by Anna Ritchie
The tiny Holm of Papa Westray lies in the far north of the Orkney Islands on the Atlantic fringe of Neolithic Europe. It is home to two chambered cairns built as burial monuments around five thousand years ago. One of them is the subject of this book, excavated first in the nineteenth century and again in a more scientific manner in the 1980s, and it has shed surprising light on life, death and ritual in Neolithic times. A small shrine was built first and this was later incorporated into a regular burial chamber with stalled compartments, the whole enclosed within a rectangular stone cairn. Bones from at least eight or nine people were found within the tomb, and the remains of newborn lambs show that sheep had access to the stalled chamber before it was sealed as a final act. Analysis of the teeth of those sheep has shown that they lived largely on seaweed in the winter months, like the famous sheep of North Ronaldsay today, while vole remains exhibit the same features that make the modern Orkney vole unique and thus confirm that this divergence from the European norm dates back to Neolithic times. The use of this chambered cairn as contemporary with the farmstead of Knap of Howar in adjacent Papa Westray and may have acted as the burial place for that community.
The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland gratefully acknowledges funding towards the publication of this volume from the Binks Trust, the Robert Kiln Charitable Trust and Historic Scotland.