The Lost Fort
My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times
Big Ol’ Stones – Neolithic Burials in Northern Germany
I got some more old stones for you. There are several sites in northern Germany where you may come across curious settings of rather large boulders. Their presence has been blamed on giants or the devil, and they are often known as ‘giant’s bed’, ‘devil’s oven’ and such, complete with legends how the giant or devil got tricked by the nearby villagers and was buried there.
Neolithic stone settings Devil’s Oven (background left) and Giant’s Bed in the Everstorf Forest
Neither giants nor devils had anything to do with those, though. The picturesque collection of dolmen and hunebeds was the work of the Funnelbeaker people; most of them date to 3500-3000 BC. These ensemles of stone settings like dolmen, passage graves and hunebeds can be found from the Netherlands and the North German Lowlands to the Vistula in Poland, and in southern Scandiavia, mostly along the coasts. (The famous dolmen and menhir settings in Brittany belong to a different culture.)
Everstorf Forest, passage grave with surrounding wall (tomb no. 1/311)
Several of those settings heve been discovered in the Everstorf Forest near Grevesmühlen (some 20 kilometres west of Wismar at the Baltic Sea). There are 15 megalith graves in all, five in the southern and ten in the northern group. I visited the southern group which has fewer, but more spectacular examples. They have been excavated by Ewald Schuldt in the 1960ies. Most of them are listed in the Atlas der Megalithgräber Deutschlands by Ernst Sprockhoff, 1968, who also worked on researching those sites (I give the numbers of the tables in the forest and Sprockhoff).
Lancken-Granitz, dolmen with remains of hunebed (no. 1/504)
Some other examples are located near Lancken-Granitz on Rugia. I've added a few photos of those burials to the illustrations of this post. Of course, I got a lot more photos and some detailed information about the sites as well, but that is for another post. This one will be about the Funnelbeaker culture and the various types of Neolithic stone burials.
A great dolmen (Devil’s Oven in the Everstorf Forest; no. 2/312)
There are different types of stone settings at both sites: The dolmen (also referred to as Urdolmen ‒ original dolmen ‒ in German) which consists of three or more standing megaliths, sometimes worked to fit in height, with one or several horizontal capstones, called ‘tables’. For those, boulders with a flat shape were chosen. The Devil's Oven is a great dolmen, or portal tomb, with an antechamber and a main chamber. Polygonal variants with several chambers also exist.
Entrance to a passage grave (Everstorf no. 4/314)
The second example is a passage grave, a rectangular, circular or oval chamber with a roofed passage leading to it. Most examples in Germany are rectangular or trapezoid, the round cairn version like the – somewhat younger – Clava Cairns is more rare. Examples in the Everstorf Forest are the graves number 1 and 4; the boundaries were marked with smaller megaliths (see also below). Passage graves could have more than one chamber.
Hunebed with a stone cist burial chamber (Everstorf no. 3/313)
Another type of megalith tombs are the gallery graves. Those are rectangular chambers covered by mounds, like the British long barrows and the German stone cist (Steinkisten) burials. There is no passage leading to the tomb.
Overgrown remains of the stone cist in the hunebed (no. 3/313)
Today, only the stones of those various types of burials remain, but once the gaps had been filled in with daub or loam, or even drystone walls, thus creating a sort of cave.
There is a preference to an east-west alignment, but no connections with the solar cycle like in the Clava Cairns.
Hunebed setting with passage grave (Everstorf no. 1/311)
The so-called hunebed is a feature that may contain various types of tombs. Hunebeds are stone settings of smaller megaliths and sandstone slabs in combination – mostly rectangular or trapezoid, sometimes with rounded corners – surrounding an area of grass covered turf that is usually slightly domed. Those settings may contain a burial chamber of the stone cist type or passage grave, but sometimes they serve as markers without traces of a burial. It is possible that the remains of such burials have decayed if they were made of timber due to the acid soil in many northern German and Scandinavian locations.
Lancken-Granitz, side wall of the great dolmen no. 1/504
Usually, the tombs – except for the stone kerbs surrounding them – were covered by earth and/or gravel and a layer of grass, but those have either weathered away or were removed during excavations. Not all sites remain are in such a good shape as the examples above; one of the tombs in Everstorf South only survives in fragments. The remains belong to a former great dolmen.
Destroyed great dolmen (Everstorf no. 5/315
Many Neolithic burial sites have been used as quarry since the Middle Ages (stones from a devil's tomb could still make a good church, *grin*), or were destroyed because they got in the way of the agricultural expansion, esp. in the last century (the listed tombs in Rugia decreased from 236 in 1829 to 54 in the 1960ies, for example). Today, some 5,000 monuments are still known in the area occupied by the Funnelbeaker culture who erected those burials, but it is estimated that it once had been 500,000.
