Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Tomb of the Eagles

by Richard Denning

I was lucky enough to spend some of the summer of 2016 in the Highlands of Scotland and in the Orkney Islands. This was my first visit to the islands.

The Orkneys was home to the Royal Navy which , operating out of its wartime base of Scapa Flow emerged to fight the Battle of Jutland in WW1 and hunt down the Bismarck in WW2 and many other battles. The place is littered with memories of those days: echoes of the days when the British fleet ruled the waves.

But long before the British fleet came to the islands the Orkneys were already ancient with some of the earliest prehistoric sites predating the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Later the Picts built their Brochs here and later still the Vikings sailed forth from is harbours.

This is a land and waterways with a deep history and many mysteries. One of the sites I visited was the Tomb of the Eagles.

At the far south tip of South Ronaldsay is a windswept coastline of cliffs and grasslands dotted with farms. On one of this in 1958, farmer Ronald Simison was digging flagstones and came across the barrow - half buried under the grass. He initially conducted his own excavations but later the archaeologist John Hedges mounted a full study and named the place the tomb of the Eagles.

The tomb was dated to 3000BC. 16,000 human bones were found but also hundreds from the white-tailed sea eagle - hence the name. The eagles died c. 2450–2050 BC, up to 1,000 years after the building of the tomb.

The opening to the tomb is a low tunnel. To gain entry you must lie down on a skateboard like device and haul yourself in.

Once inside the roof is quite high so you can stand up.

There is one main chamber and a number of side chambers.

In one side chamber are skulls - but there are not original inhabitants.

They have been placed to give an ideas of what the place looked like, full of bones. Maybe the bodies were left out to decay or for the eagles to feast off and then the bare bones taken into the tomb.

Bronze Age Structure

It was a windy day when we visited as you can see from my attire!
The site has a second, later Bronze age structure which was also found by the same man. It seems to have been a stone hut. It contains a central water tank whose function is unknown, surrounded by low stone benches/ seating. A quite inventive plumbing arrangement brings water into a reservoir pool near the main tank. From there it is thought water was collected and poured into the main tank. There is a drain to take away the waste. Could this have been an ancient sauna or bath? Maybe it was a brewery or perhaps a laundry? No one knows.

I hope to bring you more of the Orkneys in other posts.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.

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