The Sandfiold Bronze Age cemetery

“In the Links of Skeall (sic), where sand is blown away with the wind, are found several places built four square, about a foot square, with stones about, well cemented together, and a stone lying in the mouth, having some black earth in them.”

Rev James Wallace. A Description of the Isles of Orkney (1693)
Plan of the Links of Skaill, from a survey by Walden in 1772. The sheer number of mounds visible in the landscape is clear.

Plan of the Links of Skaill, from a survey by Walden in 1772. The sheer number of mounds visible in the landscape is clear.

 

By Sigurd Towrie

Sandfiold [1] is a low hill overlooking the Bay of Skaill directly to its west. Lying just over half a mile to the north-east of Skara Brae, the area around the hill is home to the remnants of an  extensive Bronze Age  cemetery (probably dating from between 2300-1700BC [8]) in which was found “an exceptional” cist in 1989 and an exceptionally well-preserved burial in February 2021.

This, the first of three articles, focuses on the cemetery, which was targeted by 18th century “grave-diggers” who encountered artefacts and human remains during their jaunt.

From Rev James Wallace’s 1693 account (quoted above) it is clear that rectangular stone features were known at the Links of Skaill – the area between the bay and Sandfiold – in the late 17th century.

Sandfiold and the Links of Skaill, Sandwick, Orkney. (Google Earth)

Sandfiold and the Links of Skaill, Sandwick, Orkney. Compare the horseshoe-shaped raised area with the Walden plan above. (Google Earth)

What is not clear is whether Wallace knew their purpose. However, the fact he likens them to similar features from the island of Stronsay, suggests he did suspect a funerary role, although from the wrong historical period. The Stronsay “monuments”, he wrote, were likely to be “ancient urns wherein the Romans, when they were in this country, laid up the ashes of their dead.” [2]

Less than a century later there was no doubt and at least five episodes of “grave-digging” [3], as it was termed, occurred in the shadow of Sandfiold in the late 18th century. Involved in at least one of these was the Rev George Low, who was, at the time, a church minister in Stromness. [3]

In 1773, in a letter accompanying the above illustration of “the ancient graves found in the Orcades”, Low explained to his correspondent that “These figures were taken from some opened in the Links of Skail [3], on the mainland…”

A plan of the area drawn up at this time (pictured below) shows mounds of varying sizes covering the links but particularly concentrated around the gentle slopes of Sandfiold. Given the sheer number shown on the Walden map it is highly unlikely that people were unaware of the barrows.

Rev George Low's illustration of the 'ancient burial places in the Links of Skail', including one of the bones and a bead.

Rev George Low’s illustration of the ‘ancient burial places in the Links of Skail’, including one of the bones and a bead.

That said, knowledge of their existence may have actually helped protect the archaeology – from most casual diggers, at least. Howes and knowes (mounds) had the fearsome reputation of being the dwellings of supernatural creatures and as late as the early 20th century tended to be avoided where possible.

Low and his colleagues, however, had no such fears.

A naturalist, Low had moved to Orkney between 1766 and 1768, where he became a tutor to the family of Robert Graham of Skaill. The Links of Skaill was owned by the Graham family, who had used the area as a golf course in the 17th century [4].

A wintry Links of Skaill, looking west to the Bay of Skaill. (Sigurd Towrie)

A wintry Links of Skaill, looking west to the Bay of Skaill. (Sigurd Towrie)

Low’s involvement in the early “excavations” was brought about by a visit to Orkney by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772. Banks, a celebrated naturalist, was touring Iceland and the Scottish Northern Isles and appointed Low director of the Orkney leg.

“One day in particular,” wrote Low, “we went a grave digging in the Links of Skail (sic), on the Mainland, where there are great numbers of tumuli. We pitched upon one, which seemed never to have been moved since its first construction, and Mr Banks ordered his people to begin at one side and dig to the other that we might see the whole fabrick of it. It was of a flattish conical shape.