Collection of funnel beakers, Archaeological Museum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig
Let's have a look at the Funnelbeaker culture (German Trichterbecherkultur) that erected those impressive tombs. They are named for the characteristic shape of their pottery. The Funnelbeaker culture developed around 4300 BC when the hunter-gatherer societies north of a line along lower Elbe and middle Vistula – like the Ertebølle group – came in contact with farming and husbandry societies – like for example the Rössel culture – moving in from the south.
Neolithic House, Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen
The reconstruction follows the Rössen culture, but the houses of the Funnelbeakers weren't much different
The emerging Funnelbeaker culture adapted husbandry and farming as additional source of food, and developed a particular style of ceramic. The Funnelbeaker people kept sheep, cattle, pigs and goats, and grew primitve versions of wheat and barley. Hunting and fishing still played an important role. They traded in amber, flint and later in copper from Silesia, and invented the wheel. Their culture lasted until 2800 BC.
Neolithic House, interior (Oerlinghausen)
Their settlements concentrated in the coastal areas along the North Sea (Netherlands, north-west Germany, Denmark) and the Baltic Sea (southern Sweden, north-east Germany and Poland to the Vistula estuary). Most common were villages of several single family houses about 15 x 5 metres, made of timber and wattle-and-daub techniques. Later, longhouses of about 25 metres came into use as well. The villages were surrounded by palisades or wicker fences – not so much for defense, but rather as territorial marker.
Everstorf 4/314, closeup of the chamber with surrounding megaliths
Traces of villages have mostly been found near burial sites. Early Funnelbeaker burials continue the Ertebølle tradition of wooden chests covered by earthen mounds, sometimes marked with palisades or oaken beams. Those could accumulate into chambered cairns inside long barrows. The bodies were inhumated, usually lying flat on their back. Grave goods have been found, but they were not abundant. Flint tools and funnel beaker ware were most common, sometimes valuables like amber.
Everstorf, passage grave no. 1/311, with kerb megaliths in the foreground
Parallel to the earthen burials, the variants using stones developed and soon their use increased. Dolmen were the first to appear, sometimes within former sites of earthen barrows; then extended dolmen, gallery graves and passage graves, often with a kerb fence made of smaller megaliths and sandstone. Examples of crouched inhumation can be found in those. But often there is but an array of bones that don't make for complete skeleton; a puzzling finding (even taking into account that few bones remain due to the acidic soil of most locations) that has led to some doubts about calling those sites for tombs (see below).
Erratic boulders used to create a hunebed (Everstorf 1/311)
Why did megalith tombs become so popular with the Funnelbeakers? Well, we can thank the last Ice Age, the Weichselian Glaciation (Devensian in the UK, Winsconsin in the US), for that. It took place in several stages from 115,000 to 10,000 BC. During its maximum extent (57,000 – 15,000 BC), the Fenno-Scandian ice shield reached south into northern Germany, covering Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. When the glaciers receeded, they left behind an end moraine landscape, including lots of those lovely erratic boulders which later went into the Neolithic burials.
Everstorf, great dolmen Devil's Oven (2/312) seen from the side
Experiments have shown that the Funnelbeaker people used levers of wood, bone and stone, as well as artificially created inclined planes to ecstract and transport the boulders which often weigh 2-5 tons and more. Erecting a hunebed with dolmen the size found in the Everstorf Forest would have required 100 people to work ten hours a day for 3.5 months.
That would need the effort of an entire village and likely a larger group, maybe several villages. Since the ground was frozen in winter, it would remain only the time that was also needed for sowing and harvesting, so one can assume that it took longer, maybe more than one season, to erect the larger burials.
Lancken-Granitz, great dolmen (no. 2/503)
The function of those burials is still discussed. Since many of those burial sites could be reopenend and have obviously been accessed more than once (passage graves, great dolmen), it has been assumed that it might have been family burials. The disarray of the bones could be explained by depositioning older skeletons to lay out the recent body.
Another theory states that the visibility of the structures and the work involved in erecting them points at a function as tombs of important members of the society who may have been buried together with servants and/or spouses. Though that would not explain the mess of bones.
Everstorf, passage grave no. 1/311, megaliths covering the chamber
Recently, an older theory has gained interest again: The barrows could have served as ossuaries where the bones were deposed after they had decayed in some other place. Perhaps not all bones were used, skulls and the long bones of the legs dominate the finds.
There are traces of rituals involving the burials: In a number of cases fires have been lit at the entrance, sometimes even inside the tombs. Sometimes the grave goods have been ritually destroyed at the site. Therefore we can assume that the burial sites served a wider ceremonial purpose than merely interring the dead.
