A hole, a passage and a tricky path

THURSDAY
Early in 1946 an excavation was carried out at an earth mound in the Tankerness area of mainland Orkney and is known as Mine Howe. A deep rock-built chamber was uncovered which was interpreted, wrongly, as the remains of an Iron Age broch (tower) and the excavation was then filled in again. In 1999 the local farmer rediscovered the entrance and cleared out the chamber once more. Reading about this in our guide book got us quite excited as it seemed to be something a wee bit unusual and Kevin can’t resist going underground! However, when we finally found Mine Howe, the place was deserted. Kevin’s not to be thwarted if there’s a hole to be investigated, so off we went in search of said hole! Bingo…

There he goes!

There he goes!

What the farmer found was a passage that sank nearly vertically into the ground and was accessed by 29 steep stone steps.

mine howe

Half way down, these doubled back on themselves at a “landing”, and at the bottom there was a very deep step into the bottom of the chamber.

mine howe

Apparently, two long, low galleries extend outwards from the half way “landing”. There was evidence of electric lighting from when the site had been a visitor attraction, but as we only had a torch and no information, we missed these structures. Maybe that was a blessing or Kevin would no doubt have disappeared further into the hillside!
The roof of the main chamber is beautifully corbelled in from the walls and capped off with a large flat stone.

mine howe

Subsequent work showed that Mine Howe is a very important site, even by Orkney’s remarkable archaeological standards. The central underground structure is believed to date back to the early Iron Age and have a ritual purpose. It was surrounded by a massive causewayed ditch. A settlement grew outside the ditch in the later Iron Age or the Pictish era. There was evidence of metal working also. Unfortunately, as only two people at any one time can get into the structure, it was a logistical nightmare for those all-important money-making coach parties, which resulted in closure of the site through lack of funds. Hopefully in the future further work will be carried out on this fascinating and unusual site.
Next stop was the Brough o’ Deerness, just slightly further east. A gentle coastal walk, passing the intriguingly named ‘Gloop’…

gloop

…which is a collapsed sea-cave, led us to the brough. The site was once connected to the Orkney mainland by a land bridge, but a geologist’s investigation in 2008, confirmed this had crumbled away a long time before it was occupied.
Now the site is not one of the easiest to reach with a steep descent from the headland, followed by a steep, narrow ascent along the south face of the Brough to reach the summit. You can see the narrow path on the right of this photo. Believe me, it was a lot closer to the edge than it appears! At least there was a rope handrail for those of us not keen on heights! Also, on the summit, can you see what are the remains of a chapel?

brough o' deerness

Dating from the late Norse period, this chapel is, apparently, the focus of a complex archaeological mosaic, consisting of a bank and wall and a tight cluster of an estimated 30 structures, which are now just grass-covered outlines. There were a number of burials found during the excavation of the chapel in the 1970s. One of these was buried against the chapel wall, and was radio-carbon dated to the 11th/12th century. From this, it would appear that the chapel is contemporary with the later settlement structures.

brough o' deerness

The excavated later structures were domestic — finds included loom weights, soapstone pot, pottery and a spindle-whorl — but there also appeared to have been metalworking carried out on site. Used mould sections were found, but these were too fragmented to allow the archaeologists to ascertain what they were used for.

And to end the day? Well, why not go for a hands and knees experience, crawling into another tomb, the Cuween Hill cairn, by the village of Finstown.

cuween cairn

Although small, Cuween cairn is nonetheless an impressive feat of prehistoric engineering. It’s cut into solid bedrock, and comprises a main central chamber with four smaller chambers branching off from each wall.

cuween

cuween

cuween

Thought to date from around 3,000 BC, the cairn was excavated in 1901. Back then, the remains – mostly skulls – of at least eight people were found inside. This small number led to the suggestion that, during its use, the chamber was cleared out periodically, with only the most recent, or significant, skulls left within. Aside from the human bones, perhaps the most interesting discovery was that of 24 dog skulls. This led to the suggestion that the tomb’s users may have had the dog as their totem.

Don’t worry, your knees are safe – we’ll be above ground next time!

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