Midhowe stalled cairn, Rousay

“The bones of men, women and children were pushed up against the walls, occasionally trampled as new burials were added or when people entered to commune with the dead.”
Mark Edmonds. Orcadia. (2019)

By Sigurd Towrie

Rousay map.

We begin casting our archaeological net even further afield this week, crossing Eynhallow Sound to the neighbouring island of Rousay.

Often referred to as the “Egypt of the North” because of the number prehistoric sites within its 18-mile area, Rousay is home to 15 known Neolithic chambered cairns.

Midhowe is one of the largest [1] and part of a cluster lining the island’s south and west coasts.

The cairn takes its name from one of three huge mounds, or howes [2], overlooking Rousay’s south-western coast.

Midhowe was sandwiched between North Howe and South Howe. But it didn’t contain the Neolithic cairn. It was found in a smaller mound a short distance to the south-east. [3]

This long, grassy tumulus undoubtedly had its own name, but what that was is lost to us now. Lying about 20 metres from the shore, it stood almost three metres high with a row of stone slabs projecting from the surface and a drystone dyke running across the top.

Excavation between 1932 and 1934 revealed the well-preserved remains of a huge stalled cairn. [4]

Midhowe plan
Midhowe plan. (Hugh Marwick. Ancient Monuments in Orkney. 1952)

To the excavators, the structure resembled “a long narrow byre, with twelve stalls on each side, separated from one another by short trevisses of slabs” – a layout typical of the Orkney-Cromarty type of chambered cairn.

These consist of rectangular chambers divided into compartments by pairs of large, stone slabs (orthostats) projecting at right angles from the inner wall.

The orthostats created “stalls”, often incorporating shelf- or bench-like features, that run the length of the chamber towards end cells dominated by massive, usually pointed, backslabs.

Where Midhowe differed, however, was its scale.

It was a structure of truly monumental proportions.

The herringbone pattern formed by the exterior masonry.
The herringbone pattern formed by the exterior masonry.

Measuring 32.5m long by 13m wide, Midhowe’s rectangular, outer cairn was aligned south-east to north-west.

It was bounded by inner and outer walls, portions of the exterior decorated with masonry forming the same diagonal, herring-bone pattern noted at other stalled cairns.

A band of stone slabs slabs were slanted to form a triangular pattern in the stonework, reminiscent of the decoration found on Unstan ware pottery.

Looking along the length of the chamber from outside the entrance. The two stretches of masonry are the remains of the blocking material inserted at either end of the passage to seal the chamber. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Access was by a short passage, 3.9m long by 0.8m wide, in the south-eastern end. This was found to have been deliberately blocked at both ends by masonry – the face of the outer blocking flush with the cairn’s external wall. [4]

Collapsed 'benches' visible between the orthostats during the 1932 excavation. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Collapsed ‘benches’ visible between the orthostats during the 1932 excavation. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

The passage roof had not survived so we don’t know how high it was, but, based on other examples, it was probably less than a metre.

After negotiating the low, narrow passage, the visitor stepped down into the interior between a pair of “portal stones” – large, flat slabs flanking the entrance and positioned against the inner wall.

Ahead, the long, rectangular chamber stretched 23.4m into darkness, the c.2.4m-wide route to the end cell lined by pairs of towering stones.

The highest, measuring c. 2.2m high, were in the centre of the chamber, the remainder decreasing in size towards both ends. Together, they divided the space into 12 compartments, ranging from 1.2m to 2.1m long, with low, stone benches in the stalls on the north-eastern side. 

The benches – low slabs laid on top of stone supports at either end – were found in the fifth to eleventh compartments and, given the position of the human remains within the structure, clearly played a major role in the activities carried out within.

The chamber’s length means it could not have had the corbelled, beehive-type roof found in smaller structures like Maeshowe.