Flint tools, funnel beakers and more, Archaeological Museum Schloss Gottorf
Johannes Müller: Großsteingräber, Grabenwerke, Langhügel – Frühe Monumentalbauten Mitteleuropas. Darmstadt, 2017
Chris Fowler, Jan Harding, Daniela Hofman: The Oxford Handbook of Neolithic Europe. Oxford University Press, 2015
The Megalith-Seiten by Thomas Witzke, for the details about the Everstorf megaliths.
The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe on Orkney – Their Function in Iron Age Society
Brochs are quite frequent in northern Scotland; the remains of some 500 can be found on Orkney, Shetland, the western isles, and Caithness on the Scottish mainland down to the Great Glen. Further south, stone brochs are almost nonexistant. But few are as well preserved and impressive as the Broch of Gurness on the Orkney Mainland and Midhowe Broch on the island of Rousay.
Midhowe Broch with outer walls
The first essay about the brochs of Gurness and Midhowe will deal with the historical and socio-cultural context of the brochs, while further posts will have a closer look at the buildings themselves. Illustrations are from both brochs.
Broch of Gurness
The outer defense walls and dykes of Midhowe have partly collapsed or are bridged, but some local farmer found a new way to defend the building: The way leads some hundred metres across a meadow which had been freshly fertilised with slurry. I spent an hour cleaning my shoes in the evening. But it was worth some muck. Visiting its twin on the other side of the Eynhallow Sound, the Broch of Gurness, turned out to be less of an adventure.
Midhowe with the geo dyke in the foreground, seen from the south-east
Midhowe and Gurness are two of several brochs that once lined the shores of the Eynhallow Sound, but most of the others have been collapsed into heaps of stone, were slowly eroded by the sea, or are still buried under grass covered mounds.
Those brochs were built between 600 BC and 100 AD; the one of Midhowe dates to the later centuries BC, the Broch of Gurness to about 400 BC. They were in use at least until the first century AD, and may have been reused in the the 4th to 6th century AD.
Broch of Gurness, seen from the north-west
A broch is a circular drystone structure. The word derived from Old Norse borg which means 'fortification' (see also German Burg = castle). The same root can be found in the word ‘borough’.
The brochs developed out of the stone built roundhouses that were common in northern Scotland since the Bronze Age (in the south, roundhouses were mostly built of timber).
Midhowe, seen from the hill at the road
Those buildings were usually between five to ten metres high; sometimes even higher (the broch at Mousa on Shetland still rises to 13 metres). They usually have double walls with a staircase running inside the cleft to access the upper floors. The single entrance was a door on ground level, often with additional protections like double gates with a passage and guard chambers. Windows are seldom found, but the thatched roof had a louver.
Midhowe, the entrance
The interior of the ground floor level consisted of a central hearth (a feature already found in the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae) and a series of chambers along the wall which were partitioned off by stone slabs. Since the interior floors were made of timber, nothing remains to tell us the exact layout of the upper floors, but it seems that they were usually not partitioned. A smoke hole in the centre – which was also used to smoke meat and fish – went through all storeys.
The exact structure of the upper floors is still discussed since no timber features remained. In some cases, they may have been galleries overlooking the central hearth rather than complete storeys.
Gurness, the central hearth with some partitions in the background
It took architectural skills and engineering knowledge to erect those double walled structures. The base is wider to carry the weight of the stones, and the double walls not only offer space for a staircase, but were additionally stabilised by insertion of horizontal stone lintel slabs connecting both walls at intervals. That way, a broch could be built higher. The builders needed knowledge about stress and pressure of higher walls to achieve a balance. The roofs were thatched, probably in a domed layout to allow the water to run off. Stone was not used for those domes (other than in the – much lower– cairns).
Gurness, the double walls with lintel connections
The brochs across northern Scotland and the islands are built to a similar design. This has led to the theory of traveling master craftsmen who took up commissions for building brochs by chieftains who wanted a fashionable abode. This theory has recently been confirmed by Dr. Dimitris Theodossopolous, Lecturer of Architectural Technology and Conservation at the University of Edinbrugh, who specialises in broch architecture. Makes you wonder where they learned their craft and if there was some sort of centre, a school of broch building somewhere. As far as I could find out, there are no examples of less well built 'test' versions of brochs (like it is assumed for the Bent Pyramid).
Midhowe, additional buttresses along the collapsed wall
Sometimes broch walls did collapse, though. Midhowe is an example – it has been repaired by putting stone slabs against the wall as additional buttresses.
It had been assumed that there was an inherent weakness in the construction that led to damage during the use over time, but Dr. Theodossopolous thinks it more likely that the damage was caused by geological shifts. Coastal erosion can lead to a minimal siking of the rocks some distance inland, and such a small shift would be enough to lead to cracks in the drystone walls which would then widen with the inflow of rainwater and frost. He demonstrated the stability of a broch in a model where the collapse of a part of the wall only happened when he destabilised the basis.
