Burying, depositing and discarding the dead – human remains at the Ness

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

Mention the Neolithic dead and the focus inevitably shifts to the chambered cairns of Orkney.

However, the situation is far more complex.

Very few excavated “houses of the dead” in Orkney actually contained human remains, and and even among those, the quantity could not be regarded as representative of an entire community over an extended period of time.

It appears that not everybody ended up within a chambered cairn. And those who did might not have remained there!

So, what became of the others?

While some were interred individually – contrary to the commonly held belief of communal burial – it is likely that others were treated in ways that have made their remains inaccessible or invisible to us.

Were they cremated? Buried? Or perhaps deposited at sea or in bodies of water?

Knap of Howar Structure Two
Structure Two at the Knap of Howar.

The presence of human remains in domestic contexts, i.e., in or around dwellings, adds to the apparently diverse ways the people of the Neolithic treated their dead. A fragment of human skull was found at the Knap of Howar, for example, while at Skara Brae two adult females were buried beneath the wall of House Seven.

These two examples highlight another two distinctly different ways of treating the dead. The burials at Skara Brae were clearly formal and planned, while the skull fragment at the Knap of Howar appears to have been discarded or simply dumped.

We see a similar picture at the Ness of Brodgar, where excavation has revealed five examples of Neolithic skeletal remains and one relating to the Iron Age remodelling of the midden mound in Trench T. [1]

However, it’s important to remember that poor bone preservation at the Ness means our examples could simply be the tip of a much larger iceberg.

2006 – Trench J

The articulated remains of an infant (around one-month-old) in a midden deposit to the south-east of Structure Five. The burial post-dates the building and relates to the later phases of activity around its abandoned remains.

2009 – Trench P
Structure Ten

A small quantity of human bone was found in the midden/rubble infill of Structure Ten‘s forecourt. This included skull fragments, two teeth, and a jawbone, likely not originating from the same individual.

It is probable that these remains were already present in the midden used to bury the building’s remains, which raises the question of how and why they ended up there.

2014 – Trench T
Iron Age remodelling

The lower revetment wall of the Iron Age ditch in Trench T at the Ness of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)
The lower revetment wall of the Iron Age ditch in Trench T. (Work under way in Trench X in 2016. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

A fingerbone found at the bottom of the much-later Iron Age bank (along with two adult teeth).

Again, these are unlikely to have come from the same individual but were probably already in the Neolithic midden material brought to the area.

2015 – Trench P
Structure One

The articulated remains of an infant, associated with cattle bone and pottery, were discovered in a recess in Structure One.

Around 2800BC, the child, which had died at birth or shortly thereafter, was placed on its right side in a pre-existing pit that was repurposed for the burial.

The upper torso had been disturbed after the burial, potentially explaining the absence of a skull. However, the fact that two vertebrae were missing, despite no visible cut marks, raises the possibility that the head may have been removed prior to the burial.

The fragile remains of the infant buried in Structure One. (ORCA)
The fragile remains of the infant buried in Structure One. (📷 ORCA)

The infant’s remains were found in the same context as two large animal bones. While these might be considered as discarded waste, structured deposits of animal bone are common across the site, often associated with the construction and decommissioning of buildings.

In another area of Structure One, the remains of a foetal calf and a neonatal deer were discovered beneath the foundations of the reconstructed northern wall.

Whether the infant’s burial and the deposition of young animals are linked – and if so, what it represents – is unclear at present.

2016 – Trench P
Structure Ten

Human arm bone from Structure Ten.
The only human bone – an adult humerus – among a deposit of animal remains and pottery under one of Structure Ten’s buttresses. (📷 ORCA)

This remarkable discovery came from the internal, south-western buttress of the building—an adult humerus accompanied by a substantial collection of animal bones, predominantly cattle.

Osteoarchaeologist Dave Lawrence examined the bone and suggested that it probably belonged to a female of at least 13 years of age (but likely older), and who suffered minor osteoarthritis.

Initially, we pondered whether the bone was curated artefact, possibly representing an “ancestor” of some significance. However, radiocarbon dating placed the individual’s death around 2800BC, coinciding with the period of Structure Ten’s reconstruction/remodelling.

The humerus, together with cattle remains and pottery, had been placed in the south-western corner of Structure Ten. Flagstones were laid on top to form the foundation of the second-phase corner buttress. In 2019, in the same area, the wing-bone of an adult sea eagle was also recovered.

