Neolithic Scotland: Heart of Orkney World Heritage Sites

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Salt Knowe viewed from the Ring of Brodgar Orkney World Heritage site. Photo credit Val Williamson PhD.

Salt Knowe viewed from the Ring of Brodgar Orkney World Heritage site. Image copyright H.S. Williamson, used with permission.

Many of Orkney’s Neolithic monuments date back over 5000 years. Maeshowe, a well-preserved megalithic tomb, and the Stones of Stenness date to around 3200 BC. The Ring of Brodgar was once the largest circle of standing stones. With the nearby villages of Skara Brae and Barnhouse, these form the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site.

The Orkney archipelago off the north of Scotland has a complicated coastline. Neolithic Orkney has the remains of many villages or settlements still being excavated by archaeologists.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site stretches across an isthmus between two lakes at the centre of a natural amphitheatre. At one end is the megalithic chambered tomb of Maeshowe and its route links various single standing stones and several related tombs and cairns with the other elements.

Recent excavation has revealed an enormous temple complex in the centre. Current interpretation of the archaeology suggests that it was an important ceremonial site for a thousand years and may have prompted the megalithic impetus in the rest of Europe.

Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Landscape

The Neolithic drive towards impacting and shaping the landscape, which is evident in slightly later sites across Britain and France, probably began with agriculture. The Neolithic people learned how to move and manipulate rocks in order to make fields to grow crops and rock enclosures to keep cattle from straying.


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The Stones of Stenness are true megaliths, in that they are about twenty feet tall. The 23 foot passage into Maeshowe is almost completely walled by two massive megaliths laid on their long edges. There may originally have been sixty stones in the perfect circle that is the Ring of Brodgar, although only twenty or so are still evident. Certainly, a large number of people participated in quarrying, moving and erecting the stones.

For years, archaeologists and historians have debated the significance of linearity and directionality in the chain of Neolithic constructions here. Did people process from life at one end of the World Heritage site toward death at the other? Salt Knowe has nothing of any consequence inside; did it represent life in some way? Maeshowe contained bones as well as artefacts and was recognizable in comparison with other burial structures across the world; did it form the ‘end of the line’ where bones were laid to rest?

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Neolithic Villages

Orkney’s lack of trees began in the Neolithic period, leaving little wood for building, but flat slabs of stone abound in the natural local geology and many villages or settlements were built. The World Heritage site villages are Barnhouse and Skara Brae, about five miles apart. While Skara Brae to the north has been known and subject to various excavations for two centuries, the archaeologists revealed the foundation level of the village of Barnhouse only in the 1980s.

Skara Brae is much more complete because it spent centuries buried under sand and still has its walls, but there are similarities between the building styles and internal arrangements of spaces. The significance of the Barnhouse site is that at least two of its structures were not typically domestic and could have been ceremonial in function. The oldest, ‘House Two’ is divided into twin areas, each with a hearth, had human bones buried beneath a triangular cist slab and resembles a cairn interior.

‘Structure Eight’ seems much more like a centre for ritual. Both have alignments with other elements in the mysterious Neolithic ‘chain’. Like Maeshowe chambered tomb, House Two has elements of a henge in it while Structure Eight similarly has its entrance aligned with the winter solstice sunset, yet House Two’s entrance faces the opposite way.

Ritual structure at Barnhouse, entrance aligned with House Two entrance, with Ness of Brodgar Temple site in distance. Photo by Val Williamson.

Ritual structure at Barnhouse, entrance aligned with House Two entrance, with Ness of Brodgar Temple site in distance. Image copyright Val Williamson, used with permission.

“It had long been realised that Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse, the Watch Stone, the promontory and the Ring of Brodgar seemed linked like beads on a chain. What has taken everyone by surprise, however, is the possibility that the real jewel in the necklace – the centrepiece – had been entirely overlooked,” archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver says in his book, A History of Ancient Britain.

Ness of Brodgar Temple Structures

Oliver continues, “A whale-back ridge dominates the middle of the Brodgar peninsula, roughly halfway between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, and it had always been taken for a natural feature. The fact that it lies right at the centre of this great natural amphitheatre, containing all of Orkney’s most famous ritual monuments, seemed purely a coincidence of geology.”

The award of World Heritage status in 1999 led to plans for a more thorough investigation of the area surrounding the site. This began in 2002 when a geophysical survey was undertaken across the isthmus that links the stone circles, and then the archaeologists got to work. Annual programmes of digging still continue, but by 2012, archaeologists excavated a massive walled enclosure of a dozen mainly ritual buildings.

Map showing the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site in 2007.  Image credit Islandhopper.

Map showing the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site circa 2007. Image credit Islandhopper.

“We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine,” says discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. “In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres of land.” Robert McKie reports in his article ‘Neolithic discovery: why Orkney is the centre of ancient Britain’.

The site contains some of the most perfectly constructed stone walling of any historical era that stood for a thousand years from about 3300 BC. In spite of being ritually ‘decommissioned,’ after excavation, it still stands to two metres in height. Anyone crossing between the two stone circles would have to pass through the site, and its buildings are not residential in character. There is evidence of an organised hierarchical society with sophisticated artistic and craft skills, and a very rich farming community.

Orkney: Focal Point for Neolithic Innovation?

Suddenly, all the questions about Orkney’s religious rituals and community focus changed. This is not so much a linear site as one centred on a focal point. Earlier theories around cosmological arrangements of the surrounding standing stones and monuments take on new significance.

Most importantly, it is now being suggested that it was Orkney that was the centre of Neolithic innovation at least across ancient Britain if not Europe, and that it influenced the ritual Stone Age structures that still hold significance today, such as Stonehenge.

As Neil Oliver said January 2014 on the BBC blog, “Ness of Brodgar on Orkney is, for me, the most significant archaeological discovery of my lifetime. Just the sight of the place strikes me dumb and I look forward to every visit and the chance to glimpse just a little bit more.”

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© Copyright 2014 Val Williamson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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