Visited on July 6th, finding the site greatly altered since our first visit in 2012. The tomb has seen no great changes.......just a large and thick sheet of fibreglass forming part of the roof, and a iron grille with padlock for security purposes.
The Skerries Bistro is now housed in a large modern steel building at the "front" of the site with adjoining visitor centre. Carol now handles the indoor, hands-on part of the visit, with Hamish showing you around the tomb structure (between bailing out water from the floor!) They continue to resist attempts of a "takeover" and thoughts of a raised false roof. No desire currently to excavate further any of the chambers.
Both Carol & Hamish are very open about the very blinkered approach of the local authorities which has strengthened their desire to leave well alone for the moment. A visit now costs £6 and the bistro fayre is even better!
The way to both totem tombs is now very well signed, but if you take your eye too long off the piece of road they mass at you'll hit a low bump. There is plenty of construction going on at Banks, where there will be a Tomb of the Otter visitor's centre to complement that for Ronnie's Tomb of the Eagles (have heard no news of Wedgie's survey of that landscape). Hamish has put a weatherproof cover over the present tomb entrance and will be installing a low-level lighting system to help folk. To the south you can see a wartime lookout station [watch your step going that way or you can walk around the coast from nearby Burwick], and here there are several small burial mounds with large stones exposed (Hamish can point out several pieces of interest to prehistorians above the tomb if you don't want to go that far) - unfortunately being with a part I did not get time for photos and the Burwick bus is only for ferry passengers.
Day 9 of my holiday and my first day on Orkney!
I couldn’t have picked a better place to start my ‘Grand Tour’.
We caught the morning ferry over from Gills (boy was it windy!) and we arrived at Banks late morning. As we pulled up in the car park a lady approached us and asked if we had come for a tour of the chambered cairn? – Which of course we had. Karen stayed in the car with Sophie while Dafydd and myself walked over to the tomb, along with Barbara our guide.
Barbara pulled the wooden board out of the way which was blocking the entrance to the tomb and the 3 of us climbed down backwards. Barbara gave us an overview of the tomb and explained that 3 of the chambers had not yet been excavated but would be this summer.
We then had time to have a look in the chambers which had been excavated. Barbara was excellent with Dafydd and was surprised by his knowledge of burial chambers!
She also said he was the first visitor to the tomb who could walk along the passage without needing to bend down! Dafydd insisted on helping Barbara with her torch.
We then vacated the tomb and were shown into the nearby wooden shed.
Here Barbara carefully took various finds out of a box for us to hold or look at. These included human and animal bones, an antler tool pick and the stones scratched with lines.
We were able to hold the antler tool, a knee bone and the stones but not the leg bone.
It was great to visit a site still under investigation and who knows what they will find when they resume the dig this summer? It only cost £5 for what was in affect a private tour and I have to say that Barbara was excellent with Dafydd – an absolute bargain.
Banks is clearly a ‘work in progress’ in terms of establishing itself as a visitor attraction and it feels a bit ‘rough and ready’ - although I think this only adds to the charm of a visit. I am sure in the future it will be as ‘polished’ as a visit to the nearby Tomb of the Eagles. It is nice to be able to say I visited the site before the ‘polish’ is applied!
This is a top notch place to visit and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Along with the Tomb of the Eagles this is a MUST SEE site on South Ronaldsay.
If you happen to read this Barbara, thanks for helping make our visit such a memorable one.
Thank you Hamish for another wonderful twa hours. A fortnight ago Orcadians went for free, but that weekend the weather was pish poor so I came now. Still a bargain - not much comes from a fiver in life nowadays and he has made vast improvements for folk, like new signage and a fresh tarmac-ed road for starters. In the near future Hamish is looking to have his farmland geofizzed for a day, but needs must he pays for it his sen. Apart from the passage in the tomb is now fully roofed (with contrasting slabs to show the differ). In the rotunda by the fishpond the feed from the tomb is now shown on a peedie widescreen monitor, the output being guidable to boot.
