The plan was to base our inaugural public ‘solstice’ event at Avebury and thus it seemed natural to book a room at the Public House which is situated in the centre of the Stone Circle…
Only, The Red Lion no longer provides B&B so we ended up instead at a hotel some ten miles away in Ogbourne St George.
Now, Ogbourne St George is a curious name and one redolent of both mystery and intrigue, and given our literary proclivities, we thought it might be possible to find something of interest in the village to occupy our Companions for at least one of our allotted slots over the weekend.
We had stayed in Ogbourne… before and had a visual memory of a strange mound-like structure in one of the fields lying adjacent to the hotel and had pinned to it an accompanying mental note which ran, ‘…must have a closer look at some point.’
A little research in the form of flick through the ley-line dowsers’ classic, The Sun and the Serpent by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst, confirmed both the visual memory and our hunch that the structure would hold some interest for us.
It was not a prehistoric construction at all but a ‘folly’ built sometime during the Second World War by a local farmer but somewhat amazingly it had, according to our venerable authors, been constructed over a node which marked the crossing of the Michael and Mary currents.
This, it seemed to us, was very curious…
The mound now looked like nothing so much as an overgrown hillock with its spiral causeway, rising twenty feet in height, all but obliterated by trees, bushes, and shrubs and there was a picture of it in the aforementioned tome which approximated with the mental image which had been stored in my mind for future reference all those years ago.
It was in this respect reminiscent of another of the mounds we planned to visit over the weekend.
The now slightly more famous, but equally tree-infested Merlin’s Mound stands in the middle of the private grounds of Marlborough College beset by houses of learning and no doubt deliberately dwarfed by both the sheer bulk and the lofty spires of the College Chapel.
This mound is a prehistoric structure and has recently been given a date of construction commensurate with Silbury.
As we had been unsuccessful in our request to the authorities concerned to climb the mound and as the third of our mounds, the aforementioned and world-famous Silbury Hill is now fenced off and no longer accessible to the public we were hoping that our unobtrusive poor relation in Ogbourne St George would afford our Companions the chance to scale its relatively modest sides and experience the dual currents of the Michael and Mary leys.
In this, though we were destined to be disappointed…
Not to be outdone by the recent discoveries on Orkney, Stonehenge – one of the world’s most famous stone circles – has thrown up a whole new story about its origins… and its original face.
(1100 words, a ten-minute read)
It was the end of the archeology ‘dig season’. Strong winds and heavy rain had blown for weeks across the exposed face of the hillside on the west coast of Wales. Everyone was ready to call it a day and go home – an action that would doom the last attempt by Professor Mike Parker Pearson of University College London to show that there was a much deeper link between this saturated hillside and faraway Stonehenge than anything dreamt of, before…
One of the dig team called out – a large stone had been found, not far beneath the surface. Professor Parker Pearson set off across the mud, holding his breath…holding on to the possibility that it might be a Bluestone, or even better, a ‘socket that had held a known tooth’.
If you’ve visited the famous Stonehenge stone circle in Wiltshire, you may recall that the Neolithic monument, 5,000 years old, actually comprises two rings. The outer circle consists of 15 of the larger Sarsen stones, familiar to us from images of the site. Each of the Sarsen stones average 13 feet in height, and an astonishing 7 feet wide. The average weight is 25 tons, though the largest, the Heel Stone, weighs about 30 tons. The stones are connected with matching overhead lintels. Recent developments in geochemical techniques have placed the origin of the Sarsen stones at West Woods near Marlborough, 20 miles from the stone circle.
But within the mighty ring of Sarsen stones is a secondary circle of smaller ones – the focus of this post.
Within these, in the centre of both circles was originally a third group of free-standing trilithons, each comprising two vertical Sarsens joined by a lintel. The whole monument is oriented towards the sunrise on the Summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night, and a time of immense cultural importance for the people who constructed the stone circle, 5,000 years ago – using only stone tools.
The two different outer stone circles have long been a puzzle. The types of stone quarried for the Sarsen stones is quite different from that used for the inner circle. The latter has a blue hue and hence their name: Bluestones. Decades ago, geologists located similar stone outcrops in the Preseli Hills (see map) in the far west of Pembrokeshire, the last bit of Wales before the Irish Sea. But that’s a long way from Wiltshire, and the prospect of moving the massive stones 150 miles east begs the question: why on Earth would anyone do that? Wiltshire is not short of its own durable stone…
Professor Parker Pearson had a theory… actually, he had two, but he wasn’t telling many about the second, which was more of a slim possibility. His first theory was that the long-accepted origin of the Bluestones, whilst being the Preseli Hills, wasn’t the hilltop outcrop at Carn Menyn that had first been assumed. Part of his reasoning was that nothing else related to Neolithic ritual and burial activity was to be found nearby – yet Pembrokeshire is famous for such sites.
