Quanterness chambered cairn

“Situated on a gentle declivity, under the brow of Wideford Hill, it looks towards the North Isles.
Rev George Barry. The History of the Orkney Islands. (1805)
Aerial view of the Quanterness chambered cairn, sitting within the grounds of the farm of Quanterness. (http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1542917)
Aerial view of the Quanterness chambered cairn, sitting within the grounds of the farm of Quanterness. (http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1542917)

By Sigurd Towrie

The Quanterness passage grave is the third in a series of three chambered cairns found in a three-mile stretch of countryside between Kirkwall and Finstown. Quanterness, however, is located on private ground and not open to the public.

The Neolithic structure sits at the bottom of the northern side of Wideford Hill and is one of the few Orcadian chambered cairns to have actually been found to contain human remains.

The cairn has a diameter of c31 metres (102ft) and survived to approximately four metres high (13ft). Inside, six side cells branch off from a rectangular central chamber accessed by an entrance passage in the centre of the eastern wall. [1]

It was built on a natural knoll, a location choice that gave the appearance of a higher, more impressive monument.

Like Maeshowe, the knoll had been levelled to create a platform on which to build the monument. [4]

Early investigation

The plan of the Quanterness passage grave published in Barry's 1805 The History of the Orkney Islands.
The plan of the Quanterness passage grave published in Barry’s 1805 The History of the Orkney Islands.

Quanterness was first investigated around 1796 [2], with the Rev George Barry documenting an incursion into the chamber through the roof:

“[I]t bears externally the form of a truncate cone, the height of which is about 14 feet (4.27m). Internally, it consists of several cells or apartments, the principal one of which is in the centre.” [3]

Although Barry refers to the “passage into the Great Room” and the illustration accompanying his account shows it, we know the excavators gave up trying to clear the entrance passage after 22 feet (6.7m) – “as far as we could go for rubbish”. [3]

It is not clear whether it was understood this was the entrance because he proclaimed:

“There does not appear to have been, in any part of the building, either chink or hole for the admission of light; and this circumstance alone is sufficient to show that it had not been destined for the abode of men.”

He added:

“The contents were accordingly such as might have been naturally expected in such a gloomy mansion.”

Inside, at the bottom of the chamber and cells:

“the earth…as deep as it could be dug was…of a fetid odour, plentifully intermingled with bones, some of which were almost entirely consumed and others had, in defiance of time, remained so entire as to show that they were the bones of men, of birds and of some domestic animals.
“In one of the apartments an entire human skeleton, in a prone attitude, was found; but in the others the bones were not only separated from one another but divided into very small fragments.” [3]

Modern excavation

Reconstruction of the Quanterness chambered cairn. (Renfrew 1979)
Reconstruction of the Quanterness chambered cairn. (Renfrew 1979)

After the antiquarian foray, Quanterness was left until 1972, when it was excavated by Colin Renfrew – the first modern excavation of an Orcadian chambered cairn in a relatively pristine state. Remarkably, Barry’s exploration had not majorly disturbed the contents of the cairn.

Renfrew’s excavation, from 1972 until 1974, was carried out to a very high standard. [4]

All finds were recorded and plotted and all sediment sieved through a 2mm mesh. As a result, a substantial quantity of human bone was recovered – over 12,500 fragments were declared, making it one of the largest assemblages of Neolithic human remains in Britain. [2]

Plan of Quanterness (Renfrew 1979. Investigations in Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of London)
Plan of Quanterness (Renfrew 1979. Investigations in Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of London)

Analysis of the skeletal material led to the suggestion that the excavated sections of the cairn (80 per cent of the central chamber, the passages and the south-western cell) contained at least 157 individuals.

Extrapolating from this figure, it was suggested that Quanterness may have held as many as 400 individuals.

The fragmented state of the remains, however, was responsible for a theory that remains tenacious to this day.

Renfrew explained:

“The evidence clearly suggests… that bodies brought in for burial were already in a fragmentary condition. It is Mr Chesterman’s suggestion that bodies were either exposed to the elements for a time after death, or given primary burial elsewhere and later exhumed, prior to their ultimate burial in the cairn.
“This practice, known as excarnation, is well documented in several parts of the world, and there is much evidence for it in Neolithic Britain. Indeed, in our final report it will be argued that excarnation may have been the norm rather than the exception among the mortuary practices of the Neolithic inhabitants of Britain.” [2]

With excarnation, the bones of the dead are gathered after defleshing and relocated to the chamber. A sign that this has taken place is a predominance of large bones, e.g. skulls and longbones, and a lack of smaller bones such as fingers and toes.

Responsible for analysing the human bone assemblage was the anatomist Judson Chesterman.

To Chesterman, the condition of the skeletal remains were indicative of a mortuary practice in which the dead were laid out somewhere to be defleshed. He suggested they were buried in sand because of a lack of animal damage to the bone assemblage. [4]

The gathered bones were then “half-cremated” before being transferred to the passage grave. [4]

“All the bones,” he wrote, “showed evidence of exposure to some degree of heat.” [4]

But although he proposed excarnation at Quanterness, Chesterman actually noted a lack of skulls and longbones within the chamber, prompting Renfrew to suggest these large bones had been removed, possibly relocated to another chambered cairn. [4]

The 400 bodies suggested by Chesterman also saw Renfrew to suggest that Quanterness was the burial place, over centuries of a single community.

The 1979 analysis concluded that the cairn held 85 adults, 35 teenagers, 26 children and ten infants in the excavated sections. To only element missing were babies – taken as evidence of a different mortuary practice for that age group. [4]

This conclusion set Quanterness apart from other chambered cairns in Orkney where, if human remains were present, the number was such that it could not represent all the dead from a community – particularly when the apparent longevity of the structures were taken into account.

