for. It fulfilled all the requirements of the more monumental and elaborate cairns.

These structures, like Crantit, would be nearly invisible above ground and therefore not the focus for the flurry of antiquarian investigations of the 19th and early 20th century. That is also assuming they survived.

Writing in 1849, the Orcadian antiquary George Petrie lamented the loss of tumuli in just one parish, Sandwick:

“A few years ago about a hundred were to be seen … but these interesting memorials of the past are everywhere fast disappearing before the agricultural improvements of the present age which appropriate and swallow up the materials of which these old sepulchral monuments are constructed, and what is more provoking still without any attention being given to preserve a record of their construction and contents.” [4]

So, while Crantit may differ from the monumental chambered cairns we know, and can see, today, it may well represent the tip of an as-yet undiscovered iceberg.

Light-box? Or not?

The Crantit 'light-box'. (Ballin Smith 2014)
The Crantit ‘light-box’. (Ballin Smith 2014)

One aspect of the excavation attracted considerable attention, even though its existence was disputed at the time.

During excavation a small gap was noted between the entrance blocking material and the lintel stone above the passage.  The lintel, which was not flat, had been levelled using thin, wedge stones. Despite this, once the roofing slab was put in position there was a small gap, measuring just 3cm high by 18cm wide, between the two. [2]

A large stone had been placed on the outer side of the lintel and cemented into place using pink clay. This clay, however, did not fill the gap, suggesting it was deliberately left open.

It was suggested that the aperture – or “light-box” as it became known – was akin to that proposed for Maeshowe and known from Newgrange. It was to allow sunlight to penetrate the darkness of the chamber.

But while Maeshowe and Newgrange capture the light at a pivotal point of the year, the winter solstice, the orientation of Crantit’s passage was toward the sunrise in early November and mid-February. [2]

While it may be that the light of the rising sun was significant regardless of the time of year, a post-excavation review of the evidence cast doubt on the idea, indicating instead that the aperture had been filled with small stones, blocking it and preventing light from entering. [2]

There is no doubt that sunlight could have passed through the unblocked gap, but whether it was a deliberately constructed feature remains unclear. The tiny aperture could have been “intentional or simply the result of a poor fit and hurried workmanship and the movement of the [roof slab] a number of times.” [2]

The excavators added: “It is also unlikely that the aperture remained open once the finished tomb had been covered over and landscaped.”

If, however, the it was left uncovered, the sunlight “could not have been experienced by any living person when the roof was in place.” [2]

It may be that the sunlight was meant specifically for the dead. Other possibilities mooted for aperture-like features elsewhere include ventilation or a means by which the living can communicate with the dead.

The excavators, however, were not convinced:

“[O]nce the tomb had been covered over with clay and stone it is extremely doubtful that the gap would have had any functional value.”

They added:

“The balance of evidence suggests that the passage aperture is an object of spontaneous interpretation rather than deliberate design and function.” [2]

Later burials

Outside the tomb, the excavators also investigated two later cists, which were used for cremation burials. Both dated to c1800-1600BC and lay within metres of the sealed Neolithic tomb. Does this indicate that its earlier funerary role was remembered? Or just that the low mound provided an ideal location for Bronze Age burials?

We’ll look at these next time


  • [1] The Crantit excavation was one of the first Orkney digs to have an online diary.
  • [2] Ballin Smith, B. (2014) Between Tomb and Cist: The funerary monuments of Crantit, Kewing and Nether Onston, Orkney. Edinburgh, Historic Scotland.
  • [3] Thomas, A., 2019. Image and process in an architectural context: decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. In Jones, A.M. and Díaz-Guardamino, M. (eds) Making a Mark: image and process in Neolithic Britain and Ireland. Oxbow Books.
  • [4] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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