The latest four week archaeological excavation at Minehowe in Tankerness came to an end last week - but although it confirmed the extent and importance of metalworking around the enigmatic Iron Age site, it has again left the experts with as many questions as answers.
I am posting these field notes more as a warning to stay away rather than to encourage others to visit. The site is easy to find off the A960 and left onto Churchyard Road and park just outside the cemetery. The site has been closed for some time and the field it sits in is fenced off and the field gate double secured with rope and chain.
A quick look in all directions, over the fence, past the rotting visitors reception and discovered I could still gain access to the pit. The burial pit has deteriorated rapidly in the time it has been closed. The steps down into it are steep, wet, slime covered and slippery. The old handrail, you must go down backwards, is only secure for the first few feet, thereafter it has broken away from its mountings and dangles loosely and a fall from here to the bottom will result in certain injury. In my humble opinion the only safe way down is with a rope and someone anchoring it from the top of the pit, and not just because of the unsafe nature of the descent but because pure evil resides in this pit and as you go further into it you can feel yourself being engulfed by it, my torch was struggling to penetrate the blackness and the air thickened to the point I thought gravity had doubled in strength. I touched the bottom and could take no more and headed as quickly to the surface as safety would allow, all the while with a feeling that something was clawing at me trying to pull me back in
I stumbled into the daylight, almost jumped the fence and just drove until I recovered my composure. In my opinion something evil is down their and the cairn is closed for a good reason, I thought it was for safety, however, it is clearly for what resides down there.
The authorities should close this pit off, remove it from maps and records and agree that it is never re opened.
This was beyond doubt the most uncomfortable feeling I have experienced in my life and I never wish to again. I bitterly regret going down by myself and urge others to keep away..
We parked in the car park and myself and Dafydd walked into the cabin which acts as a ‘visitor centre’. There wasn’t much to see other than a series of press cuttings attached to notice boards and a small tray of ‘finds’. It certainly doesn’t have the ‘polish’ of the other Orkney sites you have to pay to visit. No guidebook here.
The girl behind the desk was pleasant enough but seemed rather bored.
We picked up our hard hats and headed across the field towards the burial chamber.
The first thing you come to is a fenced off dug out area which shows a section of the original ditch which surrounded the chamber, although this had started to become overgrown.
It is a bit of an eye opener to see how deep and wide these ditches were.
We then walked up to what looks like an old fashioned out-house but which in fact is the protected entranceway into the tomb.
The steps were wet and steep. Water dripped down through the stone passageway.
I have never been to a site like this before – it reminded me more of a cave than a burial chamber. It didn’t have the ‘finish’ of all the other Orkney sites I had visited.
There is a handrail to help you down the steps with strip lighting attached. It is easier to go down backwards.
Half way down the steps is a small side chamber on your right.
We worked our way down to the bottom where there is an extra deep step onto the bottom.
Looking up from the bottom it again reminded me of being in a cave.
Now Dafydd has been in many burial chambers in his 4 years and has always appeared ‘at home’ – however narrow, deep or dark they are.
For the first time ever he said to me ‘I don’t like it in here’ and wanted to get out.
We headed back up the steps and I took him back to the car.
I returned on my own to go down again – it is an odd feeling being alone in the chamber looking up the dark, wet narrow steps with only the sound of dripping water for company.
I remember watching a Time Team special when Tony Robinson was stood in exactly the same place and said he felt ‘uneasy’ and was quick to leave.
I can’t say I felt any ‘bad vibes’ but it did ‘feel’ different from other burial chambers I have visited.
I returned my hard hat and jumped over the gate to visit the Time Team reconstruction in the next field. It is fenced off so I guess they don’t actually want people to go inside – but there you go. There was certainly no one around to stop me!
The Time Team effort is about a quarter scale and is completely dry.
In fact this ‘tomb’ has a better finish to it than the rough and ready real one.
I would say Mine Howe is a ‘must see’ as it is so different to the other burial tombs on Orkney (or elsewhere for that matter).
