A stalled cairn with a difference
Orkney has an abundance of Neolithic burial monuments, dating from around 5,000 years ago. There are two main types. One type is the stalled cairn, characterised by a rectangular chamber divided by pairs of upright slabs into individual stalls, or compartments. The other type is the chambered tomb, where a high central chamber has small cells opening off it. Unstan is a stalled cairn, but one with a difference.
The tomb is reached from the east, via a narrow passage. Upright slabs divide the central rectangular chamber into five stalls. Very unusually, the central stall has a small cell off its west side.
When the tomb was excavated, piles of human bones were found in all five stalls, and two crouched skeletons in the side cell. Possibly the skeletons were the last to be interred in the tomb, in preparation for a later reallocation of their bones to the stalls.
Artefacts recovered from the tomb include leaf-shaped arrowheads and a fine flint tool. But most remarkable was a collection of pottery bowls, all of the same design.
Vessels of this type have subsequently been found in many Orcadian tombs, and the pottery is now called ‘Unstan Ware’. Did they contain food and drink? Were they buried as provisions for the afterlife – as tributes to ancestors, offerings to spirits or for another reason beyond our comprehension? Without any knowledge of Neolithic religion, we can only guess.
- The location – near the ceremonial centres at the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. The dead placed in the tomb had probably visited these places many times during their lives.
Region – Orkney
About 3.5m North East of Stromness on the A965. Reached via Orkney Ferries Ltd from Kirkwall, tel: 01856 872 044.
Grid reference - HY 283 117
Access available to chamber. For visitor information, telephone 01856 841815 (Skara Brae).