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  The Knowes of Trotty

The Knowes of Trotty is one of the biggest Bronze Age cemeteries between Orkney and southern England.

Found at Huntiscarth, in the parish of Harray, at the foot of the western slope of the Ward o' Redland, the Knowes make up one of Orkney's earliest groups of Bronze Age barrows and were in use from approximately 2000BC-1600BC.

The site is made up of a series of 16 barrows - earthen mounds, erected over individual burials - arranged in two rows.

The mounds have suffered badly from erosion, caused not only by Orkney's notorious weather, but also local wildlife - in particular rabbits.

The Knowes

Geophysics work in 2001 confirmed that the site once contained at least two more mounds, and, at one time, was probably made up of 20 barrows.

An excavation of the primary barrow, in 2005, revealed that it would once have appeared quite striking in the landscape.

The barrow was made up of a stone burial cist, flanked on both sides by two upright stones. It had then been surrounded by a stone "cairn", which was in turn covered in earth.

The barrow itself had been built into the top of a natural mound, possibly to enhance the visual effect, the base of which had been sculpted and revetted to suit the builders.

So, in its day, the barrow would have appeared as a conical mound on top of a stone-clad earthen platform.

The two "standing" stones inside the barrow are intriguing as there are, as yet, no parallels in Orkney's archaeology, and they don't appear to have been structurally necessary. Instead, they may have had some symbolic purpose.

The positioning of the twin stones bears a marked resemblance to the uprights found in Orkney's stalled burial cairns, although typical of the early Neolithic period, these predate the Trotty cemetery by centuries.

However, the Knowes of Trotty is one of the earliest groups of barrows in Orkney, and marks a transition from the burial practices of the Neolithic, when the dead were interred in mass communal tombs, to individual barrow burials and cremations.

But although funerary practice was changing, Bronze Age discoveries within chambered cairns in Orkney has shown that the structures retained some significance, were used, and may have still had a place in the rituals of the period.

Did the Knowes of Trotty stones represent some form of doorway - a symbolic entrance to an "otherworld", or realm of the dead? Or were they dividing up the interior of the barrow in some way that was significant to the Bronze Age people who used the cemetery?

Lines of cremation pits were also found, dug into the saddle of the largest two mounds were also revealed. Characteristic of Middle to Late Bronze Age burials, these pits indicate that the cemetery was used for some time - probably throughout the Bronze Age period.

Spectacular finds

Undoubtedly less well known than sites such as Skara Brae and Minehowe, the Knowes of Trotty are renowned for producing one of the most spectacular finds in Orkney's archaeological history.

In 1858, local antiquarian, and Orkney Sheriff Clerk, George Petrie reported the "excavation" of the largest of the barrows.

Within the earthen mound, a stone cist containing four exquisitely crafted gold "sun" discs was discovered, along with 27 amber beads and a number of burnt human bones. This find has, to date, been unparalleled anywhere else in Orkney.

The gold discs were made from paper-thin sheets of gold, decorated with concentric circles of zig-zags and lines. The largest of the undamaged discs had a diameter of 76mm and was holed in the middle.

They are thought to be covers for decorative "buttons", similar to those found in Wessex, in southern England. The style, however, is different enough to suggest that it was made by a craftsman attempting to copy the Wessex style. This appears to tie in with other Scottish Bronze Age finds suggesting that the Wessex style was prized by the elite and powerful people of the time.

Analysis also indicates the gold originally came from Scotland.

Wessex connections

The beads, like those unearthed in 1858, are of a style and design once found in Wessex, England. This would imply they were originally fashioned in prehistoric England, the necklace being brought to Orkney at some point in its life.

It seems likely that the necklace was old by the time it was place in the burial cist - perhaps an heirloom that had been passed down through the generations. The age of the artefact is obvious from the wear on the surviving beads.

It is not clear, however, whether the necklace was complete when it was placed in the burial cist or whether it was deposited is broken fragments.

Whether the necklace, and the gold discs, were made in Wessex, or was manufactured closer to home, it is clear that Orkney had some connection to the people of southern England. This link between is further strengthened by the fact that the cemetery follows a design found around Stonehenge.

Dr Alison Sheridan of the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh has her own idea on this.

Speaking in July 2005, she suggests that at some point in the past, a group of Orcadians visited Wessex, where they picked up new ideas and fashions and took them back home. The Ring of Brodgar in Stenness, she suggests, could be an Orcadian attempt to recreate the massive stone circle of Avebury.

Who owned the grave goods?

We can only guess who was interred within the largest cist at the Knowes.

Given the nature of the artefacts buried beside them, the person was obviously of high status. But because the remains were cremated there's little else that can be said. It is not even clear whether the person was a man or a woman, although the necklace design, in a Wessex context, is usually associated with women. This would fit in with the decorative buttons, similar examples of which have been found associated with females in Wessex.

So do we have a matriarch or leader of a local tribe, interred with her most prized possessions - or perhaps symbols of her rank - in a cemetery that continued to be used for centuries after her demise?

On the strength of the surviving evidence we just can't say for sure.

A remote location?

One of the most common questions regarding the Knowes of Trotty are their apparent inaccessibility. Why build a grand cemetery in such a remote location? Visiting the site, the answer becomes clear.

The question itself is one related to our modern perception of accessibility. If we can't reach it quickly and by car, it's considered remote.

The Knowes of Trotty are situated in a regal position, with a vast swathe of the Orkney Mainland, stretching from the south-west to the north, visible under a dominant sky. What better place to situate the prominent grave of a high-powered, and wealthy, individual, and others from his community.

The site was long neglected, eclipsed by the gold treasures, which became its only claim to fame.

Thankfully, modern archaeological work has been redressing this and elevating the Knowes of Trotty to their rightful place in Orkney's ancient history.