Cuween chambered cairn

“Set some way upslope, they also looked down on land where settlements had been established for some time. Held at a respectful distance, the spirits of each place kept an eye on the living. They were there, a visible presence, when people paused in their labours and looked towards the sky.”
Mark Edmonds. Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. (2019)
Interior of the Cuween chambered cairn, Firth, Orkney. (Jim Richardson)
Interior of the Cuween chambered cairn, Firth, Orkney. (📷 Jim Richardson)

By Sigurd Towrie

Firth map

Three Neolithic chambered cairns – Quanterness, Wideford Hill and Cuween – can be found on a three-mile stretch of the Orkney Mainland, between the towns of Kirkwall and Finstown.

The westernmost, the Cuween passage grave, is built on an artificial terrace on the upper slopes of Cuween Hill’s eastern side. Cuween is a Maeshowe-type cairn consisting of a “roughly rectangular” [1] central chamber with four smaller cells branching off from each side.

Externally, the cairn has a diameter of approximately 16.8 metres (55ft) and survives to a height of around 2.6 metres (8.5ft).

Access to the interior is by an east-facing 5.5-metre-long (18ft) passage, measuring 71cm (28in) wide and 81cm (32in) high in the inner section.

The well-built chamber is 1.74 metres (5.7ft) at its widest point and 3.64 metres (11.8ft) long.

Today Cuween is capped by a modern roof, the original having been removed at some point before the cairn’s excavation in 1901.

Approaching the Cuween chambered cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)
Approaching the Cuween chambered cairn. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

When this occurred is not clear, although we know there was an incursion from above in June 1888, when the structure was “casually explored”. [1]

The Victorian “explorers” dug into the mound, aided by local antiquarian James Cursiter, leaving only the eastern cell undisturbed – gaining access to the other three by removing their roofs.

Little is known about the three men’s exploits.

As well as animal remains in the cells and some worked stone artefacts, reports in the local press stated that the northern sub-section of the western cell contained “a skeleton”. [1]

The condition and quantity of these human remains were not documented, so it is unclear whether it was a complete, articulated skeleton or, more likely, disarticulated.

The nineteenth century investigators did not find the main chamber, however, leading to the suggestion its roof had been removed before 1888. [1]

Thirteen years later, in July 1901, the Stromness solicitor Malcolm Charleson launched another investigation, discovering that Cuween’s chamber, cells and entrance passage were “entirely filled with stony debris”. [2]

Plan of the Cuween chambered cairn (after Calder).
Plan of the Cuween chambered cairn after Charleson’s 1901 excavation.

Within the upper filling of the chamber were large quantities of poorly preserved animal bone – and dog teeth –  while the lower 30cm, just above the floor, contained human and dog remains, including five human and 24 canine skulls. [2]

Entrance to the Cuween chambered cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)
Entrance to the Cuween chambered cairn. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Three of the five human skulls were in such poor condition that they “crumbled away when touched”. [2]

Two were among the human and animal remains in the side cells, while a third was embedded in clay near the roof of the entrance passage’s inner end.

Also in the entrance passage were fragments of human long bones “showing evidence of cremation”. [2]

The excavators discovered that the passage had been blocked with masonry “built up flush with an exterior wall visible at one end and evidently encircling the cairn”. [2]

We have no dates for Cuween’s construction or its primary use. As we will see, the only radiocarbon dates that have been secured from the material within the structure were around 2500BC – a time of change and the advent of the Bronze Age.

However, the cairn’s position on the hillside offers some clues.

On low ground to its south is the site of the Stonehall Neolithic settlement – an extensive area of occupation founded in the fourth millennium BC and occupied into the third millennium BC.

Approaching the Cuween cairn. (📷 Adam Stanford)
Approaching the Cuween cairn. (📷 Adam Stanford)

The Cuween passage grave was not constructed on the crest of the hill – a position you would expect if maximum visibility was the goal. Only when viewed from the Stonehall site does the cairn stand out clearly against the skyline.

This suggests Cuween and the settlement were linked and that those who lived below were responsible for the construction and use of the cairn. [3]

To Professor Colin Richards, who led the Stonehall excavations from 1994 until 2000, the passage grave was constructed sometime after the founding of the settlement, perhaps around 3100-3000BC. [3]

The dog skulls

Forensic reconstruction of one of the dogs interred at Cuween around 2500BC. Click here for more details. (HES/NMS)
Forensic reconstruction of one of the dogs interred at Cuween around 2500BC. Click here for more details. (HES/NMS)

In South Ronaldsay, the discovery of sea eagle remains in the Isbister chambered cairn led to the suggestion that the birds were in some way significant to its builders.

In much the same way, the 24 dog skulls in Cuween were interpreted as evidence that canines were equally significant – perhaps a totem animal – to the Neolithic people who constructed and used the passage grave.

Radiocarbon dating, however, has now shown that four of the Cuween dog skulls dated to around 2500BC [4] – and were therefore placed in the chamber centuries after the cairn’s construction and initial use.

At Isbister, radiocarbon dates for the eagle remains indicates that they were deposited around 1,000 years after the structure’s earliest dated human remains.

