Not all monuments were created equal

‘Expedient architecture’ and the Neolithic long cairns of Orkney
Part One

By Sigurd Towrie

Structure Twelve, showing the later 'shoddy' annex added to the northern end.

Structure Twelve, showing the later ‘shoddy’ annex added to the northern end.

Visitors to the Ness of Brodgar dig will probably have heard “surface over substance” used to describe the construction of some of the structures on site.

Time and effort went into making the buildings look impressive – large and well-built – despite the knowledge that their poor foundations meant they were never going to last. The structures’ grandeur was illusory and skin-deep.

From the day they were raised, they were fated to collapse. Their builders knew that, but it was clearly not considered important. The focus was on the here and now, albeit firmly anchored to that which had gone before. At the Ness this was earlier buildings – a connection that perhaps related to ties of kinship and ancestry.

August 2010: the north end of the building and single entrance. (ORCA)

August 2010: the north end of the building and single entrance. (ORCA)

The fact the Ness structures were doomed from the outset flies in the face of many long-held notions about the permanence and enduring nature of Neolithic architecture in Orkney.

Why, when we have superbly built structures such as Maeshowe, was there apparently so little concern about structural stability at the Ness? There, it seems, it was the place that was important rather than permanence. That required building on top of the remains of earlier buildings, despite the problems that would certainly follow.

The Ness of Brodgar buildings were not expected to, and could not, endure. Does that make them atypical of Neolithic architecture? Perhaps we should be looking at some buildings as special cases and recognise that not all Neolithic constructions were intended to last.

2019 Drone view of Structure Ten. (Scott Pike)

2019 Drone view of Structure Ten. (Scott Pike)

The concept of enduring architecture has become firmly attached to chambered cairns – no doubt influenced by the fine examples that survive today.

Excavation has shown, however, that not all were well-built edifices that would stand the ravages of time. In some cases they were flimsy constructions that were hastily, and easily, built and clearly meant to look suitably monumental. At least from a distance.

The 19th century antiquarian rush to open mounds across Orkney is responsible for uncovering most of our 80 or so known chambered cairns. These, however, are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg. As well as those that remain to be discovered, others have probably not survived.

As we have seen there are two main types of chambered cairn in Orkney – the Maeshowe-type and the Orkney-Cromarty type. Alongside these are the horned cairns, which were divided into two sub-groups — long and short — depending on the size of their external cairns.

Long Horned Cairns

Head of Work Long Horned Cairn, Orkney.

Head of Work Long Horned Cairn, Orkney. (http://canmore.org.uk/site/2431)

Long cairns have long been considered a rarity in the Orcadian Neolithic.

Following accepted typology, they are made up of a long, sometimes tapering, cairn with at least one chamber occupying a small part of the monument — usually towards the higher and wider end.

Three examples of long cairns in Caithness — Camster Long (top), North Yarrows (centre) and South Yarrows (after Henshall 1963).

Three examples of long cairns in Caithness — Camster Long (top), North Yarrows (centre) and South Yarrows (after Henshall 1963).

A forecourt at this end is often faced with walling, with “horns” projecting from the corners to form a semi-enclosed space [1]. On occasions, hornwork is found on both ends, the smaller horns lending the cairn plan the appearance of a stretched animal hide.

A mid-19th century suggestion that horned cairns were embellished earlier structures [2] was confirmed by excavation in the early 1960s [3]. This resulted in the general acceptance that long cairns were simply later additions to existing passage graves, although Henshall conceded “… it is possible that, in a few cases, the two funerary traditions merged to produce a chambered long cairn built as an entity” [1]. This was the situation proposed by Barber for the long cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray [4].

The Orkney situation

A suspected long cairn on the Outer Holm, Stromness, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)

A suspected long cairn on the Outer Holm, Stromness, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)

In 1989, Davidson and Henshall identified five long cairns in Orkney, adding that two others — Hacksness, Shapinsay (badly damaged) and Korkquoy, Westray (destroyed) — could not be confirmed [5]. In their comprehensive catalogue of Orcadian chambered cairns, at least two were not recognised as long cairns — Vestrafiold, Sandwick, and Roseness, Holm.

Since then, excavations at Hurnip’s Point, Deerness [6], and Vestrafiold [7] have added to the confirmed number, with other suspects at the Bay of Stove, Sanday; Outer Holm, Stromness; Outertown, Stromness; and Roseness, Holm.

Ranging from 47 metres to 70 metres, long cairns in Orkney are similar in length to those on the Scottish mainland [1]. All were also assumed to enclose earlier Orkney-Cromarty cairns but it is now clear that this is not necessarily the case [7].

The Knowe of Lairo, Rousay. (https://canmore.org.uk/site/2203/knowe-of-lairo

The Knowe of Lairo, Rousay. (https://canmore.org.uk/site/2203/knowe-of-lairo

Only two Orcadian examples have been subject to modern archaeological excavation — the Point of Cott, Westray [4] and Vestrafiold — and it is the latter that we turn to first.

Vestrafiold’s ‘fake’ monument

Location of VestrafioldThe excavation of the hillside long cairn on Vestrafiold was part of a wider project examining stone circles in the British Isles.

Lying 50 metres east of a rock outcrop that was a source of megaliths for the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, in 2003, the mound remained highly visible, even in its denuded state,  when approaching the site downslope from the east or south-east [7].