The professor is a world authority on the prehistory of Britain and Western Europe from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. He is also one of the authorities on the archeology of ‘death and burial’ during this period; a topic that unites and divides in seemingly equal measure. For the whole spring and summer of 2018, his team excavated two sites a few miles from the rejected Carn Menyn. At first, the work went well, with a high chance of success. But, as the season wore on, conflicting evidence suggested that nothing conclusive could be found – much to the dismay of the locals, who were great supporters of the work; and the potential revelations it would bring about the location’s link to the ancient past.
With the dig-season running out, Professor Parker Pearson turned his attention to a nearby boggy field, Waun Mawn, the site of four small monoliths and well known to the locals. But a full excavation, there, had never been carried out. It was the last possibility. Pearson’s exhausted team dug in for days, fighting the wind and rain… then the cry went up… a new and large stone had been found.
The results are astonishing. The original circle at Waun Mawn comprised a full stone circle of between 30 and 50 large stones. The circle is the third largest in the UK, even bigger than Long Meg, in Cumbria. The stones were of a blue hue… and one of them had a socket hole with no stone; and that socket matched one of the stones at Stonehenge, exactly. The socket had found its ‘tooth’ – 160 miles away. All of this had been protected by the Welsh peat for 5000 years.
The full story almost needs a stiff whisky to absorb… The Bluestone circle at Stonehenge was the original circle, transported by the tribe from Preseli who migrated to Wiltshire, taking their most treasured object with them. The massive, outer Sarsen stone circle was added, later, at a time when the makers had perfected their art… but they never abandoned their beloved original circle…. which is still there for us all to see and feel – the inner ring of Stonehenge…
All of this is the subject of an excellent BBC documentary, available for the next ten months on the BBC’s iPlayer service, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.
And there my narrative was due to end, but then, preparing the blog post from last Thursday on the new findings from Orkney, I saw footage of Professor Parker Pearson walking with Neil Oliver at the intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae.
Last week’s blog discussed the findings that Orkney was the place of origin of all the British stone circles, whose journey took them (predominantly) down the west coast of the British Isles… culminating at Stonehenge in what is now Wiltshire, where the last of their Bluestone masterworks was given its new and final home, set within the most magnificent stone circle ever created.
And you have to ask, assuming they survived, what did these remarkable people build next? But that’s for another day… not that I have the answer, mind you. But I’m watching the people who might have, very closely…
Professor Parker Pearson is the co-author of an interim report on the dig at Waun Mawn. The link to the PDF is here.
If you want to follow the Silent Eye’s workshop on the trail of the Picts and Sacred Orkney, here are the other parts of that series:
It’s a chilly, drab kind of morning at present, I wondered what it would bring once the sun came up to show us the day. The question was soon answered. Fog. The kind of heavy mist that lets through no light and paints the familiar landscape ghostly grey. Shrouding the distance in mystery it makes the mind question what it knows as looming giants that stretch grasping fingers towards unwary walkers resolve themselves into trees beside the lane.
My brain was a little on the foggy side too, it seemed. For me the day began, for some unknown reason, by waking to question the origins of the name ‘marzipan’. Strange things often linger when I wake up, so I am not in the slightest surprised… just curious. I like marzipan and I had been looking through my recipes yesterday so no doubt the source of the query lies there…
Marzipan has always seemed an Eastern confection to me, though it has become part of so many traditional treats these days across Europe. Between bedroom and coffee cup, however, I went back to the older English name for the confection… marchpane… and wondered if that refers to the month or the traveller’s gait …and does ‘pane’ come from the French ‘pain’… which would make it March-bread or waybread…
It would work as the latter… nuts, sugar or honey, sometimes eggs or oil…a high energy and protein food. Why March as in the month though? Something to do with Mars? God of war.. soldiers marching…the speculation goes all over the place at this point. But it does seem to suggest that a diet of lembas might not be so bad…
Does it actually matter and is it in any way relevant to the day? No, not a bit, though curiosity set me on an etymological search as my coffee cooled, only to find the origins more complex than I had supposed and rooted in ancient Persia… or Germany… or China… perhaps.