Midhowe, interior of the broch with hearth
Today, the landscape of Orkney consists mostly of meadows, heather and some bogs, with almost no trees. But once the islands were covered by dense forests of hazel, birch and willow on the lower levels; the hills were covered by open woodlands, meadows and heath. Human activities and climate changes led to a significant decline in forests in the late Neolithic / Chalcolithic (3,500 BC) – which is the reason stone was used as building material in increasing amounts.
Typical Orkney landscape today
During the Bronze Age, the temperature dropped, while at the same time the rainfalls increased, which led to a spread of peat bogs and heath at the cost of farmland. By the middle of the Bronze Age, the fertile soil concentrated in the low parts of the islands, and by 600 BC, Orkney looked pretty much like today (except for the modern buildings), with the same wet and windy weather.
Midhowe, view to broch with outer walls in the foreground
It is assumed that the climate change and decrease of farmland led to a change in society and perhaps to a time of unrest as well, since the patches of fertile land were contested. We don’t know much about the structure of society at the time, but it is likely that the people were organised in tribes or clans, led by a chieftain. Weaponry – together with other items – changed from bronze to iron, which may have had an effect on society.
Gurness, outer walls and dyke
The question whether the brochs were defensive structures or monuments of some sort is still discussed.
Brochs would have stood out in the landscape as monuments, but there are defensive structures like additional outer walls and dykes as well. And the broch walls itself would have been almost impossible to break with the technology of the time. Another argument if favour of defenses are the elaborate entrances laid out to control who entered the broch. Though no broch shows traces of armed conflict, like a burnt layer or delibarate destruction.
Gurness, double gate entrance
On the other hand, space within a broch was limited, though the inhabitants of the surrounding villages (see below) may have been able to gather inside at need, if not their cattle. Not all brochs seem to have had wells or cisterns with access from inside the broch (though the existance of such a well is possible in Gurness), which would have made withstanding a prolongued siege difficult. Therefore, it is argued, brochs were more likely a status symbol of a ruling elite who could command the ressources to erect such a building.
A final answer may never be found, and maybe brochs could serve in both functions, as symbol and as final refuge in case of armed conflict.
Midhowe, guard cell in the entrance
Material finds in the brochs and surroundings show that the people of Iron Age Orkney were craftsmen working in stone and bone, bronze and later iron (a centre of iron forging was at Minehowe in Tankerness), and farmers and hunters. They kept cattle for milk and meat, as well as goats, pigs and hens. They also hunted, though venison was not a major part of their diet. Some grain, esp. barley, was grown, and fishing common along the coastlines and rivers. But cattle seems to have been their measure of wealth.
Orkney coastal landscape (view from the Brough of Birsay)
Trade routes – mostly by sea – extended to the rest of the British Isles and probably beyond to the coasts of Scandinavia and the continent. Among the items found in Midhowe (and some other sites like Minehowe) are artefacts of Roman origin, like terra sigillata and bronze fibulae. Paulus Orosius’ tale about Orcadian chieftains submitting to the Emperor Claudius in AD 43 (Historiae adversum paganos, written ca. 385-420, long after the events) can be discarded as source. The first direct contact with Romans may have taken place when Agricola’s fleet circumnavigated Scotland in AD 84. But those items were most likely obtained by trade with southern Britain.
Gurness, remains of the surrounding village
There are two different types of broch, those that stood alone, and those surrounded by viallges. The latter type is more frequent on Orkney; both Gurness and Midhowe have villages. The village surrounding the Broch of Gurness is a particularly extensive one. The village at Midhowe may have been built after the broch, but that is now questioned. In both cases, the villages are protected by additional outer walls.
The houses were partly built into the ground; they must have been pretty dark and crowded in winter. I could not find any information about the number of people who lived in those villages; maybe a realistic estimation proves impossible anyway.
Midhowe, house in the village
The development of centres like the broch and village systems points at a change in society from scattered farms to a more stratified society with a leader – likely a leading family – and dependent people who settled close to the broch. This cluster would offer better safety, but also allow the chieftain to draw upon the ressources of the people under his 'rule' or what it might be called. Building brochs would need many hands. Did their impressive size enhance the power only of the leader, or of the entire local society? We probably will never know.
Gurness, view out of the entrance to the village remains
We know little about the way those 'kernels of society' interacted. It has been suggested that there was some sort of high chief who held ruled over a group of broch leaders, but alternatively, the defensive structures of the broch and village complexes may have developed due to local feuds and / or as territorial claims, and a 'broch community' was the common unit. I think the latter is the more likely scenario.
The sea was an important part in life of Iron Age people of Orkney and northern Scotland, as the location of the brochs at the coast shows (also, that way they did not take up precious fertile soil further inland). We know that trade and fishing played a role; operations involving larger fleets have been discussed, but are not deemed likely.
