Neolithic and Bronze Age cists and tombs show tensions between changing prehistoric ideologies

By Beverley Ballin Smith | 16 December 2014

New book tells story of surprising funerary monuments found by archaeologist Beverley Ballin Smith in Orkney between the late 1970s and 1990

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The three previously unknown and underground prehistoric structures are on mainland Orkney. They are Crantit tomb and cists, Kirkwall; a cist at Kewing, Rendall and a cist at Nether Onston, Stenness, all discovered between April 1998 and August 2002 during ploughing and landscaping activities.

All three sites span a period from the end of the late Neolithic to sometime during the end of the early Bronze Age. Together they demonstrate changes in burial customs and beliefs, and therefore also reflect changes in society.

The small underground structure of Crantit is architecturally different from the highly visible mounds of most chambered tombs. It also differs in the small number of individuals buried there and the lack of grave goods.

The ideology behind its construction and use contrasts with that of the chambered tombs, but at the same time there are similarities. The tension between similarities (old ideology) and differences (new ideology) are explored.

Cists are typical monuments of Bronze Age burials in Orkney and elsewhere and the architectural leap from a small underground tomb with chambers to a single structure with one chamber was probably progressive.

Nether Onston and Kewing, as well as the two satellite cists around Crantit tomb, are all different and express in their construction the changes in belief systems, traditions and ideologies that must have been experienced by late Neolithic and early Bronze Age people.

These changes are also reflected in the gradual movement away from predominantly inhumation burials to one where cremation became the dominant practice. The evidence shows that these changes were not straightforward: old and new practices existed together and the changes were gradual.

  • Between the Tomb and the Cist, published by The Orcadian at £25, is available from

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