All along the south edge of the island is a string of Neolithic passage and chambered tombs. Many are sited on an ancient geological terrace over looking the waters of Eynhallow Sound. They bask in the glowing etherial light of the winter sun as it tracks low across mainland Orkney and behind the rugged hills of Hoy. None of this would have would have been accidental. Archaeological evidence shows the minds of our Neolithic ancestors where highly attuned to natural cycles and the passing of the seasons.
In our "Journeys Into The Stone Age" series of short films we discuss the sophisticated cosmology of the Neolithic and how this displaced the Mesolithic hunter gatherers.
Neolithic Orkney - Part 1
Neolithic Orkney - Part 2
The Neolithic Revolution in Ancient Guernsey
Stone Age Revolutions on the Isle Of Mull
The original three metre passage entrance to the chamber has been replaced by a sliding door with steps down into the once corbel roofed chamber.
The Knowe Of Yarso tomb is divided into four compartments and is entered through its original passage. It incorporates decorative slanting stonework, also seen in Blackhammer, which is reminiscent of markings on local Unstan Ware pottery. (We visit the Unstan Tomb on Mainland Orkney, in Neolithic Orkney Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AA9W0peLz5U )
The 1930 excavation revealed 29 human skeletons with skulls set along base of walls. At least 36 deer skeletons were also discovered. To be interred in this way suggests the deer, or what they represented to the Neolithic community, were totemistic, like the dog skeletons at Cuween Hill tomb and the many bones of white tail sea eagles found inside the Isbister Carin on South Ronaldsay, also known as the Tomb Of The Eagles.
Of course, deer are a herbivore species, so the excarnation explanation fails in this case. The purpose of interring their bones in The Knowe of Yarso could have represented a spiritual function or offering. Rousay is not a large island and would only have supported a limited herd of deer.
It is possible that the agricultural activities of the small Neolithic farming communities also interfered with the deers' natural behaviour of descending from high ground to lower pastures in late autumn for the annual rut.
1930's excavations revealed 25 skeletons including two children, some still on the stone benches where they had apparently been laid to rest. Gave goods – pottery and animal bones. The tomb had been back filled with rubble when it went out of use.
A modern structure has been built over the tomb to preserve it from the Atlantic elements.
Significant events, such as local exhaustion or near extinction of the red deer population, for instance, could have precipitated a shift in cultural emphasis and the building of a new tomb in the Knowe Of Yarso case.
Or were there several co-existing communities? Each conforming to a general code of funerary practice but with particular cultural identities and idiosyncrasies, which we see in the masonry style and grave goods found in each tomb. These artisan flourishes and expressions of behaviour define the individual and their sense of belonging, it is a fundamentally enduring aspect of the human condition.