Unstan Chambered Cairn

Orkney, United Kingdom

Unstan is a particularly well preserved Neolithic chambered cairn, and somewhat unusual, example of an Orkney–Cromarty chambered cairn. Tombs of this type are often referred to as 'stalled' cairns due to their distinctive internal structure. Stalled cairns have a central passageway flanked by a series of paired transverse stones that separate the side spaces into compartments that reminded early investigators of horse stalls. The earliest versions of this tomb type are found in Caithness, they typically consist of no more than four stalled compartments. In Orkney, the tombs became increasingly elaborate; the number of compartments reached a maximum of fourteen at the Knowe of Ramsay on Rousay. Unstan is a more modest example of the form with five chambers flanking a passageway 6.4 metres in length. Like most tombs in Orkney, the original roof is gone, replaced by a modern concrete dome that protects the site. The remaining walls rise to a height of almost 2 metres, and consist primarily of thin stacked slabs of local flagstone that come from the Devonian Old Red Sandstone.

Unstan is also notable in that the first discovery of a distinctive style of pottery was made here in 1884. These pots are the type examples of what has come to be known as Unstan ware. Unstan ware typically consists of elegant shallow bowls with a band of grooved patterning below the rim, created using a technique known as 'stab-and-drag'. A second version consists of undecorated, round-bottomed bowls. Some of the bowls had bits of volcanic rock included in the clay to make them stronger. After firing, bone tools were used to burnish the surfaces to make them shiny and impermeable. Parts of twenty to thirty bowls were found in the tomb, many of them were Unstan ware. Most of the bowls were shattered or incomplete; this is common in chambered cairns and suggests that the vessels were intentionally broken for inclusion with the dead. These bowls were not newly created for use in the tomb – they had clearly seen prior use – as some of the sherds, for example, had impressions of barley grains. A number of fragments were found in a shallow hollow in the clay floor – a pattern seen in other tombs. Several of the reconstructed vessels are in the National Museum of Scotland.

Human remains were found in Unstan – there were two crouched skeletons in the side cell, several more in the main compartment, and a number of bones were scattered throughout the rest of the tomb. Animal bones and charcoal were found as well.

It is possible that Unstan was in use well into the second millennium BC; an arrowhead was discovered in the tomb that is characteristic of the Beaker People who lived from the Late Neolithic into the Bronze Age. Moreover, burials in the crouched position were not practiced in the Neolithic.

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A965, Orkney, United Kingdom
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User Reviews

Kenneth Watson (3 years ago)
Impressive cairn inside, and not visited by the tour buses.
S Todd (3 years ago)
Small information board explains the cairn. Hard to imagine all the people who have stood there for thousands of years and taken in the scene Some interesting victorian graffiti too. Small car park and free to visit.
Rhiannon Grant (3 years ago)
Just down the road from Maes Howe, a free site with good access (we were able to take a wheelchair right up the entrance to the cairn, where everyone has to crawl). It's a stalled cairn (rather than the chambered type) and the name site for Unstan ware pottery, found around Orkney.
John Merriman (3 years ago)
One of several stone age burial cairns on Orkney. Guide board refers to skeletons and grave goods. Is this representative of a different burial culture from elsewhere where whole skeletons with grave goods were found? Easy to reach but could be better signposted. Limited parking. No charge to enter, but you need to be reasonably agile to get through the low narrow aperture into the tomb interior. Anywhere else but on Orkney it would be the top attraction!
Sari Jacobsen (3 years ago)
When I visited Unstan there were no other visitors about, I had it to myself! No where near the size of Maeshowe but much more accessible. You can see the Standing Stones across the water. Free entry. Say hello to the ponies.
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