The Unstan, or Onston, cairn sits
on a small grassy promontory jutting out into the salty water of
the Stenness loch.
From cairn, the Ring of Brodgar and Salt Knowe
are clearly visible, across the loch to the north-east, and the Deepdale
monolith is silhouetted against the western horizon.
From the outside, the structure is
not unlike a smaller version of Maeshowe
- a grassy mound. Inside, however, we find architecture
distinct from Orkney's Maeshowe-type tombs, but sharing some
The Unstan cairn is a classic example
of the danger of categorising.
It fits neither in the Maeshowe-style
of chambered tomb, or the Orkney-Cromarty design, but is instead
a hybrid, incorporating elements of both styles.
Inside, large slabs of Orkney flagstone
divide up the main chamber into stalls - a feature typical of many
of Orkney's stalled cairns. However, unlike most of these stalled cairns, which
tend to be oblong or rectangular, Unstan is circular.
Not only does the circular shape
echo the design of Maeshowe, but Unstan also has a side chamber
typical of those found within the Maeshowe-type structures.
Because the roof of Unstan is modern,
a concrete construction added after the site was taken into State
care in 1934, a skylight gives the interior a bright
and airy feel. A welcome change for those fed up of scrambling, torch in hand, around
the inside of these Neolithic tombs.
The 7.8 metre (25.6 ft) entrance
passage is low and narrow. Once inside, the visitor is faced with
the side-cell opening, set in the wall directly opposite the entrance.
During the 1884 excavations, two crouched skeletons were found within
The main chamber is 8.4 metres (27.6
ft) long and split into five sections by vertical flagstone slabs
- three central stalls and two shelved end-compartments.
excavated, among the considerable amounts of bone found throughout, were several crouched skeletons.
As mentioned above, two of these
were found in the side cell, the rest in the main compartment.
The crouched burials differ greatly
from common Neolithic burial practice, in which the remains
were brought into the tomb already stripped of flesh. The bones
were not necessarily kept together but were mixed and rearranged
among those of the tribe's ancestors.
As such, Unstan's crouched skeletons
may represent burials made at a later period - probably the last
of the inhumations made in the tomb.
Along with the human and animal bones,
an unusually large quantity of pottery was found scattered across
the floor of the tomb. The fragments came from at least 30 Neolithic
bowls, the distinct shape and decoration of which was identical
to that found at the Knap o' Howar on Papay.
The sheer quantity of these Neolithic
bowls found led to this specific style being named after the tomb.
It is now known as Unstan Ware.
Unstan Ware was used at settlements
such as the Knap o' Howar and
was round-bottomed with linear decoration below the rim.
Carvings or 19th century graffiti?
Like Maeshowe, Unstan appears to have been visited
at some time in the past by Norsemen. If they are not later "fakes" - the carved twig runes can
still just be seen on the stone that is now set above the entrance
to the side cell.
Beside the faint runes is a deeply-cut carving of a bird, pictured above. Although a piece of carved grafitti identifies this as "Pictish marks" the age of the carving is not known.