Further afield: Wideford Hill chambered cairn

“In the Bay of Firth, Wideford and Cuween were set into the side of the hills that frame the area. In fact, they look across the bay at each other, their combined gaze taking in a wider neighbourhood. Set some way upslope, they also looked down on land where settlements had been established for some time.”

Mark Edmonds. Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. 2019.
Wideford Hill chambered cairn, Orkney

Exterior of the Wideford Hill chambered cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)

By Sigurd Towrie

Just under three miles to the east of Cuween, on the steep, upper slopes of Wideford Hill, is a second Neolithic passage grave.

The Wideford cairn is architecturally very similar to Cuween, although its masonry is considered to be inferior [1]. Both structures fall into the Maeshowe-type category of chambered cairn [1] and their entrances face each other.

Wideford is almost circular, measuring c14.5 metres (47.5ft) north-south and c13.5 metres (44ft) east-west.

The interior was originally accessed by a 3.5-metre-long (11.5ft) entrance passage on the west side, orientated towards the Cuween cairn. A mere 50cm (19in) wide and 60cm (23in) high the passage must have been difficult to negotiate in the Neolithic and is not accessible today. Instead, modern visitors enter, by ladder, through the roof.

The west-facing entrance to the Wideford Hill cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)

The west-facing entrance to the Wideford Hill cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)

Unlike most Orcadian chambered cairns, Wideford’s exterior stonework is visible today, lending the structure a stepped, three-tier appearance formed by three concentric walls.

Nineteenth century investigations cleared some of external cairn material with the remainder removed in 1935, after the monument was taken into state care and re-excavated.

Inside, the central chamber is roughly rectangular, three metres (10ft) long and 1.4 metres (4.6ft) wide, its once-corbelled roof c2.4 metres (8ft) high.

Three passages branch off from the northern, eastern and southern walls leading to corbelled, sub-rectangular side cells, each about 1.9m (6ft) long, 1.3m (4.2ft) wide and two metres (6.6ft) high [1].

Wideford Hill chambered cairn plan

Plan of the Wideford cairn after re-excavation in 1935. (Marwick (1952) Ancient Monuments in Orkney.)

Excavation

As regular readers will know, were it not for the antiquarian George Petrie many of the 19th century “excavations” across Orkney would have been woefully recorded, if at all. But although Petrie was active throughout the islands, he was unaware of the Wideford cairn, a few miles from Kirkwall.

It was in October 1849 that he learned of its existence from someone “who had accidentally observed the knoll”. [2]

Petrie wrote: “About half-way up the western declivity of Wideford Hill, and overlooking the beautiful Bay of Firth, stands a green knoll, contrasting pleasantly with the surrounding heather; but, being on a steep and unfrequented part of the hill, it seems hitherto to have attracted little notice.” [2]

View of the Bay of Firth, Orkney

The view of the Bay of Firth, Orkney, from the Wideford Hill chambered cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)

Wasting no time, he hired labourers and launched an excavation. October, however, is not the best time for archaeological work in Orkney and the operation was inevitably hampered by the weather, ill-health and probably the darker days. One cannot help but wonder if Petrie’s haste was to ensure he got to the structure before anyone else could!

Unfortunately, the only available details of the excavation is correspondence between Petrie and Lieutenant F. W. L. Thomas, the Royal Navy officer who would, shortly afterwards, survey the monuments on, and around, the Ness of Brodgar. [2]

Like Maeshowe to the west, Petrie described the Wideford Hill tumulus as being “of conical shape”. Approximately 4.3 metres (14ft) high, the operation to cut into its north side was “both laborious and tedious, from the large stones and great quantity of clay used in the construction of the building”.

Wideford Hill interior.

Inside the central chamber looking towards the entrance passage. (https://canmore.org.uk/collection/2008082)

Digging down through the roof the excavators found the main chamber was “nearly full of stone and rubbish, heaped up under the opening”. Mixed in with this “rubbish” were “the bones of the horse, cow, sheep, swine etc., and some which were supposed to be those of deer.”

The side-cells, however, were “free from rubbish” and contained only “a few bones of domestic animals”.

Petrie noted that the central chamber’s roof had a 50-centimetre opening at the centre. This “regularly built hole … particularly attracted [Petrie’s] attention from its resemblance to the top of a chimney.”

He added: “The top of the hole was on a level with the stone structure and was merely covered with a layer of turf”.

To Petrie, the material almost filling the central chamber could not have been the result of structural collapse – there was no evidence that any part of the structure had fallen in. Instead, he had no doubt that the filling “had the appearance of having been poured down through the opening at the top.”

Petrie took this as evidence that a structure “of a more temporary nature” had stood on top of the passage grave. This, he suggested, had collapsed and “precipitated through the opening into the apartment beneath”.

