The conclusion of the Silent Eye’s extended workshop to Orkney. A visit to the neighbouring island of Rousay. A sad disappointment and a wonderful surprise. (1300 words, a twelve-minute read)
For our final day, we were off to the Island of Rousay..
I’ve written, elsewhere, about what it’s like to drive a car full of passengers, backwards, down a steep ramp towards a ferry which should be ‘down in the gloom, somewhere’… Then take a twenty-minute journey to a neighbouring island, only to do it all again and return at the end of a the day…
On our previous trip to Orkney, in 2018, we had visited the island of Hoy, across the central Scapa Flow waterway.
It had provided a necessary contrast to the Orkney mainland, and reminded us how central was the constant presence of navigable water to the ancient peoples who lived here.
For this trip to Rousay, the ferry crossing was a shorter one, and the purpose of our visit was twofold: to examine a chambered tomb within what had been a Neolithic farming community; and to carry out a coastal walk to a ‘Broch’ – a peculiarly Scottish defensive structure that was often found at the heart of prosperous Iron Age settlements – usually close to the sea.
The first of these was Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, built by Neolithic farmers over five thousand years ago, and uncovered thanks to the work of Walter Grant and Graham Callander (see image below).
In 1936, Walter Grant, a local whisky producer, and National Museum director Graham Callander dug into a mound of heather-covered stones to reveal Blackhammer. Inside they found human remains and objects possibly left as offerings to the dead. The chambered tomb was remarkably intact.
Blackhammer is one of 15 such tombs on Rousay, and in use at the same time as the Ness of Brodgar sites now being excavated. There was an important difference, though – and that was why we wanted to visit.
Here on Rousay, the chambered tool served the needs of a simple farming community, and we felt it would allow us to understand their spiritual beliefs, which may have subtly differed from the ‘priestly’ community around Brodgar.
Excavations in the 1930s revealed two adult male skeletons, fragments of animal bone, a bone pin, a polished stone axe of plain grey-green stones and some Neolithic pottery. It is not known whether these were ‘grave goods’ buried with the body, or ceremonial objects used during burial rites.
The Blackhammer burial chamber has seven compartments and is cocooned within the heather-covered mound, less than a mile from the sea. Dry stone walling arranged in a herringbone pattern runs around its outer edge. The tomb’s construction was a massive undertaking for local farmers during the Neolithic period, when most of their time was spent providing food for their families. It reveals the important place that the community’s ancestors retained in daily life.
The above schematic shows the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. The elements are: (1) Entrance Passage; (2) Blocking Stones; (3) A set of ‘stalled chambers’ for the remains of their ancestors; and (4) A later wall which may have been created following encroachment on the original tomb)
Sadly, when we got there, the site was closed… We knew the second of our visits would provide ample justification for the ferry ride, so I photographed the information boards, which have been used above to illustrate the site.
We were able to clamber up the mound to peer down through the roof (above), giving some idea of what lay in the interior, but, other than the mound itself, that was it.
But then, on the way out, I noticed that the ‘closed’ sign had a QR code on it. If you’ve not used one of these before they are amazing things. They link to a website related to what you’re looking at, and sometimes even contain a virtual-reality tour.
We couldn’t get a phone signal at Blackhammer, and the rest of the day was full, so I forgot about it… Until I was writing this blog! What I hadn’t expected was that the online link would work with a photo of the QR code just as well as being there. Please try it!
Given the above, I’m content to move on. What happened next was quite sublime…
A few miles along the coast road of Rousay lies a historic site information board. You are here, says the small, red sign on the photo. But ‘here’ is a long way above the ocean, and Midhowe lies close to the sea. I wasn’t too excited. Covid had put paid to any chance of a visit to anything ‘with an enclosed interior’. We knew the risks when we arrived.
The sad thing was that, at the foot the cliff, perched above Eynhallow Sound – with its famous ‘roaring’ tidal race – are two of Rousay’s most spectacular ancient monuments.
Midhowe Chambered Cairn is among the largest Neolithic tombs in Orkney. It was built 5,400 years ago. Neighbouring Midhowe Broch was the centre of a much later Iron Age settlement between 200 BC and 100 AD… And this latter site was open.
