Not all monuments were created equal
‘Expedient architecture’ and Orkney’s Neolithic long cairns
By Sigurd Towrie
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.
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.
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
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.
A forecourt at this end is often faced with walling, with “horns” projecting from the corners to form a semi-enclosed space . On occasions, hornwork is found on both ends, the smaller horns lending the cairn plan the appearance of a stretched animal hide.
This resulted in the general acceptance that long cairns were simply later additions to existing passage graves, although Henshall conceded:
This was the situation proposed by Barber for the long cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray .
The Orkney situation
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 . 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 , and Vestrafiold  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 . All were also assumed to enclose earlier Orkney-Cromarty cairns but it is now clear that this is not necessarily the case .
Only two Orcadian examples have been subject to modern archaeological excavation — the Point of Cott, Westray  and Vestrafiold.
The Vestrafiold cairn is detailed here, so we’ll begin with the Point of Cott.
Point of Cott, Westray, OrkneyUnder threat of destruction, due to coastal erosion, the long cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, was completely excavated in 1984/85 .
Although erosion had claimed large sections to the north and east, the excavation revealed a four-compartment stalled chamber at the heart of a large long cairn with the remains of hornworks to the south.
Prior to excavation, what appeared to be a chamber was visible in an eroded section of the northern end of the cairn — an area found to be “extremely difficult” to excavate because of its “collapsed state” .
This collapse appears to be the result of the same construction device found at Vestrafiold some 19 years later.
According to Barber, this “space-filler” consisted of a “two-tier, honeycomb arrangement of cells” that had been:
The lack of concern over stability encountered at Vestrafiold was also evident at the Point of Cott.
Not only was up to 40 per cent of the northern cairn made up of voids, but on the few occasions orthostats were set in socket holes, these were “little more than shallow scrapes”.
Other orthostats were kept upright by smaller stone slabs or even chunks of turf . Hardly the way to build if you want the end result to last!
The poor quality of its construction prompted Barber to suggest the long cairn had been “erected by less-experienced builders”.
It was, he wrote, in stark contrast to the carefully constructed primary cairn and markedly different “from every other part of the monument” .
Despite the apparently inferior workmanship, based on the suggested reconstruction the Point of Cott structure was, on the surface at least, a visually impressive monument.
Around 31 metres long and three metres high at its highest point, the quality of the external wall faces suggested that “at least in their upper parts, they were intended to be seen” .
According to Barber, the monument’s spectacular “stepped and facaded appearance” made an “architectural and aesthetic statement” that perhaps elevated its creators above their contemporaries .
There is no doubt that, in its later phases, the Point of Cott “cairn” was not only spectacular, highly visible and designed to be seen, but its final, monumental form swept away the idea that chambered cairns were always mere grassy or rocky “amorphous masses” .
Despite the surface dressing, however, the fact remains the building was intrinsically unstable and, from the day construction began, was doomed to collapse.
-  Henshall, A. (1985) The Chambered Cairns. In Renfrew, C. (ed) The Prehistory of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
-  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.
-  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.
-  Barber, J. (1997) The excavation of a stalled cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney. Edinburgh: Star Monograph I.
-  Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
-  Hunter, J. R. (1991) A new Neolithic burial cairn in Orkney? Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 123: 9–12.
-  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.