The Crantit cist burials

By Sigurd Towrie

As we saw last time, the closure of the Crantit chamber left little or nothing visible above ground.

But people came back, suggesting the site was marked and memories or traditions of its role persisted. We know this because centuries after the ancient site was sealed it became a focus for at least three Bronze Age burials.

In the Bronze Age, bodies or cremated remains were placed in cists or underneath earth barrows.

Built on, or cut into, the ground, cists are stone boxes into which human remains were placed. Although they are regarded as typical of the Bronze Age, cists are known to have been used in the Late Neolithic. Sometimes the cist was covered by a burial mound, other times left apparently unmarked.

The treatment of the Bronze Age dead varied – some bodies were interred, some cremated and, in some cases, a mix of the two. After 2000BC, cremation became more common.

During the Crantit excavation, two stone-built cists and a shallow scooped-out grave were found within metres of the Neolithic chamber. [1]

The location of the Crantit burials. (After Ballin Smith 2014)
The location of the Crantit burials. (Redrawn after Ballin Smith 2014)

The south cist

South cist. (Ballin Smith 2014)
South cist. (Ballin Smith 2014)

Two metres to the south of the Crantit chamber was a rectangular stone cist measuring a metre long by 0.4m wide.

Only its base, western side slab and fragments of the northern end survived. Its capstone had been lost to ploughing so the cist was found to be full of topsoil.

Inside there was no evidence of human skeletal material but sieving of the soil from the base produced 21 unburnt, but incomplete, human teeth.

These appeared to belong to a single individual aged between seven and eight years old at death.

Under the slab forming the cist base were the poorly preserved remains of two more teeth.

Their condition was worse than the examples from the cist fill, meaning they could not be fully analysed. Observations from the surviving fragments, however, suggested they belonged to an infant less than a year old.

These must have found their way into the pit dug for the cist before its construction began. [1]

The west cist

West cist. (Ballin Smith 2014)
West cist. (Ballin Smith 2014)

The second burial cist lay three metres to the north-west of the Crantit chamber.

Measuring c0.96 metres long by c.0.57 metres wide, the cist was around 60cm deep. Inside were two large deposits of cremated human bone.

Analysis of these suggested each represented a separate funerary event – one being an adult male, aged 30-40 years, the other an female, over the age of 25 but not elderly.

Recovered plant fibres pointed to the remains being gathered into woven bags or baskets after cremation.

Created using grass/sedge, and perhaps strengthened with heather stems, these were then placed within the cist, but not necessarily immediately after the cremations.

Radiocarbon dates from the bone placed the burials towards the end of the Early Bronze Age, around 1890-1680BC for the male, and 1800-1600BC for the female. [1]

The scoop cremation deposit

Cut into the soil at the western edge of the subterranean chamber, was a small, shallow pit that lay just beneath the topsoil.

The scoop contained birch charcoal and burnt bone; the latter identified as the remains of another cremation.

The evidence of birch suggests that the scoop burial was earlier than its neighbours, relating to a period when birch timber was still readily available as a cremation fuel in the area. Alternatively, the choice of fuel (pine, presumably from driftwood, was used for at least one of the west cist cremations) was a deliberate choice relating to the deceased or their kin. [1]


  • [1] Ballin Smith, B. (2014) Between Tomb and Cist: The funerary monuments of Crantit, Kewing and Nether Onston, Orkney. Edinburgh, Historic Scotland.

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