Petrie side-section of Wideford Cairn

Petrie’s 1849 section of the Wideford cairn, showing his “chimney” feature marked (i) covered only by a layer of turf.

Although we cannot say for sure, this seems unlikely given the volume of material within the chamber. In addition, it is difficult to see how a collapsing structure could fall through a 50cm aperture without damaging the roof, not to mention leaving no trace above ground. In this case, however, I suspect the diggers were more interested in getting into the chambered cairn than investigating the exterior.

After clearing the central chamber Petrie turned his attention to the entrance passage. Having located it from the inside, the excavators moved outside to work inwards. Although he seems to have found the outer section of the passage, it is not clear whether he excavated it, nor the state it was in:

“We commenced on the west side on a level with the base, and as nearly opposite to the western passage as possible. On paring off the turf and removing some of the stones and clay, we came to what proved to be a piece of wall exactly opposite to the inner end of the western passage.

“The wall is five or six feet in height from the edge of the base, and as there appears to be a corner or angle in the wall, I am led to believe that the opening or mouth of the passage may be there, but it got so dark that we were obliged to ‘strike work’.” [2]

Re-excavation

Petrie’s work complete, the Wideford Hill cairn was left for 85 years. It had been taken into guardianship in 1934 and was re-excavated, in 1935, by Howard Kilbride Jones. [1]

Unfortunately, no dedicated report was published but we know that the excavation produced no finds and confirmed aspects of the cairn’s construction [1].

Dating Wideford Hill

A lack of material for radiocarbon dating means there are no confirmed dates for the construction and use of the passage grave. Given its entrance alignment to the Cuween cairn, not to mention the architectural similarities, Wideford is estimated to date to around 3100-3000BC.

Location of the Wideford Hill chambered cairn in relation to the other known passage graves and settlement sites in the area.

Location of the Wideford Hill chambered cairn in relation to the other known passage graves and settlement sites in the area.

Excavation at the base of the hill in 2002-2003 confirmed the existence of another substantial Neolithic settlement. Initially made up of timber structures, the excavated section of the settlement was in use from around 3500-2900BC [3].

Again, like Cuween, the Wideford Hill cairn is not prominent unless viewed from the settlement site, suggesting the two were connected.

In 2013, another Early Neolithic settlement was confirmed at the south-western base of Wideford Hill. Radiocarbon dates from the Smerquoy settlement suggests timber buildings were prevalent from around 3500BC until stone-built houses became the norm c3300BC [4].

Quarried from the hillside

To construct their passage grave it is generally thought that the builders had to cut into the slope of the hill and quarry into the uncovered rockface.

Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn - Petrie Plan

George Petrie’s 1849 plan of the Wideford cairn.

While excavating the northern cell (marked C on the plan to the right), Petrie encountered a gap in the eastern wall, through which he could see a quarried rock face beyond. This gap, between the northern and eastern cells and the rock face, did not contain cairn material leading Petrie to believe he had found a second, eastern, entrance.

This passage, he wrote, had never been completed  but “extends for six or seven feet and then terminates”. [2]

Although Petrie was sure he had encountered “the mouth of a passage”, he conceded that it was in a dilapidated state and unsafe to enter [2].

However, a plan produced after the 1935 re-excavation (pictured above) described the masonry gap as a “break” in the walling – a description repeated by Davidson and Henshall in 1989 [1].

Petrie’s “thorough and careful investigation” convinced him that “a sufficient quantity of stones [had] been quarried out of the side of the hill” for building material and that the structure was erected in “hollow or cavity thus formed.” [2]

Was the site chosen simply because it was a convenient source of stone?

Possibly, but there were perhaps other factors at play.

Throughout recorded history the Orkney landscape has sat at the centre of a rich tapestry of stories, myths, beliefs and tradition. Tales, histories and significance were attached to many things – from the largest hills to the smallest streams. There is no reason to doubt something similar was occurring in the Neolithic.

Until relatively recently hills were renowned to be the abode of supernatural entities and therefore somewhat feared. Hills existed outside the sphere of daily life – they were, and remain, places on the edge. The hillside location of the Wideford cairn can equally be described as on the edge.

Although it sat high above the “everyday world”, it was not at the summit but occupied and marked a half-way point. Did the rock face protruding from the hillside at this point therefore have additional significance?

If, as has been suggested, Cuween and Wideford were constructed some time after the founding of their associated settlements [3], had the rock-faces, and others, been sources of building material long before the construction of the passage graves?

If so, the decision to construct chambered cairns on former quarry sites is perhaps significant because there may have been more meaning ascribed to Neolithic quarries than just sources of stone. We know, for example, that different quarries were used for the megaliths within the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness and that the few confirmed Neolithic quarries were often marked by standing stones or massive horned cairns.

