Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Prehistoric Orkney: The People of the Lochs

By Mark Patton.

In my previous blog-posts, I looked the the earliest human colonisation of the Orkney Islands, between 4000 and 3700 BC; and at the development of small farming communities on the islands, often with communal tombs, between 3700 and 3300 BC. In this, the final posting in this series, I will focus on one specific community that flourished between 3300 and 2200 BC, around a narrow peninsula of land that separates the saltwater Loch of Stenness from the freshwater Loch of Harray, on the largest island of the archipelago (Mainland).

The Brodgar Peninsula. Photo: Jim Richardson.
The Heart of Orkney World Heritage Site. Image: Islandhopper (licensed under GNU).

When I first visited the islands, as a Cambridge undergraduate, in the winter of 1983/4, I cycled back and forth across this peninsula many times: to the north was the great stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar; to the south, the Stones of Stenness, less well-preserved, but no less impressive; and the passage grave of Maes Howe, the largest of Orkney's megalithic monuments, which reminded me of similar sites that I had seen, for example at Gavrinis and Barnenez, in Brittany, and at La Hougue Bie in Jersey.

The Ring of Brodgar. Photo: Renata (image is in the Public Domain).
The Stones of Stenness. Photo: Stevekeiretsu (licensed under CCA).
The passage grave of Maes Howe - the passage is aligned towards the Winter Solstice sunset. Photo: Rob Burke (licensed under CCA).

The concentration of these particularly impressive monuments in such a small area suggested the emergence, in the late Fourth and early Third Millennia BC, of a community on an altogether larger scale than those represented by the earlier settlements of the Knap of Howar, or Barnhouse. One of my university tutors, Professor Lord (Colin) Renfrew, who had excavated several of the islands' prehistoric sites, interpreted this as evidence for the evolution of a powerful chiefdom, and I was already beginning to formulate a similar hypothesis to explain the development of megalithic monuments in the Channel Islands.

Not far to the north of the Brodgar Peninsula, where all of these large-scale monuments are located, is the most remarkable prehistoric settlement on the Orkney Islands, the coastal village of Skara Brae. There are few trees on the Orkney Islands, but the local sandstone splits into flat slabs deal for building, so that features such as hearths, beds, and even elaborate "dressers" are preserved.

The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. Photo: Dg-505 (licensed under CCA).
Neolithic house at Skara Brae. Photo: John Allan (licensed under CCA).

The Australian archaeologist, Professor Gordon Childe, who had excavated Skara Brae, was a "diffusionist," who believed that most cultural change could be explained in terms of the movement of people and the spread of ideas: generally from the south and east, to the north and west. "The sole unifying theme of European prehistory," he argued, "is the irradiation of European barbarism by Oriental civilisation." Renfrew thought nothing of this theory, and neither did I, and we seemed to have the (relatively) new scientific evidence of radiocarbon dating on our side.

Professor Gordon Childe. Photo: National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).

We were both unaware, however, as Childe had been before us, of what lay in the unexcavated ground beneath our feet. Over the past few years, archaeologists have been revealing the remains of an elaborate complex of stone buildings on the northern side of the Brodgar Peninsula, the site known as the Ness of Brodgar. Unlike Skara Brae, this does not seem to have been a settlement, but rather a temple complex, with many phases of construction, dismantling, and reconstruction. This seems to have come to an end in around 2200 BC, when the remaining buildings were systematically dismantled in an elaborate ceremonial, involving the slaughter of around 400 cattle.

Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. Photo:

The people who built the Ring and Ness of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and Maes Howe, clearly had connections that extended well beyond their islands. Similar stone circles appeared across much of Britain in the later Neolithic period, and people as far apart as Orkney and Wiltshire were using the same type of pottery ("grooved ware"). Passage graves comparable to Maes Howe are found in Ireland, and on Anglesey, sometimes with the same astronomical alignments.

The Rollright stone circle, Oxfordshire. Photo: Ian Freeman (licensed under CCA).
Grooved ware pottery (image is in the Public Domain).

These connections led the makers of a recent BBC documentary, "Britain's Ancient Capital - Secrets of Orkney," to conclude that the culture that gave us Stonehenge might well have originated in Orkney, but this suggested reversal of Gordon Childe's diffusionism (from west and north to south and east, rather than vice versa) seems to me to be premature: archaeologists have yet to reach or date the earliest levels at the Ness of Brodgar, and the dating evidence from stone circles across the British Isles, is patchy, at best.

The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar are among the most exciting currently in progress anywhere in the world, and there can be little doubt that much remains to be discovered.


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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