Taversoe Tuick – its double-decker design and Bronze Age remodelling

The 'curious alley' and stone platform surrounding the Taversoe Tuick in 1937.
The ‘curious alley’ through the stone platform surrounding the Taversoe Tuick in 1937.
(Grant. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick. 1939)

By Sigurd Towrie

At some point in its life a platform was created around the Taversoe Tuick.

The 1937 excavators noted it extended three metres to the north of the structure and seven metres to the south. They looked to see whether this “thin spread” of stones had an outer, retaining wall, but found none.

Its purpose clearly puzzled them. As did the discovery of a “a curious alley, clear of stones and roughly bordered with boulders” running through the platform’s west side. [2]

Only a few paragraphs in the excavation report were devoted to the platform, with no suggestions as to its purpose. Instead Grant commented:

“It is possible that this is somehow connected with General Burrough’s operations, though there is no evidence to support this contention.” [2]

In 1989, it was proposed that the platform “probably covered the entrance to the lower chamber“. [1]

It is not clear what prompted this suggestion, other than the 1939 plan (see below), but Davidson and Henshall were also of the opinion that, based on “miscellaneous Grooved Ware finds”, the platform was a Late Neolithic addition (i.e., after 3200BC). [1]

But there’s a problem here. If the platform was added in the Neolithic and covered the lower entrance, how did the Bronze Age cremation deposits get there? It seems more likely it was a Bronze Age creation – part of the remodelling of an already ancient monument, examples of which are found elsewhere in Orkney (e.g. Tresness, Sanday).

Dr Caz Mamwell has argued that this was the case and that the lower chamber’s entrance passage remained accessible until the Early Bronze Age (c.2200-1550BC). Its purpose, she suggested, was that it was “functionally akin to a reusable cist…” [3], such as the one discovered at Sandfiold, in Sandwick.

She proposed that the Neolithic chambered cairn was extensively remodelled in the Early Bronze Age – an operation that included [3]:

  • The partial filling of the upper chamber during its use, or intentional backfilling later at the end of its primary use, with a layer of earth.
  • Construction of cists inside the upper chamber 2130-1740 BC.
  • Deposition of necklace/pendant and blocking of upper entrance passage.
  • Dismantling and levelling of the upper chamber to seal the cists.
  • The remodelling of the structure’s cairn material into a barrow.
  • The deposition of the urn cremations in the outer section of the lower passage.
The extent of the stone platform around the Taversoe Tuick chambers, with the "alley" pictured left. 
(Grant. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick. 1939)
The extent of the stone platform around the Taversoe Tuick chambers, with the “alley” pictured left.
(Grant. Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick. 1939)

Why two chambers?

That’s the million-dollar question.

As mentioned, there is another example in Orkney, Huntersquoy, but compared to our other known chambered cairns, these two are atypical.

Among the suggestions presented over the years is that the structure was shared by two communities – one using the upper chamber, a second the lower. There’s no way we can show whether that was the case, but the idea flies in the face of the proposed competitive nature ascribed to monument building in Neolithic Orkney.

Looking at the architecture and documented finds, one can’t help but wonder whether the two chambers served different roles.

They both had their own entrances and, once inside, moving between the two was not possible.

Looking down into the lower chamber from the upper, through a missing lintel, c.1937. 
 (📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)
Looking down into the lower chamber from the upper, through a missing lintel, c.1937.
(📷 David Wilson/Orkney SMR)

Elsewhere it has been suggested that Maeshowe was intended to be a structure which was “visible as a monument and yet positions the dead as being below the surface of the humanly-inhabited world.” [5]

The result was a building “both conceptually below and physically above ground”, its chamber and contents in “an ambiguous position located between two worlds.” [5]

Are we looking at something similar for the Taversoe Tuick?

Was the lower, underground chamber meant for the dead while the upper had an entirely different role?

Although no Neolithic skeletal remains were found in the top storey we can’t put too much weight on that. They, along with other diagnostic material, may have been cleared out in antiquity – either in the Neolithic or during its Bronze Age reuse. As the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

That said, the small quantity of human remains found in the lower chamber does suggest that it was either used infrequently or cleared out regularly.

As always, we can’t say for sure.

Another interesting element concerns acoustics.

Dr Aaron Watson has studied the way sound behaves at numerous monuments and suggests the Taversoe Tuick’s double-decker construction had “the potential to create some striking sound effects”:

“For example, the occupants of one chamber would almost certainly have been able to hear sounds generated in the other, but with their source remaining unknown. The solid stone floor dividing each would have also filtered the exchange of sound between the two levels so it would have been distorted.

“Furthermore, each of the two chambers can only be accessed by a separate passage from opposite sides of the cairn. It was possible for different individuals, or groups of people, to access the chambers simultaneously and remain unseen.”

The structure, however, was altered too much during consolidation (e.g. the addition of a concrete dome roof and the removal of a floor/roof lintel for access to the lower chamber) to allow these effects to be measured today. We will return to acoustics at the Taversoe Tuick in the final article.

Although many questions remain unanswered, what the Taversoe Tuick highlights, yet again, is that there was clearly more to Orkney’s chambered “tombs” than just mausoleums and ossuaries.

And that’s not to mention the presence of an enigmatic third chamber outside


  • [1] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] Grant, W. (1939) Excavations on behalf of HM Office of works at Taiverso Tuick, Trumland, Rousay. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 73, 1938-39, pp. 155-166).
  • [3] Mamwell, C. (2017) Settlement and Society in Bronze Age Orkney. PhD thesis.
  • [4] https://www.aaronwatson.co.uk/newgrange-1
  • [5] Garrow, D., Raven, J. and Richards, C. (2005) Anatomy of a Megalithic Landscape. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 229–248.

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