Instead, it was proposed the roof was formed by stone slabs laid across the top of the inner walls: “Numerous flat stones, that would have been suitable for this purpose, were observed amongst the fallen debris with which the gallery was choked.” [4]

It is possible the upper levels of Midhowe’s side walls did slope inwards, thus decreasing the gap between the two and allowing the use of smaller lintels. Although the excavators noted the wall near the entrance appeared to be corbelled inwards, they concluded this was a result of the structure’s collapse. [4]

The human remains

“There they sat as time effected their transition, slowly releasing them from their flesh. Once decay had run its course, bones were piled on the floor, sometimes with skulls on top of small heaps.”
Mark Edmonds. Orcadia. (2019)
Pair of crouched inhumations in one of Midhowe's stalls during excavation in the early 1930s.  (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Pair of crouched inhumations in compartment nine during excavation in the early 1930s. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

Midhowe is one of the few Orcadian chambered cairns found to contain human remains. [5]

There could be numerous reasons for this and the topic remains a topic of debate. Possible explanations include preservation conditions, clearing out after (or during) use or perhaps that some were simply not intended to be funerary structures.

But at Midhowe, 25 individuals were identified – including adults, adolescents, and children as young as two years old. [4]

Only one of the benchless stalls held skeletal material (western side of compartment eight), the rest all associated with the benches on the eastern side.

On all but one of these were the remains of two to four skeletons, while, in two, bones were also underneath.

Position of human remains within Midhowe stalled cairn.
The location of the human remains within the Midhowe stalled cairn.

Of the articulated skeletons, nine were in a foetal position, on their sides, with one that appeared to have placed in a sitting position:

“Generally speaking, the bodies had been placed with their backs to the eastern wall, and so faced the central passage. Those at the southern end of the cells lay on their left side and those at the northern on their right.

“The skeleton of an adult male lay against the north-east corner [of compartment six]. The skull was placed upright, facing the passage, the knees were well drawn up, and the left humerus stood high, up near the skull. From the position of the pelvis and other bones it appeared that this body had been placed in a sitting position.”
[4]

As well as articulated material, the excavators found four heaps of bones, each suggested to represent one individual, and which were presumably the result of the later manipulation.

In compartment five, for example, were “the collected remains of the skeleton of an adult male, the limb bones being placed against, and parallel to, the wall, with part of the skull above them.” [4]

As well as apparently complete, but jumbled, deposits, there were also fragmentary remains, including one whole and two fragmentary skulls.

'Bench' remains in two of the eastern stalls.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
‘Bench’ remains in two of the eastern stalls. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The varying nature of the skeletal assemblage strongly suggests that the structure was entered repeatedly. Not just for the deposition of new corpses but to interact with earlier remains.

Disarticulated remains within Midhowe c1932.  (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Disarticulated skeletal remains at the north end of compartment five, c.1932. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

The articulated skeletons are clearly evidence of complete bodies being placed in the chamber – laid, or sat, on the stone benches.

Earlier burials are thought to be represented by the disarticulated bone piles, remains that were moved or pushed aside as new corpses were interred – a process that goes some way to explain why some skeletal material is missing.

As Professor Mark Edmonds eloquently puts it:

“It is clear from several sites that skeletal elements are missing. This may differential rates of decay and destruction – conditions on a bench were not the same as those on the floor. However, missing elements and low numbers indicate that burial was sometimes a temporary affair, lasting only so long as there was a continuity of remembrance.” [6]

While Midhowe’s fragmentary remains could represent disturbed earlier burials, there is also the possibility that these were brought to chamber specifically to be deposited within.

In the end chamber, for example, the only bones found were two, poorly preserved, skulls. Did these belong to earlier inhumations within the cairn or were they from somewhere else? Perhaps curated items from another cairn that were brought in as a foundation deposit?

“Perhaps new phases in the life of a cairn required the replacement of the ancient dead, the grafting of a new genealogy onto an older monument. Given just how long some tombs were used for, we should allow that people moved out as well as in.” [6]
Midhowe during excavation, looking back through the chamber towards the blocked entrance.  (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Looking through the chamber towards the blocked entrance, with skeletal remains (bottom left) in compartment seven. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

Interestingly, no human remains were found in the four compartments nearest the entrance. This saw the excavators speculate that bodies and skeletal material was moved through the chamber – from the front to the end cell – as they decayed. [4]

In effect, the remains of the dead edged closer to the end cell as time went on.

Going on the skeletal evidence from Midhowe, however, this seems unlikely – we have what were clearly the inhumation of complete bodies, represented by articulated skeletons, in compartments five, six, seven, eight and ten.

Clearly the positions of the stalls had meaning but what that was is lost to us.

Radiocarbon dates from two of Midhowe’s skulls produced dates of 3630–3370BC and 3370–3100BC. [7]

A statistical analysis of radiocarbon dates in Orkney suggests the cairn was in use from around 3400BC until 3100BC. [8]

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

This is certainly the case for Midhowe. So, what was going on?

