Around the Ness: Unstan Cairn
By Sigurd Towrie
In the late 19th century, a grassy mound on a headland jutting into the Stenness loch attracted the attention of one of the many antiquarians with their sights on Orkney’s suspected ancient monuments.
The stalled cairns – or Orkney-Cromarty, to use their correct typological name – are made up of rectangular chambers divided in to “stalls” or compartments by pairs of large orthostats. Covered by round or rectangular cairns, the interiors often incorporate shelf- or bench-like features and end chambers dominated by large, monumental back slabs.
The Unstan cairn, as it is now known, is circular in plan with an exterior not unlike a smaller version of Maeshowe, around 2.5 miles to the north-east. Sticking strictly to accepted typology, Unstan does not fit neatly in either of the two styles of Neolithic chambered cairn found in Orkney but is a hybrid, incorporating elements of both.
A long, low and narrow entrance passage on the eastern side leads, into a 6.6-metre-long chamber, divided into areas by four pairs of large stone slabs projecting from the side walls. These orthostats create five compartments – three central stalls and two end sections – and form a central, stone-flanked passageway along the length of the chamber.
White clay had been laid as a floor surface and was overlain, in the southern end, by a layer of black material, rich in charcoal. Among the unburnt bone were “chips and flakes” of flint showing “indubitable indication of the action of fire.”
In the centre of the western wall is a small side cell – a feature typical of the Maeshowe-type cairns. Unstan and South Ronaldsay’s Isbister Cairn – better known as the Tomb of the Eagles – are the only two excavated cairns in Orkney to feature both stall and side cell architecture.
Unstan is also one of the few Orcadian chambered cairns found to contain human remains. On the floor of every compartment of the chamber, the 19th century excavators recorded a “considerable quantity” of burnt and unburnt bone – both human and animal. Among the disarticulated remains were complete skeletons – two crouched inhumations in the western side chamber and “several burials in the contracted posture” on the floor of the entrance compartment.
The bone assemblage was not studied at the time, and only a few survive, so we do not know how many bodies were represented.
As well as human and animal remains, Unstan contained an unusually large quantity of pottery sherds – fragments from at least 30 bowls. Large, shallow, round-bottomed and with incised motifs beneath the rim, their shape and decoration saw the style named after the tomb.
Unstan Ware is now generally regarded as representing Early Neolithic pottery in Orkney. Among the sites where Unstan Ware has also been found is the Knap of Howar settlement site, which is now believed to date from c3300BC.
Until 2017, all that could be said about Unstan was that, based on the pottery found, it dated from the Early Neolithic.
That changed following a programme of radiocarbon dating of material held by National Museums Scotland. Three fragments of unburnt human bone from the 1884 excavation were analysed and returned dates around 3300-3100BC.
That, however, does not mean the chambered cairn was constructed at that time. It may be centuries older. What it tells us that it was standing and in use by c3300BC. The presence of Early Neolithic pottery and arrowheads together with Bronze Age material (a barbed-and-tanged arrowhead was found within the entrance passage) suggests the cairn was a focus of at least episodic attention for a millennium.
After excavation, and with their artefacts secure, the antiquarians departed, leaving the structure to the mercy of the elements for almost half a century. It was taken into state care in 1934 and, in 1949, the remains consolidated and a concrete roof added.
-  Orcadian dialect term for mound, tumulus. Interchangeable with howe (Old Norse haugr, meaning burial mound, cairn).
-  The element -ston in Orcadian placenames usually represents sta∂ir, meaning dwelling-place, farm. In most cases the first element is a personal name. In this case, that first element is not known.
-  Clouston, R. S. (1885). Notice of the excavation of a chambered cairn of the Stone Age, at Unstan, in the Loch of Stennis, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 19, pp. 341-351).
-  The stalled architecture is paralleled at the Ness of Brodgar complex, stone slabs dividing the interior of Structure Five and the projecting piers serving the same role in the later structures.
-  Unstan/Onston/Unston are just three of a number of spellings for the same placename. Recorded as Onsta in 1546; Onestone in 1576; Unstane in 1595 and Unstoun in 1627. Like Bookan in Sandwick, variants of the same name can still be found in the same area. Although the written names differ, the pronunciation is usually the same.
-  Orkney-Cromarty type and Maeshowe-type.
-  Crozier, R. (2016) Reorientating the dead of Crossiecrown: Quanterness and Ramberry Head. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Oxford: Windgather Press, 196-223.
-  Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
-  Sheridan, A., Cook, G., Naysmith, P., Tripney, B., Dunbar, E., Reich, D., Olalde, I., Armit, I., Hunter, F.J., Farrar, S. and Ritchie, G. (2017) Radiocarbon dates associated with the Scottish History and Archaeology Department, National Museums Scotland, 2016/17. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 18, pp.209-14.