Gurness, broch with village remains and outer walls in the foreground
Both Gurness and Midhowe were excavated in 1929/1930; Gurness by J.S. Richardson (who rarely left his base in Edingburgh to visit the site), Midhowe by G. Callander and Walter Grant. At that time, archaeologists were more interested in artefacts than in the construction of the brochs themselves. More excavations were done in the 1980ies, and research of the brochs is going on today, including modern methods like models and computer animations.
Gurness, view from village across the Eynhallow Sound towards Midhowe
The brochs were abandoned around AD 100. In some cases, the villages were re-used at a later time (for example the shamrock house at Gurness which dates to the 4th or 5th century and was built into the remains of the village, using the old stones). The last visitors who may have used the old settlements were the Vikings who left behind a grave at Gurness.
Often the old structures were later used as quarries, which contributed to the damage of brochs and villages. Over time, the villages filled with debris and earth and were grown over with grass, so that only the remains of the brochs are visible.
View to Midhowe (with the modern sea wall) from the distance
Noel Fojur: The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe – The official souvenir guide. Historic Scotland, 2008.
Essays on the Orkneyjar Website; essays on the Odyssey Website; summary of a lecture by Dr. Dimitris Theodossopolous held on June 12th, 2020, via The Caithness Broch Project.
A Bronze Age Cemetery – The Clava Cairns near Inverness
I visted the site in early summer 2013, a year before Claire Beauchamp-Randall stepped through a cleft stone into pre-Culloden Scotland, and brought a trail of visitors to the hence quite place. Back then, the Clava Cairns at Balnuaran, not far from the battlefield of Culloden, were a lovely spot, especially on a sunny day. Now the inrush of visitors – not all of them respectful to the ancient monuments, alas – has led to some damage of the site.
Clava Cairns – some standing stones and one of the cairns
The Clava Cairns consist of the remains of three cairns which are rather well preserved, with the walls still intact and only the domed roofs gone, and a number of standing stones. The stones are not as tall as those in the Ring of Brodgar, but they are placed in positions of astronomical importance. The cairns had been dated as Neolithic, but a survey by Prof. Richard Bradley in the 1990ies proved that there were constructed in the Bronze Age.
Cairns are mounds often erected over burials and sometimes serve as sort or markers. The ones at Balnuaran date to about 2000 BC, but some additions were made a thousand years later. There may have been two to four more cairns in the row at Balnuaran, all situated on a gravel terrace above the river Nairn. Excavations have shown that the area had been settled and farmed since 2500 BC at least; prior to the erection of the cairns.
Clava Cairns, seen from the south
The specific style of the Clava Cairns – which gave the name to this type – can be found mostly in Moray and around Inverness; there are about 50 of them. The ring of gravel and ashlar that forms the basis of the cairns is set in a double ring of large kerb stones. Some of these show cup and ring markings. Over the chamber, a domed roof was erected. Originally, the cairns were about 3 to 4 metres in height. Usually, a corbelled passage leads to the inner chamber, facing south-west towards the midwinter sunset. But the middle cairn in Balnuaran is a ring cairn without a passage; it has always remained unroofed.
Some of the stones
The cairns are surrounded by stone circles in 10-15 metres distance. The spacing between the stones is rather wide. The size of the megaliths increases towards the entrance of the passages, and stones of a redder hue were chosen, while the smallest exemplars are found on the opposite side of the cairns. The stones surrounding the middle ring cairn are of roughly the same size; some are connected to the cairn by a sort of paved stone 'rays'.
More standing stones
Burials of the Clava Cairn type contained but one or two bodies. Few bone remains have been found, an no complete skeleton. Considering the work it took to erect such a cairn, one can assume that those buried there were important members of the local society, some sort of chief or priest. Or maybe a priestess – not enough bones are left to tell. Despite the passages, it seems that no further burials were added in the years after the erection of the cairns. Maybe a visit to the dead or the possibility of the dead to spiritually join the living was part of some ceremonies.
North-east cairn with megalith in the foreground
The cemetery was resused around 1000 BC. Some new burials were placed outside the cairns; bone fragments were found to date those. A few smaller momuments (like the kerb ring) were added. We don't know if the site was used for burials in between, though it doesn't seem to have been the case. It is very likely, though, that the site played a role in ceremonies during that millenium and maybe beyond. The area had always been settled.
One of the stone circles
The way the cairns are arranged, with the passage entrances facing towards the sunset at winter solstice and the various henges surrounding them point at a use of the site for astronomic and ceremonial / spiritual purposes – both of which were often linked in Bronze Age cultures. The ring and cup marks on some of the stones inside and outside the cairns may also have had some ritual significance.
Now let's have a look at the individual cairns.