We made a slow and careful descent of the steep path, each lost in our own thoughts. We had seen so much during the past few days. This day had a slightly surreal feeling to it…
The vast hanger that houses the 33 metre Neolithic Cairn was closed and locked. The windows were shuttered, but not all the shutters were locked into place. With a gentle pull (later reversed to restore their original state), several were happy to open. For a moment, I was reminded of the church at Nigg, and Sue Vincent’s famous trick of standing on tiptoes and pointing the camera at the glass, to see what the camera might just capture. The windows here weren’t as high. I tried it and looked at the camera image. Even in the sunlight something was visible.
Motivated by this, I repeated the exercise at three other windows around the perimeter of the hanger. The side windows revealed the long sides of the chambered tomb. I wondered if I dared hope the remaining side had an open wooden shutter…
I confess to having a small chuckle when the final shutter opened. At first I could see nothing, as the bright afternoon sun was streaming in behind me. Then, with adjusted eyes, the entrance to the long cairn came into focus. I found that if I blocked the sunlight with my body, I got a clear image – as clear as the dusty windows would allow.
The ‘stalled’ chambered cairn of Mid Howe is an impressive example of a type of drystone monument known as an ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ cairn. Its entrance passage leads to a long central chamber, divided by pairs of upright stone slabs into 12 ‘stalls’.
Midhowe was excavated in 1932-3, again by Callander and Grant, who found the remains of at least 25 human skeletons, plus stone tools, pottery, and animal bone. In the mid-1930s it was enclosed by its present protective stone-built hangar, allowing the whole cairn to be appreciated. The outer layer of decorative stonework has been arranged in a herringbone pattern to reproduce the likely original.
The hanger was built from local stone. Rousay resident Walter Grant, co-excavator of Blackhammer, and owner of the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall, paid for its construction and, afterwards, gave it to the nation.
I left smiling. I wouldn’t be able to evaluate the photos until I got back to the hotel, but I knew they had been worth taking. Perhaps we would come back, one day and take a proper tour. For now, the Broch and its wonderful setting beckoned. It was, literally, next door – though the two structures were not related.
Leaving the Chambered Tomb, my gaze was drawn towards the beautiful stratified rocks that led down to the sea near the Broch. I knew I had to get down there before we left the site.
The thickness of the Broch’s walls tells you that this was a defensive structure. Created long after the Neolithic people who made the temples at the Ness of Brodgar, the Iron Age people who lived here would have known little of their forebears, except perhaps for their stories and legends.
Set behind a rock-cut ditch and rampart, Midhowe Broch was the first and largest building of a small, well laid-out village. It may have been built by an extended family demonstrating their power and influence in the area. Although the site would have provided some protection against sporadic raiding, the inhabitants were farmers, like nearly everyone else at this time.
On a clear day you can see the matching Broch of Gurness across the water. Midhowe is one of nine brochs that stand sentinel over the narrow and dangerous stretch of water known as Eynhallow Sound.
Leaving the Broch and looking towards the sea, I had the sense that this would be the right place to finalise this series of blogs on Scotland and Orkney. By creating two streams, one going back in time, the other forwards, I could end up here. There was something very special about this place.
As I dropped down the descending levels of the layers of rock. I had the desire to let go of all the facts, all the history… They were important, academically, but they were the past. The consciousness in the landscape, the ‘I’ of each of us, was now and was real. In the next second, it too would become old and replaced with the next sequential part of the eternal now. To have that continuity was a gift of Life and memory, but what mattered was the now. The past was subjective history, the future was potential. Only the now had absolute reality.
That sense of letting go felt very good. Within a few minutes I was crouched, balanced on a wet slab of ancient rock, within inches of the lapping sea.
It was one of those, literally, perfect moments… There aren’t too many in a lifetime. The others in our group had left me to my exploring and were on their way back up to the car park. I was quite alone in a now landscape. This beautiful place had created an intense feeling of peace and objectivity. I crouched down on the rocks to make a recording of something very special. You can’t record that level of peace, but you can try…
The moment is here in the video, if you’d like to share it. It may not work within WordPress, but let’s see. If not, the photo above will give some idea of the moment…
This is the last blog in the Pictish Trail and City of the Stars series.