In what way was this a productive use of the time I have to spare in the morning? How did this tie in with the ante meridiem contemplations with which I am supposed to be occupied? I had to wonder myself for a minute, but it was staring me in the face from the start. Even the fog should have given me a clue.
How often have I used that word in varied languages without considering what it really means or where it comes from? And by blithely accepting the word on face value, associating that collection of syllables only with the definition first taught to me as a child… that marzipan is a paste made from almonds and found on Christmas cakes…how much had I missed of its real meaning, origins and possibilities?
By extension, just how much do we miss by accepting our habitual definition of the world and ceasing to explore further, finding out for ourselves what it might mean? Within the Silent Eye, we suggest that the student accept nothing they cannot verify for themselves, either through the objective experience of the outer world or the subjective understanding of the inner. Yet here was just such an example of the habit of blasé acceptance with which we define our reality.
The fog and the marzipan had given me food for thought.
New evidence from the past two years’ work on Orkney has revealed breathtaking perspectives on the nature and importance of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar…
(1000 words, a ten-minute read)
(Above: technical reconstruction of Structure 10 and its dramatic ‘pyramid’ roof on the Ness of Brodgar by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)
Staring, breathless, at the TV, desperately trying to keep notes, I was clutching my pencil so hard, it began to splinter…
There was a silence among the archaeologists and assorted technical specialists grouped near Structure 10 on the Ness of Brodgar World Heritage Site; the kind of silence that follows feverish activity and intense speculation – most of it expectantly negative…
We are a cautious species. If we long for something that might change the world, and hope it might happen, we prepare ourselves to be wrong.
The group of intense people were waiting for a phone call regarding a date. A diving team had drilled a ‘time-core’ into the base of the shallow sea that is Loch Stenness, north of the tiny strip of land that houses the Ness of Brodgar site. Extensive ‘geophys’ (basically radar for archeological work) had revealed a sunken island in the middle of the loch’s basin, and the surface had revealed the shape of a natural stone circle.
In revelation after revelation, the story of what was likely the world’s first ‘common culture’ had come together, centred on the Ness of Brodgar, an impossibly narrow strip of land north of Stromness, on Orkney, seven miles north of the tip of Scotland.
Older than the Great Pyramid, the nearby Ring of Brodgar had been dated to a time in the Neolithic period when the tribes of hunter-gatherers had settled in fertile lands, creating the first permanent settlements and beginning what we today call a commonculture.
I was watching the BBC’s ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’. If you follow my blogs, here and on Sun in Gemini, you’ll know that Orkney and its ancient history are a favourite topic. Other relevant posts from the Silent Eye’s 2019 workshop on Orkney are listed at the end of of this piece. The BBC programme features, amongst others, Neil Oliver and Chris Packham, two well-know authorities in their own fields; together with the dedicated team excavating the Ness of Brodgar each summer.
Chris Packham had just shown how the presence of the Orkney Vole was really an interview with a time-traveller. He revealed that, thousands of years ago, the non-native vole species had arrived from Belgium, not by itself, but carried and bred as an eaten delicacy by the farmers who originally populated Orkney, five thousand years ago… Meat-eater or not, you’ve got to admire the science…
Back to the waiting crowd at the Ness of Brodgar. Neil Oliver read out the results of the core’s dating. The researchers had dared to consider that the presence of the natural stone ring had been the ‘first stone circle in Britain’… and therefore something that inspired all the rest. Archaeologists have long puzzled how such structures sprang into existence ‘fully formed’. Finding the first would have been a seminal moment.
The documentary had already shown that Orkney was the place from which all other stone circles in Britain had originated; following a development that would move south through Scotland and the rest of Britain, and culminate with Stonehenge, in Wiltshire – considered to be a masterpiece of the art, but now dated at least three hundred years after the Ring of Brodgar.
Neil Oliver looked realistic but sad as he reported the data had shown the sunken ring feature was thousand of years older than needed to fit the possibility; millennia before the ‘spiritual farmers’ who came to settle and create this outstanding culture of the Stone Age – with villages such as Skara Brae amazingly intact, including the interior of their houses.
