The Bare Bones: Presenting a very regional Neolithic

During the early Neolithic period, a distinctive regional tradition of funerary architecture developed on either side of the waters stretching between Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland. Matt Ritchie explores how archaeological research and interpretation is helping to illuminate the chambered cairns of the North Channel and the people who built them, and describes the role they can play in developing an understanding of place and time in younger audiences.


In Britain and Ireland, the Neolithic spans c.4000-2500 BC, and encompasses a wide range of different regions and landscapes, with distinct cultural traditions shaped and shared between them. When measured in years, its 15-century sweep is an almost unimaginable length of time – but when reckoned in roughly 60 generations, the period becomes easier to grasp. Viewed on this more human scale, it becomes possible to place individual lives within the timeline – and in The Bare Bones (a new archaeological learning resource from Forestry and Land Scotland; see ‘Further information’ on p.50) we concentrate on only a few generations living in one particular region, and on the distinctive monuments that they built.

The North Channel, between Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland, links a shared early Neolithic tradition of tomb construction. Photo: Matt Ritchie

While the ‘Neolithic package’ arrived in north-west Continental Europe around 5000 BC, it took another thousand years to cross the English Channel. Spreading quickly up the east and west coasts of the British Isles, these early Neolithic pioneers soon made a mark on their new home. They cleared the wildwood
and farmed the land, building settlements and rearing domesticated animals – and they constructed ceremonial monuments for the living and funerary monuments for the dead. The chambered cairns that dominate this latter category made highly visible statements about identity, place, and belonging, and were perhaps intended to stake ancestral claims to the land on which they stood.

Over the course of the Neolithic, several distinct regional chambered cairn traditions developed. When they were contemporary, the distribution patterns of these regional chambered cairn traditions often overlapped, and today they often find themselves lumped together as a chapter or topic in any study in which they appear. In The Bare Bones, we wanted to focus on just one regional category – to explore the similarities and differences within that tradition, and illustrate many more individual sites than there is normally space for. We largely did away with simplistic site plans that do nothing but emphasise similarities in size and shape, and embraced the power of the laser scanner and drone photography to present fresh perspectives. We included both classic examples and unusual outliers in our study, and looked at sites that are easy to access alongside those that are way off the beaten track. In doing so, we were able to spend some quality time with these monuments, and begin to understand their fascinating story.

The architecture of the Clyde cairns of Scotland and court tombs of Ireland suggests that they were used both as a place for the dead, where people placed the deceased within the chambers inside the cairn, and as a place for the living, where people could pay their respects within the forecourt outside. They remain an important link between people and land – places to remember, then and now.

Magheraghanrush court tomb, Co. Sligo, has been stripped of its covering cairn, leaving only a skeletal outline. It has three galleries, each with two chambers (with two set side by side at one end). Twin galleries are rare: only two are known, both in north-west Ireland. The site recently underwent an archaeological measured survey; a 3D model can be found at Photo: The Discovery Programme

In producing The Bare Bones, we took up the challenge of making these often abstract ideas accessible to and relatable for a younger audience, with a view to supporting Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, Archaeology 2030: A Strategic Approach for Northern Ireland, and the Heritage Ireland 2030 strategy, and contributing to the international Boyne to Brodgar archaeological research framework. The aim of this last initiative is to increase engagement with this early chapter in our shared heritage, developing the understanding of the Neolithic across Scotland and Ireland, and placing it within its wider European narrative. Even so, telling just the bare bones of the story was no small task: it involved adventure and exploration, new drone photography, modern laser-scan survey, and creative archaeological visualisation.

Places to remember

Let’s begin with the archaeology itself. In Scotland, there are just over 100 Clyde cairns on record, with most found in Argyll, Arran (home to the densest concentration), and Bute, and around the south-west coast. The majority follow a fairly standard design, comprising a substantial rectangular or wedge shaped cairn of stone and earth, which encloses a narrow chamber made of orthostats (stone slabs set on their ends). The chamber is often subdivided into segmented compartments (usually two or three, but sometimes up to five are known); this is done by overlapping the ends of the orthostats, or else with low horizontal sill stones (with or without opposing upright jamb stones) that served as a kind of threshold. Large, flat capstones laid across the orthostats formed the chamber’s roof, and this was generally quite low, meaning that, in order to get inside the cairn, people would have had to stoop.

The Bare Bones is a new archaeological learning resource from Forestry and Land Scotland, exploring the distinctive Neolithic monuments that were built on either side of the North Channel.

Outside, at the front of the cairn, a flat or gently curving façade defines a forecourt framing the entrance to the chamber. This façade can end in points, or as square-ended horns, while the edge of the cairn itself was defined and retained by a kerb of upright stones and drystone walling. Adding to this, further chambers can occasionally be found subsumed within the body of the cairn, or as lateral chambers opening towards its sides.

