An antiquarian for the people

On the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, there is a passage mound called the Tomb of the Eagles. It’s called this because several sea eagle talons were found inside along with the remains of over 300 people.

What makes this site distinct is the fact that it was excavated by a farmer who had waited 18 years for the officials to do it, and, after finding a passage in the law that allowed him to legally do it himself, he took matters into his own hands, seeking the advice of archaeologists who were excavating a nearby site.

What this means is that the visitors center is staffed with people who are personally involved with education, actively reading the newest research on Mesolithic people and sites. It is a labor of love for the farmer, Ronnie Simison and the guides in the center. They have done their best to make the cairn accessible– even providing wellies and waterproof coats and trousers if the weather is proving to be dismal, which it was when we visited. Also at the site of the tomb itself a skateboard and rope are provided for those who can’t or won’t crawl in.

tomb of the eagles

What I liked most about this place wasn’t just the ‘tomb’ itself, which was as breathtaking in its construction as the others we’d seen, but the trust put into the visitors to value and respect the site.

Me in the ‘tomb’ in rain gear provided (free) by the visitor centre.

While we were at the tomb there were a handful of other visitors, but no official tour guides. You get to experience the place without any official narrative, and you must make your way inside on your own terms. There were a few people who refused to go in (women who were dressed in high-heeled boots and expensive coats). When I crawled in I heard others behind me say, “She’s just crawling in there!” and not long after, others followed. There was something humbling and empowering about the site– situated on the wild, windy cliffs of the island– I felt a little of the eagle-character of those ancients rub off on me.

Most of the people crawling into the tomb that day were grey-haired women, and a few men they’d brought with them. How alien these women would have seemed to the people that built this place, most of whom would have been teenagers. I had this warm feeling for these hardy women who were willing to go into the darkness, and also for this archeological center, the vision of one generous farmer, where everyone is treated as a potential antiquarian.

On Your Knees, Pilgrim

Years ago I walked the labyrinth of Chartes. I didn’t go on my knees, which would have been the authentic way, but I wasn’t alone walking it. There was a woman on crutches behind me and I just thought that doing it on my knees would have been in bad taste. But before I belabor this too self-consciously, let me make my point– sometimes crawling is the only way to go.

The narrow passage of Wideford Hill.

Such is the case at the many portal “tombs” across the Orkneys, the most famous of which is the spectacular Maes Howe. Though archaeologists call these structures tombs, very few remains have been excavated from them– in some, none at all. The word “tomb” as been a reductive name for these structures that were more most probably sacred– perhaps calendar machines, astronomical observatories, or sites of shamanic seclusion. This argument has been put forth in the compelling and fantastical Uriel’s Machine. Like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, it is more wish than fact, but with so much prehistory, this is what we have to go on, and it is enough.

Now that Skara Brae (a stone-age, subterranean village) and Maes Howe are World Heritage Sites, tourists are herded in and jokes are made about The Flintstones and Vikings, who used the tombs as hide-outs, having a “lads night in”. These distinctly spiritual places are reduced to fun-facts and family entertainment. The official line is that these were, basically, stone age mausoleums. To the predominantly Christian world-view that currently describes these sites, the lives of these people who built these places resemble our own lives in the most narrow way, and their ideas of the cosmos are reduced to naive superstition.

carved_stone_objects_skara_brae.jpg

For instance, these are “stone things” found at Skara Brae. These are in a display case at the site. The viewer is not reminded of essential ideas here– that these were made by people who we have considered to be cavemen. And they were made without stone tools. These powerful objects and indeed verything about these sites argues that they are more mysterious and alien than what the official Scottish Heritage line will let on.

The chambered cairns were designed to be entered via a “creep” or narrow passageway in the earth. The womb analogy is inevitable here, though in all the writings on the subject I have read, only Julian Cope seems to notice this. And, with all due respect for his tireless work on increasing awareness of Neolithic pagan heritage, he sees Mama in everything.

This is the moody and charming Wideford Hill cairn. Unlike the other cairns we visited, this creep was too narrow to crawl through. One must climb in from the top, where the cairn was busted open durning (Victorian era?) excavation.

But for those visitors who are not content to be merely bussed to the major sites and herded around the perimeter, there are myriad cairns that can be explored on their own terms. Using an OS map, M and I were able to locate several, each with its own kind of darkness. Outside each cairn there is a wooden box containing a torch whose batteries are either dead or dying.

But it’s the ritual of crawling that gives the place meaning– knowing that everyone who entered (save the brutal Victorian archaeologists or Viking raiders who came in through the top) had to do it on all fours.

Here I am in the Fairy Knowe, or “tomb of a dog cult”– 24 dog skulls were found inside, but only 7 human skulls. This cairn was on Cuween Hill, just up the road from our cottage. The stone-age masonry– like at Maes Howe– is amazing. You can see it behind me. The creep of Fairy Knowe is 18 feet long– I scampered in and found the darkness warm– the shadows ocher colored. Inside was a feeling of safety, and wild information there for the taking, if one were to crawl further into one of the rooms. But I didn’t. You really have to be ready to do that, and I wasn’t.

But tomorrow…what happens when a farmer excavates a tomb himself? And what does this have to do with pensioners on skateboards?