|18 November 1999
Amazing underground structure discovered on Orkney
Douglas Paterson, a 37-year-old farmer, with the help of Sandy Firth, 67, a retired teacher, made an amazing discovery at Tankerness on Orkney (Scotland). In just three days, on a spot on his farm called Mine Howe, Paterson unearthed two ancient stone staircases of 29 steps leading down through three subterranean chambers.
The mound was actually opened in April 1946, when a farmhand ploughing Mine Howe unearthed a stone slab which led to the first excavation by the community more than 50 years ago. After a while, the site was sealed it up again and it remained sealed until this year when it was re-discovered.
Archaeologists are convinced that the structure, which is the deepest of its kind ever found and features intricate stonework throughout, is probably a large earth house or a chambered tomb. First impressions suggest that it is probably Iron Age, but it could be much older.
The entrance is quite literally like a mine shaft going deep into the earth. The first 17 stone steps are steep and a rope has to be used to get down. Once down the first flight there is a small "landing"; from here are two chambers that "spiral" out from the main stairwell. In one of the chambers the skull of a dog (or possibly a seal) was found together with a broken hammer. From the landing, a second flight of 12 steps leads straight down into the bowels of the structure - a small chamber 9 meters (30 feet) down, with a 5.5 metres (18 feet) high beehive-shaped ceiling.
Julie Gibson, Orkney's county archaeologist, said that the discovery was extraordinary. "I have never seen anything like it before," she said. "I have to admit that I felt very frightened when I first went inside. I could hardly catch my breath because it was dark and such a confined space, but also because it was so surprising."
A photographic land survey has revealed a huge enclosing ditch with ritual middens facing east and west, possibly used for burnt offerings or cremations, which resemble other Neolithic sites dating back to 3000BCE.
The public is unlikely to be given access to the site which Historic Scotland is being urged to make a protected, or scheduled, monument. After the excavation Mr Paterson wants to seal it over and return the land to grazing sheep.
Sources: Orkneyjar/Sigurd Towrie, The Times (November 10, 11 and 16 1999)
Share this webpage: