On the Fringe of Neolithic Europe: Excavation of a Chambered Cairn on the Holm of Papa Westray, Orkney


Anna Ritchie (ed)


chambered cairn, shrine, human burials, bones of sheep, vole and fish, radiocarbon dates

Holm of Papa Westray, Orkney, Scotland, UK




The stalled cairn of Holm of Papa Westray North (OR K 21) in the far north of Orkney was excavated in 1854 and 1982–3. It was preceded by a small cell in a round cairn, which was amalgamated within the rectangular cairn of the stalled chamber. The cell was filled and walled off within the life of the stalled chamber, and the latter, with its entrance passage, was similarly filled at the end of its use, with evidence of deliberate selection of organic material included in the filling, particularly limpet shells and red deer antler. The remains of a minimum of eight to nine human individuals were found within the tomb, and the remains of neonate lambs show that sheep had access to the stalled chamber before it was sealed. Plain bowls were associated with the chamber deposits and Grooved Ware and beaker with secondary structures outside the cairn. Radiocarbon dates indicate that the tomb was in use for burials during the period from about 3520 cal bc to about 2900 cal bc and thus was contemporary with both the
settlement at Knap of Howar in adjacent Papa Westray and the stalled cairn at Point of Cott in Westray. Stable carbon isotope and iodine analysis of teeth has demonstrated that the Neolithic sheep on the Holm were eating seaweed in the winter months, and isotope analysis of human bones indicates that the local population had a diet that included a small amount of marine protein. Vole remains exhibit the features that make the modern Orkney vole unique and thus confirm that this divergence from the European norm dates back to later Neolithic times. The fishbone assemblage indicates both otter and human activity within the chamber.

Canmore ID 3243


  • Front matter
    Anna Ritchie
  • Introduction
    Anna Ritchie
  • Part I
    The excavations
    Anna Ritchie
  • Part II
    Reports on artefacts and human and faunal remains
    Anna Ritchie, Audrey Henshall, David F Williams, Mary Harman, Frances Lee, Patrick Ashmore, Rick Schulting, Mike Richards, Marie Balasse, Anne Tresset, C C Wright, M Collins, Don Brothwell, M Shafer, Thomas Cucchi, R Barnett, J Searle, Keith Dobney, Monika Maleszka-Ritchie, Jennifer Harland, Rachel Parks
  • Appendix
    Anna Ritchie
  • References
    Anna Ritchie
  • Index
    Anna Ritchie


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January 19, 2024


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