If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to firstname.lastname@example.org, saying what your interests are.
The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)
(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)
History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.
(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)
The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.
No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.
In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.
In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…
(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)
The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.
I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?
(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)
But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.
(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)
The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.
In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.
Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.
A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.
Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…
(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)
Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…
The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.
Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.
Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!
The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.
The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.
To be continued.
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The Standing Stones of Stenness are reduced in importance compared with their former status. But 5,000 years ago, they were the stone circle for the Ness of Brodgar spiritual city. Only later, in the period culminating in the deliberate act of self-destruction of the Ness of Brodgar structures, were these stones eclipsed as the ‘guide to the heavens’…
(1300 words, a twelve-minute read)
The Orkney site of the Standing Stones of Stenness is overshadowed by its neighbour – the Ring of Brodgar, which is just a few minutes away by car, or fifteen minutes on foot. We had done it both ways… the first time was under a spectacular golden sunset, in 2018. This was the second, and our final visit to the Ness of Brodgar area.
There were other reasons to visit Orkney, but seeing the entire Ness of Brodgar area – in light of the implications of recent excavations – had been the main reason for extending the Silent Eye’s weekend onto Orkney.
For a long period of time at the start of what we now call the Neolithic era – the new stone age, the stones at Stenness were the major stone circle on Orkney, and a key component of the life of the ritual city centred on the Ness of Brodgar, whose sophistication is just coming to light, as detailed in a previous post.
The Standing Stones of Stenness were raised between 3,000 and 2,900 BC. Originally, the circle consisted of no more than 12 stones. Today, only four survive. They were surrounded by a wide ditch and raised circular bank (a henge) which was crossed by a single causeway. The whole is reminiscent of how the interior of the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure 10 led only to one point at the centre of the building…for those granted the privilege of being there. In both cases, the recipients are likely to have been carefully selected, and few in number.
There were several related stones that lay outside the stone circle. These include the Stone of Odin, which features in local legends but was destroyed by a local farmer in 1800s, and the Watch stone, which marks the land bridge to the area which contains the Ring of Brodgar, though the latter had not been constructed at the time the Stenness Stones were erected.
At the centre of the Stenness circle was a large hearth. In Neolithic houses, such as those we had seen at Skara Brae (and, though not visited, Barnhouse, next to Stenness) the hearth formed a ritual focal point. The fire there would have been viewed as sacred, and as demonstrating to ‘nature’ that the tribe understood there was an inner fire possessed by all of life, and passed down to it from the ‘stars’.
We have lost the sense of ‘specialness of fire’. To us, fire is commonplace and practical. Unless we are young children there is no wonder in it, even though, if civilisation ended and we found ourselves freezing, few would have the ability to make it, again. The comforts of the modern world have their benefits and their disadvantages. One of the latter is the loss of contact with the vital forces of nature…
Like Struture 10 at the neighbouring Ness of Brodgar, the single entrance at Stenness created a hallowed central space where access could be controlled. Its use can only have been ceremonial and ritualistic: the birth of a child, perhaps; the survival of that child beyond seven years; the coming of age as an adult; the passage of a trainee into the priesthood… perhaps all these things took place here.
There is also celebration. The coming together of the people – probably from far away, as this was such an important centre of Neolithic life. You can stand on this place, look back at Lochs Stenness and Harray and feel how they might have rejoiced at such a gathering.
There was in all probability an earlier building at the site partially represented by sections of masonry, empty stone holes and an earlier central hearth setting.
The form of the stones themselves is of architectural note in that they are very tall and very thin blades of stone i.e. they are structurally very slender and probably at the very limit of structural stability. The stone monoliths were derived from at least five different sources, one of which was Vestra Fiold, on the west coast of Mainland, north of Skara Brae.
A leading archeologist writes:
We had run out of time… No-one wanted to leave the Brodgar area. We gathered to review what this landscape had taught us about the sophisticated people who had lived here, so long ago.