The simple answer is we just don’t know.

Where burials were placed within, were they cleared out at regular intervals? Was interment within restricted to a select few? And it should be stressed that different groups, at different times, may have had very different traditions.

When it comes to chambered cairns, the only thing we can say for sure is that there’s really no one-size-fits all interpretation.

The end cell – the ultimate destination?

“Ahead, out of the darkness a familiar sight would appear: stone doorways through which a path leads towards the goal in the furthest, deepest part of the tomb.”
Colin Richards. An Archaeological Study of Neolithic Orkney. (1993)

Typical of the stalled cairns, the stone-lined route through Midhowe terminated at a cell dominated by a huge backslab set against the end wall.

The end cell, designated compartment twelve, was partially paved and subdivided by transverse slabs. It was separated from the main chamber by a kerbstone between the last pair of dividing orthostats.

Although no benches/shelves survived in the end cell, the excavators noted a scarcement ledge that may have supported either timber or stone slabs.

Looking over the end cell (at the bottom of the picture) along the main chamber. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Looking over the end cell (at the bottom of the picture) along the main chamber. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Midhowe's end cell and backslab.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Midhowe’s end cell and backslab. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

When excavated, the end cell contained only two fragmentary skulls in the eastern end.

These chambers in stalled cairns have been argued to be the “final goal” for those entering the structure:

“Indeed, the tomb is, in some ways, no more than a covered pathway through a series of doorways to the ultimate goal; a symbol of the divine or an impassable gateway to another world?” [9]

To Professor Colin Richards the orthostat pairs, as well as creating compartments, defined a path of doorways that led to the end chamber/backslab.

A route “leading to the inevitable representation; that of the doorway to immortality and another world, the door to which is always closed to humanity.” [9]

He added:

“No longer do the stone uprights define the compartment but the compartments define the doorways.” [9]

Pottery and artefacts

Despite the size of the chamber, the excavators were disappointed by the lack of artefacts.

Pottery sherds from “seven urns” were found, along with a single flint knife. [4]

Three of these vessels, they considered to be Unstan Ware – the shallow, round-bottomed bowls that have come to represent the Early Neolithic period in Orkney.

Remains of a round-bottomed vessel from Midhowe.  (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Remains of a round-bottomed vessel from Midhowe. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

Most of the pottery was found in the stall on the west side of compartment seven, opposite the human remains in the eastern stall, with a few from the passage and the adjacent compartment eight. Only one could be said to relate to a burial, its sherds lying beside bones in compartment eight’s eastern end.

A few of the tiny pottery sherds from within the chamber.  (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
A few of the tiny pottery sherds from within the chamber. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

The excavators pondered whether the pots were broken, trampled and thrown aside when later burials were placed in the chamber. [4]

Even so, it is a very small number compared to Unstan, which contained at least 30 bowls. While this may be due to preservation conditions, the dearth of bowls and bodies in such a large chamber does suggest that Midhowe was cleared out at regular intervals.

The flint knife was found with the pottery sherds in the western stall of compartment seven.

What was its significance, if any?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s difficult not to think of the evidence of corpse manipulation at the Quanterness chambered cairn.

There, some of the human remains showed cut and chop marks around areas of muscle attachment, implying the deliberate dismemberment of some bodies.

Cattle and sheep bones were noted in two of the compartments (1, 10 and 12) while an antler fragment and a pile of limpet shells were in the eastern stall of compartment one [4].

Also in the first compartment were bird bones, identified as belonging to skua, cormorant, guillemot and eagle.

A few gannet and cormorant bones were also found in the end cell and the skull of a crow in the west side of compartment seven, along with a numerous vole bones. Underneath a human arm bone in compartment five were “several fragments of birds’ eggshell”, tentatively identified at the time belonging to a pigeon or owl. [4]

The problem with the bird and vole remains is that we cannot say for certain that these were not the result of natural intrusions – particularly if the chamber was left open for extended periods.

Planned or extended?

Why was Midhowe so large compared to all but one of its known neighbours?

Obviously, we can’t say for sure. It has been suggested, however, that the people of Neolithic Orkney were caught up in a scramble for social standing that was manifested through the construction of bigger and better monuments. [8]

This not only saw “increasingly large and elaborate stalled cairns, as for example at Midhowe[10] as different groups sought to outdo each other but led to elements of Irish passage grave architecture being adopted by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadians, looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition”.

