- Armed with a JCB
digger, ropes and a shovel, Douglas
Paterson set out to discover
whether stories that he had heard as a boy
about a "spooky
underground hoose" at Tankerness on Orkney were
- Gazing over his
fields, the 37-year-old farmer faced
an immediate problem. Any one of a
number of grassy mounds, or howes, dotted
across his land could conceal
what he was looking for.
- In the end, after just one false start, it was the sharp
memory of a retired local teacher that led him to the right spot, at a
mound known as Mine Howe. What he unearthed in just three days with the
help of his neighboring farmer, Clifford Shearer, 26, has amazed
- With a rope round his waist and hanging headfirst down
feet-wide, 30 fee.-deep muddy hole, Mr. Paterson excavated two ancient
stone staircases of 29 steps leading down through three subterranean
Initial reports said, incorrectly, that there were 39
was at this point that he called in the experts. Not
one to exaggerate
his feelings of excitement at the discovery, Mr Paterson
when he first entered the inky-black chambers, the last of which
to a cone-shaped ceiling 15ft high, he was "just concentrating
squeezing myself in." However, he added: "It was pretty
- On an island already rich in prehistoric monuments, the
famous being the coastal Stone Age village of Skara Brae, his find
emerged as unique in Europe and could be of huge importance in
the pagan ceremonies of early human beings.
- After preliminary
excavations, archaeologists are convinced
that the structure, which is
the deepest of its kind ever found and features
throughout, is probably a sacred ritual "temple"
used by the
Celts in pagan worship.
- Perhaps just as tantalizing is the fact that the find
has again raised the prospect that there are many more undiscovered
sites in the area.
- The poet George Mackay Brown once wrote that "the
Orkney imagination is haunted by time." Locals say that the island
has history in its veins and if you "scratch the surface the
bleeds archaeology." The unremarkable grassy howe which
the Tankerness site for 2,000 years is one of dozens
speckling the island's
- Nick Card, a freelance archaeologist wo
rking at the new
site, said: "It makes you view the landscape in a
We just don't know what else could be out
- There are plenty of old stories about farmers regularly
ploughing up prehistoric structures, then quickly reburying them amid
that they might lose a field to a heritage site without
a few hundred yards from where Mr. Paterson made his
discovery there is
another larger howe, down which a telegraph pole is
said to have disappeared
years ago. No one has yet investigated
of Orkney's greatest finds were unearthed by chance.
Skara Brae lay
undiscovered for about 4,000 years beneath a massive sand
dune until a
fierce storm uncovered it in 1850. In April 1946, a farmhand
Mine Howe unearthed a stone slab which led to the first excavation
the community 50 years ago.
- For five months a group of farmers, led by Alfred
a local grammar school teacher, toiled by candlelight with
picks each evening and weekend to dig out the staircase and
- Sandy Firth, 67, a retired teacher who helped Mr. Paterson
locate the underground chambers at Tankerness, remembers cycling over
to Mine Howe as a boy after school to watch the men at work.
- "Everyone was
talking about it. It caused great
excitement. They found bones and
prehistoric tools which have since been
lost," he said.
- When the excavations
were complete the council archaeologist
came to view the community's
astonishing find, but pronounced it to be
just another prehistoric
broch, common on Orkney.
- Just a few weeks after the structure had been dug out,
it was filled in again by the then owner, John Tait, a farmer, amid
that his sheep would stumble into it.
- In the coming months the age,
purpose and significance
of the Tankerness staircase and chambers will
occupy the minds of archaeologists
who confess that they have never
seen anything like it.
- At the moment they admit that they can only make
guesses. They think that the huge effort of digging 30 feet
down into the
bedrock indicates that it was more than just a
- First impressions suggest that it is probably Iron Age,
could be much older. A photographic land survey has revealed a huge
enclosing ditch with ritual middens facing east and west, possibly used
for burnt offerings or cremations, which resemble other Neolithic sites
dating back to 3000 B.C. There are also signs of a small settlement or
village, or perhaps more underground chambers, near by.
- The Celts worshipped
the elements, and nature gods and
water cults were widespread. If the
structure is Iron Age, the chambers
may have been used in pagan
- The discovery of an animal skull in an alcove in the
chamber further supports the idea. The Celts revered the head as
home of the spirit.
- Dr. Anna Ritchie, a freelance archaeologist and
expert on prehistoric Orkney, said that the find could prove
to be absolutely
extraordinary. "I suspect we will find that we
just how important the underground was to pagan
religion and the Celt society.
It will also underline just how little
we know about it," Dr. Ritchie
- Next year an excavation is
planned with the Channel 4
Time Team. The public is unlikely to be
given access to the site which
Historic Scotland is being urged to make
a protected, or scheduled, monument.
After the excavation Mr. Paterson
wants to seal it over and return the
land to grazing sheep.