A Chambered Mound: By M.M. Charleson Part 2

Published in Orcadian Papers (1905)

Location: Near Breckness, Stromness, Orkney

We concluded that the chamber brought to light did not exhaust so large a mound, although no trace of any passage which might lead to other chambers could be found. Accordingly we cut trenches at different points and were rewarded for our trouble by unearthing a wall which ran almost parallel with that on the west side of the chamber already discovered and which on being followed up to the north led to a recess similar to that which distinguished the north side of the other building, with this difference, that there was a depression in the angle leading to it, together with another in its east side, the former extending the full height of the wall and the latter having a lintel 6 inches from the floor; thereafter the wall trended to the west, south and east being broken on the south side by the entrance passage which together with the chamber itself and the lateral recess on the north side were afterwards cleared but without revealing any animal remains, relics or traces of a secondary floor; even the raising of what floor there was produced the same negative results.

Mound at Breckness

Chambers in the Mound at Breckness (Orcadian Papers)

We had now a chamber closely resembling the one already brought to light so closely indeed as to make the resemblance striking and it wanted only the addition in the second instance of  lateral recess and floor cavity to bring the two into the category of twins. The wall on the east side it may be said showed traces of convergence as well as the walls of the northerly recess which bore evidence of the action of fire. The wall on the west side like the corresponding one in the other chamber did not assume the beehive form, the converging portion no doubt having given way, while the wall on the south side fell away considerably from the perpendicular to the extent I should say of 45 degrees at the top.

As in other cases also the lower sections of the walls at several points were constructed of slabs set on edge a practice adopted evidently to economise labour, if not material. In length the chamber measured 8 feet, in breadth 9 feet and in greatest height about 4 feet while the entrance passage was 4 feet in length, from 1 1/2 to 2 feet in breadth which increased inwardly and fully 1 foot in height. The recess off the north side measured 3 1/2 feet in greatest length about 4 feet in width not including that of the depression which was 6 inches. The height of this recess as has been said corresponded with that of the adjacent wall.

The exterior wall facing the south was then exposed giving a frontage of fully 26 feet. It curved outwardly at the west end and at a distance of 7 feet from the eastern extremity it formed into a recess which with the assistance of projecting slabs had at the ends a width of 2 feet, the length being 4 1/2 feet and the height 2 feet. The section of the wall forming this recess converged and was indented in this length. Two other slabs 2 feet in height, 1 foot broad and 4 feet apart projected from the wall between the entrance to the chambers. There were four slabs projecting from the exterior wall the two in the middle being noted at the commencement of the excavation in 1900.

The whole area comprising the south side of the mound was next examined with interesting results, a low irregular wall somewhat circular in outline and with an opening in the middle being found to extend from a point about 6 feet from the west end of the front wall to within 9 feet of its centre, while within the enclosure thus formed about 3 feet from the front wall and almost parallel with it, were four large slabs set n edge and about 2 feet in height, there being a break of 3 feet between them opposite the entrance to the chamber last excavated.

From the easterly end of this line of slabs also two others of equal height extended outwardly towards the end of the circular wall already referred to, leaving a space 2 feet wide between the two. A little to the east of the enclosure referred to we unearthed a segment of a wall lying about north and south and 2 feet from the front wall of the structures while to the east of that again were 2 upright slabs in line with and 2 feet from the projecting slab forming the east end of the recess in the front wall. We found that the whole area was paved. In excavating the enclosure a fragment of rude pottery evidently part of a straight lipped vessel was found together with a rude implement of claystone measuring 12 1/2 inches in length about 3 inches broad and 1 1/2 inches thick: one end was truncated and the other bevelled from both sides and slightly rounded. The stones forming the floor of the inclosed area were lifted but no additional relics were found.

On the west side of the mound was a depression 2 1/2 feet by 1 1/2 feet with slabs forming the sides and ends but as it was opened sometime before I began the excavation I can give no account of it beyond recording its existence and the statement made to me that it had been a cist.

It will be seen from the foregoing description that although the chamber excavated bears some resemblance to those structures occasionally met with in Orkney which have been regarded as sepulchral and are distinguished by a dry built chamber in the beehive principle a passage leading to it and one or more lateral cells, the present group must I think be regarded as dwellings. There is an entire absence of human remains the bones found being those of animals including the skull of a dog. The relics although meagre are interesting and point clearly to human occupation but apart from this the features of the chambers themselves are such as to lead one to the same conclusion.

In the case of the chamber first excavated the recess of the east side might have been a well and in this connection I may say that on the occasion of a recent visit I observed  full of water, while that on the north side of this chamber to judge by the condition of the walls had evidently been used as a fireplace. The cavity in the floor also seems significant but the use to which it might have been put is not apparent. The other chamber also to judge by the traces of fire in its northerly recess had a fireplace. The entrance passages are low and narrow and one would think unsuitable for giving access to the chambers. No doubt they are so if we consider them in relation to the requirements of the present day.

One is at a loss what to make of the enclosure fronting the chambers, Had the outworks been complete a theory might have been suggested but unfortunately they suffered considerably from the operations referred to in the beginning of the paper.  As to the age of the structure we cannot even hazard a guess although from the presence of the stone implement they must be assigned to a remote period not it should be remembered because the implement is made of stone but because the type is an ancient one. The implement cannot be taken as giving an adequate idea of the culture of these mound dwellers nor can the pottery aid us in this matter. We must rather take the chambers themselves as the criterion and in doing so we come to the conclusion that although built on a definite plan with great uniformity and some ingenuity the civilisation of the builders was not of a high order but however this may be they were keenly alive to their personal safety the dwellings being constructed in such a way as to be easily defended from the inside while in selecting a site they took a care that they had a good view of the surrounding country and of the not far distant sea.


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