Tomb of the Eagles gives up its dark and bloody secret at last
NEOLITHIC men, women and children buried in Orkney's internationally-famous Tomb of the Eagles suffered serious violence and possibly died of it, according to new research.
Archaeologists studied all 85 skulls from in and around the 5,000-year-old tomb and found that 16 of them have "clear evidence" of trauma.
The skulls - both male and female, children and adults - showed injuries caused by one or more blows to the head inflicted by a weapon.
Some of these severe head wounds healed, leaving people with painful head injuries.
But Orkney-based archaeologist David Lawrence, who led the investigation and revealed his preliminary findings yesterday, said it was very likely that many died of their injuries.
The findings go against the long-held belief that the people who lived in Scotland in the New Stone Age were peaceful farmers and the human race did not turn murderous and become warlike until later in pre-history.
Mr Lawrence undertook the research in a collaborative project between the University of Bradford and Orkney Museum, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
He said: "By checking if the wounds were healed or not, we can see if someone suffered from severe head trauma just around the time of their death. To say with absolute certainty if they actually died from it is very hard, but some attacks were so severe that the whole skull split in two.
"Other wounds are very subtle and are most easily observed inside the skull, where splinters have been bent inwards.
"Some were caused by a blunt force, like a stone or a mace. Other cases were caused by pointed objects, like a bone-headed arrow and there were also traumas caused by edged objects, like an axe.
"Some wounds did heal. There is a skull of a woman that has three healed wounds which were caused by blows from a blunt object. She also had a dislocated jaw which was badly healed. She must have suffered terribly"
The study's main finding - that Scotland's early settlers were not the friendly farmers that historians had thought them - is in line with recent results from studies and finds in Europe.
"For a long time it was thought Neolithic people were friendly farmers, but in recent years it has been proven that this was not necessarily the case," said Mr Lawrence. "My study shows this again, but this time on an apparently remote island."
Mr Lawrence is convinced that the people in the Tomb of the Eagles were not ritually killed.
He said: "There was a great variety in the places where people were hit and the instruments used. There is no simple pattern. This variety makes it very unlikely that they were killed in some kind of ritual.
"Some wounds are too directed to be an accident. Some went straight through the skull. Many were very likely caused by a mace, or even just stones, but certainly caused with intent. I think it is very likely that some of the head injuries were suffered during fights face to face. I can't say if they were fighting each other or different tribes.
"It is hard to tell who these particular people were, and why they were buried in this tomb. There is still a lot of carbon dating to do, but most of the bones seem to date from the fourth millennium BC."
Background: Farmer's grim discovery: 16,000 human bones and eagle talons
Isbister Chambered Cairn - better known as the Tomb of the Eagles - sits on the south-eastern tip of South Ronaldsay.
Alongside 16,000 human bones, 70 talons from the white-tailed sea eagle were found within it. It is believed the magnificent birds, once common in Orkney, might have been a totem of the people who built the tomb.
The tomb is 3.5m high and consists of a rectangular main chamber, divided into stalls and side cells. It was discovered in 1958 by farmer Ronnie Simison, while looking for stone to make corner posts for fencing.
After digging for ten minutes he found a dark hole and, using a cigarette lighter, he revealed a chamber containing skulls.
Posted by moss
9th March 2011ce