Tombs of the Isles: Community Archaeology Project for Orkney’s North Isles

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology has been commissioned by the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme to undertake the Neolithic Landscapes of the Dead project, exploring the tombs of the isles.

Decorated internal stone Holm of Papa Westray. Credit: Antonia Thomas

Decorated internal stone Holm of Papa Westray. Credit: Antonia Thomas

The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) based at Orkney College has received a grant from the North Isles Landscape Partnership scheme (NILPS) to undertake the Neolithic Landscape of the Dead project during 2020-2022.

An activities programme of research, walks, archaeological fieldwork and schools activities will investigate some of the most iconic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney as well as bring the lesser known sites into the spot light – telling the stories of island tombs.

The project will also create new 3D models, interpretation, research archives and a new ‘tombs trail’. The trail will allow islanders and tourists to explore Neolithic sites in the North Isles.

Few can doubt the importance of archaeology and heritage to the community and economy of Orkney and the Neolithic sits at the heart of the imagination and identity of the islands.

Beginning some 5500 years ago and spanning a staggering 2500 years, the Neolithic was when people first farmed the land, grew crops, made pottery and adopted new forms of objects such as polished axes and maceheads.

The Neolithic was also a time when people’s relationship with the dead and their ancestors changed. People were buried communally in tombs, where bones and other offerings were jumbled together into one ancestral place.

In Orkney, there are over 80 stone-built tombs of various architectural styles – ‘Maes Howe’, ‘Stalled’ and ‘Bookan’ types – with over 50 of these located in the North Isles.

Mid Howe Tomb, Rousay. Credit: Dan Lee

Mid Howe Tomb, Rousay. Credit: Dan Lee

The tombs project will support islanders to explore and tell the stories of this remarkable group of tombs in the islands, and the secrets they may hold, which can play a part in supporting island communities now and into the future.

If you live in the North Isles of Orkney and would like to get involved in the project or find out more, please email:

Dan Lee (ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist) said:

“We are really looking forward to working with islanders to celebrate the amazing Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney, and bring some of these less-explored sites into focus. Who knows what new stories they can tell?”

Quoyness Tomb, Sanday. Credit: Antonia Thomas.

Quoyness Tomb, Sanday. Credit: Antonia Thomas.

Andy Golightly Programme Manager said:

”This is a really good opportunity for people living in the North Isles, to work with Orkney College to learn more about the unique tombs on their Isles and possibly gain new skills and experience. Having the information produced, displayed and available locally will also benefit visitors to the Isles, opening up more of the Isles history to a wider audience.”

More information on this project can be found at:

Rousay B Bell

Inside Midhowe Cairn Rousay (B Bell)

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6 replies »

  1. The main sites get a lot of attention – maybe the small ones would like some acknowledgement from and connection with people again, too?

    Here are some, previously written about in TON………………

    A landscape of death, is also a landscape of life, and – as Colin Richards pointed out – the tombs – live!

    All things have life

    A building is seen as in-animate
    Stone and wood
    Yet stone has music in it
    and wood still lives
    Though cut.
    Then we live in it
    and breathe our life into it too.
    I don’t see a building as in-animate
    Do you?


    PS Antonia’s picture of Quoyness, Sanday, is a stunner!

  2. Loving this. Is this a relatively quiet time to come? I live in London and having been waiting for the right time to visit and am known for my great love of tourists (not!)

    • The busy times are from June, July, August. The northern isles of Orkney where this project is taking place get fewer visitors as cruise ships don’t go there

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