Isbister (Tomb of the Eagles)

Chambered tomb
South Ronaldsay, Orkney
Nearest town: Kirkwall
Nearest village: Burwick
Map reference: ND 470845

Isbister Image The breathtaking Tomb of the Eagles

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Isbister, more popularly known as the Tomb of the Eagles (after the remains of white-tailed eagles found within), is perched above a sheer cliff on the island of South Ronaldsay. The entrance faces the sea: a breathtaking aspect, especially on a stormy day.
    Isbister appears to be a stalled cairn at first sight, but actually has three side cells leading off the main chamber, similar to Maes Howe sites. The site was excavated by its owner, a local farmer, Mr Ronald Simison. The north-end compartment and one of the side cells had been cleared before his excavations, but the remainder of the site yielded many human and animal remains, as well as Unstan pottery, bone and shell beads, stone implements, and flints.
    The human bones in the tomb represented 340 people; the skeletons were disarticulated and incomplete, the bones bleached and weathered, making it very probable that the bodies had been laid out on mortuary platforms, exposed to the elements and birds of prey, before interment.
    Study of the human bones indicate that everyone had a right to burial in the tomb, rather than only segments of the community. Very few people lived beyond the age of about 25 years, and the few people who lived as long as 50 years would have had a vital role in maintaining traditions and expertise.
    Physically, Isbister people were smaller than today's population: men averaged 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) and women averaged 1.6 m (5 ft 3.5 in), but they were very muscular. Many factors were probably involved in this early mortality rate, but one of them was certainly osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the spine: at least 47% of the population suffered from it.
    The tomb contained at least 10 carcasses of white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). Like dog skulls at Cuween they may have been a totem or emblem of the group which built the tomb.

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