The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have shown that all the sites here, plus the ‘village’ of Skara Brae, were part of a single, spiritually-focussed landscape that involved both a trained priesthood and a dedicated (and hugely ‘expensive’) temple-building programme. The ritual chamber at Maeshowe is a foremost example of this.
The so-called ‘Dressers‘ – see image below – were the central edifice in the kind of worship these people performed, and we should examine them accordingly. From this perspective, we can see that there is a significance to the three legs. The idea of ‘threeness’ was central to much of the Celtic world, and invokes the idea that an impelling higher will uses the ‘descending’ power of duality to achieve its purposes. Mankind, as an intelligent recipient of a creative Nature, can come full circle and project this back to the Creator to demonstrate understanding.
The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar uncovered ‘shelves’ of these dressers decorated in bright reds and yellows – very likely solar in their representation.
The use of the midwinter solstice as the most sacred time of the year (rather than the midsummer) indicates a subtle comprehension of the ‘tension of cycles’. In my previous ‘fictional’ example, the new priest is chosen and ordained by an appearance of the last sun of the ‘old cycle’ i.e. before the start of the six months in which the sun gets brighter, and the days longer. The priest is thus associated with the power of light over the darkness…
The day was ending. The following morning, we would sample the best – rather than the worst – of the Viking culture that eventually overtook Orkney, bringing a long period of imposed feudalism to its occupants. But, even within that, there were elements of great beauty.
To be continued.
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To build something so sophisticated, so designed, as the Maeshowe Chambered ‘tomb’, would have required enormous dedication from the people of Orkney. Seen alongside the emerging splendour of the Ness of Brodgar ‘spiritual city’, you get a flavour of the total commitment of these ancient people to their task…
(1500 words, a ten-minute read)
The dark-haired one shivered in the gloom, pulling his heavy furs around him, licking the sweet drink from his lips – as much in nervousness as thirst. He had not expected the call; had not thought, those months ago, that he would be crouched here, waiting for something unknown, in the late afternoon of a freezing winter day…
Ahead, one of the three who had guarded him began to crawl along the passageway, leaving two; each with a firm hand on one of his shoulders. At the far end of the stone tunnel, the now-distant figure knocked on the large guardstone with a rock. For a long few seconds nothing happened, then there came the sound of the heavy stone being dragged to one side.
The darkness revealed in that distant and narrow aperture seemed to swirl the more he looked at it. His eyes adjusted to its near-black quality, thick with hidden purpose. He gazed as he had been instructed, looking for something unknown, his eyes becoming more acute with each passing heartbeat. The momentary flicker of gold shocked him with its intensity. He blinked, in case it had been a trick of being so long in the darkness. When his eyes returned to their focus, it was stronger – an arc of gold and red at the left edge of the far hole into the world and moving visibly, as he watched, to fill the small, black space.
The beauty was so intense, he could hardly bear it, and tears streamed down his cheeks, vapour rose off his face in swirling clouds that mixed with the rays of light coming from the world, splitting the incoming beams into jewels. The guards relaxed their grip and bent to whisper things in his ears: some clear, some at the edge of meaning and seemingly garbled. When they had finished, his whole being felt turned inside out and he only wanted one thing – to be released to crawl towards that place of the most beautiful light he had ever seen.
“Go!” The command came in unison from both. “Now, while the hole in the world is made bright, for you have become twice chosen.” Strong hands propelled his stiff limbs and he stumbled, half running, half crawling, along the stone passage towards the gold and red that was filling it.
The great arms that pulled him from the neck of that passageway drew him nearly into the air before pinning him back agains the cold stone; but he never took his eyes from the intensity of the bright sun blazing dead ahead in the black sky. In language he did not know, but would come to, it was bringing him to life, filling his depths with a calmness, purpose and belonging that he had never dreamed possible.
The twin grips on his flesh had changed. With the force there was now reverence. The four arms were changed to two, one over his forehead, one over his heart.
“I name you Priest, once chosen by the tribe,” sang the man on his left.
“I name you Priest, twice chosen. By the tribe and by the Sun, symbol of all life,” sang the other, the man whose hand was over his heart.
