Orkney Farmer Finds
Ancient Underground
Pagan Temple
By Shirley English
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 true.
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 archaeologists.
With a rope round his waist and hanging headfirst down a 2 feet-wide, 30 fee.-deep muddy hole, Mr. Paterson excavated two ancient stone staircases of 29 steps leading down through three subterranean chambers. Initial reports said, incorrectly, that there were 39 steps.
It was at this point that he called in the experts. Not one to exaggerate his feelings of excitement at the discovery, Mr Paterson said that, when he first entered the inky-black chambers, the last of which rises to a cone-shaped ceiling 15ft high, he was "just concentrating on squeezing myself in." However, he added: "It was pretty amazing."
On an island already rich in prehistoric monuments, the most famous being the coastal Stone Age village of Skara Brae, his find has emerged as unique in Europe and could be of huge importance in understanding 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 intricate stonework 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 ancient 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 landscape bleeds archaeology." The unremarkable grassy howe which concealed the Tankerness site for 2,000 years is one of dozens speckling the island's undulating fields.
Nick Card, a freelance archaeologist wo rking at the new site, said: "It makes you view the landscape in a different light. We just don't know what else could be out there."
There are plenty of old stories about farmers regularly ploughing up prehistoric structures, then quickly reburying them amid fears that they might lose a field to a heritage site without compensation. Just 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 why.
Many 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 ploughing Mine Howe unearthed a stone slab which led to the first excavation by the community 50 years ago.
For five months a group of farmers, led by Alfred Harcus, a local grammar school teacher, toiled by candlelight with shovels and picks each evening and weekend to dig out the staircase and the chambers.
Sandy Firth, 67, a retired teacher who helped Mr. Paterson to 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 worries 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 educated guesses. They think that the huge effort of digging 30 feet down into the bedrock indicates that it was more than just a cellar.
First impressions suggest that it is probably Iron Age, but it 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 rituals.
The discovery of an animal skull in an alcove in the second chamber further supports the idea. The Celts revered the head as the home of the spirit.
Dr. Anna Ritchie, a freelance archaeologist and recognized expert on prehistoric Orkney, said that the find could prove to be absolutely extraordinary. "I suspect we will find that we have underestimated 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 said.
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.