Thursday, January 19, 2017

Prehistoric Argonauts of the North Sea: The Human Settlement of the Orkney Islands

By Mark Patton.

Readers living in the United Kingdom may have been following a new series on BBC Television recently, entitled "Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney" (those elsewhere may very well have the chance to see it at a later stage). Britain is unlikely to have had a "capital," in anything like the modern sense, before Roman times, or to have existed as any form of unified political entity: but some specific places are identifiable, from the archaeological record, as having had a social, political, or religious significance extending beyond the local level. The archaeological site around which the series is structured, the Ness of Brodgar, is certainly one of these, and the excavations currently being undertaken there have provided some of the most exciting archaeological revelations of my lifetime. Taken on their own, however, these revelations tell only part of the story.

Viewers of the first programme in the series were introduced to an enigmatic little rodent, the Orkney Vole (Microtus arvalis orcadensis), a subspecies of the Common Vole which exists nowhere except on the Orkney Islands.

The Orkney Vole. Photo: Hauke Koch (licensed under GNU).

It is quite common for animals separated from their parent populations, and stranded on small islands, to evolve in their own distinctive directions (the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, and the lemurs of Madagascar, are among the most famous examples), but the voles cannot have made their own way to the islands. Since their bones have been found on prehistoric sites, it has long been assumed that their ancestors were accidental stowaways on the boats that brought the first human colonists, between five and a half and six thousand years ago.

It used to be thought that these human colonists traveled to the Orkney Islands from Iberia and western France, via the Irish Sea, and some may, indeed, have done precisely this, but the most recent DNA sequencing of the voles themselves suggests that their ancestors probably came from Belgium. We must therefore imagine a series of voyages around the coasts of the North Sea. Having made the crossing from the continent to southern England, these people could have followed the eastern coast to the northernmost tip of Scotland without venturing out of sight of land.

The English Channel and North Sea. Photo: NASA (Public Domain).

The Orkney Islands are visible from Scotland's Dunnet Head and John O'Groats, but the stretch of water between the mainland and the islands is among the most dangerous in Europe: the Atlantic tides coming in from the west meet the North Sea tides coming from the east to create treacherous eddies and whirlpools in the narrow channel of the Pentland Firth.

The Pentland Firth. Image: Kelisi (licensed under GNU).

The Orkney Islands seen from Dunnet Head. Photo: Posedlf (licensed under GNU).

The Neolithic ancestors of the Orcadians, however, not only crossed the water, but brought with them domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs (as well as the probably accidental voles), and seeds of wheat and barley. In the second programme of the television series, it took members of the production team, together with local volunteers, five hours to cross the Pentland Firth in a skin-covered boat similar to that which may have been used by prehistoric colonists (and almost identical to those used by the Neolithic characters in my novels, Undreamed Shores and Omphalos). These latter-day argonauts, however, carried no animals in their boat (a bull, boar or ram would present quite a significant challenge)!

A skin-covered boat (currach) of the sort that may have been used by Neolithic colonists. Photo: Simon Speed (Public Domain).

It is, perhaps, significant, that one of the earliest dated settlements on the islands, The Knap of Howar, is in one of the most remote locations, the tiny northern island of Papa Westray, suggesting that, by around 3700 BC, these colonists had fully mastered their island environment. Unlike their counterparts in many other parts of Europe, their embrace of the "Neolithic" way of life, with crops and domestic animals, did not lead them to abandon the resources on which their hunter-gatherer ancestors would have depended: the rubbish heaps at the Knap of Howar include oyster-shells, and the bones of fish and marine mammals, as well as the bones of cattle, sheep and pigs.

The Knap of Howar Neolithic settlement (c3700 BC). Photo: Me677 (Public Domain).
The Knap of Howar Neolithic settlement (the stone in the foreground is a quern, for grinding grain). Photo: Drewcorser (licensed under GNU). 

These people may have ferried the bodies of their dead across to the neighbouring island of Holm of Papa Westray, building elaborate communal tombs for them, which endure to this day. Their reliance on a broad spectrum of resources, and their mastery of stone architecture and engineering, would allow their descendants to establish a civilisation that would last for the best part of a thousand years.

Neolithic tomb on the Holm of Papa Westray. Photo: Adam Ward (licensed under CCA).

Neolithic tomb on the Holm of Papa Westray. Photo: Hayley Green (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at He is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. It's fascinating the lengths that prehistoric people would go to and what they were capable of. Great read!

  2. Fascinating post. Many thanks especially as it might be a while before the programme airs in the US - hopefully PBS will show it.

  3. It was a fascinating set of programmes. We were lucky enough to pay a fleeting visit to the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae a couple of years ago. Alas the dig on the Ness was covered but just overlooking the landscape there takes ones breath away. Definitely an island complex to revisit. Thanks, Mark, for bringing this to a wider audience.


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