Sandfiold: cremation, tomb and cist

“With the discovery of the rock-cut chamber and monumental cist at Sand Fiold, Sandwick, which produced late Neolithic as well as Bronze Age dates, our understanding of Neolithic burial practices began to be challenged.”
Beverley Ballin Smith (2014) Between Tomb and Cist
Excavation under way at the Sandfiold cist and chamber. (Picture courtesy of the Gunnie Moberg Archive/Orkney Library Photographic Archives)

Excavation under way at the Sandfiold cist and chamber. (Picture courtesy of the Gunnie Moberg Archive/Orkney Library Photographic Archives)

By Sigurd Towrie

Like the many Neolithic chambered cairns throughout Orkney, the Sandfiold cist was clearly meant to be, and was, re-used.

Few Orcadian cairns have been found to contain human remains, strongly suggesting that they were not the final destination for all the Neolithic dead. Was deposition in these structures only available to a select few? Going on the quantity of remains recorded compared to population estimates it would seem so [1].

The interior of the Midhowe stalled cairn, Rousay, one of the Orcadian chambered cairns found to contain human remains. (Sigurd Towrie)

The interior of the Midhowe stalled cairn, Rousay, one of the Orcadian chambered cairns found to contain human remains. (Sigurd Towrie)

Whoever was selected – and whatever the selection process – once placed in a tomb the evidence suggests the mortal remains were not simply left alone.  From the reorganisation of skeletal material encountered within there is no doubt some cairns were being entered repeatedly – not just for the addition of new corpses but to interact with earlier remains, both skeletal and partially decomposed [2].

The Sandfiold cist contained one Neolithic burial – the foetus – which, if the cist was a Bronze Age construction, must have come from somewhere else. If, on the other hand, the cist was Neolithic then the foetus may have been the final deposit and that earlier burials had been carefully cleared out. This hypothetical process is often used to explain the paucity of remains in some chambered cairns.

We look at burial as the final stage of a process but in the Neolithic, things may not have been so clear cut. Along the same lines, to our practical 21st minds, why go to the trouble of carefully constructing a re-usable structure and only using it once? The reality is undoubtedly much more complex.

Whether or not the cist was Neolithic, the date from the pyre material deposited behind it was. And it corroborates what has been suspected for years – that there were multiple ways of dealing with the dead, of which chambered cairns were but one element. While some individuals were being placed within chambered cairns – the number and treatment apparently varying from structure to structure – others were being cremated.

That cremation played a part in Orcadian Neolithic mortuary practice should not really come as a surprise. Cremation cemeteries from the centuries either side of 3000BC are known throughout Britain, for example Forteviot, in Perthshire, Scotland [3].

So far, however, evidence of Neolithic cremation in Orkney is scarce. It may be that cremation was also selective or that the handling of cremated remains did not involve chambered cairns.

The problem we face is that because most Orcadian chambered cairns were “excavated” – i.e., cleared out – long before the advent of radiocarbon dating. As such it has generally been assumed that cremations encountered inside, or in their vicinity, related to Bronze Age re-use. While that is probably the case in most instances, perhaps not all were later additions.

The Taversoe Tuick’s ‘miniature chamber’

The upper chamber and entrance at the Taversoe Tuick, Rousay. (Sigurd Towrie)

The upper chamber and entrance at the Taversoe Tuick, Rousay. (Sigurd Towrie)

At the Taversoe Tuick, in Rousay, for example, three small cists were found in 1898 above the floor of the two-storeyed structure’s upper chamber [4]. The cists contained “fragments of bones” that “had obviously been incinerated”. These belonged to at least one adult, possibly three, and a child. Pottery sherds within the cists led to the suggestion the burnt bone had been deposited in “urns” [4].

The three cists were clearly much later, Bronze Age additions. By the time they were inserted, the chamber floor had a “layer of earth about a foot thick” [4], suggesting the upper chamber had fallen into ruin.

But although there’s little doubt the Taversoe Tuick cremated remains were not Neolithic, the chambered cairn shares a feature with the Sandfiold cist – the lower chamber was subterranean and created by quarrying down through clay and bedrock.

