Tomb of the Eagles

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Map of the Tomb of the Eagles

The Tomb of the Eagles, or Isbister Chambered Cairn, is a Neolithic chambered tomb located on a cliff edge at Isbister on South Ronaldsay in Orkney, Scotland. The site was discovered by Ronald Simison, a farmer, when digging flagstones in 1958; he conducted a limited excavation and removed some bones and skulls at that time but filled in the site with dirt. A more extensive excavation was started in 1976, and "an enormous amount of material was removed", according to a report published in 2002.[1]

Alerted by Simison, archaeologist John Hedges mounted a full study, prepared a technical report and wrote a popular book[2] that cemented the tomb's name.[3] The Archaeological Journal review of the Hedges book (Tomb of the eagles a window on Stone Age tribal Britain) provided a less than stellar rating: "reasonably well done", "but how very much better it might have been".[4]

Cairn, Tomb of the Eagles; 2017 photo

The findings[edit]

Inside the tomb

At the site, 16,000 human bones have been found, from at least 324 individuals, but no intact skeletons were discovered.[5] Mixed with the human bones were talons and bones from eight to 20 birds. Some believed that the eagle was a totem animal for the individuals entombed here, but subsequent research indicated that the bird artifacts were added at a later time.[6] These were identified as predominantly belonging to the white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). The original interpretation of the bird artifacts suggested a foundation deposit. That interpretation was subsequently challenged by new dating techniques. These reveal that the eagles died c. 2450–2050 BC, up to 1,000 years after the building of the tomb. This confirms growing evidence from other sites that the neolithic tombs of Orkney remained in use for many generations.[3]

Access tunnel trolley

According to a well documented research report, the builders of the tomb were capable of "sophisticated architectural design" and had "advanced engineering skills and an understanding of astronomy and mathematics"; the labourers had "exceptional talent, especially since it is assumed that only primitive tools were available". Radiocarbon dating suggests that the construction may have taken a full century. Archeologists believe that the tomb "was used regularly for 800 years, with the last burial around 1600 BC". Expert anaysis of the bones indicates that "these people experienced energetic lives of health, but also encountered many of the injuries and diseases that afflict contemporary society".[1] A later expert examination of the 85 skulls, however, indicated that at least 20% had sustained some type of violent injury, possibly from "wooden clubs and stone axes".[6]

Access the tomb is via a low tunnel 3 metres (9.8 ft) long. Visitors used to be able to lie flat on a wheeled trolley, and then stand up in the interior of the tomb. Due to regulations and restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the tomb closed in 2020 and the decision was later made for it to close permanently. It is no longer open to the public.

In popular media[edit]

In January 2017 the tomb was featured in the BBC Two archaeology series Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "AN EVALUATION OF THE HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS AND ARTIFACTS FOUND IN THE TOMB OF THE EAGLES ON THE ORKNEY ISLANDS". Creation Research Society. 1 September 2002. Retrieved 13 February 2021.
  2. ^ Hedges, John (1990). Tomb of the Eagles: Death and Life in a Stone Age Tribe. New Amsterdam Books. ISBN 0-941533-05-0.
  3. ^ a b Pitts, Mike (2006). "Flight of the eagles". British Archaeology (86: 6).
  4. ^ Book Reviews Isbister: A Chambered Tomb in Orkney By John W. Hedges
  6. ^ a b Heath, Julian (15 November 2019). Exploring Megalithic Europe: Amazing Sites to See for Yourself. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 176. ISBN 978-1538120910.
  7. ^ "Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, Episode 2". Retrieved 12 January 2017.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 58°44′42″N 2°55′01″W / 58.7449557°N 2.9168817°W / 58.7449557; -2.9168817