The Discovery

In May of this year, whilst ploughing a field at Crantit Farm on the Orkney Mainland, a tractor broke through the plough soil and a small hole appeared. Looking through the hole it was seen that an entire stone constructed chamber lay below the field surface. The apparently subterranean chamber was composed of fine masonry and large upstanding stones, typical of early Neolithic chambered cairns which occur in Orkney and Northern Scotland. The observation of bones on the chamber floor seemed to confirm that an unknown Neolithic burial place had been discovered. Furthermore, it appears to have been sealed for over 5000 years.

Burial chamber
The burial chamber was found while ploughing.

The Significance of the Crantit Tomb

Orkney has a remarkable range of prehistoric monuments ranging from Iron Age brochs to Neolithic stone circles. Of these, it is perhaps the sites of the Neolithic period (c. 3800 - 2200BC) which are the most well known, for example, the village of Skara Brae and Maeshowe passage grave. Of archaeological attraction is the range of different sites which  have survived; nowhere else in Britain do you find contemporary stone-built settlements, chambered cairns, stone circles and standing stones. The importance here is the way each site provides information about different aspects of the life and death of Neolithic people.

The Farmer who found the Chamber
Dennis Bichan, on who's land the chamber was found.

The reason for the amazing survival of this evidence is a combination of the availability of excellent building stone, skilled construction techniques and a history of relatively low intensity agriculture. Such appreciation of Orcadian archaeology is not new and this richness has led to a prolonged period of activity over the last 150 years. Consequently, the majority of sites, particularly the chambered cairns, have been examined in varying degrees of skill throughout this period. Even when new settlements have been discovered, for instance at Barnhouse and Stonehall, the associated chambered cairns have been examined earlier this century and much of the material and information lost or poorly recorded.
It is this situation which makes the discovery of the Crantit chambered cairn so very exciting because never before has, what appears to be, an untouched and completely intact chambered cairn been investigated by modern techniques in recent times.The archaeological importance of this discovery is that we will be able to investigate fully the way in which Neolithic people were treated after their death. Much debate has raged about the burial practices occurring during the Neolithic. Some think the body was exposed until the flesh had decayed and only then were the bones interred within the cairn. This is because skeletal material within these cairns is often dissarticulated with different bones, e.g. the skulls,being placed together in one area of the main chamber. Others argue that the dead body was put into the cairn complete and that only after it had rotted were the bones moved and even removed from the cairn.
The broader purpose of the cairn is also disputed, some archaeologists see them as containing all the members of a community while others see access restricted to certain individuals. These are just some of the debates about the nature and use of this form of monument.

The excavation of Crantit will go some way to assessing these competing views of the past.

Burial Chamber
Inside the 5000 year old burial chamber.

Photographs by Ken Amer of Orkney Photographic.


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