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Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 16:19 GMT
Archaeologists descend into underworld
The lowest chamber has a high arched roof The lowest chamber has a high arched roof

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Archaeologists have discovered what they have described as a "descent into the underworld" on the Scottish island of Orkney.

It is a unique structure buried beneath the ground and has perplexed experts who say it could be three or four thousand years old.

The steps down soon enter the gloom The steps down soon enter the gloom
The structure has been described as a castle turret with a spiral staircase sunk into the ground. Who built it and why are mysteries.

Julie Gibson, Orkney's county archaeologist, said that the discovery was extraordinary.

Local journalist and archaeological expert Sigurd Towrie has visited it and he described it to BBC News Online: "Often when something is discovered up here it is hailed as the largest, oldest, most mysterious and so on. Often it does not live up to the hype but the structure at Mine Howe deserves such a description. It is unlike anything I have ever seen before."

Situated on farmland at Tankerness, the entrance is like a mineshaft going deep into the earth. It was first opened in 1946 but its true significance was not realised and it was sealed until recently.

The Middle Chamber contained the skull of a dog or seal The Middle Chamber contained the skull of a dog or seal
This is how Mr Towrie describes the entrance: "It was dark when we made our way up to the entrance. At the top, a generator was started and my first sighting of the 'mystery of the 29 steps' was the light streaming from a hole in the top of the mound.

"Down the first flight of steps there is a small landing with two chambers that spiral out from the main stairwell. I climbed down the ladder to get to the first flight of steps thinking how very steep they were.

"Once on the landing the scale of the structure hit me. I could see the second flight of stairs disappearing down into the darkness. I could not see what lay beyond the steps.

"I made my way down the second set of stairs to the lower chamber. At the end there was a drop of about four feet and I was in a rectangular chamber with an incredibly high roof."

Ropes are needed to reach the bottom Ropes are needed to reach the bottom
Local archaeologists have said that the strange structure may have been built as a symbolic descent into the underworld.

"Standing at the bottom of the chamber, about six metres (20 feet) underground, I certainly felt I had left the normal world far behind," said Mr Towrie.

"When we left the night sky was filled with stars and the Merry Dancers (Aurora Borealis) were filling up the northern horizon. I knew I had just been in a place extremely special."

The site has now been re-sealed and a full-scale investigation will take place in spring 2000.

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