Whether Midhowe was planned to be such a huge structure from the outset is open to debate.

During excavation, a distinct break was noted in the west wall of compartment five, leading the excavators to ponder: “It is just possible that the portion further north represents an afterthought, in the form of an extension of the chamber.” [4]

The fact the masonry break was near the centre of the stall, however, saw them dismiss the idea as doubtful.

In 1989, after looking at the varying heights of the divisional orthostats, their spacing and the alignment of the chamber walls, Davidson and Henshall suggested Midhowe was built in three sections (or perhaps stages).

The first section was made up of five compartments, the second four and the last three compartments. They conceded: “[T]he inner wall-face of the cairn has received only very superficial examination, so it is quite uncertain whether there are or are not any significant vertical joints.” [11]

So the jury is out.

The idea is unprovable without extensive excavation under Midhowe’s central chamber to see whether there is evidence for a series of end walls representing each stage of construction. It is interested to note that Davidson and Henshall also proposed that nearby Knowe of Ramsay, another huge, stalled cairn, had been extended – the four outer compartments added to the original ten. [11]

Abandoned

The entrance passage (bottom left) leading to the main chamber. The lower courses of one of a pair of walls to seal the passage is visible at the threshold.   (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The entrance passage (bottom left) leading to the main chamber. The lower courses of one of a pair of walls to seal the passage is visible at the threshold. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

At the end of its life the Midhowe cairn, like others across Orkney, seems to have been decommissioned and partially dismantled.

The excavators found that the entrance had been deliberately blocked at both ends, while the chamber had been filled with loose slabs.

The filling was interpreted as collapsed roof and cairn material, but it has since been suggested that the lowest 1.5 metres was a “partial ritual filling”, introduced to seal the chamber at the end of its use. [11]

Just below the surface of this material, in compartment four, was a roughly constructed cist containing two crouched skeletons. [4]

Because of the cist, some accounts place the two burials in the Bronze Age. However, we know that cists were used in the Neolithic.

Early in the life of Quanterness, three pits were dug into the chamber’s floor. One contained the remains of a crouched burial that was subsequently covered by slabs. A second housed a well-built, stone cist, which also contained a crouched inhumation. [12]

These burials pre-dated the deposition of the remains of at least 59 individuals within the chamber – foundation deposits maybe?

Quanterness’ final burial was also placed in a pit, this time cut into the earlier burial layers. Dating from around 2400BC, this was also a crouched inhumation. [10]

Meanwhile, we have evidence for at least one cist-like box being used, in conjunction with human remains, at the Ness of Brodgar  – perhaps to mark the end of a building’s life around 3200BC. In 2022, a fragment of human femur was found in a stone box between Structures Seventeen and Eight.

So, were the Midhowe burials a Neolithic closing deposit or simply the opportunistic re-use of the building’s remains? We don’t know.

Some of the chamber infill during excavation, which the excavators interpreted as collapsed roofing material.  (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Some of the chamber infill during excavation, which the excavators interpreted as material from the collapsed roof. (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

Above the level of the burials, the chamber fill has been suggested to represent domestic rubbish, the roofless structure “likely to have been used as [a receptacle] for rubbish”. [11]

Considerable quantities of animal bone [13] along with limpet shells and stone tools were found “all through the debris”. [4]

We know from our work that when the Ness of Brodgar buildings went out of use they were partially dismantled and deliberately filled with a mixture of rubble and “rubbish”, in this case midden or “occupation deposits”.

The artefacts regularly encountered within the midden infill at the Ness echo those found within Midhowe’s so-called rubbish layer – which included five hammerstones, a stone pestle and a worked stone that was pointed at one end and chisel-shaped at the other.

One of the fragments of red deer antler found was described as being “broken across a perforation”. Unfortunately, there is no illustration, but are we looking at another example of an antler macehead, akin to those found at the Quanterness chambered cairn and the Knap of Howar in Papay?

Were these artefacts simply dumped or were they, and some of the animal bone, part of deposits placed to mark the end of the structure? Their position in the chamber’s fill was not recorded so it is impossible to say for sure.