Other objects placed beneath the buttresses included an imposing decorated stone and our carved stone ball. Taken together we have interpreted them as deliberate, and perhaps votive, deposits associated with the remod­elling of Structure Ten.

2022 – Trench P
Structures Seventeen and Eight

The Structure Eight orthostatic box with suspect human femur fragment (highlighted) in situ. (Jo Bourne)
The Structure Seveteen orthostatic box with human femur fragment (highlighted) in situ. (📷 Jo Bourne)

A cist-like box in Structure Eight contained a fragment of a human femur.

Given its contents the box was clearly not a hearth but had been placed on the remains of Seventeen’s northern wall before being covered over and Structure Eight built on top.

The bone fragment after careful excavation and in the finds hut. (Sigurd Towrie)
The bone fragment after careful excavation and in the finds hut. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Only the ball joint that connected the femur to the to the hip socket had survived. But why was the leg bone of an apparently healthy young man, or at least part of it, placed in a box under the floor of Structure Eight?

Was it alone or were there other remains which have since perished?

Although the box was large enough (approximately 0.7m by 0.7m) to accommodate an average adult femur (around 46cm), the position of the fragment suggests this was not the case.

Although bone preservation on site is poor, a disintegrated femur would have left traces – perhaps a “ghost image” of where it had lain.

Instead, it appears that the distal end of the femur had either been intentionally removed or had broken before its deposition. The fragment was then selected for inclusion, placed inside the box, and covered over.

Was it placed to formally close Structure Seventeen? Or a foundation deposit for Structure Eight? Or did it perhaps represent a genealogical link between the two buildings?


Obviously, the human teeth found on site don’t necessarily relate to the handling of human remains or the dead.

2012 – Trench P
Structure Ten

An adult incisor found within midden/demolition deposits in Structure Ten’s chamber. Again, this probably came in with the midden used to infill the abandoned structure.

2014 – Trench T
Iron Age remodelling

Two adult teeth found at the bottom of the much-later Iron Age bank (see above).

Of the skeletal remains found at the Ness, only three can definitely be said to relate to the buildings and their use – the Structure Ten humerus, the Structure Seventeen/Eight femur and the infant burial in Structure One. Because the first two were placed ahead of major construction work, they can be convincingly argued to be foundation deposits.

The Structure One infant burial is dated to around 2800BC, placing it at the beginning of the building’s second phase and in the twilight of the Ness complex. At this time, Structure Ten had become the focal point of activity, with the piered buildings either abandoned or in their final stages of use.

Structure One’s second phase saw it reduced in size and remodelled. Although a substantial quantity of newborn cattle and deer bone beneath its rebuilt northern wall is characteristic of a foundation deposit, what the infant burial represents (if anything) is not so clear.

End chamber and side cells at Midhowe stalled cairn, Rousay. (Sigurd Towrie)
End chamber and side cells at Midhowe stalled cairn, Rousay. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The deliberate deposition of human remains at the Ness, and other non-funerary sites, suggests that the dead, or parts of them, continued to have a role in the lives of the living. It certainly shows that their bones were not left alone.

This ties in with the jumbled nature of the skeletal assemblages from the few chambered cairns containing “burials” and a recent re-evaluation of the evidence.

This suggested that fully fleshed bodies placed within the cairns (for example, Quanterness and Midhowe) and left to decay. This process may have been hastened by the deliberate dismemberment of corpses.

Decomposition complete, the bones were sometimes reordered, rearranged [2] and possibly removed.

Interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggested Professor Colin Richards, and goes some way to explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts.

Were skeletal parts being removed, relocated and possibly exchanged? Perhaps to bring “life” to a new building, sealing agreements or even regarded as some form of “magical” protection?

Were selected remains brought in to perform a specific, but temporary, function and then dumped or reburied in midden?

Or were some bodies buried in the midden around sites and buildings? Or were these the anonymous remains of those who didn’t warrant a formal burial and were discarded?

The dearth of skeletal material in most chambered cairns led to the suggestion that they were being cleared out at regular intervals. Were the contents buried elsewhere? Or dumped? If so, why some and not others?

Once again, there are many more questions than answers.


  • [1] Boyar, A. (2020) The Human Remains. In Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [2] Crozier, R. (2016) Fragments of death — a taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney. (2016) Reorientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 196-223)

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