At the inner end of the passage you now have to kneel down and step down backwards - better for most than a trolley but you canna stand up straight once inside.Of course this tomb hasn't been excavated there completelyto the natural, so one day this stae of affairs might change. Since my previous, chance, visit the other chamber has been opened to the public and the one facin the passage too. There isn't much to see as yet of the new chamber he found (contrary to some archaeologists opinions) under the passage itself though it does go back aways, as revealed by penlight. I had had visions of sticking my digital under the lintel and revealing wonders, but at the moment entry is blocked by the original closure material with just mebbe an inch open directly under the lintel ! Of course some would object to poking in a fingerhole (oops, pardon my French, void) even with a camera. However the way one should look at it is photographic record is essential in case something changes before it is professionally looked at, mistakes are made in excavation and (in the present archaeological climate) promised weeks can turn into decades or even never. Unfortunately the completed roof does make the in situ markings less easy to have a proper gander out.
Luckily there are several fine examples of marked slabs in the rotunda exhibition. Here we were then shown some of the organic material recovered to date. Hamish was very pleased withe the deep interest shown in the skeletal remains shown by not only those with a general interest in physiology but also those of a professional bent such as surgeons and dentists. We were allowed to handle very healthy looking teeth and also less healthy bones that showied clear evidence of arthritis [?osteoporosis]. One tooth the size of a small pearl came from a toddler. As well as limbs we saw ribs and the kneebone of a ten or eleven year old. Intersting though these were best were the fragments of skulls, every one of them rather thin apart from a very thick piece that had protected the brain stem. Even so it looked overthick, like four heavy-duty homemade ashtrays welded together. Finally Hamish passed round pieces of shaped pot decorated in various ways. If I heard him correctly there are thought to be two different traditions present. Certainly there are also several kinds of decoration, both by stroke and impression. We agreed with him that the stand-out potsherd was one very dark piece, almost black, that appeared as if someone had made downward slashes with a knife point all the way around the rim - apparently this one is very much a mystery at present, perhaps ?? a one-off.
A long and lovely ride up hill and down dale into the South Parish. Before getting to the branch road there is the one that passes the post office where you need to go for the key to the church (along the road to Burwick) that now holds the Ladykirk Stone (a.k.a. St Magnus Boat) once in another now gone. This stone has two foot hollows. A sandstone block bearing the 'impression' of a right foot alone was found in St Andrew's in the area where you find Mine Howe [Stoney Howe], Round Howe and Long Howe so is likely to have been similarly in (St Ninian's) Chapel.
Going by road it is not difficult to miss the turn-off for the Tomb of The Eagles despite the direction marker. Should have one opposite the junction as well. Once on the right road you then need to make sure to take the correct piece for the Banks Bistro rather than that for Liddel/Liddle and the Isbister tomb. To the right of the final stretch I see a large conical mound, too large to have been missed before now and too clean-cut to be prehistoric (unlike CANMAP on the newer Canmore Mapping they do mark the Banks tomb). On leaving the bus the horizon presented several panoramas; long lines of cliff and Muckle Skerry with its lighthouse. Nearer to my left I saw a section of cliff lit up on the far side of a narrow inlet. At its far end the earth dips down and there is what I take for a mound though my photo only resembles two horns of stripped turf. Further away and near the horizon there is a wall of weather coming in across the waters to my right. The 'Tomb of The Otters' is slap bang by the customer car park. Only now do I find out none of my companions had realised about the tomb being here, they've come for the culinary experience after their walk. My gaffe. The weather arrives light summer rain. Decide it would be a good idea to check whether I can publish photos to the Net. A young lady passes me on to the finder, Hamish Mowatt, who guesses that I am Wideford but has no firm opinion in response to my question.
