For reasons that aren’t very clear, the Orkney Islands just north of Scotland were the happening place to be 5000 years ago.
The temperature was warmer in Orkney back then, with forest and deer in addition to the abundant bird and marine life that still mark Orkney out as a natural wonderland. The Neolithic (Late Stone Age) people farmed the land and hunted game. They also built some of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in Europe.
The photo above shows the Standing Stones of Stenness, a stone circle built around 3100 B.C., making it one of the earliest of the 1000 stone circles in the UK and roughly contemporary with the earliest building phase of Stonehenge. It was once made up of about a dozen massive yet thin slabs, but now only four remain standing. Several lone standing stones stood in the surrounding area.
Many legends and traditions grew up around the stones. One stone, called the Odin Stone after the Norse god, had a hole near its base. Young Orcadian couples used to promise themselves in marriage by clasping their hands through it. A local farmer got so sick of these happy couples trespassing on his land that he knocked the stone down in 1814, with the intention of taking the rest down too. The Orcadians were furious and the farmer wisely stopped destroying the stones.
Like many stone circles, the Standing Stones of Stenness was surrounded by a ditch and earthen palisade. The opening led to a nearby village of the same date called the Barnhouse settlement. Here archaeologists uncovered 15 round stone houses. The rooms have stone furniture and little recesses for beds. They also have fireplaces made up of four stone slabs. One of them seems to have been moved from here to the center of the Standing Stones of Stenness. Why? Nobody knows.
%Gallery-160972%Less than a mile away across a narrow isthmus between two lochs stands the Ring of Brodgar, a massive stone circle measuring 104 meters (340 feet) in diameter. The only stone circles bigger than it are Avebury and Stanton Drew in England. Twenty-seven stones still exist, and archaeologists have found evidence for a total of sixty.
The Ring of Brodgar was built between 2500 and 2000 B.C. and is the youngest of the great Neolithic monuments in the area. Like the Standing Stones of Stenness, it was surrounded by a ditch that would have been filled with water, thus making a symbolic “island” like the real ones these people lived on.
A couple of minutes walk away, archaeologists have discovered an impressive Neolithic settlement made up of large stone buildings. The largest, rather unromantically called Structure Ten, measures 25×20 meters (82×65 feet) with 5-meter (16-foot) thick walls. This is by far the largest Neolithic stone building found in Britain.
Called the Ness of Brodgar, this settlement was inhabited from about 3,200 to 2,300 B.C. Each of the buildings was used for a time and then covered over. Structure Ten got special treatment. There seems to have been a big feast there as a grand finale, with the bones of some 300 cattle deposited at the same time, as well as a complete skeleton of a red deer, which seems to have been simply left there and not eaten. You can read more about the Ness of Brodgar excavations on their blog. New information is being uncovered every day.
So the dates of the two stone circles and two settlements show there was about a thousand years of activity in this area. Archaeologists believe that it was a ritual focal point for all of Orkney and maybe even for people in more distant lands.
On the Bay of Skaill, on the western shores of Mainland, is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. The eight structures are similar to the Barnhouse site but on a much grander scale. Each has a large square room, beds to the sides, a central hearth and a stone “dresser.” These shelves of stone have caused all sorts of debate among archaeologists. Some think they were simply for storing things, while others suggest ritual use. The buildings were connected by covered passageways.
Skara Brae was occupied from about 3200-2500 B.C., the same period as the other great Neolithic sites. Before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, Mainland Orkney developed a great and little-known civilization.
The prehistoric sites on the Orkney Mainland are collectively known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beyond those mentioned here, the UNESCO listing includes many tombs, including the impressive Maeshowe. More on them tomorrow!
A great resource on all things Orcadian is the Orkneyjar website, which has a seemingly endless supply of articles on the history, archaeology, culture and folklore of Orkney. Highly recommended!
Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”
Coming up next: “Prehistoric Tombs and Viking Graffiti in Orkney!”