In both cases these cases the dates fit a pattern noted across Orkney and which saw chambered cairns increasingly used for the deposition of animal remains around 2500BC. [5]

Of the Cuween dog skulls, only one is accounted for and is now held by the National Museums of Scotland. Forensic examination of the cranium suggested the canine was the size of a large collie and between two and three years old when it died. A forensic reconstruction of the dog was unveiled in April 2019.

Human remains

Interior of the Cuween cairn, looking towards the entrance in south-western corner of the chamber.
Interior of the Cuween cairn, looking towards the entrance in south-western corner of the chamber. (📷 Adam Stanford)

The surviving assemblage of human remains from Cuween is a mere seven bones – two femur and five crania. The fact some of the skull fragments “turned to dust” in 1901 suggests that bone preservation in the chamber was poor. This is borne out by the fact that “larger bones were sometimes met with” but were “in a very fragmentary state and beyond preservation”. [2]

The two thigh bones have been confirmed as later deposits – the one from inside the chamber dating to 2617-2410BC [6] and the other, from the entrance passage, centuries later, c2190-1944BC.

These early Bronze Age dates, together with the fragment of steatite (soapstone) encountered during the 1901 excavation [2], shows the cairn was re-entered – perhaps on more than one occasion – in its later life.

The dates also suggest that the entrance passage was blocked in the Bronze Age, after the deposition of the cremated remains in the entrance passage around 2000BC.

The eight human skulls most likely relate to the Neolithic use of the passage grave and their positions suggest the deliberate manipulation of human remains, presumably in a skeletal state.

The skull in the western cell, for example, had been slotted into a tiny recess “ten inches long, six inches broad and six inches high” [2], prompting the excavators to ask “how the body could be disposed of with the head in that position.” [2]

It seems unlikely an entire body was placed in the cell with its head jammed in the recess. Instead, it, along with the skull “embedded in the clay near [the entrance passage] roof” [2] were re-deposited in those positions.

Whether they were moved from elsewhere in the cairn or brought in from another location is not known.

Of the five surviving skull fragments, Dr Rebecca Crozier has noted that two show evidence of penetrating injuries, inflicted at, or around, the time of death. The position of the injuries, she suggests, are indicative of a kneeling victim being struck from behind. [6]

Although it is possible they were post-mortem, she feels the consistent position of the blows would be difficult to achieve on a corpse. [6]

To Crozier it is impossible to know for certain what lay behind “these very significant injuries”.

She said: “Whether they’re the result of warfare, execution or funerary practice, shortly after death, is unclear.

“But it is tentatively suggested, based on the consistent position that they may have been inflicted as part of a, possibly ritual, execution. I do think that if you have two crania, both with injuries in the same place, in the same tomb, from the same time period, that this is more than simply interpersonal violence.” [6]


The position of the three radiocarbon-dated dog skulls near the chamber floor suggests the interior cannot have been filled prior to their deposition, i.e. during the Neolithic.

If the material used to fill the chamber was added after 2500BC, perhaps at the same time the entrance was blocked, was it through the structure’s dismantled roof and after its entrance had been blocked?

Facing its neighbour

Bay of Firth map
Location of the Cuween cairn in relation to the other known passage graves and settlement sites in the area.

Directly opposite Cuween, and aligned to its entrance, is the Wideford Hill chambered cairn. It was also built on the upper slopes of the hill and faced Cuween. [8]

The visual relationship between these two structures is clearly intentional, but what it represented is open to interpretation.

Neolithic art

Incised motifs above a cell entrance within the Cuween cairn.
Incised motifs above a cell entrance within the Cuween cairn.

During a visit in 1997, the archaeologist Richard Bradley noted that the lintel connecting the entrance passage to the main chamber had been incised with angular lines, triangles and arcs [7].

The designs were very ephemeral – lightly scratched into the surface of the stone. The led him to suggest that the marks may have been guides for the application of pigment – something we also suspect occurred at the Ness of Brodgar, where evidence of pigment production has been found along with “painted” walls.

Cuween incised markings - note the triangle pair and the similarity to the "Brodgar Butterfly" markings recorded at the Ness of Brodgar.
Cuween incised markings – note the triangle pair and the similarity to the “Brodgar Butterfly” markings recorded at the Ness of Brodgar. [7]

3D model


  • [1] Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] Charleson, M. and Turner, W. (1902) Notice of a chambered cairn at Kewing Hill, in the parish of Firth, Orkney. With a description of the human remains. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 36, pp. 733-738).
  • [3] Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.
  • [4] Sheridan, J.A. (2005) Cuween, Cuween-Wideford project. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 6, 177
  • [5] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017). Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp.1171-1188.
  • [6] Sheridan, J. A. (2005) The National Museums’ of Scotland radiocarbon dating programmes: results obtained during 2004/5. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 6, 182–3
  • [7] Bradley, R. (1998) Incised motifs in the passage-graves at Quoyness and Cuween, Orkney. Antiquity, 72(276), p.387. Bradley, R., Phillips, T., Richards, C. and Webb, M. (2001). Decorating the houses of the dead: incised and pecked motifs in Orkney chambered tombs. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(1), p.45.
  • [8] Richards, C., 1993. An archaeological study of Neolithic Orkney: architecture, order and social classification (Doctoral dissertation, University of Glasgow).

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