As the above 3D model shows, the Taversoe Tuick is made up of two chambers “stacked” on top of each other.

The entrance to the 'miniature chamber' at the Taversoe Tuick. (Sigurd Towrie)

The entrance to the ‘miniature chamber’ at the Taversoe Tuick. (Sigurd Towrie)

Although the tomb was discovered in the late 19th century, its upper chamber was ruinous, and its existence only confirmed by excavation in 1937 [5]. Access to the two chambers was by separate entrance passages, both of which had been blocked, presumably when the structure went out of use [6].

Although the poor condition of the upper chamber meant that only the cist remains were found, a complete crouched inhumation was found at one end of the lower, with fragments of bone in the other. Three “heaps of bone” were found in the entrance passage [4].

Was the rock-cut chamber pit housing the Sandfiold cist simply the lower chamber of a structure akin to the Taversoe Tuick? Possibly, but the complete absence of structural evidence above the Sandfiold chamber casts doubt on the idea.

Outside the Taversoe Tuick, however, is a feature with intriguing parallels to the Sandfiold chamber. Around seven metres to the south-east of the cairn’s lower entrance passage is a small chamber that has been “hewn out of the rock and lined with most precisely and perfectly built masonry” [5]

Measuring just 1.6 metres long by 1.1 metres wide, the tiny oval chamber is a mere 85 centimetres high [6]. Access was by dropping down into a narrow passage at its south-western end with the interior subdivided by four orthostats projecting, to differing extents, into the chamber [5].

Plan and elevation of the 'miniature chamber' outside the Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn in Rousay.

Plan and elevation of the ‘miniature chamber’ outside the Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn in Rousay. (Grant, W. 1939)

Although this so-called “miniature chamber” [5] has an interior layout akin to known Neolithic chambered cairns in Orkney, e.g., the Calf of Eday South East [6] and Crantit [7], no remains were recorded. It did, however, contain round-bottomed Early Neolithic pottery [5].


The subterranean chamber at Crantit, on the outskirts of Kirkwall, was excavated by Beverley Ballin Smith in 1998. To the excavator, the structure represented a stage in a transition from the architecture and use of chambered cairns to that of cists. [7]

Crantit’s architecture “did not easily fit” the typology of chambered cairns in Orkney. There were, wrote Ballin Smith, “too many discrepancies in its construction and form, and yet it was still a tomb.” [7]

The Crantit structure, she wrote, was “not an aberration but one of several similar structures where the physical attributes of traditional tombs were undergoing a process of gradual alteration. This was a transformation which would end with a much simpler burial structure, that of the cist.” [7]

The interior layout of the Crantit cairn, showing the positions of the human remains deposits. (Ballin Smith et al. 2014)

The interior layout of the Crantit cairn, showing the positions of the human remains deposits. (Ballin Smith et al. 2014)

The chamber contained four deposits of poorly preserved, disarticulated human remains. Chemical analysis of the floor suggested that the bodies had been placed on their backs, where they remained until decomposition reduced them to skeletons. Then the bones were collected and placed, in piles, in the areas where they remained until excavation [7].

Like others, the Crantit cairn remained a focus for burial in the Bronze Age. Two cists were found and excavated in the vicinity of the Neolithic structure. One of these, suggested Ballin Smith, had a removable side. Radiocarbon dates from one of the cists placed it between 1900-1600BC. The Neolithic remains from the cairn were in too poor a condition to allow dating [7].

A cist with a door

Although the Sandfiold cist is the only one of its kind to have been excavated in modern times similar features have been recorded in the past.

In the early 20th century, for example, a cist with a “door” in a rock-cut pit was found near Maeshowe, in Stenness. What little we know about this structure appeared within an article in The Orcadian newspaper on August 14, 1915.

“An ancient burial place containing a stone cist has been found about five chains [8] from the circle around the mound of Maeshowe, on the farm of Tormiston. Whilst a roadman, Isaac Newlands, was working at a quarry opened up a few years ago, he made the discovery. It is peculiar in this respect that it is on perfectly level ground, covered with heather.