The north-eastern cairn
The so-called north-east cairn is a passage grave. The chamber itself was about 4 metres high and covered by a domed stone roof; the passage was covered as well, butit was so low that a human could not have stood upright. More like a crawl space.
The passage of the north-east cairn
The outer edge of the circular cairn is supported by a kerb of larger stones that keep the rubble from disintegrating. The use of sandstone of various hues of red and beige/white for the kerb once gave it a distinct pattern.
Interior of the north-east cairn
The inner floor was paved, and the inner walls also were supported by larger kerb stones, some of them with ring and cup marks (which are not well visible on my photos, alas). Most of those stones are still in place. I could not find any information whether the domed roof was supported by beams or constructed by a layer of skilfully placed flat stones. The latter is well possible, as the houses in Skara Brae show.
North-east cairn, view out of the passage
After a short time of use, a rubble platform was heaped up to cover the kerb ring and the entrance of the passage. On that platform, a scatter of seashells and cremated bones, as well as a number of lithic artifacts, have been found which points at a later re-use of the site after the passage and chamber were sealed.
The ring cairn
The central cairn is different from the other two. It is a ring cairn without a passage way which has always been open at the centre. The ring of gravel and ashlar was supported by kerb stones outside and inside; some of the outside stones are decorated with cup marks, and, like in the other cairns, they are of contrasting hues of sandstone. The outer kerb ring has been partly destroyed.
View to the ring cairn (left)
It is assumed that the ring cairn surrounded a funeral pyre, based on finds from the 1950ies which included some charred pieces of bone. The interior was once filled with a layer of rubble as high as the kerbs, but that has been removed during the 1950ies excavation.
Standing stones with the ring cairn in the background
The placement of the ring cairn is interesting. It is set off the line of the cairns as to allow an unobstructed view between them. The ring of stones surrounding it is today incomplete (as is the one around the south-west cairn; see below).
View from the ring cairn to the north-east cairn
The function of this unusual cairn within the setting of the Clava Cairns remains unexplained, but a connection to the other cairns exists by the pattern of the standing stones. A similar ring cairn has been found in Aberdeenshire.
The south-west cairn
The south-west cairn is another passage grave, almost identical to the north-east one. It too, seems to have been in use only for a short time before a platform of rubble was erected around the cairn, and the passage entrance blocked. A stone circle was set up as well.
South-west cairn, the passage
Two of those stones were removed in the 1870ies due to the construction of a road. At the time the trees now adorning the site were planted as well. The Victorians thought that those cairns and standing stones were pagan temples and wanted to recreated the vista of an ancient druid grove.
South-west cairn, interior
Some of the red sandstone boulders supporting the passage, as well as some stones in the outer kerb and the inner layer, are decoared with cup-marks. Some of those decorations face off towards the rubble filling and must have been carved before they were built into the cairn. It is possible that they belonged to an older building and have been reused.
Closeup of the stone layers
The first excavations at the site began as early as 1828; in the 1940ies, Prof. Alexander Thorn demonstrated that the alignment of the grave entrances points to the sunset at midwinter solstice. He also measured the standing stones and found out that the stone circles correspond to geometrical patterns like ovals and triangles and form a more complex overall pattern – which may have been of astronomical sigificance – than immediately visible.
Part of a ring of standing stones
The most excessive and important work was done by Richard Bradley in the 1990ies. Bradley concluded that the entire site was constructed during a single phase, though the place may have been in use prior to the erection of the cairns (and the cup and ring marked stones – or some of them – may have been integrated into the new structures). Interesting is the amount of quartz found near the caves. Bradley suggest that stones rich in quartz may once have formed the outer layer of the cairns and the stone platforms surrounding them, so that they would have sparkled in the sun.
One of the standing stones with a cairn in the background
It must have taken considerable effort to plan and erect those cairns and standing stones; surely a communal work directed by a chief or priest. That people were willing to take time off the farming and other daily routines to work on the site shows that it must have had an important function in the local Bronze Age society.
Cairn against the trees
The pattern of the Clava Cairns with the distinct use of kerb stones and outer platforms differs from cairns in other parts of Scotland and is restricted to the area around Inverness and Moray, though the type of the chambered passage cairn itself can be found everywhere in northern Britain and Ireland.
Cairn with surrounding stones
We can only guess the purpose of sites like the cairns at Balnuaran, but a religious significance is likely due to the connection with the dead and the sun. The situation of these specific cairns at the road along the Great Glen might also point at a use as gathering site for a larger group of people, maybe several clans or tribes in the highlands.
The river Nairn near the Clava Cairns
A visitor's guide to Balnuaran of Clava – a prehistoric cemetery, by Historic Scotland.
The site about the Clava Cairns on the Ancient History Encyclopedia (though I didn't elaborate on the more esoteric statements about caves and labyrinths being the navel of the earth and such mentioned on that page).