There isn’t a massive amount to see and the whole site is a bit ‘rough and ready’ but worth a visit nonetheless.
The stonework on the vertical shaft is not unlike the well structures at Broch of Gurness and Hillock of Burroghston sites, providing footing through laterally protruding flattish rocks It could be that some of these shafts served a double purpose for their constructors of water supply and a hiding place.
Visited 3rd week September 2004. Spent a long time chatting with the 'officious-looking' woman ... in fact she is a relation of the original discoverer, and has very much comitted herself to the future of the site. (Recalls several visits to the Rollright Stones, also privately managed, and with a refressing lack of state care paraphenalia).
Had a good 20 minutes with a borrowed torch scouring the walls for graffiti or signs of stoneworking. There are some pecks along some of the steps, indicating they were purposfully shaped or split, and the bottom step seems to have a deliberately chosed ripple-marked slab. Didn't find a single scratch or significant step wear, almost as if the site had hardly been used.
The upper steps have toe-spaces, and are more like a stone step-ladder. The base of the chamber is a huge flat slab (bedrock?), but which perhapse could be inspected by careful excavation down one side, as it looks impossible to lift being a supporting structure for the walling.
The site is certainly un-burial chamber like, more a sort of souterrain? It has a feeling of industrial purposfulness - one would have expected more precisely-placed stonework if it were a tomb.
The 2005 excavations should provide more fascinating information.
Took the tour today and heard about work on trench G. In part of it they found a very crude stone floor against the ditch. In one corner they found a circular arrangement of upright slabs in which was a baby burial (made me think of the stones downslope of the Long Howe cist, except that is Bronze Age, merely a coincidence). They removed it to search for further structures but regretfully found none.
On August 10th I had arrived at Mine Howe as the diggers were coming back from lunch and finally saw in trench E the ovoid structure found at the end of last year's dig, the neat blocks of an arc of wall at the 'back' and a few upright slabs dividing the 'front'. This was mostly used for the working of copper and copper alloy, with a hearth and a rather small furnce, and may never have stood any higher. It is behind the wall, fairly high up, that the flags were found that lay over the female skeleton.
A new area of the dig alongside being opened up is a long wedge, several metres long and several feet deep at its far end, in which there were only a few stones as yet. I later found out that this was a sounding that had revealed a former slope between the Mine Howe ditch and the site huts which had been filled with a midden consisting of bones and pottery fragments. Carinated pot on the site has pushed the date back to the end of the Early Iron Age.
The next day, having taken my camera this time, they were still having their lunch in front of the site huts. As I headed towards the diggings an officious woman strode out of the custodian's office and demanded to know what I was doing. Orcadian I thought, but definitely not a native or a blender. So I explained that I wasn't going onto the excavation, merely taking photos. Did I have permission she asked. Do I need it I said. This stumped her. Re-phrased my query twice and still no answer. So I turned to the diggers and asked them (bellowed rather, I must admit !). Either they couldn't understand me or they were simply flummoxed. From my two seasons on a dig I do know that there isn't usually a problem with taking photos except that sometimes technically copyright belongs with the excavators. Finished sites under ownership may have such a policy but it will be prominently displayed. Took my pictures but felt they would have been better the previous day, somehow an incorrect perspective to represent the structure's features fully. When I went back on the open day Jane Downes informed me that photograph taking is allowed but I am not allowed to post them to the Web.
At the top of the mound, away from the exposed ditch, to the right of the Mine Howe 'entrance' and a little beyond the main current excavation, is a smaa digging where I see many little round white pegs in a low square box of stone that looks like a metalworking hearth from the deposits inside - this is another rarity for the site, a miniature iron smelting furnace. It is a very fine structure that I hope you will eventually see on The Orcadian and Orkneyjar sites.
Fine recording of the dig will basically come to a full stop on Thursday, with mostly clearing up the next day.