Small stone cists which were previously found in the neighbourhood were on raised ground or small mounds. This cist was covered on the top by 2 feet 6 inches of earth, and on the surface the grave had been begun on a space of about 12 feet in diameter. From the surface to the bottom of the cist the depth was 5 feet 3 inches, and the excavations had gone through 2 feet 3 inches of solid rock.

The length of the cist itself is 5 feet, the breadth 4 feet 6 inches, and the depth 2 feet 9 inches.

On each of the north, east, west sides and top of the grave there is one large stone slab. The south side consists of rough building with a small doorway about 24 inches by 18 inches. The cist contained a quantity of moist greasy clay, and brown and black ashes in the bottom.

Some people who have examined the cist are of opinion that it is as old as Maeshowe. The last cist found in the vicinity was on the farm of Lochside. It was about 4 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet high, with stone slabs surrounding it on raised ground.

There were two skeletons in this cist. These crumbled away when exposed to the air.”

This structure is long gone, but the presence of an apparent “doorway” suggests it, like the Sandfiold cist, was meant to be repeatedly, and easily, opened. Unfortunately, the question of whether it was Neolithic or another of the Bronze Age burials clustered around Maeshowe cannot be answered now.

As regular readers will know the re-use of earlier sites and monuments in the Bronze and Iron Ages was not uncommon. Bronze Age burials in the Quanterness, Cuween Hill and Bookan chambered cairns, not to mention the barrows and cists around the Ring of Brodgar, suggest a desire to link to – or exploit – the distant past and its people.

And Sandfiold? Its place and role in prehistory depends on which interpretation of the archaeological evidence you prefer.

If the chamber and cist are indeed Neolithic, they could represent a type of funerary architecture under-represented in the archaeological record. While antiquarians were drawn to the highly visible chambered cairns that dominated landscapes across Orkney, any subterranean structures were, and continue to be, all but invisible.

Setting the question of Sandfiold’s date aside, what this brief foray has highlighted is that as well as building above ground, digging down was another element in the Neolithic construction – and perhaps funerary – repertoire. Whether this was for purely practical reasons – the excavated stone used as building material, for example – or had a deeper significance remains open to question.

To conclude, we will leave the last word to Ness of Brodgar site director Nick Card.

In 2005, following his excavation of the Bookan chambered cairn, he wrote: “Excavation is […] showing that Neolithic burial structures were more diverse than previously considered, for instance the small mortuary structures at Setter, Eday.

“Recent dating evidence is also suggesting that the use of cists for burials, so long seen as characteristic of the Bronze Age in Orkney, had its origins in the Neolithic. The variation of this type of burial structure is as diverse as the traditional chambered tomb, from the monumental nature of Sandfiold to the more typical sized cist at Howe, Harray.

“Rather than looking for common denominators in the evidence and constructing typological and/or evolutionary models, each site should be assessed on its own merits before attempting wider interpretations.” [9]


  • [1] 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).
  • [2] Crozier, R. (2016) Fragments of death. A taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 10, pp.725-734.
  • [3] Noble, G., Brophy, K., Hamilton, D., Leach, S. and Sheridan, A. (2017) Cremation practices and the creation of monument complexes: The Neolithic cremation cemetery at Forteviot, Strathearn, Perth & Kinross, Scotland, and its comparanda. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 83, pp. 213-245). Cambridge University Press.
  • [4] Turner, W. (1903). An account of a chambered cairn and cremation cists at Taversoe Tuick, near Trumland House, in the island of Rousay, Orkney, excavated by Lieut. General Traill Burroughs, CB, of Rousay, in 1898. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 37, pp. 73-82).
  • [5] Grant, W. (1939) November. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 73, pp. 155-166).
  • [6] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [7] Ballin Smith, B. (2014). Between Tomb and Cist: The funerary monuments of Crantit, Kewing and Nether Onston, Orkney.
  • [8] 101 metres or 110 yards.
  • [9] Card, N., Alldritt, D., Clark, A., Duncan, J., MacSween, A., Miller, J., Ramsay, S. and Wickham-Jones, C.R. (2005) Excavation of Bookan chambered cairn, Sandwick, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 135, pp. 163-190).

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