Secret of ancient burial tombs on Orkney's North Isles to be revealed

They were the final resting places of the dead with the mysterious buildings part of everyday life in Neolithic Orkney.

The Quoyness chambered cairn (left) on the Orkney isle of Sanday is one of the sites to be examined by archaeologists and islanders. PIC: Antonia Thomas/

For years, research into the burial chambers on Orkney's mainland has led to tantalising details about how islanders were treated after life with thousands of visitors drawn to these deeply affecting sites built up to 5,000 years ago.

Now a new archaeological project, the Neolithic Landscape of the Dead, will look at the tombs on Orkney’s smaller North Isles to increase understanding of the tombs and draw more visitors to these lesser-know pieces of ancient history.

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Sites on islands such as Shapinsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Rousay, Wyre and Eday are included in the research project, which is being run between North Isles Landscape Partnership and the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology University of Highlands and Islands.

Andy Golightly, project manager at NILP, said: “A lot of these sites on the mainland have been explored but less so on the smaller islands.

“There are examples of these tombs on all the islands so we want to pull together as much information as possible and encourage visitors to go and see them.”

The project will work with communities on the North Isles to help research these sites with volunteers encouraged to take part in archaeological fieldwork as the programme develops.

The burial chambers will then form part of a new ‘tombs trail’ across the smaller islands with new 3D models and research archives to be created.

The Neolithic period began some 5,000 years ago in Orkney and spanned some 2,500 years. People’s relationship with the dead changed during this spell with people buried communally in tombs where bones and other offerings were jumbled together in one ancestral place.

Some believe that the tombs helped families lay claim to land at a time when the average adult lived to only 30 or 40 years old.

There are over stone-built 80 tombs on Orkney with more than 50 found in the North Isles.

Dan Lee, ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist, said: “We are really looking forward to working with islanders to celebrate the amazing Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney, and bring some of these less-explored sites into focus. Who knows what new stories they can tell?”