“After digging away a great quantity of sand till we came near the centre of the hill, the people struck their spades on several large stones; upon which Mr Banks ordered them to dig round them, and the whole construction appeared as I have sketched it with my pen: first a large quantity of sand, then a large parcel of great stones, which seemed to have been taken from the neighbouring seashore. When these were removed the coffin or chest appeared, which was composed of four stones, covered with a very large fifth stone.” [3]

Inside the cist the investigators found the remains of a crouched burial, apparently in such a good state of preservation that flesh – or parts of it – had survived. Based on the teeth, Low declared it to be an elderly man. At “his” feet was a bag containing disarticulated human remains. [3]

Low continued: 

Low's 1772 sketch of the 'old gentleman' found inside one of the cists, with the bag of cremated bone by his legs.

Low’s 1772 sketch of the ‘old gentleman’ found inside one of the cists, with the bag of cremated bone by his legs.

“In [the cist] lay the old gentleman on his side, with his hands folded on his breast, his knees drawn up to his belly, and his heels towards his hips. This was a highly preserved skeleton, notwithstanding the length of time it must have lain.

“All the bones remained, only they were softish, till they hardened in the air; the flesh was in the form of a whitish earth, lying about the bones of the thicker parts of the body, and on the arms, &c., was scattered a sort of blackish fibres, which Dr Lind supposed might have been the vascular system.

“What was very remarkable was a bag of some very coarse vegetable stuff, which was laid at his feet, [contained] the bones of a younger person, which seemed to have been a woman, upon which was made a very ingenious conjecture: that this might have been the wife who dyed (sic), perhaps at thirty years of age, and who might have been buried till her husband dyed (sic), and when this happened her bones might been collected into this bag, and laid at his feet in the same grave.” [3]

Describing the “several” which had been opened, Low explained that the “corpse has been laid down on a bed of sand (in others sometimes on a large stone, or even on the ground), inclosed with four large stones by way of coffin, over which, as a cover, is placed a fifth”.

Around the cist “is built a number of common rough stones, and over all a heap of sand, shaped like a flat cone; which is the appearance they have to the eye.” [3]

The opened graves seen by Low contained no pottery or burnt bone, but only entire skeletons “laid in no determinate posture, some being found sitting, and others lying on their sides.” [3]

One of the cists, however, produced the beads “made up so as to be worn about the neck” [3] – In the spirit of antiquarian investigation, Low set one on fire to test its composition.

“I have seen several of the beads,” he wrote, “they are black and seem to be made of a sort of cannel coal, they burn well, emitting a strong white flame, and a white cinder remains.” [3]

The beads presumably came from one of three cists opened the same year by Robert Graham of Skaill, who described his findings in a letter to the Scottish antiquarian Robert Ramsay [5].

Graham found “about 200 small black beads” in a cist that also contained “some human bones lying in the widest end, in the other a great many burnt bones”. The “burnt ashes” he added, had “some kind of covering, which appears to be made of hair…” [5]

This “hair” was undoubtedly the remains of a organic material – perhaps a mat similar to that encountered in the excavation of the nearby Sandfiold cist in 1989.

The black beads appear to belong to a typical Bronze Age bead necklace, which date to c2200-1700BC [6]. Among these was “a piece of bone which take to have been Ivory, but the colour much altered, [and] from a hole being in it we conclude to have been a locket”. [5]

Based on similar artefacts from Scottish sites, Mamwell has suggested that the flat, lozenge-shaped object was a toggle fastener from a funerary garment and dates from 2300-1600BC [6]. The fact it was discoloured suggests it had been on a cremation pyre along with the body of the deceased. [6]

It is also clear from Graham’s account that the burial cists varied in size and content. Although the above example contained only disarticulated and burnt bone, the two others held complete articulated skeletons.

“In another urn [7], a little larger, I found a human body, which seems to have been set on its backside, as the skull, and ribs and backbone were all lying at the widest end, and the thigh bones and legs stretched out at full length, lying upon about three inches deep of clay in the bottom.

