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Scottish Skeletons Unearthed in 5,000-Year-Old 'Incredibly Rare' Tomb on Remote Island

scottish skeletons unearthed tomb remote island

Nov. 14 2023, Published 9:03 a.m. ET

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Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 5,000-year-old tomb in one of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, containing 14 skeletons. reported that the exact location of the tomb, which dates back to 3000 B.C., had been a mystery for a long time.

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The tomb was discovered after a three-week excavation, which revealed a large cairn more about 50 feet in diameter containing a stone structure that can be accessed through a 23-foot-long passage.

"The surviving drystone walls revealed a large sub-rectangular stone chamber lay at the center of the cairn. This was surrounded by six smaller side cells that once had corbelled stone roofs," a National Museums Scotland blog post about the discovery reads.

Due to the shape of the remaining structure, the tomb has been classified as a "Maes Howe"-type passage grave, making it extremely rare. National Museums Scotland said that there are only 12 tombs of this type in Orkney, adding that they are considered the "pinnacle of Neolithic engineering in northern Britain."

Archaeologists discovered 14 skeletons of men, women, and children in one of the stone side cells of the ancient tomb, along with disarticulated remains.

Professor Vicki Cummings, the head of Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology, and Religion, said in a statement about the find: "The preservation of so many human remains in one part of the monument is amazing, especially since the stone has been mostly robbed for building material."

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"It is incredibly rare to find these tomb deposits, even in well-preserved chambered tombs and these remains will enable new insights into all aspects of these peoples’ lives," she added.

While most of these tombs exist in Oarkney as upstanding monuments, this one was buried beneath a pasture field. National Museums Scotland said in their blog post that it was largely destroyed in the late 18th or early 19th century to supply building stone for a nearby farmhouse.

"Further digging in the ruins by the farmer’s son in 1896 revealed traces of walling and located a stone macehead and ball, and eight skeletons. These discoveries were reported in The Orcadian by the local antiquary James Walls Cursiter, who speculated that the site was a ruined tomb," the blog post reads.

This report from 1896 prompted the current search for this tomb. Using anomalies revealed on a geophysical survey in 2021, the excavation team tried to pinpoint the location.

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"As soon as we took the turf off the top it was apparent that what we had was quite a big monument... In 1896, [the farmer and his son] had taken away some of the archaeological deposits, including a stone mace head and ball, but they weren't interested in the eight human remains they had found and reburied everything," said National Museums Scotland prehistory curator Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark said in a statement to Live Science.

In the official statement released by the Museum, Anderson-Whymark said, "Orkney is exceptionally rich in archaeology, but we never expected to find a tomb of this size in such a small-scale excavation."

"It’s incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record, but fortunately, just enough stonework has survived for us to be able to understand the size, form, and construction of this tomb," he added.


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