Wideford Hill entrance passage

The tiny entrance passage to the Wideford Hill passage grave. (https://canmore.org.uk/collection/2008046)

At Wideford Hill and Cuween, did the cairn builders choose sites that had been exploited, centuries before, to construct their predecessors’ dwellings to erect “houses” for their ancestral spirits?

Wideford Hill’s tiny entrance passage has been the subject of much discussion over the years.

The curving passage is around 20cm (8in) narrower and lower than at Cuween and Maeshowe. In writing, this might not seem like a huge difference but viewing it in person brings the scale of the cramped access sharply into focus.

It is so small who could have been entering the structure? Children?

Or was the entrance never intended to be used by humans?

A ‘tomb’ with no bones?

Wideford Hill chambered cairn

Approaching the Wideford Hill chambered cairn. (Sigurd Towrie)

The interpretation of Neolithic chambered cairns has long been coloured by the label “tomb” – a term that implies a sole funerary role. Although there is no doubt human remains played a part in the story of many, chambered cairns were probably much more than mere mausoleums or ossuaries.

Due to shared architectural elements it came to be assumed that they all served the same purpose. And with that assumption came the expectation that all had to contain human remains. If none were found, such as at Maeshowe and Wideford Hill, then the chambers must surely have been emptied in antiquity. The result is that we may be overemphasising the role of the dead in many cairns – particularly when so few in Orkney have actually produced human remains [5].

While poor preservation conditions may account for the lack of skeletal material in some, this seems unlikely at Wideford Hill, where we know animal bone had survived until 1849 [2]. Instead it was assumed that the chamber and cells had been carefully, and completely, emptied. For decades this has been the explanation for the dearth of human bone in the Wideford Hill cairn.

While this may well be the case, the possibility remains that the passage grave was not used for the interment of corpses or a temporary repository for disarticulated skeletal material. Or perhaps it had an entirely different role – one that left no archaeological trace.

Whatever its role, there seems little doubt that the Wideford cairn, like Cuween, was deliberately filled in, via the roof, at the end of its life.

At Cuween this occurred in the early Bronze Age, at which point the structure was still being used for the deposition of human and animal remains. At Wideford Hill no evidence of secondary use was recorded.

At Cuween, the entrance passage was also sealed by masonry. It is not clear whether this was the case at Wideford Hill, although Petrie’s 1849 plan (pictured above) does indicate something running across the outer passage.

Embellished entrances

Wideford incised markings

Two examples of the incised markings found in the Wideford cairn. [7]

Following Richard Bradley’s discovery of incised markings in Cuween [6], he returned in 1999 to search for other examples in Orkney’s other well-preserved chambered cairns [7].

Although Petrie had written, in 1849, that there was no sign of “any sculpture” on the fabric of the passage grave [2], Bradley found markings within the Wideford cairn. Like those at Cuween, these were very ephemeral and difficult to see without the use of artificial light.

Again, familiar motifs were noted – criss-crossed lines and paired triangles [7], one of which is very similar to the design cut into a large rock at the Bay of Skaill, which was found in January 2021.

The incised stone found at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick, Orkney, in January 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)

The incised stone found at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick, Orkney, in January 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)

In 1999, the incised motifs found across Orkney were “so inconspicuous that they may have been simply sketches for designs in another medium. One obvious possibility is that the tomb walls had originally been painted.” [7]

Infrared photographs of incised areas inside Maeshowe at the time identified a section, to the right of the entrance passage, that may have retained traces of pigment [7]. Until the excavation at the Ness of Brodgar, this was the only indication of pigment use within Neolithic structures.

Within the Wideford Hill cairn, the incised motifs were cut into the lintels above the entrances of the side cells. There inclusion around entrances was noted elsewhere – and since at the Ness of Brodgar – suggesting they marked “important thresholds within the structure of the tombs” [7].

What did these markings represent? That we do not know…and undoubtedly never will.

But just as the Wideford cairn itself perhaps marked a boundary between two “worlds”, the incised markings inside – and other examples now known from Neolithic Orkney – do seem to suggest a particular significance placed on crossing thresholds and moving from one space to the next.

Notes

  • [1] Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [2] Petrie, G. In Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
  • [3] Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.
  • [4] Crozier, R., Richards, C., Robertson, J. and Challands, A. (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)
  • [5] Crozier, R., Richards, C., Robertson, J. and Challands, A. (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)
  • [6] Bradley, R. (1998) Incised motifs in the passage-graves at Quoyness and Cuween, Orkney. Antiquity, 72(276), p.387.
  • [7] Bradley, R., Phillips, T., Richards, C. and Webb, M. (2001). Decorating the houses of the dead: incised and pecked motifs in Orkney chambered tombs. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(1), p.45.

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