The Feature Page on Undiscovered Scotland.
'Claire's Stone' as featured in the Outlander series. Do not use for time travel. You might end up in the Bronze Age and be forced to carry one of those big boys to its final place. *grin*
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
This blog is non-commercial.
All texts and photos (if no other copyright is noted) are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
Anchor links lead to the respective sub-category in the sidebar
- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
(See here for Archives for mobile devices)
View my complete profile
- Belgium and France
- Great Britain
Mediaeval and Other Places
- Czech Republic
Hiking Tours and Cruises
- United Kingdom
- Baltic Sea
Traces of a Failed Conquest
Romans at Lippe and Ems
Roman Exhibitions, Haltern am See
Varus Statue, Haltern am See
Romans at the Weser
The Roman Camp at Hedemünden
The Limes and its Forts
The Cavalry Fort - Barracks
The Cohort castellum
The Annex Fort
Shrine of the Standards
Temples and Memorials
Mithras Altars in Germania
Romans at Rhine and Moselle
The Villa Rustica in Wachenheim
Baths and Toilets
at the Moselle
The Villa Urbana in Longuich
Augusta Treverorum (Trier)
The Aula Palatina
The Imperial Baths
The Porta Nigra
The Roman Bridge
From Settlement to Fortress
Colonia Ulpia Traiana (Xanten)
History of the Town
The Amphitheatre in Birten
The Temple of Isis and Mater Magna
Belgium and France
Atuatuca Tungrorum (Tongeren)
Roman Remains in Tongeren
Frontiers and Fortifications
The Hadrian's Wall
Building the Wall
Wall Forts - Banna (Birdoswald)
The Dark Age Timber Halls
Wall Forts - Segedunum (Wallsend)
Museum, Viewing Tower and Foundations
The Signal Station at Scarborough
Temples and Memorials
The Mithraeum of Brocolita
A Roman Memorial Stone
Bath in the Fortress
The Romans in Wales
Roman Forts - Isca (Caerleon)
The Baths in the Legionary Fort
Mediaeval and Other Places
- Abbeys and Churches
- Reconstructed Sites / Museums
Lion Benches in the Castle Square
St. Mary's Church, Introduction
St.Mary's Abbey - An Austere Archbishop
St.Mary's Abbey - Reformation to Reunion
The Chapter Church
The Cathedral: Architecture
Cathedral: Richard Lionheart in Speyer
Jewish Ritual Bath
The Old Harbour
The Gothic House
Collected Posts about Towns
Towns in Thuringia
The Double Castle
Role of the Castle in Thuringian History
Coburg Fortress (Bavaria)
The History of the Fortress
Ebersburg (Harz Mountains)
Power Base of the Thuringian Landgraves
The Marshals of Ebersburg
Otto of Northeim
Heinrich the Lion and Otto IV
The Next Generations
Hardenberg (Lower Saxony)
Hardenberg Castle Gardens
Harzburg (Harz Mountains)
The Harzburg and Otto IV
Hohnstein (Harz Mountains)
Origins of the Counts of Hohnstein
The Family Between Welfen and Staufen
A Time of Feuds (14th-15th century)
The Counts of Everstein
War and Decline
Plesse (Lower Saxony)
Rise and Fall of the Counts of Winzenburg
The Lords of Plesse
Architecture / Decline and Rediscovery
Regenstein (Harz Mountains)
The Time of Henry the Lion
Scharzfels (Harz Mountains)
A Virtual Tour
The History of the Castle
The Castle After the Restoration
Collected Posts about Castles
Castles in the Harz Mountains
Castles in Northern Hessia
Sababurg and Trendelburg
Castles in Lower Saxony
Adelebsen Castle: The Keep
Grubenhagen: A Border Castle
Hardeg Castle: The Great Hall
Salzderhelden: A Welfen Seat
Castles at the Weser
Bramburg: River Reivers
Krukenburg: Castle and Chapel
Castle Polle: An Everstein Seat
Castles in Thuringia
Altenstein at the Werra
Castle Normanstein: Introduction
Abbeys and Churches
The Early History
Remains of the Monastery
The Gospels of Heinrich the Lion
The Exterior Decorations
The Early History
The Interior of the Church
From Monastery to Museum
Collected Posts about Churches
Early Mediaeval Churches
Göllingen Monastery: Traces of Byzantine Architecture
Lorsch Abbey: The Carolingian Gate Hall
Churches in the Harz Mountains
Pöhlde Monastery: The Remaining Church
Steinkirche (Scharzfeld): Development of the Cave Church
Churches in Lower Saxony
Wiebrechtshausen: Nunnery and Ducal Burial
Churches at the Weser
Fredelsloh Chapter Church
