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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4.4/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Samantha Davies (5 months ago)
Lovely place to see and read about it's history.
Simon Protheroe (5 months ago)
Great atmosphere, be prepared to get grubby it's a tight squeeze.
Mrs K (5 months ago)
Superb Cairn you can go into.
Ian Brine (10 months ago)
Well worth a visit
Lucy Harding (11 months ago)
great free entry site just off the main road. casual history in orkney!
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The Broch of Gurness is an Iron Age broch village. Settlement here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it. It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.

The remains of the central tower are up to 3.6 metres high, and the stone walls are up to 4.1 metres thick. The tower was likely inhabited by the principal family or clan of the area but also served as a last resort for the village in case of an attack.

The broch continued to be inhabited while it began to collapse and the original structures were altered. The cistern was filled in and the interior was repartitioned. The ruin visible today reflects this secondary phase of the broch's use.

The site is surrounded by three ditches cut out of the rock with stone ramparts, encircling an area of around 45 metres diameter. The remains of numerous small stone dwellings with small yards and sheds can be found between the inner ditch and the tower. These were built after the tower, but were a part of the settlement's initial conception. A 'main street' connects the outer entrance to the broch. The settlement is the best-preserved of all broch villages.

Pieces of a Roman amphora dating to before 60 AD were found here, lending weight to the record that a 'King of Orkney' submitted to Emperor Claudius at Colchester in 43 AD.

At some point after 100 AD the broch was abandoned and the ditches filled in. It is thought that settlement at the broch continued into the 5th century AD, the period known as Pictish times. By that time the broch was not used anymore and some of its stones were reused to build smaller dwellings on top of the earlier buildings. Until about the 8th century, the site was just a single farmstead.

In the 9th century, a Norse woman was buried at the site in a stone-lined grave with two bronze brooches and a sickle and knife made from iron. Other finds suggest that Norse men were buried here too.