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Moving to Southampton


Digging at Quanterness in Orkney
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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I already read it up quite thoroughly, I knew all the tombs in Audrey Henshall's account, and there was one tomb that had been entered in the year 1805 and the scholar had done a very - who had gone to it, did a very good description of it but then it had been covered over and there was no record of its being investigated after that even though Audrey Henshall had been able to describe it using this earlier account. It was called Quanterness and the location was perfectly well understood so David Collison and I went to call on the farmer, Scottie Harcus, and I said to him, well, I think this could be a very interesting site to excavate and I'm thinking of doing an archaeological excavation, would that be possible? And he was a very nice man and he wasn't terribly keen, a lot of Orcadians have the feeling it's best not to disturb the dead too freely and really rather not get involved, but he agreed that we - that I - I could do so. So I laid plans and the following year, I think it was, went up to Orkney to dig at Quanterness and this was a marvellous site because it was a very prominent mound. It had a great flagpole, a modern flagpole, on the top of it and it wasn't known where the entrance was. It was clear there would be an entrance passage but it wasn't clear where the entrance passage was and there was a sort of crevice or crevasse, at the top where clearly it had been entered and then it got filled with rubbish and if you remove the corrugated iron and so on you could see people had gone in through the roof and it was, indeed, a chamber tomb but you couldn't see much of it. So we did begin to excavate there rather slowly and carefully. We did a section on the west side to show the - the structure of the cairn but we didn't find the entrance passage there. Then we began to find something that might be the entrance passage on the east side, but there were some complicated circular structure tangled up with that, then meanwhile we were going down through the roof where it had been entered, the roof had been damaged in that process, and we got down into the main chamber and it had, indeed, been entered for the first time in 1805 and it was a longish main chamber, I suppose 12-15 feet long, I suppose, rectangular and about 7 feet wide, and it had originally had, as we knew from the original drawings from 1805, it had six side chambers, and four or five of those, yes, four of those, were still standing, so you could crawl in and there were bits of human bone on the floor. And then you could go into this side chamber and you could stand upright and if you put your hand up then you could touch the top of the corbelling and this was a wonderfully constructed tomb although two side chambers had collapsed and the main chamber had collapsed during the entrance process but the side chambers were perfectly constructed and perfectly preserved. And we had a very good excavation architect who was, indeed, a member of the Department of Architecture in Sheffield, Alec Dakin, and he did beautiful drawings of the structure. And so this was really a fascinating monument and we got lots of material, lots of human bone, lots of material for radiocarbon dating. And we had a specialist who had been a mature student, he'd retired from being a surgeon and had taken up archaeo-zoology and so he did a study of the human bones so we had very good studies on those things. We had a very good zoologist. Audrey Henshall herself, the specialist in those things, reported on the - on the artefacts and so we - we had a really nice excavation going there. And we also did some studies at Maeshowe. We were able to dig a section across the ditch at Maeshowe to get to some radiocarbon dates and also the wonderful circle of standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar, we were able to excavate the ditch there although the radiocarbon dates didn't work out. I think it wasn't waterlogged in Neolithic times and there were other studies going on in Orkney at the same time. David Clarke, based at the Scottish National Museum, the archaeological museum, was excavating at Skara Brae, the site that Gordon Childe had dug, and Graham and Anna Ritchie were digging at the Stones at Stenness and so between us we got a whole series of radiocarbon dates which fully confirmed the non-diffusionist hypothesis, fully confirmed that the - these buildings in Orkney were early. They weren't all of them earlier than the pyramids but they were much earlier than they could have been on any diffusionist strategy, as it were, and it looked also as if Maeshowe was not the earliest. Quanterness was earlier and there were still some other early sites and then looking at that and thinking about it, Judson Chesterman established that there were the remains of several hundred individuals at Quanterness, so that Quanterness, if you thought of the region around it before you get to the next chamber tomb down the road, as it were, got quite a limited territory, and so it must have had the burials of the entire community probably. And so we thought of it as an equal access tomb, young and old were buried there, and it wasn't just for the high status people. It was an equal access tomb so that allowed us to begin to think in social terms a little bit about what kind of society was using these monuments and certainly in Orkney, it would seem that the monuments represented the population of the entire community who were buried there although probably after a process of what's called excarnation, it looks as if they may have been exposed elsewhere because they weren't - there weren't many complete skeletons, the bodies were exposed and then gathered up and the remains brought into the tomb. So that was really a very pleasurable experience both because of the wonderful qualities of the Neolithic architecture, and I just marvel at how wonderfully built these sites are and there are many more; Midhowe is a famous tomb which Gordon Childe looked at. He excavated several of these tombs. He excavated Quoyness on Sanday, and they really are just amazingly sophisticated structures but there's no doubt that they're beginning around 3000 BC so they weren't being learned from anywhere else. They were probably in contact with people in Ireland and in Brittany, they weren't doing it all on their own in Orkney but it was a North West European phenomenon which we still don't understand very well but I think that is very clear so that was a very nice piece of work. Also, we had a great time in Orkney, met a lot of interesting people. Our son, Magnus, was born around that time. I already mentioned he has a Greek godfather, Christos Doumas, but he has two Orcadian godparents as well, and so we had a nice - a lot of good times in Orkney. Orkney is, of course, a marvellous area, partly because it's so remote, it has its own very strong cultural traditions, and it really was remote until the time of the Second World War. I mean there were - it was visited from the time of the First World War but before that it was really a rather isolated place. Orcadians went off as sailors, a lot of them took part in the exploration of Canada, the East India Company, and so on, but you really feel it's a place with a character of its own and the Orcadian poet, Edwin Muir, expresses that very well. And then while we were there George Mackay Brown who's dead now but was the leading poet of Orkney at that time and so it was a really very rewarding experience to be digging in Orkney, quite apart from the radiocarbon dates and the technical publications.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 8 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009