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The face of a Neolithic collie dog

When Cuween Hill tomb was excavated by M M Charleson in 1901, alongside the remains of around eight human burials were 24 dog skulls and a few other dog bones. Both the human and animal bones were in very poor condition and Charleson noted that bones crumbled away on being touched, so it's likely that whole dogs were included in the tomb rather than just the heads. Most of the dog skulls were subsequently lost, but one skull survives at the National Museum Scotland. This has recently been reconstructed and is now on display at the Maeshowe visitor centre in Stenness:


The reconstruction was based on a 3-D image of the skull from a laser scan by Historic Environment Scotland and then built up by Amy Thornton, who normally works on human facial reconstructions. The bones were also examined by an animal bone specialist, who concluded that the dog was 2 - 3 years old and about the size of a large collie, and the colouring for the fur was based on the assumption that it was probably quite like a modern wolf.



The Cuween dog bones had previously been radiocarbon dated and the three dates ranged between 2620 - 2345 cal BC, so Late Neolithic edging into the Chalcolithic (or Copper Age), later than you would expect from the main phase of human burials in Neolithic tombs in Orkney, which usually cover the period from about 3500 - 2800 BC. In common with a number of Neolithic tombs in Orkney, Cuween Hill continued in sporadic use into the Early Bronze Age, with the entrance passageway being sealed with a final burial c.2150 – 1930 cal BC (if you have a burning desire to know more about later insertions into chambered tombs, have a look at chapter 6 of Caz's PhD thesis).

One of the reasons that HES paid for the research was to have something better to put on the new interpretation board at Cuween, to replace the slightly embarrassing image of an Airedale terrier in full Crufts show clip which used to be there:


You can almost hear the conversation between the illustrator and the interpretation unit: 'We want a Neolithic dog for the Cuween board' 'OK fine - what does a Neolithic dog look like?' 'How should I know, use your imagination' Every time we visited Cuween with one of our tours I used to have to point out to folk that Neolithic dogs were probably a shaggy collie type but a bit more wolfish, it's nice to know that all the research now says the same!

If you want to know more about the research and reconstruction there's a piece on the National Museum Scotland website about it. If you want to see for yourself come on one of our Orkney holidays or private tours as we always include a visit to Cuween, it's the most atmospheric of the Orkney tombs as you have to crawl along the passageway into the dark to get in (not as bad as it sounds as we've got very good kneepads and torches too). The roof was sympathetically reconstructed so it looks more-or-less like it would have done originally, and you're standing on the original bedrock floor:



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