Past & Present

Burial Traditions of the Time

Chambered Cairn Construction.jpg

Chambered Cairn Reconstruction Alan Braby

The first farmers who built this chambered cairn were following traditions that people across Britain held at the time. These impressive monuments were used for many centuries as burial vaults, with ceremonies being held outside. But these cairns were not just funerary mounds. They were carefully positioned in the landscape to highlight a community's rights to the area. Some were also designed so that the passage into the burial chamber would catch the sun at certain times of year, highlighting the links with the otherworld.

Archaeological work at undisturbed chambered cairns elsewhere, have revealed that not all members of a community were interred. It has also been found that there was probably a time lapse between death and burial. The dead in the tombs do not survive as complete skeletons. The skulls and long bones are the most commonly found remains. It is therefore thought that the bodies were taken into the chamber in various stages of decay, many being so skeletal that only the larger bones were gathered together for interment.

It seems that not everyone had the right to be interred in a community's chambered tomb. The bodies of those who were to be interred were apparently laid out to await their burial, away from marauding beasts. The body was kept until the time was judged to be appropriate but whether this was once or twice a year, or more frequently, is not known.

With due ceremony, the remains were taken into the chamber. A decorated clay pot, finely-made stone tool, or some food may also have been added to the confined space. Ancestors' bones were moved to accommodate the newly dead: in some instances skulls were placed in one area, long bones in another. There is also evidence that certain bones were occasionally removed so they could be in the floors or walls of new homes.

But the houses of the living are only rarely discovered. They must have been scattered along the west side of Harris, on the good land but now under the machair or under the sea. To date, the only known Neolithic settlement on Harris is that at Traigh na Cleabhaig near Taobh Tuath(Northton)which was excavated in the 1960s.

Chambered cairns were not used throughout prehistory. Between 5,000 and 4.500 years ago communities closed them off. The passages of some were filled with middens, others were sealed at their entrances. New beliefs and styles of burial, reflecting the power of the individual, were gradually being accepted.

By Jill Harden

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