The ‘Little Barnhouse’ mound
By Sigurd Towrie
For many years, any large mound in Orkney was assumed to be one of two things – a broch or a chambered cairn.
When that mound sits about a mile to the west of Maeshowe, on the outskirts of what is now the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the chambered cairn designation was inevitable.
Just outside Stenness village, and opposite the Standing Stones Hotel, is a large oval mound. The tumulus was given scheduled monument status in 2002 and assigned the name “Little Barnhouse”.
Measurements in 1946 put the mound’s diameter at 50.3m and by 42.1m, making it larger than Maeshowe, although it was acknowledged that the construction of the modern road had cut into its northern side.
Strangely, the nature of the mound was the subject of debate for decades, with some saying it was artificial while others were adamant it was natural.
Because the mound was “excavated” in the early 1890s and found to contain a three-metre-diameter chamber with a flagstone roof.
A few years later, in 1899, outlining the ancient monuments of Stenness to a visiting group of Irish antiquarians, James Cursiter, a native of the county, wrote:
Although the available details are scant, elements are certainly suggestive of a chambered cairn, e.g., the long, low, and narrow entrance passage. But a circular chamber is not something you would expect in any known type of Neolithic chambered cairn.
The only information available on the mound’s opening comes from the 1891 and 1893 newspaper reports and Cursiter’s brief comment. As a result, the 19th century excavation seems to have been forgotten about.
In 1946, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) recorded that the mound was “apparently artificial” but that “so far as is known no discoveries have been recorded”.
Based on the size, the RCAHMS considered “it may be chambered”.
By 1966, 75 years after the “excavation”, the mound was described as “probably natural”. 
Geophysics scans in 2001 showed that around a third of the mound had been lost due to the 19th century road improvements beside it.
Despite the damage, however, a complex series of archaeological features remained. 
A two-metre-wide ditch – perhaps partially revetted – may have surrounded the mound while other linear features noted outside may represent secondary ditches or banks.
The survey results suggested a chamber/passage in the north-eastern quadrant and possibly a second in the south.
High magnetic responses from the top of the mound suggested repeated episodes of burning – either bonfires or perhaps a formalised fire setting – surrounded by a circular bank. 
The 1891 Orkney Herald report’s references to depressions on top of the mound may relate to this. 
While the survey report did not discount the possibility that the structure represented a chambered cairn, it was considered unlikely given the burning activity noted around the mound.
The aforementioned circular inner chamber also casts doubt on this interpretation.
Instead, the geophysics results favoured an Iron Age date, although the nature of the site remained unclear.
However, it must be remembered that we could be looking at a multi-period site – perhaps the Iron Age reuse or remodelling of a much-earlier structure.
At the Ness we don’t have to look far to see an example, with the revetted ditch cut into the Trench T midden mound and which enclosed a circular stone construction on top.
An early 20th century account of the Ness mound also stated that ash and burnt stone covered its surface – perhaps echoing the burning activity suggested by geophysics at Little Barnhouse.
But, as always, only excavation holds the answers.
-  The Orkney Herald. November 8, 1893.
-  The Orkney Herald. March 4, 1891.
-  Journal of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (1899). University Press: Dublin. Pg 282.
-  https://canmore.org.uk/site/2110/standing-stones-hotel
-  Challands, A. (2001) Report on the Geophysical Survey at Little Barnhouse, Stenness, Orkney (Archaeological Geophysics Rep No. AC/01/03).