Ixra, twice chosen and anointed priest, holder of the heart of his people, felt their hands leave his flesh. Still staring at the red and gold orb, whose brilliance had begun to fade, he stretched out his hands to take theirs, that they could share in the fire now streaming from him.
I didn’t really understand the Maeshowe ‘Chambered Tomb’ the first time I saw it. You can’t walk to it from the visitor centre, you have to be taken by bus to a vehicle park parallel with it. The main road between Stromness and Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, runs right past the Maeshowe site, so a guide walks you across from the bus park an onto the long walkway to the distant mound.
Initially, there’s not a lot to see. As you enter the walkway, the mound of Maeshowe looks a long way off.
The walkway passes through the large henge that surrounds Maeshowe. The interior may have been filled with water in the time of its active use, adding to the ‘birth symbolism’.
Maeshowe seems to have been built for one purpose: to honour and use the ritual power of the setting sun at midwinter – the solstice, the time of the shortest day and longest night. This point in the year is honoured in many temple structures in Scotland, including the remarkable ‘recumbent’ stone circle at East Aquhorthies, near Inverurie, a type only found in north-east Scotland. Allan Pringle and his wife, Ann, had conducted us on an excellent tour of the region three years prior.
You enter the interior the Maeshowe chamber by a long and low entrance passage on the south-western side of the mound. You have to crouch, uncomfortably, in the 28 inch vertical space, and the passageway is a long one – 36 feet.
The entrance passage was constructed using clay and and large native Orkney stones, each weighing as much as 30 tons. The entrance passage is made up of two sections. The outer passageway has been reconstructed due to damage prior to its excavation, but the the inner section is original.
At the point where the outer passage meets the inner, there is a recess containing a large stone that was used as a ‘blocking stone’, capable of being rolled back into the space to close the passageway.
The blocking stone doesn’t completely fill the aperture and this has led to speculation that this may be have been part of the design of the ‘light-entrance’ of the mound. Research has shown that it would have been easier to seal the mound from the inside. This underlines the widely held view that the chamber was used for rituals – and by a few people, only – a dedicated priesthood.
The entrance leads into the large central chamber, from which three smaller side-cells branch off. The image below, taken from the information boards, shows what must be a rare occurrence – given the time of year – of a bright far wall at the Winter solstice.
The skill of the Neolithic builders is evident once you are inside the main chamber. The drystone stonework is exact and of very high quality. The structure’s lower walls rise to a height of nearly five feet before they begin to slope inwards to finish in what would have once been a corbelled roof. Built into each of the three walls facing the entrance is a side chamber. It is thought these may have been used as depositories for the bodies of important ancestors… But no human remains were ever found here.
Maeshowe’s present roof is a modern one, installed in 1910, when the monument was taken into state care. Prior to this, and as confirmed by the above 1861 sketch of James Farrer, the chamber’s roof had not survived. The top of the structure was found to be already damaged during the excavation that year.
The excavators were only the latest in a series of visitors who had entered the structure by breaking through the roof! The most famous of these were a party of unknown but artistic Vikings who sought shelter here and left some spectacular graffiti on the sandstone walls.
Among this was a now-famous ‘dragon’, more likely to have been a wolf or lion, which has since become the basis of much Orkney jewellery…
I left Maeshowe feeling somewhat frustrated. A large group of us were packed into its compact space (remember this was 2018), but, more crucially for me, I was unable to take photographs, upon which I rely in my subsequent blog posts. Only later, when I reviewed my memories of how it felt, was I able to compose the thoughts of initiation that became the short imaginary piece that introduced this post. Maeshowe is one of the places where that was undeniably its purpose.
It’s certainly true to say that a normal tour of Maeshowe does not do justice to the obvious spiritual nature of the structure. That would be difficult for Historic Scotland to achieve. But if they’d like a volunteer as to how this could be done…
There was one more face to the area around the Ness of Brodgar: the Standing Stones of Stenness. We will visit them for our final post from the Neolithic part of Orkney, on Thursday.
The more the Orkney archeologists uncover, the more it is certain that the settlement on the Ness of Brodgar was the hub of a dynamically influential and spiritual society, 5000 years ago… For example, what’s this pyramid…. yes, that’s right, pyramid?
