16 July 2005
Search is on for Knowes o' Trotty remains
The search is on for a quantity of cremated human remains, first uncovered in a Bronze Age burial cist in Harray (Orkney ISlands, Scotland) almost 150 years ago. In 1858, local antiquarian George Petrie opened the largest mound at the Knowes o' Trotty, a massive Bronze Age barrow cemetery thought to date from around 2000 BCE. Within the knowe, he discovered a stone cist containing four exquisitely crafted gold discs, along with 27 amber beads and a number of burnt human bones.
Petrie returned the cremated remains to the cist: in his day, the tiny fragments of bone had no academic value. But now, with the techniques available to the modern archaeologist, a fragment of cremated bone can allow the burial to be dated. This has prompted the search for Petrie's cist in the hope that a firm date can finally be attached to the Knowes.
Nick Card, projects manager for Orkney Archaeological Trust, explained that the deteriorating condition of the mound was hampering the search. Archaeologists had located the nineteenth century trench and the cist had not been reached yet, but a few fragments of bone, unfortunately too small to be analysed, had been found lying loose in the soil.
The excavation on the burial mound has also revealed that a carefully constructed stone 'cairn', which was then covered in earth, had originally covered the burial. Meanwhile, a short distance away, another trench is trying to shed light on a building to the north of the site. The discovery of this in 2002 was unusual, as structures are not commonly found at cemetery sites.
This year's trench has shown it to be an oval shaped building, with an east-facing entrance pointing directly at the hills. Interior features include a paved area, hearth and suspected drains. Its position and orientation seems particularly significant, explained Orkney College's Jane Downes. "We're working very hard to find the shape and form of this building. We suspect it may have been used by people involved with the cemetery."
According to Jane, Bronze Age houses in the Northern Isles have generally been found to face the south. The Trotty structure is different; the door is towards the north-east, looking uphill and away from the burial mounds. It could instead be said to 'symbolically' turn its back on the cemetery or the dead within. Whatever its use, the structure appears to have been in use for some time, as the archaeologists have found evidence of a number of alterations through its life.
The site was probably made up of 20 barrows - making it, said Jane Downes, one of the biggest Bronze Age cemeteries between Orkney and southern England. This link between England and Orkney is further strengthened by the fact that the artefacts from the Knowes are incredibly similar to finds from Wessex. The gold disks found by Petrie in 1858 were made from paper-thin sheets of gold, decorated with concentric circles of zig-zags and lines. They are thought to be covers for decorative 'buttons', similar to those found in Wessex. The style, however, was different enough to suggest that it was made by a craftsman attempting to copy the Wessex style.
Dr Alison Sheridan thinks that at some point in the past, a group of Orcadians visited Wessex, where they picked up new ideas and fashions and took them back home. The Ring of Brodgar in Stenness, she suggests, could be an Orcadian attempt to recreate the massive stone circle of Avebury.
Modern archaeological work is elevating the Knowes o' Trotty to its rightful place in Orkney's archaeology. Excavations at the site have been supported by Orkney Archaeological Trust, Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College and Historic Scotland.
Source: Orkneyjar (7 July 2005)