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Archaeological find could shed light on Orkney's past

16 May 2007

Archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a subterranean Iron Age structure, known as a souterrain, in an Orkney field.

The find was made when the field was being seeded for barley. At first it was believed to be a Bronze Age cist burial, as others have previously been uncovered nearby, but subsequent examination has revealed it to be an Iron Age souterrain or earth-house.

Dr Allan Rutherford of Historic Scotland said: “Preliminary investigations by staff from Orkney College Archaeology Department have shown this to be a souterrain, rather than a cist burial as was initially thought. This example seems to conform to the Orkney form, with a long narrow passage and an oval chamber at the inner end.  Structures like this are believed to be have been used essentially as storage cellars and were usually associated with above-ground houses, although it is now that they may have had wider uses, particularly ritual.

“What is exciting about this find is that there have only been a few souterrains excavated in Orkney in recent years. This excavation will hopefully shed further light on their function and use, as recent research suggests that such structures were more important to Iron Age communities than has been so far recognised.’

Historic Scotland is funding the project, which is expected to last around three weeks .

Local archaeologist Julie Gibson added: " When the Vikings came to Orkney they were as intrigued by these underground structures created by the original inhabitants, as we are now, and incorporated them in their folklore, as places where the Picts would go to regain their strength.  

“Whereas we cannot say for sure what these structures were for, exactly, they are features of the Iron Age which occur across Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland. Finding one that has not been explored before is very exciting indeed."

Any discoveries at the site will be studied and properly recorded. The information gathered during the course of the excavation will be used as a tool in the management of similar sites of archaeological importance.

Notes for Editors

  • Historic Scotland is responsible for scheduling sites of national importance and listing buildings of interest that warrant legal protection. Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Executive and is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers.

  • Local Archaeologist Julie Gibson can be contacted on 01856 569341and 0781 0187 523

  • A cist is a box shaped stone lined burial chamber dating to the Bronze Age.

  • A souterrain, or earth house as they are more commonly called in Orkney, is an underground passage dating the Iron Age. Orkney examples have oval chambers at one end.

  • Bronze Age cists were found in the surrounding area and were excavated during the 1980s.

  • Bronze Age – Bronze artefacts have been found in Orkney which demonstrate that the products of new technology reached Orkney soon after its introduction into Scotland before 2000 BC.

  • Iron Age – The Iron Age is characterised by architectural developments such as round houses, broch and souterrians, and dates from the 1st Millennium BC and stretches into the 1st Millennium AD.

For further information


Lesley Brown
Communications and Media Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8603 or 07788 923873
lesley.brown@scotland.gsi.gov.uk