Re-use

Davidson and Henshall's plan of Midhowe showing the later walling and passage and the northern and eastern ends of the structure.
Davidson and Henshall’s plan of Midhowe showing the later walling and passage and the northern and eastern ends of the structure. [11]

An intriguing element to Midhowe concerns to its northern half, which the excavators believed once had a second level. Clearly inspired by the two-storey Taversoe Tuick, four miles away, they proposed the hypothetical upper chamber might have been accessed from the north end. [4]

Their evidence, however, seems to relate to the later modifications to the structure. When and why people returned to Midhowe’s ruins is not clear but they modified the building’s northern end, constructing a passage down into the chamber.

The nature of this re-use is not well understood. Does it relate to the Iron Age?

We have Iron Age additions at the Ness of Brodgar site. At the Stones of Stenness, as well as Iron Age activity within the stone circle, what is suspected to be a broch, Big Howe, was raised nearby.

From these, and other sites, e.g., Quanterness and Howe [14], we know that Iron Age people were not aback to revisiting earlier monuments. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Midhowe cairn’s northern end is closest to the nearby Midhowe broch.

Professor Mark Edmonds agrees this is the likely scenario:

“They excavated at the north-western end, gaining entrance to the chamber to conduct rites of their own, levelling part of the top of the mound to create a walled platform. This may have happened before the broch was established nearby, but even so, it was clearly an important landmark for the occupants of this imposing tower.

“The fact that it saw only limited and deliberate reworking tells us that it was somewhere to be respected, a feature of the mythic landscape that could not be simply quarried away.”
[6]

Outside the cairn

Two substantial walls, with an average width of 1.4m and surviving up to 1.2m high, arc outwards from the northern and eastern external corners of Midhowe. The excavators followed the northern wall for 21m and found a carefully constructed gap, 0.6m wide, 11 metres from the cairn.

The eastern wall, which was traced for 13.7m, had a similar gap one metre from the cairn.

The walls are probably contemporary with the chamber but what they represent is not clear. In plan they resemble the curving hornwork found on horned cairns. These, however, always frame the ends of the structure and not the sides.

Midhowe’s walls may serve a similar purpose, defining and enclosing an area connected to activities within the chamber.

Midhowe today

Midhowe's protective 'warehouse', as seen from the Midhowe broch.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Midhowe’s protective ‘hangar’, as seen from the nearby Midhowe broch. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The goal of the later seasons of 20th century excavation was to consolidate the remains of the Midhowe cairn for public display.

To protect the exposed archaeology, the chamber was enclosed in a large, hangar-like building. Visit today and a series of suspended walkways allow views of the structure and its interior.

Notes

  • [1] The Knowe of Ramsay, also in Rousay, was bigger, with a 26.8-metre-long chamber divided into 14 compartments by 13 pairs of orthostats. By the time of its excavation, in 1935, it was in a poor condition, having been “very much plundered to provide stones for building houses in the immediate vicinity”.
  • [2] From Old Norse haugr, meaning burial mound, cairn.
  • [3] Midhowe, on excavation, was found to contain an Iron Age broch.
  • [4] Callander, J.G. and Grant, W.G. (1934) A long stalled chambered cairn or mausoleum (Rousay type) near Midhowe Rousay, Orkney. With a description of the skeletal remains. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 68, 1933-4.
  • [5] Crozier, R., Richards, C., Robertson, J. and Challands, A. (2016) Reorientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 196-223).
  • [6] Edmonds, M. (2019) Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • [7] Griffiths, S. (2016). Beside the ocean of time: A chronology of Neolithic burial monuments and houses in Orkney. In 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.
  • [8] 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.
  • [9] Richards, C. (1993) An Archaeological Study of Neolithic Orkney: Architecture, Order and Social Order.
  • [10] Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2010) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140, 1-50.
  • [11] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [12] Renfrew, C., Harkness, D. and Switsur, R., 1976. Quanterness, radiocarbon and the Orkney cairns. Antiquity, 50 (199-200), pp.194-204.
  • [13] This was mostly cattle with some sheep and a few pig. There was a wide range of birds, including sea eagle. Three fragments of red deer antler were found in the upper layers of the chamber fill.
  • [14] At Quanterness, an Iron Age roundhouse was built into the entrance of cairn. At Howe, a ditched enclosure was created outside the Neolithic remains. Later, a roundhouse was constructed and a souterrain from the remains of the former chambered cairn.

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