• Team @ Urras Nan Tursachan

Mysteries within the Calanais Chamber Tomb: Dr Alison Sheridan

We are delighted to be joined by our own Urras nan Tursachan board member, Dr Alison Sheridan as she sheds light on the chamber tomb found within the Standing Stones of Calanais.

Nestled inside magnificent Tursachan Chalanais is a small chamber tomb – a place where the dead were buried over four millennia ago. But why is it there? When was it built? And who was buried there?

Photo: Historic Environment Scotland

Thanks to excavations carried out for Historic Scotland (now known as Historic Environment Scotland) by Patrick Ashmore in May 1981, we can start to answer these questions. You can read the full excavation report in his on-line book, Calanais: survey and excavation 1977‒88.

Photo: Nachosan. Licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

Photo: The chamber tomb being excavated, May 1981. Photo: Patrick Ashmore, © Historic Environment Scotland

The tomb consists of a small chamber, built using four upright slabs of stone with drystone walling in between, and surrounded (originally covered) by a cairn that is bounded by a kerb. The chamber is linked to the outside of the cairn by a narrow passage that opens to the east, between two stones of the ring, and the back of the cairn abuts the tall stone at the centre of the ring. The chamber would originally have been roofed, probably with a capstone, and would have stood around a metre high.

Photo: Plan of the chamber tomb, showing its position within the stone circle. By Patrick Ashmore, © Historic Environment Scotland

The excavations showed that the monument had a complex history. The relationship between the cairn and the stone circle makes it clear that the circle, with its central stone, pre-dated the monument. In other words, the chamber tomb was inserted inside what would been a pre-existing sacred space. And the stone-built chamber was not the first structure to have been built inside the circle. Before it was built, there had been another chamber, built of wood, at the same location. The round inner end of the stone chamber seems to echo the shape of this earlier structure. And before that first chamber was built, people had brought in greenish clay from the surrounding area to create a level platform.

Clues as to when these episodes of monument construction occurred come from tiny sherds of pottery that were found in the clay and in the basal layers of the cairn. These are of a type known as Beaker pottery. This was a kind of pottery in widespread use in Europe around 2500 BC, and the pots found at Calanais are of the international style current at that time. Similar pots were being made as far away as France, the Netherlands and Germany. We know from DNA analysis of people buried with similar Beaker pots elsewhere in Scotland (for example at Sorisdale on Coll) that people were coming to Britain from the Continent around this time. They brought not only the Continental style of pottery with them, but several other novelties including metal artefacts and metalworking knowhow. We call this early period of Beaker use the ‘Chalcolithic’ period (around 2500‒2200 BC).

Examples of early, International-style Beaker pottery in use when the chamber tomb was built. Drawings by Marion O’Neil. From Patrick Ashmore’s excavation report; © Historic Environment Scotland

We know that the stone circle had been built around 3000 or 2900 BC, and so it would have been an ancient monument when the chamber tomb was built. While the pottery found here is of Continental style, the shape of the chamber tomb has nothing to do with the normal style of Beaker graves that we know from Britain and the Continent. Instead it harks back to the Early Neolithic passage tombs that had been built in the Western Isles around 3700 BC, some 1200 years earlier. It is by far the latest chamber tomb to be built in this part of Scotland. So perhaps the people who built it were taking advantage of a new fashion in pottery, showing off their cosmopolitan credentials, while underlining their links with the farmers who had lived on the island for many generations before them. They need not have been Continental immigrants.

As for who was buried there – and how many people were buried inside the monument – sadly, we shall never know, because the tomb has been disturbed at various periods, and the groundwater from the acid peat that covered it for millennia will have destroyed unburnt bone. But what we can say is that the tomb’s inhabitants will have been very important people indeed. Building a monument inside an ancient, sacred space – and effectively changing the way the monument would be thought about – was making quite a statement. And it may be that the rows and the avenue were added to the stone circle at this time, realigning the whole monument with the movement of the moon across the horizon during its ‘standstill’ period, every 18 or so years. By creating a ceremonial avenue up which people could progress towards Cnoc an Tursa, to view the moon, this focused attention on the area inside the circle – and on the person or people buried in the tomb there. As people gathered to celebrate the awesome natural phenomenon of the moon’s movement, they could not avoid going past the chamber tomb.

The full moon close to midsummer, skimming the horizon during its last ‘standstill’. Photo © Gerald Ponting[AS2]

The chamber tomb was the focus for other burial and ceremonial activity in the following few centuries. Some time around 2400/2300 BC, an enclosure was built immediately outside the circle, and more Beaker pottery was deposited.

Enclosure (arrowed) built outside the circle near the chamber tomb, and (right) large Beaker with cockle-shell impressions deposited when the enclosure was in use, probably around 2400/2300 BC. Plan: Patrick Ashmore, drawing: Marion O’Neil. © Historic Environment Scotland

Then, probably some time between 2150 and 1750 BC (during the Early Bronze Age), someone – almost certainly a man – was buried in a grave just outside the chamber tomb. The body was accompanied by a large Beaker and a set of six fine arrowheads – enough for a quiverful of arrows. At the same time, people were cultivating the land right up to the stones, growing cereals.

Beaker and arrowheads from the Early Bronze Age grave just outside the chamber tomb. © Historic Environment Scotland

After that, at some time between 2200 BC and 1700 BC, a large jar of a different style of pottery, known as a Food Vessel, was deposited on the cairn. Perhaps it had contained an offering, and was ritually smashed over the cairn. After that, things went quiet from around 1500 BC, and peat started to encroach on the area from around 900 BC.

The Food Vessel jar. The green dots show where the sherds of this pot were found, on and near the cairn. Drawing by Marion O’Neil; plan by Patrick Ashmore. © Historic Environment Scotland

Urras nan Tursachan (SC022483)

01851 621422

Calanais Visitor Centre, Calanais, Isle of Lewis HS2 9DY, UK

©2019 by Urras nan Tursachan