In September 1999 local farmer Douglas Paterson rediscovered a remarkable underground structure which had remained half forgotten and almost consigned to the annals of local folklore since its original discovery over 50 years ago. The circumstances of its original discovery are unclear. Some say the structure was first found when a man with a horse drawn plough hooked a flat flagstone to reveal a flight of steps leading to an underground chamber. Others report that a farmer, fuelled by stories of "mysterious" things in the hillocks or 'howies' on his land, decided to investigate several of the mounds. With a group of local enthusiasts he started to dig into Minehowe and its neighbour Longhowe. Investigations at Longhowe were quickly abandoned when an entrance started to appear in Minehowe and a flight of steps was revealed. Over a period of some 3 months the steps and chambers were cleared, with reports of many stone tools being found. The whereabouts of these tools is presently unknown. Due to uncertainties about the structure and fears that animals might fall down it, the farmer ordered the hole to be backfilled using oil drums to block the stairs, with topsoil and stone thrown on top.
And so the site remained until Douglas Paterson decided to investigate the story of the spooky underground house he'd heard about as a boy. With the help of Sandy Firth, who had visited the site as a boy, and his neighbour, Clifford Shearer, he managed to locate the exact location of the 1946 'excavations'. Even by Orkney standards, which has some of the best upstanding prehistoric archaeology in Europe, the site Douglas rediscovered was amazing. In a mound, that from its external appearance looks largely natural and no different from a scatter of similar mounds in the vicinity, an extraordinary underground structure was revealed. A flight of 17 stone steps descend to a half-landing where they turn back on themselves and a further 11 steps descend to a chamber. This chamber is only c.1.3m in diameter but is over 4m high with a corbelled roof. The bottom step into this chamber is 0.9m high and gives it a cistern-like appearance. At the half-landing two subsidiary chambers/passages open out, one above the other. It was at the entrance to the lower chamber that Douglas found a single dog skull. Most of the structure is lined with beautifully built drystone walling.

GEOPHYSICS - (Click here to go to the Geophysics page)
The remarkable nature of this structure and the 'mystery' surrounding it was further enhanced when John Gater, the 'Time Team' geophysics expert, was hired by the Orkney Archaeological Trust (with sponsorship from Historic Scotland and the Orkney Islands Council) to survey the mound and the area around it. Using various techniques - Ground Probing Radar, Magnetometry and Resistivity - he discovered that the underground chamber was not the only archaeological feature associated with this mound. The mound was surrounded by a massive (though now completely invisible) ditch, c.2m deep, 5m wide and 50m in diameter with a single 6m wide entrance gap. Several smaller and shallower ditches encircle this main ditch. Beyond the ditch entrance strong readings, suggestive of an extensive area of settlement, were recorded. All of this throws up many questions about the site - how old is it; what was it used for; how do the various separate elements of the site relate to each other - are they contemporary or are we dealing with a multi-period site; what was the local environment like; was there a structure on top of the mound etc, etc, etc. With these and many other questions in mind we are devising a strategy for the excavation of the site. The location of the proposed trenches can be seen on the printout of the geophysical results. These trenches are designed to answer as many questions about the site as time and money allow. Most importantly the relationship between the mound, its encircling ditches and several other anomalies. It is also hoped that the nature of the mound itself will be resolved as to whether it is natural or man-made. Presently however we can only speculate and offer the following tentative answers to the most commonly asked questions.

Several elements of the site, such as the drystone construction techniques, would indicate that the site is probably Iron Age in date, that is c.2000 years old. This is also backed up by comparison with other known similar Iron Age sites. Although the scale of Minehowe marks it out, several smaller, but similar structures are known in northern Scotland. Several broch (large Iron Age towers) sites have underground chambers associated with them. At the Broch of Gurness, also on Mainland Orkney, a so-called 'well', again accessed by a flight of stairs and with associated side chambers, was excavated earlier this century. Many brochs are also surrounded by series of ditches. However the main ditch at Minehowe does superficially resemble the ditch around the Neolithic henge site of the Standing Stones of Stennes, also on Mainland Orkney. So perhaps we are looking at a multi-period site. Only excavation can reveal the truth.

As at Minehowe several of these underground structures exhibit a scale and complexity that would argue against their interpretation as simply wells. Recently Anna Ritchie has argued that the Gurness 'well' may have acted as an oracle or shrine. Indeed contemporary Roman documentary sources inform us that Iron Age Celtic religion partly involved the worship of natural spirits - water, earth and sky. Often their shrines tended to be in places that were conceived of as liminal - or on the borders of two places. Could Minehowe have had some similar religious or ritual function as a place for communicating with the earth spirits or underworld? As the excavation proceeds it is hoped that more definite answers to these and a multitude of other questions will be resolved. So watch this space………