Incised Motifs in the Passage-Graves at Quoyness and Cuween, Orkney

By Bradley, Richard | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Incised Motifs in the Passage-Graves at Quoyness and Cuween, Orkney


Bradley, Richard, Antiquity


The archaeological record of Orkney is an unusually rich one, and never more so than in the Neolithic period. It is one of the very few areas in Europe in which settlements and tombs are well preserved. Both have been investigated to a high standard in recent years.

Despite the intensity of modern fieldwork in Orkney, some problems remain unresolved. One of these is the significance of megalithic art. This is well attested in the Boyne Valley, which was clearly in contact with the Northern Isles (Eogan 1992), yet no more than three of the chambered tombs, Holm of Papa Westray, Eday Manse and perhaps Pierowall, contain abstract decoration comparable with the art found at Irish sites (Davidson & Henshall 1989: 82-3). Instead, there are more decorated stones associated with the settlements [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. This is particularly true of Skara Brae (Shee Twohig 1981: 238-9), but it applies to Barnhouse and Pool as well (Ritchie 1995: chapter 4).

These decorated stones are very different from the classic forms taken by megalithic art. The designs are not pecked but scratched and are almost entirely angular. They have much in common with the decoration on the main ceramic style found during this period. This is known as Grooved Ware and may have originated in Orkney, before it was adopted in other parts of Britain and Ireland (MacSween 1992). Similar motifs were incised on a series of portable artefacts of the same date. A particularly striking example is the stone knife from Skara Brae recently discussed by Saville (1994).

The greatest of the passage-graves in Orkney is something of an exception, for at Maes Howe there are traces of incised angular motifs which are very similar to those on the house walls at Skara Brae. In this case there is some chronological evidence, as one of these motifs is overlain by a carving which can be dated to the Norse occupation of the islands (Ashmore 1986). Unfortunately, the date of Maes Howe is almost entirely conjectural (Renfrew 1979: 36-8), although the layout of the chamber recalls the organization of the houses in the nearby settlement at Barnhouse (Richards 1995). Like Skara Brae, this settlement is associated with Grooved Ware.

Two new discoveries in Orkney, both the result of chance observations by the writer during a visit in 1997, add further details to this outline [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The first was at Quoyness on the island of Sanday (Davidson & Henshall 1989:154-8). This passage-grave was originally examined in the 19th century and was most recently excavated by Childe (1952). One feature of his work was the investigation of a platform built against the exterior of the tomb. This was associated with sherds of Grooved Ware. Inside the monument there are two decorated stones. One of these is the lintel over the entrance to the southern side chamber, whilst the other is a smaller slab at a higher level in the same wall. Although the stones are very weathered, both retain traces of incised motifs. They have been scratched lightly into the surface of the stone in the same manner as the decoration at Skara Brae.

The motifs over the lintel are very fragmentary but seem to consist of arcs and angular motifs of the same type as those found in the settlements. Some of these may have formed a continuous frieze of zigzag lines against the lower edge of the lintel. They were created above and to the right of the entrance to the side chamber. To the left of this entrance there are two distinct arcs. The second decorated stone is located directly above a burial pit in the floor of the chamber; on its excavation in 1867 this contained a series of human long bones. The decoration seems to be similar to that found on the lintel, but it is better preserved and the motifs are considerably smaller. They were created by exactly the same technique and consist of several arcs and a series of pendant triangles. In each case, it appears that several attempts had been made to draw the lines correctly. …

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