Monday, January 05, 2015

"Tomb of the Eagles: Death and Life in a Stone Age Tribe," by John W. Hedges

Fascinated by Stonehenge? Enjoy fiction stories such as "Outlander," which incorporate the sense of magic radiating off structures built by human hands thousands of years ago? Or maybe your interest in standing stones and chambered tombs is more academic in nature? Anyone wanting to view archaeology of the Neolithic ("new" stone age) period should add the Orkney Islands to their bucket list of places to visit.

Orkney lies just north of the Scottish mainland, and is readily accessible by air or ferry. The largest island, somewhat confusingly known as "Mainland," is home to the densest collection of neolithic sites in the UK. A major grouping of chambered tombs, standing stones, and a 5,000 year-old village have been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site named the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney." A little further afield on the island of South Rondalsay -- connected to the island of Mainland by road -- lies a privately owned site called "Tomb of the Eagles," or the Isbister Cairn.

Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney, Scotland
Entrance to chamber of Tomb of the Eagles; lying on the cart saves crawling on hands and knees!

John Hedges' book, "Tomb of the Eagles," published in 1998, tells the story of the discovery and excavation of this remarkable site. Farmer Ronald Simison, first discovered the presence of a major Neolithic site on his land in 1958. Mr. Simison investigated enough to realize he had come across a chambered tomb -- one which had, at some point, been filled in with soil containing recognizable fragments of human bone. Digging out the fill revealed a cell containing human skulls.

A peak in numbers of [potentially destructive] visitors to the site prompted official archaeologists to work out a basic plan. Farmer Simison's excavations were refilled and left to wait until more detailed formal investigations could be undertaken. When more than 20 years went by with no sign of funding for an academic archaeological dig of the site, Mr. Simison decided to learn proper archaeological techniques and began work on the site himself.

Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney, Scotland
Tomb of the Eagles from behind the north hornwork. Standing stone in the background was erected in 2013 in memory of Ronald Simison and his wife Morgan
Mr. Simison's continued work and the exciting artifacts he found lit a fire under the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Ministry of Works to bump up priority of the site.

Arrangement of the bones and skulls in various parts of the tomb made it clear that intact bodies had not been placed there shortly after death. The condition of the bones, and the inclusion of animal bones -- particularly the sea eagles that were known to scavenge -- suggested a practice known as "excarnation." Excarnation consists of placing bodies of the deceased out in the open where scavenging animals and insects would have access to the flesh. Some time later, the remaining bones would then be gathered up and placed in the chambered tomb -- perhaps as part of a yearly or seasonal ceremony.
A recent report published by Historic Scotland, "Heart of Neolithic Orkney, WHS Research Strategy 2013-2018," mentions a number of studies, in progress or planned, on various Orkney sites. None specifically name Tomb of the Eagles. However, a brief summary mentions results of a taphonomy study (examining distribution and state of remains in the fossil record) conducted by Dr. Rebecca Crozier, on remains from two other Orkney chambered tombs. Her results have been taken to cast doubt on the practice of excarnation by early Orcadians -- although neither details nor alternative funerary practices are described in the summary.
Summaries of other new studies note the presence at Isbister of skulls exhibiting craniosynostosis (early fusion of cranial bones). If I recall correctly, I was told at the site museum that eight individuals were found with some form of that defect. The Historic Scotland report does not mention numbers of affected skulls or their proportion among the larger population.
As someone with a particular interest in normal and abnormal development, I was hoping that someone might have studied the skulls exhibiting craniosynostis. I'd like to know the frequency within the total population, and whether or not there is evidence for an inherited condition. Today, some type of craniosynostosis is reported to occur in about 1:2000. Perhaps the unusual skulls were particularly sought for inclusion with the entombed remains, and were not really present at an unusually high frequency in the local population.

Studies summarized in the Historic Scotland report have concluded that the total number of individuals represented in the tomb is only 85. As the tomb was in use for hundreds of years, this begs the question of where are the other bodies? It will be interesting to see how the archaeology progresses, and what theories are eventually supported concerning burial rites, population density, and so on.

But getting back to the book...  If you've been to Orkney and visited the tomb, or are planning a visit, or just have an interest in the Neolithic archaeology of the region, "Tomb of the Eagles" is a book I would recommend. There is plenty of detail of the history of how the site was developed, as well as description of what was found there and discussion in the light of other nearby sites. At the same time, it is aimed at a general audience, and you don't need a degree in Archaeology to find it readable and interesting.