(1700 words, a fifteen-minute read)
(Above: Illustration of Structure 10 by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)
That can’t be right, I thought, looking at the image, again…
Three thousand years BC… Five thousand years ago. That’s a long time, I mused. But I knew that Orkney was ancient, and that the importance of its early civilisation was only just coming to light…
What were the Egyptians doing in 3000 BC?, I wondered, reaching for the Google button.
‘Archaeologists believe Egypt’s large pyramids are the work of the Old Kingdom society that rose to prominence in the Nile Valley after 3000 B.C. Historical analysis tells us that the Egyptians built the Giza Pyramids in a span of 85 years between 2589 and 2504 BC.’
To set this Orkney time-frame into context, let’s imagine we go back to the Vikings – say 900AD, then back further to the time of Christ – year zero, then add on another move backwards as far as we are forward, now… then back another interval, equal to the time from Queen Elizabeth Tudor to today.
We’d still need to go back another five hundred years to match the age of this advanced Orkney civilisation… a staggering thought.
But looking at it with familiar ‘units’ like that helps to set the context and share the wonder of how and why I’m staring at a non-Egyptian pyramid with such interest. To be fair, Structure 10 (image above) is not a pyramid, it’s just shaped like one, with a steep roof. It’s really a ritualistic gathering place, with what appears to be a convention-shattering tiled stone roof – the oldest such structure in the world.
In 2008, the excavators uncovered the largest stone-built Neolithic structure in Britain. It was not a tomb… It was created around 2900BC and Structure 10 was the last major construction on the Ness of Brodgar site, which is why I’ve chosen to focus on it in this post.
The scale of the building was astonishing. Measuring 25 metres (82 feet) long by 19 metres (65 feet) wide, the four-metre-thick outer walls are still standing, though now only to a height of one metre.
Structure 10 had a single entrance. This was not a social building – it had a very specific purpose…
(Above: Structure 10 from above – taken from the Ness of Brodgar information panels )
A pair of standing stones flanked the entrance, which led to to a cross-shaped central chamber. The style of this combined different elements of both Neolithic chambered tombs (like Maeshowe) and houses, such as those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae which we had visited earlier in the Silent Eye workshop.
The central space – the focus of the whole edifice – was comparatively small and not designed to hold many people at a time. I couldn’t help comparing this aspect to the (later) King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid and the temples of Karnak, both of which I’ve stood in and ‘sensed’ the space.
Were these places of spiritual initiation – awakening?
One of the ‘stone dressers’ – identical to those we had seen at Scara Brae, was found in the centre – but not placed against a wall. This ‘dresser’ was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone.
(Above: the ‘dresser’ from Skara Brae’s visitor centre)
The Ness of Brodgar site is uncovering a Neolithic complex like no other in the British Isles. All this on a long and thin strip of land between two of Orkneys’s lochs (Harray and Stenness) that is only the size of five football pitches.
The site has changed history’s views of the culture and beliefs of Neolithic Orkney… and just as importantly, beyond… The learned and skilled people who were here mysteriously disappeared during the second millennium BC. Where did they go? The Picts did not emerge until the second century AD, so are unlikely to be direct descendants…
Without parallel in Atlantic Europe, the Ness of Brodgar’s mere three hectares are literally chock-full with massive stone structures containing unique and spectacular finds.’
Despite my two trips, I’ve never been able to get inside the Ness of Brodgar excavation site, other than staring at its tarpaulin covers over the archeological fence. It’s frustrating because I’ve spent hours wandering around the Ring of Brodgar, the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness and even had a tightly chaperoned crawl through a long and low entrance shaft into the chambered tomb of Maeshowe…
During the Silent Eye’s extended weekend, we had just completed what was our second trip to Skara Brae; but the Ness of Brodgar, the place that now seems to have been the creative and administrative centre of the entire ritual landscape of Neolithic Orkney, had eluded me. The dig and the corresponding visitor ‘walk’ are only open in the summer months, and then, for obvious reasons, not in the time of Covid-19.