More than 400 court tombs have been recorded in Ireland, mostly in the northern third of the island. Although court tombs have several variations in layout, in most examples they too comprise a substantial rectangular or trapezoidal stone and earth cairn, whose interior is subdivided using pairs of upright jamb stones, or by a combination of jamb and sill stones. Like their cousins across the water, court tombs often feature roofs made of large, flat capstones laid across inner orthostats (or by corbelling springing from the sides), though different terminology is used to describe their interior features. While in Scotland the words ‘chamber’ and ‘compartment’ are used to describe the cairn’s internal space and its division, in Ireland their equivalent terms are ‘gallery’ and ‘chamber’.

Gort na h’Ulaidhe on Kintyre is one of a number of Clyde cairns in Scotland’s national forests and land. It survives as a skeletal outline, shown here from the air and as a plan that illustrates its main chamber containing two compartments and several lateral chambers opening towards its sides. Photo: Matt Ritchie/AOC Archaeology

There are further similarities to be found in the external features of the monuments: in court tombs, too, the cairn was retained by a kerb of upright stones, with or without drystone walling, and the entrance to the gallery is framed by a deep, curving façade that usually takes the form of square-ended horns, and which acts to define the forecourt. This basic design, with a two-chambered gallery and an open court, seems to have been the standard court-tomb type, but there are other varieties known that represent more complicated variations on this plan – these are known as dual court tombs, full court tombs, and central court tombs.

Some of the chambered cairns of the North Channel remain clothed, their secrets hidden beneath huge mounds of stone, such as Boreland in Galloway. Some bear the ravages of time, their features masked by rubble and collapse, like Torr An Loisgte on Arran. Some, including Ballymacdermot in County Armagh and Cloghanmore in County Donegal, have been disturbed by treasure-hunters, their chambers ripped open and exposed. Some have been robbed of stone from their covering cairns, and survive only as skeletal outlines – among them, Giant’s Graves on Arran, Aghanaglack in County Fermanagh, and Gort na h’Ulaidhe on Kintyre. And some like Creevykeel in County Sligo have been rebuilt as ruins, and presented in this way to the public. However, many more have been lost over time, with only a handful recorded as ghostly plans in the pages of antiquarian journals or as spectral sketches in the notebooks of their excavators.

The dual court tomb of Aghanaglack in County Fermanagh has two forecourts, set at either end of the cairn and facing outwards. Although it has been stripped of its covering cairn and survives only in outline, it has twin galleries, each divided into two chambers by jamb stones and a low sill stone. Aghanaglack is one of a number of court tombs in the care of the Historic Environment Division, Department for Communities, and one of a number of chambered cairns that AOC Archaeology laser-scanned (below) for the project.
Images: AOC Archaeology

Exploring the conservation narrative of these monuments can help us better understand and appreciate these powerful reminders of a time long since passed, and in recent years, new methods of digital documentation have added powerful tools to the archaeological arsenal. In the case of chambered cairns, photogrammetry and 3D laser-scanning technologies represent detailed methods of objective recording that can be used better to appreciate the scale and form of these monuments. These new techniques have also provided a rich seam of illustrations for The Bare Bones, complementing drone photography, archaeological measured drawings, and a host of new imaginative visualisations. There have never before been so many ways to present the past in such vivid detail.

Places for the living, places for the dead

The cairns of the North Channel were built by people and communities with beliefs and traditions that were very different from those we practise today. How best to imagine the sights and sounds of these tombs for the dead and the ceremonies that once took place within their forecourts? Were tomb gatherings small family affairs, large communal ceremonies, or both? Were the tombs themselves dark and foreboding, occasional places that lurked on the fringes of daily life, stale, unkempt, and forgotten until they were needed? Or were they familiar places, carefully and reverently tended, celebrated, and embraced with a central role in the daily lifecycle of the community?

Not all of the surviving chambered cairns will have been in use at the same time. As the early Neolithic period progressed, some tombs will have fallen out of use just as others were yet to be begun. Who was responsible for commissioning a tomb, overseeing its construction, and determining its use? Was there a role in society for the ‘Tomb Keeper’, as we imagine here, part master-of-ceremonies and part front-of-house? Could the more complex designs of the dual, full, or central court tombs indicate a larger caste of tomb keepers, or more exclusive burial ceremonies, hidden from view within the enclosing arms of the forecourt?

The narrative theme of this illustration of the court tomb of Creggandevesky in County Tyrone is ‘construction’, and the anonymous builders have been designed not to distract from this purpose. The eye is drawn to the site itself, and the realistic cutaway style allows the build sequence to be best appreciated, in this case showing the corbelling of the three chambers. Image: Alan Braby

Archaeological evidence provides some clues for how the living used these cairns – the treatment of the body (inhumation, cremation, excarnation), the role of fire in gatherings and funerary practices, and the deposition of objects and grave goods. Common objects found inside cairn chambers include (usually broken) pots, flint tools, and animal bones, but more unusual finds include polished axeheads of exotic stone, found within Cairnholy I in Galloway, Clontygora in County Armagh, and Creevykeel in County Sligo. Were artefacts like these accompanying an interred individual, or might they have been left during other activities, such as revisiting and cleaning tombs, performing rituals relating to gods or ancestors, rearranging or removing bones, or making food offerings for the dead?

