Tombs in Neolithic Orkney reveal ancient beliefs, taboos and superstitions of mourners and dead

By Ben Miller | 17 December 2014

Hidden tomb "broke rules and created new ones", says archaeologist who discovered ritual Neolithic burial sites

A photo of a road leading through green fields under a blue sky
Crantit's funerary monuments are revealed in a new book© Bill Boaden,
Before the discovery of a burial site at Crantit, in Orkney, 16 years ago, Neolithic tombs in the area had generally reflected a desire for visual prominence from the dead.

This structure, disturbed by ploughing in a field near Kirkwall, thrilled archaeologists: described as “far more” than a burial chamber, it had been constructed underground and, peculiarly, seemed almost hidden within the earth.

“Crantit seems to express the mourners’ beliefs, taboos and superstitions, and their ways of caring for and curating the dead,” says Beverley Ballin Smith, who describes investigating the funerary monuments of the Crantit, Kewing and Nether Onston areas of Orkney as “the most varied and exciting” fieldwork of a career which has also seen her excavate in Norway, Sweden and on Shetland and the Faeroe Islands.

“In the detailing of the design, we see also evidence of their excellent architectural workmanship.

“I think the architecture of the tomb tells us of discord or disharmony between old belief systems and changes to those beliefs that were beginning to affect the way people were buried.

“The tomb crosses the boundaries between monumental tombs - old beliefs - and the much smaller and later cists, which held new beliefs.

“It broke rules and created new ones. However, some of the ideas and practices remain enigmatic, such as the markings on the stone within the burial chamber and the possible ritual offering of the polished stone ball.”

All three sites were found by accident between 1998 and 2002. Dating from between 4,000 and 5,000 BC – the end of the Neolithic and late early Bronze Age – the remains, including human skulls, bones and woven materials, suggest a gradual move from grave interment to popular cremations.

“In two of the structures evidence survived for woven fibre mats or bags which facilitated the transference of the cremated human body into the cist,” says Ballin Smith.

“These rare organic remains were also accompanied by quantities of cramp, a glassy slag formed through the processes of cremation on the pyre.

“Scientific analysis also tells us about the individuals that were buried and the landscape into which they came to rest.”

Ballin Smith explains the theories behind the gradual shift in burial culture in a new book, Between Tomb and Cist, launched in Kirkwall last Friday (December 12 2014).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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These dates are incorrect. You actually should write "years ago" rather than BC.
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