The mound is said to be low. It actually stands a couple of feet proud of the surrounding land, which is nae bad really. We decide that I shall concentrate on the recently restored chamber that first brought attention to the cairn - you can still see a circle above the top of the rock-cut rear wall where he frst peered in. Last year he found a long heavy slab buried alongside the damaged chamber. All that had been above ground had been a few inches of litch covered corner. On the edge facing into the ground Hamish found a host of markings made in antiquity. An attempt was made to downplay its relationship to the tomb itself - ah, that sacred phrase "in situ" is being applied way too restrictively here, because not only had the stone been buried alongside the disturbed chamber but it also slots into place to complete the capping in the chamber's restoration, not merely somewhere in the vicinity as "not in situ" implies. In April the owner and a Rousay mason affectionately known as Colin 'Bin Laden' followed Orcadian tradition and sensitively restored the damaged chamber. The stones added to complete the passage were keyed into the existing stones at two key points. To roof the chamber they put back the slab hit by the digger and placed the buried stone over the front of the chamber, where the way that it slotted in confirmed the original fit. In between was filled in by a new slab taken from the shore below. Altogether, even using the digger, it took two days to finish the job - from seven in the morning to seven in the evening of the first day and until four in the afternoon of the second day. The final result justifies the decision to ignore the archaeological authorities leave the capstone over the eastern chamber in place, giving the public a proper idea of how the tomb looked - the purpose of a capstone is to stop the whole falling apart. It is interesting to speculate about when the tomb was 'decommissioned' by the removal of that roofing slab, especially in relation to the otter incursions chronology.
The man's a gae good yarn teller, can tell you all kinds of stuff to do with the locality and his experience of the archaeologist in the field. Could have listened to him until the cows came home, as it were. Only the truth of it comes from him, though a visiting archaeological student will give good tours when he comes to work here. Hamish mentioned that he had more marked stones in a shed. Whilst he answered the phone I took my photos of this end of the tomb as agreed - unfortunately my foties of the chamber's actual insides weren't up to snuff, but the important ones were. When I moved away his work on the phone came to a close and he was gracious enough to show me the writings. The shed turned out to be a fair sized new wooden rotunda that acted as his peedie interpretation centre, with info around the walls and a camera feed to the chamber at the other end of the long axis. On a table in the middle are three stones full of promise. One is dominated visually by a single vee of large size and broad lines upside-down at the edge [from a larger slab I would hazard]. Some authority tried to claim that this sign owes its existence to contact with the digger, which is bull (as you can see by comparing its mark on the roofing slab with this, no comparison at all !). Indeed along the left channel you can see the individual tool marks made in gouging the channel in antiquity. Lines criss-cross other two stones, both singletons and simple sets. The next day I visited St Magnus Cathedral and noticed some of the blocks have thin straight lines of crystal inclusion gathered in similar groups, imitation using grooves the sincerest form of flattery possibly. If the vees are seen as chevrons it brings up the thorny question of which came first, scribed stones or decorated pot. Of course this assumes that all the 'inscriptions' are art rather than palaeoepigraphy [pre-writing].One of the stones seems to me to distantly foreshadow the Pictish symbol stone as it is more a geometrical shape than a split slab or found rock.
Next week Alice Roberts will be followed by 360 Production as they continue their behind the scenes look at "Digging for Britain". Perhaps Sigurd Towrie could use the opportunity to bring the story up to date from material gathered since his last report. Hamish Mowatt had been hoping to start up a webpage but a family death and pressure of work have meant that this has had to be put on the backburner, for this year at least. Though not wishing to be involved with material remains such as bones it is possible that he might eventually follow further in the steps of Ronnie Simison (though not alone) if he ends up in the same position - several times in the local papers from 1825 on I have come across reports where the excavator stated his intent to dig the next year or come back for a continuance, and then decades or even a century later still nothing has happened. Of course the modern reasoning is that these sites are being left to posterity and its advances rather than in reality lack of funding or the search for the next big/new site. He has learned about the different factions amongst the archaeologists, and having found that there are still digs in Orkney where finds are collared by those who did not find them now only has faith in ORCA and the County Archaeologist, like Ronnie having been disparaged by some who should know better.
Speaking of which I was surprised to learn that John Hedges is still renting a nearby cottage, over towards Liddle, as he further investigates the prehistoric landscape brought to light by Ronnie Simison. 'Wedgie' would love another major site to crown his life's work, after an hiatus due to debilitating illness, but apart from one eventually disappointing 'settlement' has been unlucky thus far. Apparently the great man has made many reports and such on his work at this time. However I must imagine this has been in the nature of what they call 'grey literature' as apart from a initial outline in "The Orcadian" things have been quiet [one would dread it going the same way as the digs at Skaill in Deerness]. We would love an interim 'work in progress' article in the paper guv.