(Above: the complete timeline of the site… so far. Image from the online information boards referenced previously)
The story of the Ness of Brodgar began in 2003 on a field at Brodgar belonging to farmers Ola and Arnie Tait. Their plough caught on something hard and large. They sought help and a huge stone was revealed. Local archeologists were called in and an initial trench was dug, which revealed the corner of a building. This bore a resemblance to ancient houses at the nearby Neolithic village of Barnhouse. The team dug another eight test trenches, and seven of them discovered more stonework. Things were getting intense…
Using all the available information, the team created a plan for two large trenches to cut through different parts of the site – Trenches P and T. The information board describes the results:
Opened in 2008, Trench P is one of the two original trenches on site and home to the series of monumental buildings that are now known worldwide.
The buildings you can see in the trench today are from the last major phases of the site, with construction started on the tiered Structures One, Eight, Twelve, Fourteen and Twenty-one around 3200BC and initially abandoned around 2900BC.
The Ness of Brodgar site is now world-famous, and dramatically larger and more significant than anyone could have imagined. Thirty-six ‘structures’ have been excavated so far. There are many more waiting to be started. Further experts were co-opted and a picture of the sophistication of construction began to emerge, with the use of stone piers and corner buttresses.
Some of the early work revealed structures with tall support stones, named orthostats, which were comparable in size to those at nearby Meashowe (see next post). The accuracy of construction was far ahead of what had been expected; for example, the tops of the orthostats were all within 20 mm of each other – all this with stone tools…
Together with the rich, large assemblage of prestige items (such as mace heads and polished stone axes) this suggests it was more than a domestic settlement.
Structures 8 and 10 were constructed with steeply sloping flagstone roofs – the earliest instance in the archeological world. Structure 10, with its pyramidal roof, is the longest lasting, and survived through to the end of the site’s use. It seems to have been a temple; the very heart of the Orkney civilisation for thousands of years. A large collection of animal bones indicate that its use was terminated, ritually, with a feast, and then the site – like Skara Brae – was ceremonially closed down and demolished.
These people wanted to leave nothing of their spiritual selves behind…
The inference is that the people moved on, migrated south. But no-one knows where…
Detailed work on the site continues, and only a fraction of the total buildings have been excavated. Nearly a thousand stones have been discovered that show markings of various kinds; cut, carved, picked or ‘pecked’. This is one of the largest such groups found in Europe. About a third of them had been ‘pick-dressed’, their surfaces worked with a sharp point and repeatedly tapped. This process has only ever been found in a few other places in the British Isles, including nearby Maeshowe, Anglesey and the great Irish tombs on the river Boyne.
Although the Ness buildings are architecturally similar to houses at known Neolithic settlements in Orkney – such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse – they are much larger and more elaborate.
One of the key analyses carried out revealed the use of peat for fuel, and sophisticated pottery-making styles using high temperatures. Organic micro-material from floors and hearths reveals barley, wheat, wild plants like crowberry and chickweed, and also charred crab apple pips.
Analysis of traces of animal fats shows that some pots may have been used for cooking beef, and others for storing or serving milk. Analysis of the many animal bones shows prime beef cattle, and also red deer, and strangely, a white-tailed sea eagle.
Surprisingly, perhaps, fish bones in contrast are fewer, with the eel, salmon and trout common, but also the consumption of cod, halibut, saithe and turbot. It seems that, despite being surrounded by the sea, meat was the preferred option.
Our investigations have expanded greatly since their modest start over a decade ago., but the excavations still only cover less than ten percent of the complete complex of buildings
We have pieced together a site biography that spans millennia, from traces of Mesolithic activity to the site’s Neolithic heyday, through to the early Bronze Age, with a later episode of use in the Iron Age.
Professor Mike Parker-Pearson of University College London, who is an expert on Stonehenge said: “We’re looking at a fairly major transition across Britain, the impact of a whole way of life, spiritual and social, which comes out of Orkney … Orkney was a place of synthesis, where whole Neolithic worlds came together.”
In the next post, we will examine the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Chambered Tomb of Maeshowe before leaving the Ness of Brodgar to visit other areas on Orkney.