Orkney is one of my most favourite places on earth. I know that playing favourites is a mug’s game, but it is true. The Orkney Islands are as captivating as they are magical and the archaeology is astounding. I fell in love with the islands before I’d even stepped off the ferry!
With a rich legacy spanning more than 5,500 years, a visit to Orkney is like stepping back in time; the people of the past are ever-present here. When I first heard the saying, if you scratch the surface of Orkney it bleeds archaeology, I didn’t know whether to believe it or not. Now, having been there a dozen times in almost as many years, I can tell you that it is practically true!
Orkney’s low green hills, boggy plains and island waters are home to over 3,000 archaeological sites. Whether it’s the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage cluster or the historic shipwrecks of Scapa Flow, Orkney boasts three archaeological sites per square mile. That’s huge. It’s also more than anywhere else in Europe, and fortunately for us, new discoveries are still being made.
The child in the sand is one such discovery. This is such an incredibly moving find that I couldn’t help but share with you. This time last year, Carrie Brown, of See Orkney tours, was walking along the north coast of Tofts Ness on Sanday, Orkney’s third largest island. The same winter storms that exposed Skara Brae in 1850 were again beating the coast of Orkney. The weather was horrendous. Orkney has some of the worst coastal erosion in Britain and the islands’ sandy banks were again yielding to the sea. Out of no-where, Carrie spotted what looked like part of a rib cage protruding from the sand. Most people, if they had noticed it at all, would have kept walking, thinking it was one of the island’s many lost sheep, but not Carrie. This is one attentive tour guide!
Carrie marked the location, reported the find and in doing so prompted Orkney’s most recent rescue excavation. She has also proven that with an eagle eye and some quick action, you don’t need to be Indiana Jones (or for that matter, an archaeologist) to have an adventure in archaeology.
It turns out that the rib was not an isolated find. Excavations soon revealed a vertebrae, then a skull, a femur, and eventually the remains of a beautifully intact skeleton. Carrie had found the remains of spectacularly well-preserved 4,000-year-old child. Incredible!
Aged between 10-12, it is thought that the child was alive when Stonehenge was being built, long before the UK was united and Vikings ever pillaged. Was the child an Orcadian Queen? Or a farm boy from the nearby settlement whose life was cut drastically short? And why, if this the burial is contemporary with the Quoyness Cairn, was the child not buried there, like the 15 other residents – 10 adults and 5 children – found inside?
It could be years before we fully understand who this young one is, and how the Tofts burial came to be. Until then, remember that next time you are in Orkney (and you really should go there!) don’t blink or you might miss something incredible.