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HOWIES THAT August 26th 2004

Craw Howe to Mine Howe is a swathe of mounds, and I am reminded of a similar statement in the local paper about Skaill in Birsay when describing the excavation that ended at Snusgar last week. In which case I would like to nominate Sandy Howes as perhaps a site like the Castle of Snusgar; it is well back from the coast and most of the mounds in this region (including Mine Howe itself) are by contrast glacial moraines, simply consisting of rocks of earth.

As I have mentioned before, there are several intriguing depressions alongside the road to Deerness. I shall be using the distance "fp" between fence posts (2.4m) to approximate how wide the features are as seen from the road.
a ; HY49220707 The first of these is 4fp wide and lies several metres back from the road (unlike all the others, which are along just the other side of the field fences) in the field just along from the cottage behind which lies Craw Howe (HY491069 at least two mounds).
b ; HY49360700 Next field and 4.5fp wide. Behind Fairview, the next cottage on this side, we have The Five Hillocks tumuli (HY493067) in the big field.
c ; HY496067 Next field along again and the only one of these depressions on the map (the 1:25,000 but strangely not CANMAP). 5fp wide entered by a narrow track 2.5fp long which crosses the bank around the central depression.
d ; HY49990631 On the other side 6fp wide and the only one apparently bereft of stones. Most likely the southern end of Sandy Howes. These, which are only represented by a name on the map at HY498067, occupy the two fields coming up to the Brymire farmtrack.
The next field from the Brymire track is where I found cropmarks HY501061 and HY500060. Because they appeared rectangular I am reluctant to date these before the Viking period at the earliest though.
The field opposite the Swartabreck farmtrack is where the Brymer Mounds NGR is HY503060, though more than one field shows them. Here on top of a mound (HY503060) there is a standing stone alongside a derelict structure - I used to think this had been to do with a boundary, despite almost being 'on top of' the building, but am now more inclined to say the stone was there first by a long way and was later only just 'respected'.
Over by Swartbreck are yet more mounds or moraines going off into Stem Howe and its settlement. The plantation to one side hides Round Howe and then we're into Long Howe and Mine Howe, two glacial moraines adapted by man.

Coming to Mine Howe I finally took the tour.
Turned out the wedge excavated in an area between the ditch and the site huts (precision work by the farmer with a JCB) was a sounding that had shown up an o.g.s. slope that had at some stage been levelled off with midden - one day a dowser's rods had gone mental over the area where the bones and pot are now known to lie. Against the usual expectation the cattle were as big as a modern Charolais. He wondered how Iron Age Orcadians kept their beasts penned before wooden fences. Seeing that there are long straight ditches dividing fields all over these islands could it be that this is how the task was accomplished ? Not perfect however (unless they came up against the likes of Kirk Ness Dyke and the Burn of Langskaill).
Trench E is where the complete female burial turned up. This had been buried behind the ?rear wall of the main structure here, partway down under flagging. A rectangular object with six dimples is believed to be a template used in sheet-metal working. IIRC here was found what are normally referred to as 'Victorian doorknobs' and dismissed as intrusive. Only someone took a closer look at this one and discovered it to be the butt for a spear, perhaps used at the site for beating metal. New name for object is "Victorian doorknob spear butt"! The structure itself has almost definitely never stood higher than it does now, and was mostly used for working with copper and copper alloys. In the structure was a hearth and a small square pit that turned out to be a complete furnace, a rare find just as the burial is. A large piece of whalebone is thought to have been to absorb the impact of hammering on the more fragile pieces.
All the rough grass about the mound is there to let you see where the ditches were. The exposed ditch terminal that is to the left of trench E is all you see of Mine Howe most of the year. There's a nice bit of revetment near the bottom of which a large rectangular block of a distinctly different cast to the colour of the other stones sits near the 'centre line'. The narrow strip of grass to trench E is the line of the passage to Mine Howe itself, the ditch having served to control admittance to it.
Above this is the entrance to 'Mine Howe' itself. Still no-one knows quite what it is about. It has been said that because it is on a hill it cannot have been a well. And yet the well at Whitecleat (HY51110852) is also in a hillside, albeit constructed in a far simpler fashion. Being a limin some have suggested it was used for telling the future, either similarly to the way the Delphic oracle was used or through incubation as at the sleep temples of Asclepius. Or it might have been a place of human sacrifice, the victim being drowned as shown on the Gundestrup cauldron (a practice dedicated to Esus in Gaul). Because the only comparable structures are in Ireland it has been said important prisoners were held and/or disposed of here. Many theories, all unproven.
To the right of the entrance the bepinned object that I saw last time is proving very interesting. They are taking it down very carefully, a bit at a time, as despite the diminutive size this is a rare example of an Iron Age iron-smelting furnace.
On its right and down the slope is trench G. Part of this cuts the ditch, and lying against that was found a crude stone floor that perplexingly appears never to have had any walls itself. In one corner two structures like a figure-of-eight were excavated. The one nearest the corner consisted of a circle of slightly splayed erect slabs like an opening daisy that made me think of the stones downslope of the Long Howe cist. And in it was found a bairn's skeleton that took up little space. In order to be able to make sense of this the structure was removed. Unfortunately nothing more turned up there.

The guiding archaeologist told us a specialist had looked at the flint chippings from the Long Howe cist and discovered them to be Mesolithic ones re-used. This could mean that there had been a Mesolithic settlement in the vicinity. Alternatively I remembered that there is a flint-working site hard by Unstan chambered cairn. No pit had been found but a kind of slot had appeared. Alas by the time we got there after the tour this trench had been closed and all had been covered with earth. So no pictures today. Not that it mattered in the end, for when I went to photograph the depressions I found my roll of film done !

wideford Posted by wideford
27th August 2004ce

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