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13 May 2011
Neolithic tomb excavated in Orkney

Excavations have recently been carried out at a Stone Age tomb in South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands (Scotland). The team is from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, commonly known as ORCA. Unfortunately most previous excavations in this area had been marred and vital evidence destroyed by 19th Century antiquarian excavators. But this particular tomb, located at a place called Banks, was untouched and it was hoped that DNA analysis, and other modern techniques, could be employed to great effect.
     Their hopes were justified and, during the first phase of the excavation, the remains of at least eight people were uncovered, followed by over 1,000 pieces of human bone. However, the team had to work fast as the tomb had remained sealed and it was believed that exposure to modern atmosphere could have a devastating effect.
     The tomb proved to be a complex of several burial cells, clustered around a central passage, which was approached via an entrance passage. The finds in one of the cells, the west one, were particularly interesting. This was the lowest part of the tomb complex and was waterlogged. This was a multi layered burial chamber, used over a long period of time, with each burial being covered in a layer of silt, before the next occurred.
     The archaeologists believed that the use of a waterlogged chamber was deliberate and was linked to ritualistic activities. But this is not the end of the intriguing story of the west cell. In addition to the human remains, evidence of otters was also found, in such a way that suggested that the human occupants allowed the otters to come and go as they pleased. The significance of this remains a mystery.
     Dan Lee, the Team Leader, is quoted as saying "Because the conditions are changing inside, there is now a real danger that we are going to lose key information. The next stage will be to fully excavate the passageway and the entrance, and we hope to get back in the autumn of this year, or the spring of next, to continue working on this fascinating piece of Stone Age archaeology".

Edited from Orkneyjar (4 May 2011)

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