The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Tomb of the Eagles

One summer’s evening in 1958, farmer Ronnie Simison went looking for some stone to make corner posts for fencing. On a grassy mound near the cliffs he noticed that part of a wall had been exposed and he went over and pulled away some of the turf. In doing so he revealed more of the wall and discovered a wonderful cache of tools. There were three fine axe-heads, a mace head, a piece of oval limestone which was shaped ready to be fashioned into a knife, and a round button made from jet.

Aerial view of the Tomb of the Eagles. © Kathleen MacLeod.

Twenty years later, excavations revealed a Neolithic chambered tomb. The chamber is divided by pairs of upright slabs, creating five compartments. Three cells open from this main chamber and these were roofed over to a height of three feet.

When excavated, these cells contained human skulls and along the walls of the main chamber there was a mass of human bones, which appeared to lie in heaps. Each ‘heap’ had a skull with it, which might have suggested individual burials. However, analysis proved that these bones did not belong to one individual but to several.

There were over 16,000 pieces of human bone, which showed that at least 338 people had been buried there. It is thought that as these were disarticulated, the bodies may have been left to decay before the bones were gathered up and placed in the tomb. Analysis revealed that the ages ranged from foetal to around 50. There were also over 700 bird bones, which were identified as coming from white-tailed sea eagles, hence the name of the tomb.

The chambered tomb had been sealed with earth, charred fragments of pottery, midden material and stone before it was sealed for the last time. When this was removed the bones of at least an additional 11 people were recovered. Other finds included flint scrapers, beads made of shell and bone and domestic tools.

The structure was covered with an oval cairn and the original cache that had led to the discovery of the tomb was found to have been placed on the plinth at the base of the outer wall-face of the cairn.

Tomb of the Eagles. (c) SFLPS.

Outside the tomb a large number of bones from young animals were found. This suggested that the animals may have been led to the tomb and were slaughtered just outside it, perhaps as a sacrifice. Calf remains were found outside the tomb while the remains of lambs were found within.

Opposite the entrance to the tomb was a mound of broken pottery. The shards came from around 46 different pots, which looked as though they had been smashed before being left outside the cairn.

It is believed that the cairn was not built in one phase but was extended over its lifetime, which may have been as long as 100 years.