In 1989, Davidson and Henshall suggested the oval mound, measuring 22.5 metres long and 15 metres wide, was a very poorly preserved chambered cairn. In 2003, the uncertainty of its architecture, its presence at a confirmed megalithic quarry site, suspected hornworks and an apparent association with a large standing stone meant “further investigation was considered essential” [7].

The subsequent excavation was not only enlightening but also surprising.

Typology dictated that the Vestrafiold long cairn should have been built around an earlier chambered cairn. This, however, was not the case and there was no evidence of any passage or stalled chamber [7]

Figure 12: Excavation under way on the collapsed flagstones used to create the body of the Vestrafiold long cairn. (Colin Richards)

Figure 12: Excavation under way on the collapsed flagstones used to create the body of the Vestrafiold long cairn. (Colin Richards)

Instead, the excavators found they were dealing with a haphazardly built construction that, to all intents and purposes, mimicked the external appearance of a monumental horned cairn [7] — such as the Head of Work, outside Kirkwall, Orkney.

The structure was rectangular, six metres wide and 16 metres long, with a circular mound at the north end and projecting hornworks. Not only was there no internal chamber, but the Neolithic builders at Vestrafiold had employed a construction technique that was “anything other than typical” [7].

The long cairn’s “spine” was formed by a series of box-like structures that were originally thought to represent additional chambers or cells — an initial interpretation that paralleled that of the Point of Cott, Westray [4] and Tulach an t-Sionnaich, Caithness [3].

As work progressed, it became clear these boxes, most of which were ruinous, were a construction device employed to quickly add substance and length to the cairn — but at the expense of any form of long-term stability.

Against the box spine, large flagstones were propped up to create the main body of the structure. Their mass, however, meant the less-than-substantial construction boxes eventually, and inevitably, collapsed under the weight.

So, while this “house-of-cards” building method had allowed the rapid construction of a seemingly substantial edifice, the result was far from structurally stable, as evident from the poor condition of the cairn [7]. This suggested the builders were not at all concerned about creating an enduring structure.

Section across the body of the Vestrafiold long cairn, showing the box-construction method of construction used. (After Richards et al. 2013)

Section across the body of the Vestrafiold long cairn, showing the box-construction method of construction used. (Richards, C. (ed) 2013. Building the Great Stone Circles of the North)

It also meant the bulk of the cairn body consisted of voids between the orthostat-boxes and the propped-up flagstones.

Many of these were found to contain animal remains. While the excavators accepted that many (birds and small mammals) related to natural faunal use of the cairn, there was no doubt that the remains of larger mammals had been deliberately placed and sealed into the construction [7].

These deposits allowed the construction event to be dated, with radiocarbon analysis returning a date range of 2800–2500BC — a result that placed the erection of what was once thought to be an Early Neolithic phenomenon firmly in the Late Neolithic [7].

An upper revetment wall for the circular cairn inserted on to the Vestrafiold long cairn. (Colin Richards)

An upper revetment wall for the circular cairn inserted on to the Vestrafiold long cairn. (Colin Richards)

To help maintain the integrity of the hastily-erected cairn, a poorly-constructed, single-skinned revetment wall (double-skinned at the southern rear-end) surrounded the structure, primarily to function as a “stabilising device” to prevent the angled flagstones forming the side of the cairn from slipping outwards [7].

No attempt had been made to “present a neat external [wall] face”, although the east wall — seen when approaching the monument — had collapsed. According to the excavators: “Given the clear concern with presentation and selective imagery in the Late Neolithic, it is quite possible that the eastern side exhibited superior masonry” [7].

The circular mound added to the northern section of the long cairn was extended in a southerly direction. This took the form of an outer revetment wall that had been tacked on “with little concern for structural integration”. It ran four metres to the south before “turning at right angles to form the rear of the cairn,” with the enclosed area filled with “laid slabs and stone rubble” [7].

Traces of walling across the rear of the cairn suggested a stepped profile had been created (a feature encountered in other long cairns) using low revetment walls. These, however, had been built straight on top of the rubble, thereby adding further instability to an already precarious structure [7].

The box-construction method, extremely shoddy building work and the fact there was no evidence of an incorporated stalled cairn implied the Vestrafiold construction was deliberately, and presumably quickly, erected to look like a specific form of Neolithic monumental structure.

This suggests that long cairns had a specific role within Neolithic society — one the Vestrafiold builders sought to emulate. Whatever that significance was, it is clear that with the Vestrafiold cairn visual impact — at least from a distance — was more important than any form of structural permanence.

As the excavators put it, the “deceptive monument” was meant to maintain “the appearance of a substantial monument, yet beneath the surface was a rickety structure.” [7]

Part Two >

Notes

  • [1] Henshall, A. (1985) The Chambered Cairns. In Renfrew, C. (ed) The Prehistory of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] Anderson, J. (1866–8) On the horned cairns of Caithness: their structural arrangement, contents of chambers &c. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 7: 480–512.
  • [3] Corcoran, J.X.W.P. (1966) Excavation of three chambered cairns at Loch Calder, Caithness. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 98, 1–75.
  • [4] Barber, J. (1997) The excavation of a stalled cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney. Edinburgh: Star Monograph I.
  • [5] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [6] Hunter, J. R. (1991) A new Neolithic burial cairn in Orkney? Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 123: 9–12.
  • [7] Richards, C., Downes, J., Ixer, R., Hambleton, E., Peterson, R. & Pollard, J. (2013) Surface over Substance: the Vestra Fiold horned cairn, Mainland, Setter cairn, Eday, and a reappraisal of later Neolithic funerary architecture. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Oxford: Windgather Press, 149 – 83.

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