Vestrafiold – the fake horned cairn
and a reappraisal of late Neolithic funerary architecture (2013)
By Sigurd Towrie
An oval mound, measuring 22.5 metres long and 15 metres wide, lies 50 metres to the east of the Vestrafiold megalith quarry.
When viewed from from the hill’s lower eastern slopes, the mound is prominently sited on a false crest and, in 1989, was suggested to be the remains of a very poorly preserved stalled cairn. 
In 2003, even in its denuded state, the mound was highly visible when approaching the site from below.
This, the uncertainty of its architecture, its presence at a confirmed megalithic quarry site, suspected hornworks and an apparent association with a large standing stone meant “further investigation was considered essential”. 
The subsequent excavation was not only enlightening but very surprising.
Typology dictated that the Vestrafiold long cairn should have been built around an earlier chambered tomb. This, however, was not the case and there was no evidence of any passage or stalled chamber within its body.
Instead it seemed that a fake long horned cairn had been raised in the Late Neolithic to emphasise a standing stone and cist-like box to its north, the “horns” encircling both in what may have been a forecourt. 
The Vestrafiold cairn was rectangular, six metres wide and 16 metres long, with a circular mound at the north end and projecting hornworks.
The excavation revealed that not only was there no internal chamber, but its Neolithic builders had employed a construction technique that was “anything other than typical”. 
Instead, the haphazardly built construction, to all intents and purposes, mimicked the external appearance of a monumental horned cairn.
Although it contained no chamber, from the outside, it was akin to the example found at the Head of Work, outside Kirkwall.
The archaeologists found that the the long cairn’s “spine” was formed by a series of box-like structures that were originally thought to represent additional chambers or cells – an initial interpretation that paralleled that of the Point of Cott, Westray  and Tulach an t-Sionnaich, Caithness  some years previously.
As work progressed, it became clear these boxes, the bulk of which were in a ruinous state, were actually a construction device employed to quickly add substance and length to the cairn — but at the expense of any long-term stability. 
Large flagstones had been propped up against the box spine to create the structure’s main body. But although this was a quick and easy way to add form to the cairn, the mass of the flagstones meant the less-than-substantial construction boxes eventually, and inevitably, collapsed under the weight.
So, although this “house-of-cards” building method had allowed the rapid construction of a seemingly substantial edifice, the result was far from structurally stable – as clearly evident from the poor condition of the cairn.
This suggested the builders were not at all concerned about creating an enduring structure.
It also meant the bulk of the cairn’s body consisted of voids between the orthostat-boxes and the propped-up flagstones. Many of these were found to contain animal remains.
While the excavators accepted that many (birds and small mammals) related to natural faunal use of the cairn, there was no doubt that the remains of larger mammals had been deliberately placed and sealed into the fabric of the cairn during construction. 
These deposits allowed the construction event to be dated, with radiocarbon analysis returning a date range of 2800–2500BC — a result that placed the erection of the long cairn firmly in the Late Neolithic. 
To help maintain the integrity of the hastily erected cairn, a poorly-constructed, single-skinned revetment wall (double-skinned at the southern rear-end) surrounded the structure, primarily to function as a “stabilising device” to prevent the angled flagstones forming the side of the cairn from slipping outwards. 
No attempt had been made to “present a neat external [wall] face”, although the east wall — seen when approaching the monument — had collapsed and, according to the excavators: “Given the clear concern with presentation and selective imagery in the Late Neolithic, it is quite possible that the eastern side exhibited superior masonry”. 
The circular mound added to the long cairn’s northern section was extended in a southerly direction. This took the form of an outer revetment wall that had been tacked on “with little concern for structural integration”.
It ran four metres to the south before “turning at right angles to form the rear of the cairn,” with the enclosed area filled with “laid slabs and stone rubble”. 
Traces of walling across the rear of the cairn suggested a stepped profile – a feature encountered in other long cairns – had been created using low revetment walls. These, however, had been built straight on top of the underlying rubble, thereby adding further instability to an already precarious structure.
The box-construction method, extremely shoddy building work and the fact there was no evidence of an incorporated stalled cairn implied the Vestrafiold construction was deliberately, and presumably quickly, erected to look like a specific form of Neolithic monumental structure.
Why? It may be that long cairns had a specific role within Neolithic society – one which the builders sought to emulate. Whatever that significance was, it is clear that with the Vestrafiold cairn visual impact, at least from a distance, was more important than any form of structural permanence.
As the excavators put it, the “deceptive monument” was meant to maintain “the appearance of a substantial monument, yet beneath the surface was a rickety structure.” 
The structure’s grandeur was illusory and skin-deep.
From the day it was raised, it was destined to collapse. The builders undoubtedly knew that but it was clearly not considered important. The focus was clearly on the here and now – albeit firmly anchored to that which had gone before.
Were materials and labour becoming harder to source? Or was the concept of longevity simply not as important as we have come to believe when it comes to Neolithic funerary monuments?
Then we have the question as to why a fake horned cairn was raised on Vestrafiold.
In other examples across northern Scotland, the long cairn incorporates one or more earlier structures so they may have come to represent longevity, ancestry and connections to the past. The Vestrafiold cairn was associated with a cist and standing stone in the forecourt area, which may pre-date it, but probably not by an extended period of time.
Was the creation of the Vestrafiold cairn a way of applying a manufactured sense of “history” and ritual tradition to the area? Or did the construction of the horned cairn reflect a change in burial practice? A traditional funerary construction raised to monumentalise and emphasise the new?
Cist burials in the Neolithic are not unknown, but in Orkney the evidence, so far, is scarce. Where cists have been found – certainly in the days before radiocarbon dating – the assumption has long been that they were Bronze Age.
Interestingly, however, north of the monolith and cist the excavators found fragmentary cremated remains along with a fine, flint knife and sherds of an Early Neolithic bowl.
Dating from c3500BC, these pottery sherds not only suggested early Neolithic activity at Vestrafiold but their association with cremated remains provided evidence of “an early funerary context for a ceramic style and mortuary practice previously unrecognised in fourth millennium cal BC”. 
To the excavators, the deposit showed that Vestrafiold was “effectively a sacred place hundreds of years before the quarrying of monoliths or the erection of the proximal end of the horned cairn.” 
But the one aspect the excavators considered the most significant was the association between the standing monolith and a possible burial cist:
The radiocarbon dates from the animal remains within the body of the cairn (c2800-2600BC) led to the suggestion that it was constructed while megaliths were being quarried nearby and used within monuments such as the Ring of Brodgar:
-  Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
-  Barber, J. (1997) The excavation of a stalled cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney. Edinburgh: Star Monograph I.
-  Corcoran, J.X.W.P. (1966) Excavation of three chambered cairns at Loch Calder, Caithness. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 98, 1–75.
-  Richards, C., Downes, J., Ixer, R., Hambleton, E., Peterson, R. and Pollard, J. (2013) Surface over substance: the Vestrafiold horned cairn, Mainland, Setter cairn, Eday, and a reappraisal of late Neolithic funerary architecture. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Pg 149-183.