Head out to the airport and past it you will come to the Mine Howe site on the left. Little to be seen on the surface apart from where they have exposed a section of ditch, above which lies the entrance to the famous bit. Not recommended for those prone to bad backs if my experience is anything to go by. To get in you have to go down a steel ladder. It isn't as deep as the impression you will have gained from the literature - or maybe my spatial perceptions are awry. A good place for digital camera and flash. Mighty fine. If you don't fancy the climb down there is a truncated version close by on another hillock, less sense of adventure but only a few steps down to the floor. (Not much further along the Deerness Road, at a place where it narrows and there is sea on either side, you will find Dingieshowe Broch. And about the same in the opposite direction at Campston is Veltikelday Broch.
At the west end of Stem Howe, one section of the dogleg aligns with the findspot of several thick-bodied clay urns at Breck Farm (HY50NW13), clipping the corner of what is presently believed to be the site of the former chapel, and the other section directs itself to a point between Long Howe and Mine Howe. From Round Howe you look to Long Howe, continue through Mine Howe and you would come to Breck Farm. So I would posit the farm as the settlement to which the other sites 'belong' .
Minehowe is truly one of the gems in Orkney's archaeological crown. This is a very strange place and, whatever else you do, don't miss it when you're on Orkney.
The site was first discovered in 1946 but was quickly closed off to stop farm stock falling into it. Unfortunately, the 'many stone tools' discovered have disappeared along with any skeletal remains. It would be nice to think that these might turn up at some stage so that the site could be put into a firmer context.
Archaeologist Tom talking to Mick Aston on the Time Team episode about Mine Howe:
- So what do the local people think of this area then, Tom?
- Well I think it's always been considered as somewhere a bit special, a bit unusual.You've got [Mine Howe] here, this thing with this ditch around it which might pre-date it, you've got a medieval chapel over there, and you've got the burial ground as well and it's still in use. But people used to say that there were always things here, you know there were always stories related to this mound.
- What do you mean, things here?
- Well, they, um... back in the old days people believed in trows, which is the Orkney word for fairies...
- Fairies! (snort)
- Yeah they used to have a few ale houses on the way over to Durness and people used to have to stop and get tanked up before they could go past this place at night...
- Yeah? (incredulously)
- ... because they thought there was trows around.
- Because there were spirits about.
- mm and then when they got to Dingieshowe in Durness they would have to have a few more to go past that as well, because it was also believed to be an abode of trows. And there was actually a story about a fiddler that went into the mound of Dingieshowe and played for a night for a trow, and when he came out he discovered he'd been away for fourteen years! Everything had changed - apart from him, he was exactly the same.
- Is it not more to do with the local whiskey than anything else?
- Erm a bit of that probably as well the home brew, it certainly heightened the attention/tension.
Mine Howe most likely an antiquarian's translation as mami is from O.N. malmr 'metal ore'.
Presenting a 1946 RCAMS report on the trial excavations (in The Orkney Miscellany) Marwick gives Moan Howie as the local name, moan meaning 'marsh'.
Caroline Wickham-Jones today on Radio Orkney talked of the discovery of Mesolithic tools and a small cairn that had probable postholes beneath it, speculating on the possibility of a Mesolithic settlement hereabouts. Though the only place mentioned was Mine Howe the fact that a Bronze Age date for the postholes needed to be ruled out makes me wonder if this is not actually a reference to work on the cist at Long Howe. Caroline Wickham-Jones being a Mesolithic specialist looked forward to the prospect of a settlement of that date finally being found in Orkney (at one time people were assumed to have only arrived here in the Neolithic) and further geophysics will take place there in the coming weeks to obtain better definition on the various splodges previously 'seen', which could represent evidence for windbrakes etc.
Trying to find out why Round Howe is demoted to "pseudo-broch" I find archaeologist Nick Card in 2002 saying that so few artefacts had been retrieved from that season's excavation that it could be that objects from this had been deposited at Mine Howe, explaining why so many items by contrast turned up there.