Thanks primarily to television, the Internet and Neil Oliver, Orkney is now probably best known throughout the world for its magnificent ancient archaeology.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, was designated in 1999 to recognise four Neolithic structures as among the most outstanding ancient monuments in the world. The collection comprises Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and adjacent stones, and Maeshowe. All of these sites are in the region of 5,000 years old.
Skara Brae is an entire Neolithic village comprising the remains of around ten stone buildings in a truly remarkable state of preservation, most of which are interpreted as houses, plus other structures that are likely to have included a workshop. The earliest buildings are dated at around 3,100 BC and it is believed that the village was continuously occupied for about 600 years.
Skara may have been abandoned because the sea breached the low historical shoreline a kilometre or so distant to create what is now the Bay of Skaill which laps within metres of the site – protected to some extent behind modern sea defences. The encroachment caused the village to be engulfed in deep sand, from which it only re-emerged in the late nineteenth century following a huge storm.
The Ring of Brodgar is the third largest henge site in Britain (after Avebury and Stanton Drew), originally comprising 60 stones in a circle of 105 metres diameter. Thirty-six stones remain standing, not all to their original full height, on the site which is situated on the narrow neck of land between Stenness and Harray Lochs. Less visual but more impressive is the encircling ditch which was hewn out of solid bedrock, requiring thousands of tons of rock to be removed using only bone and stone tools. The construction of Brodgar is believed to have commenced around 2,500 BC. The erection of the stones is thought to have been an activity in which individual Orcadian communities each quarried and supplied a standing stone (the diverse geographic sources of each stone having been identified), and probably undertook themselves the work of cutting the socket and erecting the stone at the ring.
In contrast, the nearby Stones of Stenness are significantly older than Brodgar, construction probably commencing around 3,000 BC. It is a smaller circle, originally comprising 12 stones of which just four remain standing. The stones themselves are very large – nearly 6 metres in height. The remains of a stone-built village, Barnhouse, was recently uncovered in the adjacent field and this site is closely associated with the Stones of Stenness. Not far from the circle, an alignment of other substantial outlying stones are still standing, unlike several that succumbed to nineteenth century farmers who were sadly determined to remove these agricultural ‘obstacles’.
Maeshowe is considered to be the largest Neolithic burial mound in Northern Europe. The turf-covered mound is 35 metres in diameter and encloses a central stone-built chamber with three side cells. The central chamber is reached by a narrow passage some 11m long. For a few days around the winter solstice the setting sun shines directly up this passageway and into the central chamber. This layout of chambered cairn is very common in Orkney and there are many similar examples as well as a wide variety of alternative designs. Clearly however, Maeshowe was a very significant site on account of its overall size and proximity to the nearby Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. Construction is thought to have commenced around 2,800-2,700 BC.
Cementing the belief that the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe were at one stage a contiguous ceremonial site is the very recent archaeological discovery on the Ness of Brodgar of the remains of a huge complex of Neolithic buildings. These were constructed and re-developed over a long period of time. The Ness of Brodgar was too late to be included in the World Heritage Site, and excavation is still on-going, but its overall significance is likely to dwarf the other individual components.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney Community
Community involvement continues to this day, and only two days ago as I write this, the “Community Map” was launched – a project involving local school children and adults from the Stenness community to record their important memories and experiences of the famous Neolithic sites in their own backyard.
One side of that map appears at the beginning of this post; here is the other side:
A pdf can be downloaded from Historic Environment Scotland along with the story of the development of the map. It would be great to do something similar back at Kent Wildlife Trust, getting local school children to think about what they get from the natural world around them.