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Monuments and Water:
A re-interpretation of the Grey Cairns of Camster, Caithness.
Amelia Pannet


The purpose of this paper was to examine the relationship between the Camster chambered cairns and one of the dominant natural elements in Caithness, water. I have suggested that the Camster burn may have played a significant role in the creation of the monumental landscape through its involvement in the human routines of movement within and between the different ecoloical zones. I have also tried to show that the symbolic significance of this locale probably extends back into the Mesolithic period, when communities understood their place in the world in terms of their movement around the landscape. In the Neolithic a new sense of being was established, and people began to transform and domesticate the natural world that they inhabited. However, it would seem that the builders of the Camster cairns were drawing on features of ancestral significance, features that had perhaps been fundamental to the cosmologies of the hunter-gatherer populations, and were consequently imbued with geneaological power. The creation of permanent architecture at this locale prevented the power from being lost (Tilley 1994).

Natural elements are an established and fundamental part of the cosmologies of many traditional cultures (Bradley 2000), and recognition of this will, I believe, enable us to gain a greater understanding of how and why Neolithic monumental landscapes were established. In Caithness, in particular, I feel that water, in its many forms, dominated the daily routines of both Mesolithic and Neolithic populations, providing both natural resources and most importantly a symbolic metaphor for life itself. 


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Phillips T. forthcoming Landscapes of the Living, Landscapes of the Dead: The location and micro-topography of the Chambered Cairns of Northern Scotland, British Archaeological Reports Monograph

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Tilley C. 1996 The Power of rocks: topography and monument construction on Bodmin Moor, World Archaeology 28(2): 161-176

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Topping P. 1997 (ed) Neolithic Landscapes, Oxbow Monograph 86, Oxford

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