“The trunk of the body seems to have been supported by a heap of stones built up before its breast.” [5]

In another he found “the bones of a child whole and entire lying on its side with its knees a little bended, as people generally lie in bed.”

Graham wrote: “All these urns are covered on the top with a great quantity of stones and are raised from the plain into what we call hillocks. There are many hillocks of this kind, all having the appearance of Urns, but not the least inscription can be discovered.” [5]

The variety of inhumations was also highlighted by Low.

Describing the main subject of his illustration (picture above) he explained: “The front figure represents a very large tumulus in the same place, which contains many repositories in rows above one another. These are something different … being composed of six stones (one serving for a bottom), and without these large ones built round the others, having here nothing but sand.

“In these were found skeletons of men, women and children, particularly one scull (sic) with the second set of foreteeth yet in the sockets.” [3]

Looking north across a section of the Links of Skaill, with numerous 'lumps and bumps' still visible in the middle distance. (Sigurd Towrie)

Looking north across a section of the Links of Skaill, with numerous ‘lumps and bumps’ still visible in the middle distance. (Sigurd Towrie)

The only other surviving account of the expedition, written by Banks’ personal servant James Roberts, introduced a new element – the apparent giant size of the articulated skeleton described by Low.

“[At] four this morning [October 21, 1772] Mr Banks, Dr Solander, with the rest of the Gentlemen, and Servants, and many of the Natives with Spades went to a place call’d Sandwick, where we open’d two Ancient Tombs, or Tumuli, in each of them was found the Bones of a man, and woman, the form of their Interment was somewhat Singular, they were laid in a very coarse mat which was entirely rotten, the Bones of the woman were laid at the man’s feet.

“[T]he Tomb was form’d of Flagstones, one on each side, one at each end, and one at the top, the other was the same with the addition of one at the Bottom. I measured one of the Tombs, it was four feet eight Inches [1.22m] long, two feet eight Inches [0.81m] broad, and two feet four inches [0.71m] in depth; the other was nearly the same.

“The man was laid with his feet nearly up to his chin, which perhaps was the custom of the times, for without his being buried in this manner, the place could not have contained him, as he must have been about seven feet high in proportion to his thigh bone which measures nineteen inches.” [5]

Where the people buried around Sandfiold lived remains elusive. Geophysical survey to the south-west suggests some settlement, but “the character and density of Bronze Age occupation has yet to be determined.” [8]

Whether the 18th century incursions into the Bronze Age burials were the last is not known. If more were opened the operations were not documented. While the “immense abundance of tumuli” noted by Banks in 1772 were probably affected by agricultural improvement in the 19th century [6], it may be that a substantial number survived on Sandfiold’s upper slopes.

Excavation of a cist discovered on Sandfiold's lower slopes in February 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)

Excavation of a cist discovered on Sandfiold’s lower slopes in February 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)

Not only was an apparently reusable, cist-type feature found on Sandfiold in 1989, but a large stone cist, discovered during agricultural work in February 2021, contained the perfectly preserved remains of an adult male, interred in a foetal position but with no grave goods.

The next article looks at the former in more detail.

Notes

  • [1] From the Old Norse meaning “sand hill”.
  • [2] Wallace, J. (1693) A Description of the Isles of Orkney.
  • [3] Low, George (1879) Tour through the islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774. (Ed. Joseph Anderson) Kirkwall, 1879
  • [4] Wilson, B. (2013) Stromness: A History. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [5] Lysaght, A.M. (1974) Joseph Banks at Skara Brae and Stennis, Orkney, 1772. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28(2), pp.221-234.
  • [6] Mamwell, C. (2018) It rained a lot and nothing much happened: Settlement and society in Bronze Age Orkney. PHD thesis.
  • [7] Graham referred to the burials as “urns”: “I have discovered several Urns, as we call them here; how properly we call them so I cannot say.”
  • [8] Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J. (2020) Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

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