Neolithic engineers

The Guardian visits a huge, 5,000-year-old tomb complex on Scotland’s Orkney Isles that reveals a surprisingly sophisticated level of engineering know-how:

The tomb measures more than 15m in diameter and contains a stone structure accessed through a long passage of around seven metres. The excavation was headed by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, senior curator of prehistory (neolithic) at the National Museums Scotland, and Prof Vicki Cummings, professor of neolithic archaeology at Cardiff University.

Anderson-Whymark recalled the “incredible excitement” as they removed topsoil and could see the outline plan of this tomb, a circular shape with a rectangular chamber surrounded by six cells with curved backs. He said: “Seven or eight metres across the interior is really big. We had found not only the tomb, but then in situ articulated skeletons – the icing on the cake.”

He noted that the corbelled construction involved stones being built up gradually to create cell chambers that narrowed as they rose: “They really are engineering feats. The tomb would have been an immense feature in the landscape when it was originally constructed, and the stonework inside would have been very impressive.”

The site had been overlooked until now as it was flattened and largely destroyed without record in the 18th or 19th centuries when stone was used for a nearby building that was demolished about a decade ago.

Further digging in the ruins by a farmer’s son in 1896 revealed traces of walling and the discovery of a stone macehead and ball, as well as eight skeletons. These discoveries were reported in a local paper by an antiquary, James Walls Cursiter, who speculated that it was a ruined tomb but did not realise its significance or age, having only seen part of it.

Described then as a “chambered cairn”, it received a mere couple of paragraphs, which Anderson-Whymark happened to spot during other research. It inspired him to track down the site.