6 August 2006
Archaeologists ponder Iron Age burial ritual in Orkney
After four weeks of excavation at the Knowe o' Skea in Westray (Orkney, Scotland), archaeologists Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore can boast a remarkable statistic. The burials they have unearthed at the Berstness site make of an incredible 90 per cent of the known Iron Age remains found in Scotland to date.
Prior to the start of work in 2000, Iron Age burials were rare - in the whole of Scotland, let alone Orkney. But all that changed when Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore, from Edinburgh-based EASE Archaeology, moved in on the knowe, off the south-western tip of Westray. The archaeologists were soon overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of human remains covering the mound. Before long it became clear that the site was a funerary complex used for centuries to bury the dead.
Key to the site was a structure at the centre of the mound. Dating from at least 200 BCE, this building remained the focus of the cemetery until it was abandoned some time in the 7th or 8th centuries CE. Some time after its initial construction, a series of buildings was erected in the space to the north of the central structure. Here, the archaeologists uncovered a series of human graves, each burial placed in the rubble of earlier buildings and subsequently built over with each alteration or addition to the site. The burials, of which over 100 have been recovered so far, had no real pattern, other than the fact that the adults were buried near the wall of the central structure, while the infants, which make up 60 per cent of the burials, were in their own, separate area. As well as complete burials, which usually saw the bodies interred on their sides in a foetal position, there were deposits of disarticulated human remains, some of which were deliberately incorporated into walls and floors of the surrounding buildings.
Graeme Wilson explained: "From the remains, it appears that the 'important' people were buried near the wall – much in the same way that in later Christian burials, the important people were interred in, or near, a church's wall. The method of burial varied, but generally the adults were tightly crouched and lying on their sides. The apparent 'un-natural' positions of the corpses suggest that the bodies were tightly bound, or wrapped, after death. The infants, on the other hand, were placed vertically into narrow holes in the rubble."
Hazel Moore said: "The graves were fairly rough, with the bodies just buried into the rubble of the older buildings. They were loosely covered with stone, but not necessarily covered over. The place must have stunk when it was in use. With all those dead bodies, decomposing under loose coverings of stone and rubble," she said.
Work continued on the site while it was being used as a cemetery. As the dead were left in their rough graves, the buildings were continually worked on and maintained. Not only were the external buildings used for metalworking, but one also appears to have been lived in.
The Knowe o' Skea remains one of Orkney's most enigmatic archaeological sites and one which, it is hoped, will continue to shed light on a hitherto unknown element of Iron Age life. Graeme and Hazel will return to Westray on August 28, for a second programme of excavations on the Knowe. The next phase will involve removing one of the most recent structures to access the older phases of building that lie beneath. It is hoped a public open day will be held at the end of this dig.
Source: Orkneyjar (3 August 2006)