All content © caithness archaeological trust 2004
unless otherwise stated
Over 6000 years ago individuals settled in Britain, spreading over areas then suitable for habitation. This period heralds one of the most significant periods in prehistory, with a change in the way of life from hunting and gathering to cereal cultivation and animal domestication. These people would have farmed, keeping cattle and pigs, growing barley and wheat in fields. People now settled in one place for considerable periods.
The people who lived during this period, often called the Neolithic, have left an array of stone monuments across Caithness, particularly chambered cairns. Chambered cairns or tombs, built and used from around the 5th to the 3rd millennia BC, represent one of the most impressive of the early prehistoric monuments of the county. The cairns are great mounds of stones within which chambers were built. The shape and size of the cairns vary: many are simply round, but some are long. Some are divided into two or more compartments. The chambers can either open directly from the edge of the mound or be approached by a low passage. The cairns often have forecourts at both ends with elongated corners, known as horned cairns. This area may have been where ceremonies were performed.
These monuments have a long history of use and development and probably reflect changing rites and changing beliefs over the centuries. The tombs may have been used for millennia. Excavations suggest that the monuments were used many times for burials, with earlier remains pushed to one side or even taken out. Objects such as pots, stone objects and bird and animal bones, which may have been food offerings, were also put in the tombs. It is always possible that the tombs served other functions. Many are conspicuous features of the Caithness landscape and the tombs may have functioned as territorial or group markers.
Unlike other areas, although we have plentiful evidence for tombs, little remains of settlement.