However, doubt has been cast on the conclusions drawn from the original examination of the Quanterness bone assemblage and a re-analysis, by Dr Rebecca Crozier, paints quite a different picture.

Firstly, the actual number of fragments of human skeletal material recovered was 10,500, representing a minimum number of 59 individuals – well over half the number of inhumations originally suggested. All ages were also represented, including babies under the age of three months. [5]

The revised figure suggest that Quanterness was no different to others. Radiocarbon dated shows that the passage grave was in use between 350 and 720 years, but the excavated section contained a minimum of 59 individuals.

Even doubling that figure, over 700 years this amounts to roughly one inhumation every six years – clearly not everyone ended up in Quanterness.

Excarnation unlikely

In addition, Crozier found that not only was every bone in the human body represented at Quanterness – something that would not be expected if excarnation had occurred – but that there was little evidence of weathering or burning. The elements considered missing by Chesterman and Renfrew were present within the assemblage, just “analytically invisible” and highly fragmented. [5]

There was no evidence of weathering, nor burning of the bone. In short, the evidence does not support the long-standing excarnation theory. Instead the revised analysis strongly suggested that whole bodies were placed within the chambers to decay. [5]

But the bodies were not just left…

Crozier noted evidence that points to the deliberate manipulation of corpses, perhaps to expedite the decomposition process. Some of the bone assemblage showed cut marks and chop marks around areas of muscle attachment, implying the deliberate dismemberment of some, but not all, corpses. [5]

Dating Quanterness

To Renfrew, who obtained the first radiocarbon dates for an Orcadian chambered cairn, Quanterness was “constructed before 3400BC and in use for fully a millennium before its final use around 2400BC”. [4]

With the available material we cannot date the construction of the chambered cairn but a re-analysis of the radiocarbon dates does suggest deposition of human remains began around 3400BC. [6]

But these dates, and the prevalence of Grooved Ware pottery found in Quanterness, create problems when it comes to the story of Neolithic Orkney.

In a nutshell, the generally accepted model was, until recently, that the Orkney-Cromarty stalled cairns evolved over centuries into the Maeshowe-type structures. [4]

Along the same lines, the Grooved Ware pottery associated with the passage graves was considered later than the Unstan Ware ceramics from the stalled cairns.

Quanterness was found to contain only Grooved Ware pottery, meaning this style was in use earlier than once thought and at the same time as Unstan Ware. The radiocarbon dating results also suggest Quanterness was also in use at the same time as a number of stalled cairns in the archipelago.

A re-analysis of radiocarbon and luminescence dates, published in 2017, prompted “a radical reassessment” of Neolithic Orkney. [7]

Rather than Renfrew’s evolution, the Times of Their Lives project posited that both types of chambered cairn were first built in the middle of the fourth millennium BC — “although, with current evidence, it is not possible to state which came first”. [7]

Given the architectural similarities, the Maeshowe-type passage graves are thought to have been “imported” to Orkney from Ireland by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadian groups looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition”. [6]

With the data available to him, Renfrew believed the construction of Quanterness took place around the same time as the passage graves in the Boyne Valley, Ireland. [4]

But the radiocarbon dates place the deposition of remains in Quanterness before the Irish structures [6] suggesting that: “On current evidence, this would make Orcadian passage graves among the earliest examples of this architecture in Britain and Ireland.” [7]

That said, it may be that the dated Irish remains post-date the construction of the passage graves they were placed within. [6]

Renfrew believed Quanterness was in use for “fully a millennium before its final use around 2400BC.” [4]

The re-evaluation of radiocarbon dates, however, suggests otherwise with the end date of the chamber’s main use around 2800BC. A later inhumation points to Quanterness, like Cuween to the west, being used again in the early Bronze Age, some three centuries later, around 2400BC. [6]

Iron Age reuse

The Quanterness passage grave with the later roundhouse incorporated into its entrance. (Renfrew 1979)
The Quanterness passage grave with the later roundhouse incorporated into its entrance. (Renfrew 1979)

The deposition of Bronze Age remains at Quanterness and Cuween suggests the cairns retained a place in the lives of the people nearby long after they had gone out of use. It may be that their re-use provided a link to the past, perhaps exploited to legitimize claims to land or a place in society.

Something similar may have been at play again, millennia later, when an Iron Age roundhouse was constructed at the entrance to Quanterness and incorporated into its fabric.

The roundhouse had a diameter of seven metres (23ft) with walls 80cm (31.5in) thick and built around 700BC before being remodeled around 200BC. [4]

The Iron Age re-use of an earlier prehistoric site is not unknown in Orkney. At Quanterness, although the builders incorporated a 2,700-year-old structure into theirs, care was taken not to disturb the passage grave’s entrance, which may have remained open during the life of the roundhouse. [4]  

The roundhouse may have been part of a larger complex of structures clustered around the already ancient chambered cairn.


  • [1] Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] Renfrew, C., Harkness, D. and Switsur, R. (1976) Quanterness, radiocarbon and the Orkney cairns. Antiquity, 50(199), p.194.
  • [3] Barry, G. (1805) The History of the Orkney Islands.
  • [4] Renfrew, C. (1979) Investigations in Orkney. Society of Antiquaries of London.
  • [5] Crozier, R., Richards, C., Robertson, J. and Challands, A. (2016). Reorienting the Dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards C. and Jones, R (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney. Windgather Press.
  • [6] 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).
  • [7] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), 1171-1188

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