The Chambered Cairns of Caithness: An Inventory of the Structures and Their Contents

The Chambered Cairns of Caithness: An Inventory of the Structures and Their Contents

The Chambered Cairns of Caithness: An Inventory of the Structures and Their Contents

The Chambered Cairns of Caithness: An Inventory of the Structures and Their Contents

Excerpt

Caithness has received surprisingly little attention from prehistorians since the work of two outstanding scholars, Rhind and Anderson, in the middle of last century. This neglect contrasts strongly with Orkney where there has been continuous concentrated research, particularly into the neolithic period, and where a range of impressive monuments has been conserved and maintained for inspection. Yet Caithness and Orkney have so much in common that the two areas should be studied together. In Caithness there is as remarkable a concentration of neolithic chambered cairns as anywhere in the country, but at present it is difficult to recognise their variety and quality. Only three cairns are maintained in a condition that allows appreciation of their grandeur and some of their structural details, and a few others remain virtually intact and very impressive for their size and the visible hints of their structural complexity. Only five excavations have been undertaken this century, the publication of one of these pending at the time of writing. It is hoped that the following account of the seventy-four cairns which have been identified by the end of 1989 will allow a clearer assessment of this important group of passage-graves. But without further excavation our understanding of their architecture, their structural history, and their usage will remain very limited. These are matters of wide significance to neolithic studies, and the potential of the Caithness cairns has yet to be appreciated.

1.2) Nearly all the chambered cairns N of the Great Glen, including the Western and the Northern Isles, are passage-graves belonging to the Orkney- Cromarty tradition of tomb building, first defined by Piggott and discussed more fully by Henshall (Piggott 1954, 232-243; Henshall 1963, 45-120; 1972, 124-43). Within this tradition there is great variety in the plans and the appearance of the chambers, largely a response to the local geology and the consequent quality of the building stone. Most of the chambers are covered by round cairns, but some are covered by long cairns which derive from another tradition of funerary monument, and a few are covered by cairns of yet other shapes. In Caithness there is a relatively high proportion of long cairns, so this is a key area for studying the relationship of these two traditions. As far as Caithness is concerned, all long cairns have been included as potentially chambered cairns even when there is no indication of a chamber. A small number of chambered cairns in Orkney belong to another tomb-building tradition . . .

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