Who cared for the cairns? In creating The Bare Bones, the team worked with a range of artists to imagine the chambered cairns in use, planning the visual story they would tell. In this example, we imagine the figure of the ‘Tomb Keeper’ and what it must have felt like to enter the chamber. Image: Alex Leonard

A young girl and boy are travelling with their mother and uncle. They carry a decorated wicker basket within which are the bones of their grandmother. They are travelling in a dugout canoe – a boat hewn out of a single vast oak trunk, and decorated with the symbols of their kin group. This is the children’s first long journey – they all take turns to help paddle the heavy canoe. They hug the shoreline before turning to cross the deeper waters of the firth. They have never met their island kinfolk; they are excited, and also a little afraid. As the little group approaches the island, the landscape before them changes. The fresh salt air and big open skies of the coast are joined by grey and jagged mountain peaks. Their mother has made this journey before, and she tells them of the settlements, sacred places, forests, and mountains that they pass.
   As they journey along the changing coastline of the island, their mother and her brother recount the story of how their parents met at a great feast long ago. Their grandfather was from the mainland and their grandmother was from the island. Image: Cole Henley

In The Bare Bones, we use storytelling and comic-strip panels to explore these ideas, describing the journey that one small fictional family made to visit a cairn in order to pass over their dead and pay their respects. Drawing inspiration from sacred places that the learners have experienced for themselves – or perhaps learned about of other cultures from around the world – we ask them to imagine the next stage in the story of Uri and Ani as they bring the bones of their grandmother to rest in the tomb.

Following on from this, our ‘Bone Detectives’ activity then puts learners in the role of osteoarchaeologists, examining the bones found within a Neolithic chambered cairn. This involves placing a jumble of 24 bone cards (representing one of four different assemblages, including both cremated and inhumed remains) within a model cairn. The cards illustrate diagnostic features, from fused bone and suture lines through to worn teeth and healed fractures, and the aim of the activity is to analyse the assemblage to work out how many individuals were buried within the cairn and what the bones can tell us about their lives and deaths – their age, their sex, and whether or not there are any injuries or diseases present – linking clues to create individual skeleton columns.

Along the way, learners will be following a similar process to the osteoarchaeologist, offering an insight into an archaeological career pathway, and demonstrating the problem-solving and critical thinking skills that lie at the heart of all archaeological work.

Places of archaeological learning

By presenting a very regional Neolithic, The Bare Bones aims to support and enhance a group visit to any chambered cairn local to any classroom of the North Channel. By setting the Clyde tomb or court cairn in its wider context – concentrating on the architectural clues that may be found, and exploring the wider archaeological evidence of its use – we hope to inspire the imagination and encourage discussion, no matter the condition of the cairn.

Above and below: The ‘Bone Detectives’ activity set out in The Bare Bones involves sets of cards bearing osteoarchaeological clues, which are jumbled inside a model tomb. Individual cards are then linked to create skeleton columns like the one shown below; not every skeleton column has a skull, and not every bone in the body is represented – realising this is part of the challenge. Images: Vicki Herring

The Bare Bones is just the latest in a series of publications from Forestry and Land Scotland that take an imaginative approach to outdoor archaeological learning: other booklets include Into the Wildwoods, which explores the lives of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and The First Foresters, tracing the experiences of the first Neolithic pioneers to arrive in Scotland, as well as those on Neolithic rock art, dendrochronology, and more. They all present some quite complex and sometimes unconventional ideas, and use archaeological discussion, creative indoor activities, and practical outdoor learning to imagine ancient landscapes, explore today’s historic environment, and understand contemporary archaeological methodology.

The booklets are the result of many different contributions and collaborations from a range of professions, working together to present a new perspective of our ancient past and contemporary archaeological science. Quotes from leading archaeologists in each field help to make the key ideas more accessible, and short features focus on important sites, describe personal experiences, or explain methodology.

They are intended both as reference materials and as learning resources, and deliberately use a popular communication style and bold designs to help teachers and archaeological educators prepare topics with detailed information and innovative ideas for their learners. We hope that they will also provide a link between indoor learning and outdoor site visits, bringing the indoors outside and the outdoors inside – but, above all, we hope that they represent a fresh
take on a fascinating subject, for anyone with an interest in interpreting our past.

It is a past that, however distant in terms of time, is still accessible today, rooted in an archaeological understanding of place and time and in our human response to both.

Further information 

The Bare Bones: explore the Early Neolithic chambered cairns of the North Channel (2023) was written by Gavin Lindsay, Matt Ritchie, and Alison Sheridan, with additional short features by Angela Boyle, James Dilley, Clare Ellis, Vicky Ginn, Ronan McHugh, and Jessica Smyth. 

It was produced by Forestry and Land Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, in partnership with the Discovery Programme, Centre for Archaeology and Innovation Ireland, and the Historic Environment Division, Department for Communities, Northern Ireland. 

It and other archaeological booklets are available for download from 

To celebrate the international regionality of this research, versions of this feature are being published jointly by Current Archaeology and Archaeology Ireland; the latter will be in print in their autumn issue (September 2023).