Sandfiold: an ‘exceptional’ burial cist in use for almost two millennia

By Sigurd Towrie

Like many Orcadian archaeological sites, the discovery of an “exceptional” prehistoric burial cist at Sandfiold in 1989 was accidental. [1] 

Operations to remove sand from the lower slopes of the hill saw the front wheel of a haulage lorry sink into the ground. Closer investigation revealed that the vehicle had broken through the top of a rock-cut chamber that contained a rectangular, box-like structure.

The cist lay on the northern edge of the extensive barrow cemetery illustrated during antiquarian forays into the graves in 1772.

It was, however, markedly different to cists opened in the 18th century and others found throughout Orkney. These tend to be Bronze Age in date and usually found surrounded by earth. Accessed from above, the burial was placed inside before a capstone – often substantial – was laid on top to seal the stone “coffin”. 

Plan and sections of the Sandfiold cist. (Dalland et al. 1999)
Plan and sections of the Sandfiold cist. (Dalland et al. 1999)

Not only did the Sandfiold cist sit in an underground chamber but was freestanding and designed to be reopened by the removal of one of the side slabs. That the interior was meant to be accessible was confirmed by the cist’s contents – cremated and inhumation burials placed inside during distinct episodes of use that spanned millennia.

Radiocarbon dating suggests the cist may have been in use, at least periodically, from the Late Neolithic (c2900-2500BC) to the Late Bronze Age (c1000-800BC) – a period of over 2,000 years. [1]

But as we will see, the full story of the Sandfiold cist is not quite as clear cut.

The unburnt bone belonged to a young adult and a foetus, while the cremated remains were that that of two adults – one placed in a large pottery vessel, the other on the cist floor along with two burnt antler tines and two unburnt human teeth. [1]

Like those opened in 1772, the Sandfiold cist also contained organic material. The burials had been covered by mats of woven plant fibres or, in the case of the “urn”, placed in a basket of woven grass. [1]

The chamber

The rock-cut chamber at Sandfiold.
The rock-cut chamber at Sandfiold. (Dalland et al. 1999)

To create the almost-square subterranean chamber an estimated 45 tonnes of rock had to be quarried from the hillside. Measuring 3.4 metres by 3.1-3.4 metres, the floor of the chamber sloped slightly, giving it a maximum height of 2.2 metres. [1]

Two step-like ledges along the northern side were perhaps to aid the quarriers remove the rubble as the hole increased in depth.

The cist

The cist was constructed against the chamber’s west wall in a slightly off-centred position.

The stone slabs forming the western (back), northern and southern walls were fixed into position, while the eastern (front) slab was removable, allowing access to the interior.

When closed, the slab was locked in place by a small, triangular stone wedged in the bottom right-hand corner. Just to be on the safe side, two flagstones had also been propped up against the front slab to hold it in position. [1]

The cist within the chamber. The removable side slab is foremost and pictured with the two slabs that helped hold it in place. (Dalland et al. 1999)
The cist within the chamber. The removable side slab is foremost and pictured with the two slabs that helped hold it in place. The masonry pictured on top was part of an architectural device to transfer the weight of the chamber roof to the rear and side slabs of the cist. (Dalland et al. 1999)

The gap between the chamber’s west wall and the rear of the cist had been filled with a large deposit of burnt material from a funeral pyre. This, proposed the excavators, could only have been deposited while the cist was being constructed and before the capstone was manoeuvred into place. [1]

Charcoal from this deposit returned a radiocarbon date of 2800-2500BC [1], suggesting the cist must have been constructed in the Late Neolithic – around the time Structure Ten dominated the complex at the Ness of Brodgar.

But as we will see, things are rarely that simple.

The passage

The breach through the roof of the chamber. (Dalland et al. 1999)
The breach through the roof of the chamber. (Dalland et al. 1999)

Access to the front of the cist was via a passage between it and the chamber’s east side, where a drystone wall had been built against the rock face.

A mere 80 centimetres wide, the passage was roofed with thin flagstones [2] that rested atop of the cist and the eastern wall.

The entire chamber was then covered by multiple layers of larger flagstones and finally clay and soil.

Excavation did not reveal an entrance to the chamber, so access was presumably by the roof. Other than the small broken section of the passage roof, there was no evidence for this either. [1]

Was this because the chamber was sealed off after its final use? Or was a section of the roof simply removed whenever access was required?

Because the cist was clearly intended to be re-used the excavators felt it “was likely” that there had been some form of marker, or structure, above ground.

Whatever that may have been there was no trace of it – sand quarrying had removed any evidence of the original ground surface above the cist and chamber. [1]

The burials

The contents of the Sandfiold cist. (Dalland et al. 1999)
The contents of the Sandfiold cist. (Dalland et al. 1999)

Inside the cist were three deposits of human remains:

  • A pile of cremated bones in the centre.
  • Unburnt bone deposited at its north end.
  • A large pottery urn – almost half-a-metre high and partly filled with cremated bone – in the south-western corner.

Measuring 47 centimetres high and with a diameter of 38 centimetres, the urn had been damaged in antiquity, with sherds lying against the central deposit of cremated bone. This confirmed the vessel was broken after the cremation had been placed in the cist. A large stone disc – most likely the lid – had been wedged against the cist’s southern wall. [1]

The cremated remains of a single individual – possibly a male aged between 30 and 40 – had been placed in a bag, or basket, which was then put into the urn, along with plants, perhaps meadowsweet. [1]

The excavators proposed that the urn was knocked over, and broken, by a stone fragment that fell from the cist’s northern side slab.

