Knowe of Yarso Chambered Cairn

  • On the island of Rousay, Orkney



Ancient resting place

Knowe of Yarso dates to between 3500 and 2500 BC, but pottery found inside the tomb suggests it remained in use until the late 2000s BC. Its roof was robbed in antiquity, but its walls still stand close to their original height, and the chamber is still entered through the original passage.  

The chamber is divided into compartments by upright slabs, similar to the houses at Knap of Howar, also in Orkney. In other locations, archaeologists have recognised a correspondence between the houses of the living and the tombs of the dead. 


Inside the tomb

Excavations at Knowe of Yarso in the 1930s found: 

  • the remains of at least 29 skeletons, with 17 skulls arranged side-by-side 
  • flint and pottery, some of which dated to centuries after the cairn’s construction 
  • bones from at least 36 deer 

The arrangement of the skulls has been found elsewhere, for example at Midhowe. It suggests that Neolithic people believed the spirit was only released when the body had decayed, rather than at the actual point of death. Only when the corpse was reduced to bones could it be rearranged to make space for new burials. 

The deer bones also have parallels – such as the dog skulls at Cuween Hill, and the countless bones of sea eagles at Isbister on South Ronaldsay, in the care of the Orkney Islands Council. The animal remains may represent tribal emblems.

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