Vernawahlshausen: Mediaeval Murals
Reconstructed Sites / Museums
Stone Settings and Tombs
Neolithic Burials in the Everstorf Forest and on Rugia
Palatine Seat Tilleda
Viking Settlement Haithabu
Haithabu and the Archaeological Museum Schleswig
The Nydam Ship
Open Air Museums
European Bread Museum, Ebergötzen
Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen
Historical Guns, Coburg Fortress
Vintage Car Museum, Wolfsburg
Roman and Medieaval Chester
The Abbey - Introduction
The Old Gaol
The Guild Hall
The Minster - Architecture
Monk Bar Gate and Richard III Museum
The Old Town
Along the Ouse River
Malcolm III and the First Battle of Alnwick
Henry II and William of Scotland
Edward I to Edward III
From the Conquest to King John
From Henry III to the Tudors
From the Romans to the Tudors
From the Civil War to the Present
Views from the Castle
The Wallace Monument
A Virtual Tour of the Castle
The Early Stewart Kings
Royal Dower House, and Decline
Guarding the Sound of Mull
An Ancient MacDougall Stronghold
The Wars of Independence
The Campbells Are Coming
Robert the Bruce and Stirling Castle
Abbeys and Churches
Arriving at Inchcolm
Other Historical Sites
Picts and Dalriatans
Dunadd Hill Fort
Brochs and Cairns
The Brochs of Gurness and Midhowe - Introduction
Ring of Brodgar
Castle and Coast
The Smallest House in Great Britain
The Historical Context
Master James of St.George
The Castle Kitchens
From the Romans to the Victorians
Beginnings unto Bigod
From Edward II to the Tudors
Civil War, Restoration, and Aftermath
The History of the Castle
King Edward's Buildings
The Pleasantest Spot in Wales
The Caves Under the Castle
The Fram Museum in Oslo
Castles and Fortresses
Arkershus Fortress in Oslo
Akershus at the Time of King Håkon V
Defending the North for Centuries
The Vasa Museum
Gnisvärd Ship Setting
Impressions from the The Neva River
The History of Mediaeval Tallinn
The History of Mediaeval Riga
The Curonian Spit
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Gdańsk / Danzig
The History of Mediaeval Gdańsk
Mediaeval and Renaissance Gdańsk
The Old Town
Jewish Kraków - Kazimierz and the Ghetto
Wrocław / Breslau
The Botanical Garden
The Wrocław Dwarfs
A Virtual Tour
From the First Castle to the Boner Family
Karlovy Vary / Karlsbad
Brief History of the Town
The Sedlec Ossuary
The Old Town
Roman and Mediaeval Remains
A Tour of the Town
A Tour of the Town
Hiking Tours and Cruises
The Baltic Sea Coast
The Flensburg Firth
Rugia - Jasmund Peninsula and Kap Arkona
Rugia - Seaside Ressort Binz
A Tour on the Wakenitz River
Harz National Park
Arboretum (Bad Grund)
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
Ilse Valley and Ilse's Rock
Views from Harz mountains
Nature Park Meissner-Kaufunger Wald
Nature Park Solling-Vogler
Forest Pasture - Hutewald Project
The Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Nature Park Reinhardswald
The Old Forest at the Sababurg
Oberderdorla and Hainich National Park
Rivers and Lakes
The Danube in Spring
A Rainy Rhine Cruise
Vineyards at Saale and Unstrut
Weser River Ferry
Harz Falcon Park
Ozeaneum Stralsund: The Baltic Sea Life
Ozeaneum Stralsund: The North Sea Life
Spring in the Botanical Garden Göttingen
Spring at the 'Kiessee' Lake
Spring in the Rossbach Heath (Meissner)
Memories of Summer
Summer Hiking Tours 2016
Autumn in the Meissner
Autumn at Werra and Weser
Winter at the 'Kiessee' Lake
Winter Wonderland - Views from my Balcony
Mountains and Valleys
West Highland Railway
The East Coast
By Ferry to Newcastle
Highland Mountains - Inverness to John o'Groats
Some Photos from the East Coast
Scottish Sea Shores
Crossing to Mull
Mull - Craignure to Fionnphort
Castles Seen from Afar (Dunollie and Kilchurn)
Summer Days in Oban
Summer Nights in Oban
Wild Wales - With Castles
Views of Snowdownia
Views from Castle Battlements
-Tour / Norway
A Voyage into Winter
Along the Coast of Norway - Light and Darkness
Along the Coast of Norway - North of the Polar Circle
Norway by Train
From Oslo to Bergen
From Trondheim to Oslo
Dog Sledding With Huskies
Eagles and Gulls in the Trollfjord
The Baltic Sea
A Baltic Sea Cruise
The Curonian Spit in Lithuania
Beaches at the Curonian Spit
Geology of the Curonian Spit