Came time for lunch. Gourmet meals for £10.95 pretty as a picture and filling too. Half the price for a light meal, say £3.50 to a fiver. Had a toasted sandwich - they also do ordinary ones, paninis and baked tatties. Ignored the lovely sounding home made desserts and plumped for a clotted cream tea for four pounds fifty. Gosh it did me grand.
The Blide Trust were making enquiries about a fishing trip. Then on the skyline Hamish showed me the mounds Ronnie had investigated between here and the Tomb of The Eagles, and described one in particular, inviting me back to the neighbourhood to see more. I had to be virtually dragged away. Ah, if I had money or transport. Closest are four turf-covered mounds that may be natural. Next comes a group of six low stone cairns averaging 28 feet across and two high, with the largest a fraction over half as high again and forty-eight feet in diameter. These are now described as disturbed - in 1973 Ronnie had trenched two and it is easy to imagine him having gone on to the rest next. The NGR is given as ND46128326 but a 1997 survey gives this as ND460432 with additionally a possibly prehistoric mound at ND462833. Ronnie is known two have dug two mounds with drystane wall kerbs and the O.S. thought one might be linked by a causeway to yet another [double BA house ??]. Further along a probable animal pound (a term almost as useless for dating as "enclosure") had been formed by walling off the SW end of a promontory an area some sixty by forty metres, and has another kerbed cairn within (at ND46338323) that he was investigating at the time of the O.S. visit [is that what I saw on first alighting ?? Too big]. Underneath a cairn of more recent vintage grass covers a mound 2' high and about 8m diameter. There ws a double kerb found at the south around a body of stones with some earth, with small horizontal slabs between the twa kerbs - a trench at the SW, then unfinished, found two stones of purpose unknown but larger than the fill. The inner arc seemed to be drystane walling but the outer had been made from larger blocks, both being in courses. If you do go this way to the Tomb of The Eagles don't forget to go back by way of the burnt mound to the Simison's museum and cafe so you can pay the tomb's entrance fee. Fair do's.
Starting for Kirkwall the massively ugly tires at Burwick are offset for me by the sight of the grass dressed iron age fort (though you have to know where it is to see it).
Geometric designs have been found on several stones round about including one sticking out of the ground near the fifth chamber. Source this week's "The Orcadian". Hopefully Sigurd will be updating Orkneyjar soon [he is now busy as news editor].
This site was discovered in September 2010 by Hamish Mowatt of the Skeriies Bistro (hence early confusion over its whereabouts in South Ronaldsay) during work on his holiday homes at Banks. He found that one large flagstone to which no attention had been paid before covered a space in which a skull could be seen. It was soon realised that this was part of a chambered tomb that had suffered water ingress. Later reports added that this lay under a slight mound or ridge, partly removed by a JCB, that though much lower than that of the nearby Tomb of The Eagles would probably also have been seen from the sea. Not only had the tomb been built into the natural but it also started out as a rock-cut. Because this site is one of few found undisturbed in recent decades and it was feared material remains would deteriorate further under the standing water an emergency excavation was decided upon. This took place over two weeks October into November, though time was been lost to bad weather and nothing is yet known of the last few days [?abandoned as weather had worsened still further]. As a tomb entry lay through the short N/S leg of an L-shaped passage (a tee if you add the east chamber). There were five chambers altogether; one small cell off the north side, two small cells off the south side and two larger ones at either end of the long E/W section of the passage. The chambers used corbelled vaulting above courses of single stones. Many skeletal remains were found, chiefly skulls and fragments, but these as far as is known are all part of a final sealing of the tomb. This de-commissioning took place staccato over an extended period of time - basically slabs were placed over the cells, the human remains over these, and then further silty gray material completed the process.
With there being a possible boundary ditch south of the Tomb of the Eagles it is worth noting that an orthostatic slab south of the Banks Tomb is probably a boundary marker (RCAHMS NMRS record no. ND48SE 8 at ND459833, down as post-mediaeval though how they can be certain of one and not the other...). Also in the area Ronald Simison explored two out of six mounds at ND46128326 (ND48SE 4) both with kerbs and one apparently connected by a causeway to one of the others. He also found a kerb cairn at ND46338323 (ND48SE 3).