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Tomb of the Eagles

Chambered Cairn


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.
moss Posted by moss
9th March 2011ce

Comments (6)

The Tomb of the Eagles has been identified as a site where excarnation took place. The bones having been sun bleached for some time. This defleshing process can be speeded up. There is a mildly distressing example of how this speeded up excarnation system works about 46 minutes into this episode of "Human Planet".

Funnily enough it is still birds of prey which are the key after the processing. The Tibetans call it a "sky burial". I never really had much truck with our ancient forebears leaving whole corpses around for long lengths of time till they rotted. I think they too might have speeded up the process.
Perhaps some of the "injury" marks could relate to the tools used in the process. The Tibetan guy uses a hand axe and some pointy, sharp-bladed knives. And he needs some whisky too. What a job.
Howburn Digger Posted by Howburn Digger
9th March 2011ce
Funnily enough I have just been reading about a sky burial in Nepal undertaken by the monks (Becoming Animal - David Abrams). The author witnessed one unintentionally, joined a party of monks who were happily drinking away, Abrams went up the hill for a pee, and on his way back noticed the disembowelled corpse of a woman, which of course the circling vultures were cleaning up. Reason for party, her soul was being commited to the relevant deity/....I know in Tibet the bones are also pounded to dust as well, which given the paucity of the soil on the mountains is the only way to get rid of bodies. So did those sea eagles deflesh as well at the tomb? tis a morbid subject but fascinating ;) moss Posted by moss
9th March 2011ce
The author of the above , David lawrence has pointed out that the evidence for excarnation at Isbister (mainly from Chesterman ) was flawed mainly due to the lack of colour fading and low scores for weathering . Graham Ritchie descrided Hedge's "Tomb of the Eagles " as "haute vulgarisation at it's best , coupled with archaeological sci fi " . What a terrible name , inappropriate too . Tomb of the lambs would be more fitting if you judge by the numbers of bones but that doesn't quite have the same tacky ring to it . tiompan Posted by tiompan
9th March 2011ce
I've just watched A History Of Britain part 3 and this had some very good views of the ceremonial macehead, from Knowth, in it. The feeling coming from that macehead, to me, is of smashing skulls in ceremonially. Perhaps a forensic pathologist might match the fracture patterns on one of the Tomb of the Eagles' skull fragments to a hard object, such as a similar mace. The population densities of raptors and corvids, in prehistoric Britain, would have been utterly different from today and it is impossible to say how long de-fleshing would take back in the day. Consequently assumptions of bone weathering may not be accurate. StoneGloves Posted by StoneGloves
9th March 2011ce
The ceremonial macehead from Knowth was finely worked and is exquisite, I find it hard to believe it was used as a weapon for smashing skulls given the amount of time and craftmanship needed to make it. Is there a reason why you think this was the case. tjj Posted by tjj
9th March 2011ce
β€œThe feeling coming from that macehead, to me, is of smashing skulls in ceremonially.”

I think you may be right SG. For what better way to be dispatched than by a mace head that symbolises your god of death... or whatever. See also the tumi sacrificial ceremonial knife, β€œ... used by some Inca and pre-Inca cultures in the Peruvian Coastal Region.”

Littlestone Posted by Littlestone
9th March 2011ce
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