Uncovering the burial mounds of Bronze Age Scots

Share this article

FOUR thousand years ago work began to erect the great earthen burial mounds that comprise the Bronze Age barrow cemetery at the Knowes of Trotty, in Harray, Orkney. There are at least 16 barrows - or graves - in two rows, nestling between the edge of the farmlands and the foot of the moorland. Many were raised upon natural mounds to enhance their prominence.

It is a spectacular site, even today, and there are indications that in the Bronze Age the Knowes of Trotty was a cemetery of special significance. The barrows were built to honour the dead of the local farmers and represent a change in burial ritual away from the communal interments of Neolithic farming sites like Maeshowe and more towards individual burials that often incorporated the use of fire to cremate the body. Burial in the Bronze Age celebrated the individual and often included grave goods, perhaps as an indication of status and for use in the after world.

Sadly, sites like this have long attracted attention. Earlier diggings into the mounds removed much of the evidence that might have been of use to archaeologists of today, but finds of gold and amber objects with one of the burials in the 19th century add support to the theory that this was a notable place. Goods like these would have been of great value and were generally rare in Bronze Age society. Although the gold was Scottish in origin, archaeologists suggested that there may be links in the craftwork with artefacts found around the Wessex area of Stonehenge where similar objects were made.

In more recent times Orkney Archaeological Trust have been working at the Knowes of Trotty. The Trust have carried out both excavation and non-invasive survey work to better understand the site. Their findings reveal the complexity of the surviving remains and, though it is unlikely that it will ever be excavated in its entirety it is possible to learn much by looking at the bumps within the landscape. Carefully targeted excavation can then be used to reveal the nature of particularly interesting areas.

The Trust re-excavated one of the barrows opened in the 19th century to have another look at the internal features. The stone-lined burial cist - or chest - was found to comprise an elaborate structure with large flanking side stones. The mound on which it was set had been flattened at the top and covered with stone slabs. A stone cairn was laid over the cist, then covered with earth. The final effect would have been impressive to those who visited 4,000 years ago – a stone-lined hillock, with a steep-sided earthen mound sitting on top.

Elsewhere on site the excavations have revealed small pits for cremations that were dug into the flanks of the barrows after the primary burial had been made. This indicates the cemetery was used for centuries. Excitingly, the Trust's excavation work has also uncovered traces of a substantial stone structure on the hill slope just above the barrows. This may well have served as a cult house during the burials and other rituals carried out there. Excavation work later this year will take place to uncover more of its secrets.

On the web

Orkney Archaeological Trust

The Knowes of Trotty is an evocative location that tends to be overlooked by those who come to visit the well-signposted remains of Neolithic Orkney. It is a clear indication that the sophisticated society that raised the monuments of Neolithic time continued with both local developments and external influences into later periods.

It's easy to imagine those who came here to bury, mourn and communicate with their ancestors in the second millennium BC. The importance of the cemetery today is recognised by Orkney Islands Council, which not only provides support for the on-going archaeological work but has also added visitor amenities (car park and wood-board path) near the historic site.

There are rarely many people here and the Knowes of Trotty provides an opportunity to visit one of Orkney's more important archaeological sites without the crowds that other locations attract.

Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist who lives and works in Orkney.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

A 3,000-year-old voyage of discovery