Chambered cairns are tombs which are characteristic of Neolithic times. They are stone-built and typically have a central chamber, one or more cells off the main chamber and an entry passage. Orkney has a large number of these "houses for the dead", many of which are very well preserved. These tombs were built by the Neolithic farmers with the oldest date being about 3200 BC, and continued in use for up to 800 years before final sealing. Many are very well preserved, and generally the building quality is very high.
Although there is a range of sizes and design, there are basically two types - The Orkney-Cromarty Group (OC) and the Maeshowe Group (MH). The former type is related to similar cairns in Caithness, while the Maeshowe type is unique to Orkney. In many ways these tombs are similar to the contemporary houses at Skara Brae and Knap of Howar, so that perhaps the "houses of the dead reflect the houses of "the living". Recent reassessment of radiocarbon dating suggests that the two pottery styles may be successive rather than comptemporary.
OC type, of which there are about sixty, is characterised by having
upright "stalls" set into the side walls, shelves at one or both ends
as well as sometimes along the sides and rounded corbelling for the
roofs. Low-roofed cells occasionally lead off the main chamber. The
pottery type found in these cairns is Unstan Ware. These are
wide, round bottomed pots, which may or may not be decorated, and
are also associated with the Knap of Howar in Papay, as well as Stonehall
MH type have rectangular chambers with high corbelled roofs and cells
which may also have high roofs, but which lack the upright stalls
of the OC type. They also tend to be built of larger stones, often
very massive and normally very well cut and fitted together. There
are only twelve examples of the unique structures. Where pottery was
present it was always Grooved Ware, which are flat bottomed
pots, and quite distinct from the Unstan type. This association is
Unfortunately most sites were cleared out in the past without the benefit of modern techniques. However several cairns were excavated recently and produced much data. The Maeshowe-type cairns at Quanterness (St Ola) and Howe (Stromness) and the Orkney-Cromarty type cairn at Isbister (South Ronaldsay) yielded large quantities of human and animal bones, artifacts and other material from which much has been deduced about the lives of the people buried there. At Pierowall (Westray) a probable Maeshowe-type cairn was discovered during quarrying, and yielded an intricately carved stone, now in Tankerness Museum, which has similarities to markings at Newgrange in Ireland.
The picture is of a hard life, with few people living longer than 30 years, and most dying before 25. Arthritis was common in adults, while mortality in childhood was high. Usage of the tombs lasted for several centuries, and in the two recent excavations partial remains of large numbers of individuals were buried, with up to 400 at each of Isbister and Quanterness. Some cairns, such as Maeshowe, contained no bones on excavation, whilst other earlier excavations failed to yield the detail of the recent work. The lack of bones and other artefacts in many instances may simply mean that the cairns were cleared out at some unknown time in the past.
In some cairns there appears to have been an association with animals, Sea Eagles at Isbister, Dogs at Burray and Cuween and sheep, cattle or deer at others. Whether these together with the many pot sherds also found are the remains of funeral feasts or offerings to the dead is an open question. It is interesting to note that nicknames for people from particular parishes and islands are still in common use. Some of these may be very ancient.
That the Neolithic people went to such lengths in housing their dead, in contrast to later times, suggests that ancestors were very important to them. While much has been discovered about the material aspects of these people's life, nothing has been revealed about the rituals and social aspects of their life except that the very large effort implied in the construction of these monuments suggests that the society was well organised and had resources beyond mere subsistence farming.
These are only a selection of the most accessible and best-preserved cairns.