Holm’s forgotten chambered cairn rediscovered in Orkney’s East Mainland

Excavation of one of the surviving side cells. (📷 Netional Museums Scotland)
Excavation of one of the surviving side cells. (📷 Netional Museums Scotland)
The parish of Holm.

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an incredibly rare 5,000-year-old Neolithic chambered cairn that was largely destroyed, without record, in the 19th century.

The three-week excavation in Holm, a parish in Orkney’s East Mainland, was directed by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, National Museums Scotland, and Professor Vicki Cummings, Cardiff University.

It revealed traces of a substantial cairn, over 15 metres in diameter, that contains a stone chamber accessed through a seven-metre-long passage.

The large sub-rectangular chamber was surrounded by six smaller side cells that once had corbelled stone roofs.

These features place the Holm structure within the “Maeshowe-type” category of chambered cairn. Only twelve of this type are known in Orkney, including Maeshowe, Cuween and Quoyness.

Plan of Quanterness (Renfrew 1979. Investigations in Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of London)
Plan of Quanterness (Renfrew 1979. Investigations in Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of London)

Although Maeshowe only has three side cells, the Holm cairn’s layout is akin to that of Quanterness and Quoyness, which also had six cells.

Most survive as upstanding monuments, but the Holm cairn was buried beneath a pasture field as it was largely destroyed in the late 18th or early 19th century to supply building stone for a nearby farmhouse.

Further digging in the ruins by the farmer’s son in 1896 revealed traces of walling and located a stone macehead and ball, and eight skeletons.

The discoveries were reported in The Orkney Herald newspaper by the local antiquary James Walls Cursiter, who speculated that the site was a ruined tomb:

“A week ago, a son of James Sinclair, Blowmuir, Holm, was digging in a mound near the house when he found the remains of four human skeletons. He found also a finely polished hammer head [macehead] of gneiss, which has been acquired by Mr James W. Cursiter, for his local prehistoric collection.

“There was subsequently discovered in the mound a well-constructed chamber, which contained four other skeletons. Mr Cursiter, who visited the place, informs us that the old house of Blowmuir was built of stones taken out of this mound, and that probably it was one of several chambered burial mounds of the earliest inhabitants.

“The destruction in consequence of this quarrying may render it impossible to tell emphatically, but the appearance of the compartment, of which about 2 feet of the walls remains, would indicate this. The measurements of the compartment are 10 feet long, 3.5 feet wide at east end, 3 feet at west end, being wider in the middle as both the sides are curved.

“The chamber stands east and west, with the entrance in the middle of the south side. The remains of the walls show the inward sloping characteristic of such chambers. The roof had evidently fallen in. The skulls were very much broken, but the fragments indicate the short thick skull with heavy superciliary ridges of the earliest inhabitants of the islands.

“A few days ago a stone ball was found in the same mound, and, like the hammer head, will find an asylum in Mr Cursiter’s collection.
The Orkney Herald. December 7, 1896

The nature of the 1896 discoveries prompted a search for the findspot so that the character of the earlier discoveries could be clarified. Geophysical surveys were carried out by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) in 2021 with the current excavation targeting anomalies revealed by those.

Quoyness, Sanday. (Childe, V. G. 1952)
Quoyness chambered cairn, Sanday. (Childe, V. G. 1952)

Despite extensive modern disturbance, 14 articulated skeletons of men, women and children were found in one of the side cells, along with other disarticulated remains.

Other human remains and artefacts, including pottery, stone tools and a bone pin, were recovered from the Victorian backfill by students from the University of Central Lancashire and local volunteers.

Although commonly referred to as “tombs”, very few of Orkney’s chambered cairns were found to contain human remains – and those that did were excavated in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Excavation of the Neolithic human remains under way at the Holm chambered cairn. (📷 National Museums Scotland)

The fact the Holm chamber contained 14 articulated skeletons, as well as disarticulated remains, is therefore not only exciting but particularly significant.

September 2023: Excavation under way at the rediscovered chambered cairn in Holm. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
September 2023: Excavation under way at the rediscovered chambered cairn in Holm. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

With modern scientific techniques, including DNA analysis, these could reveal much about the life of those placed within the structure. This includes information such as their health, where they grew up and how, if at all, they were related.

Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark said: “Orkney is exceptionally rich in archaeology, but we never expected to find a tomb of this size in a such a small-scale excavation.

“It’s incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record, but fortunately just enough stonework has survived for us to be able understand the size, form and construction of this tomb.”

Professor Vicki Cummings added: “The preservation of so many human remains in one part of the monument is amazing, especially since the stone has been mostly robbed for building material.

“It is incredibly rare to find these tomb deposits, even in well-preserved chambered tombs and these remains will enable new insights into all aspects of these people’s lives.”

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