When the cist was re-opened to deposit the central cremation, the urn’s remains were propped up in the south-western corner before the cremated bone was placed and covered over by a woven mat. [1]

The central cremation represented another single individual – again possibly male and aged between 25-40 years old. Two worked deer antler tines were in among the burnt bone, along with two unburnt human teeth [1]. Did they belong to the deceased? Perhaps lost before his death? Or did they belong to someone else entirely?

Artist's impression of the Sandfiold cist, showing the detachable eastern site. (Ritchie, A. Prehistoric Orkney. 1996)
Artist’s impression of the Sandfiold cist, showing the detachable eastern site. (Ritchie, A. Prehistoric Orkney. 1996)

The disarticulated fragments of unburnt bone were in poor condition and only two individuals could be identified – a young adult in their early teens and a foetus of around 32 weeks.

The presence of small bones, such as fingers and toes, suggests the adult’s corpse was placed in the cist intact and left to decay. Had the bones been relocated to the cist from somewhere else it is likely these small bones would have been lost during the transfer.

At some point after decomposition the teenager’s bones were moved to make room in the cist. [1]

Dating the burials

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the chamber and cist were in use for almost 2,000 years – although perhaps not continuously.

The dating evidence pointed towards three distinct episodes of use, separated by considerable periods of time.

  • Burial of the foetus in the Late Neolithic (c2900BC)
  • Cremated remains in urn and complete body of teenager in the Bronze Age (c2200-1700BC)
  • Central cremation (c1000-800BC)

But although this sounds gloriously straightforward there’s always a fly in the proverbial ointment. In this case it was a piece of charcoal sealed in the filling material of a slot holding the cist’s back wall. The charcoal returned a date of c2200BC, suggesting the cist was a Bronze Age construction.

If that were the case, how did Neolithic remains find their way into a cist around 700 years after death?

The excavators proposed three scenarios. [1]

Option One – Bronze Age construction

The rock-cut chamber and cist were both Bronze Age creations. The Neolithic remains and funeral pyre material between the cist’s back slab and the chamber wall must have come from elsewhere and curated for centuries. The evidence, however, suggests this is unlikely as the condition of the pyre material was “not consistent with lengthy curation”.

Option two – A Neolithic chamber re-used

The chamber was quarried in the Neolithic and perhaps part of a now-gone above-ground structure. It was rediscovered, or simply re-used, in the Bronze Age. This option explains the charcoal from the cist foundation slot and suggests the Neolithic foetal remains originated in the chamber and were transferred to the cist out of respect for the dead.

The Bronze Age re-use, almost 1,000 years after the Neolithic inhumation, suggests the location of the subterranean chamber was marked and presumably remained so until its final use between 1000-800BC. The form of this marker, whether structural remains, post or standing stone, remains unclear as no trace of anything has survived about ground.

Option three – Neolithic origins

The chamber and the cist both date to the Neolithic and the foetus was placed in the cist after its construction. The excavators suggest the chamber was cut from the bedrock around 3500BC and the cist erected shortly afterwards. Some seven centuries later, the Neolithic cist was re-used for the Bronze age cremations and inhumation. In this scenario, the problematic cist-slot charcoal relates to this later Bronze Age use. The grave may then have been left for around 1,000 years before it was re-opened and the final cremation placed at its centre.

It should be noted, however, that there may have been other episodes of use with burials inserted and later removed. Although the floor of the chamber was described by the excavators as very clean, this does not necessarily mean that it was infrequently used. As we have seen at the Ness of Brodgar, the monumental structures’ floors were kept scrupulously clean throughout their extensive lifetimes.

Neolithic cists?

Although most commonly associated with the Bronze Age, cists are also found in the Neolithic. At the Quanterness chambered cairn, for example, the earliest deposition of human remains – around 3400BC [3] – involved cutting three pits into the central chamber’s bedrock floor. Of the two excavated, one had been lined, cist-like, with stone [4]. After the corpses were placed within the pits were covered by large capstones.

Similarly, north of Orkney, at Sumburgh, in Shetland, a Neolithic cist dating from 3000-2500BC contained 18 burials. [1]

At Sandfiold, the excavators pointed out, the “form and architecture of the cist are consistent with a Neolithic origin”, adding that it was “not unique but may form part of an Irish Sea Province group of large Neolithic cists”. [1]

A structure had been built on top of the cist to transfer the weight of the chamber roof and overlying soil away from the detachable front slab. According to the excavators, this technique, with its “’respectable’ megalithic antecedents”, may “lend weight to the argument that the cist was constructed initially in the Neolithic period.” [1]

All things considered, they concluded that the Sandfiold cist seemed “to exhibit characteristics we would associate with the architectural traditions of megalithic tomb construction.” [1]

Part Three


  • [1] Dalland, M., Barber, J., Carter, S., Clarke, A., Dixon, D., Lorimer, D.H., Kibble, H., McKinley, J.I., Macsween, A., Mills, C.M. and Powers, A.H., (1999) Sand Fiold: the excavation of an exceptional cist in Orkney. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 65, pp. 373-413). Cambridge University Press.
  • [2] It was a section of the passage roof that collapsed under the weight of the lorry in 1989.
  • [3] Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2011) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 140, pp. 1-50).
  • [4] Renfrew, C. (1979) Investigations in Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of London.

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