You could feel the disappointment in the team. But so much had already been uncovered and proved – including a reconstruction of how the Orkney people, finally leaving their beloved archipelago, crossed the deadly Pentland Firth to reach the mainland near present day Thurso. And all this in boats made from tree branches and waterproofed hides.
The series reached its final few moments with Neil Oliver and Chris Packham visiting a now-deserted island, off Hoy, to ‘feel’ what an abandoned land was like – They found that the cattle left behind, thirty years prior, had not only survived, but, in seven generations, had reverted back to their genetic forbears in order to reorganise and survive, alone.
But then it was back to the Ness of Brodgar for the final sentiments. So much has been achieved; so much revolutionary ancient history uncovered. Orkney had been placed as the ancient capital of Britain. Who would have thought a place so far north could have been such a cradle of civilisation!
And then, as the archeological team were pulling over the vast tarpaulins that would protect the site through the coming winter, they stopped to show the latest and strangest find. Located in the deep earth below Structure 10 (the pyramid-roofed ritual centre of the complex) was a long, thick slab of stone on its side. Further examples of this strangely aligned stone revealed a random layout, clearly not a part of what had been constructed above it.
The camera pulled back to show the face of the Site Director, Nick Card, calm and unruffled, as he had been through the three programmes. “We think they’re full standing stones that have been laid on their edges,” he said. “As though the whole of this Ness of Brodgar complex had been built above the first stone circle… which, of its type, it might well be.”
The dig had run out of time and weather. It will take another season of careful excavation to confirm that possibility. But, bearing in mind that the Ness of Brodgar has been re-dated back to at least 3,500 years BCE, They may already have found the indisputable heart of the relationship between the stonemasters of ancient Orkney and their beloved sky…
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.
You turn to take in the landscape… This magnificent place, where the natural features are as spectacular as the Neolithic discoveries, lies between two lochs surrounded by a natural amphitheatre. You are encircled by the hills and the monuments that make up the heart of Orkney’s Neolithic World Heritage Site. Welcome to the Ring of Brodgar, in the valley of the stars…
(1500 words, a twelve-minute read)
The Ring of Brodgar lies on the isthmus between the Lochs of Harray and Stenness. It is one of the best stone circles in the world and originally comprised 60 megaliths, of which 27 remain upright. It is a perfect circle, 104 metres in diameter.
It is breathtaking, and unlike many ancient circles, if you go at the right time, you can have it all to yourself… When we visited, in September 2020, there were less than twenty people there.
It used to be that theories of Neolithic Orkney were based around the Brodgar stone circle, but now, an entire complex of temples and dwellings, located just a few hundred metres away, have been added to the list of treasures to be found here. The Ring of Brodgar is likely to remain the central attraction, but with Skara Brae within a day’s return walking distance and the new discoveries matching the latter in style, the entire Ness of Brodgar is now being seen as a ‘spiritual city’, rather than just the place of the stone circle.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve been here twice. I’ve documented many of our explorations of Scottish islands in these pages.
In May 2018, we fulfilled a life-ambition and, came to Orkney for a five-night spring break, travelling with some friends by train to Thurso, then by ferry across to Orkney – as with this present Silent Eye trip. Bernie had spotted, online, that there was a local pagan group who would be celebrating the Beltane festival at the stones. They had invited anyone interested to join them, asking for a few details prior to our arrival.
I count myself more a mystic than anything else, and wrote to tell them that, but they were pleased to have us present, and, in view of my personal history, offered me a small part in the ceremonial proceedings. It was a great honour.
(Above: from May 2018 – the Beltane ceremony)
This was on our second evening, and we hadn’t yet collected our rental car, so we took a taxi from Stromness to the Comet Stone, which marks the beginning of the Brodgar site. From there, we were inducted into the ceremonial process. It was a lovely event, with an open spirit and a celebration of the magnificence of the location and its importance to Orkney – past and present.
I will remember it most for the sunset. It was early May and we had expected little in the way of decent weather. But Orkney surprised us with the most golden sunset I have ever seen. Even after leaving the site, standing at the bus stop a mile away, we were still gazing mutely at the sky, enraptured that this could have happened.
The Orkney weather on the 2020 trip was overcast, so I have included shots from both visits to give the reader a flavour of that splendour in this most powerful of locations.
The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle. It is rare to find both in the same site. It is the only stone circle in Britain which is a perfect circle. Brodgar ranks with Avebury and Stonehenge as among the greatest of such sites. These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.
(Above: Ring of Brodgar – September 2020)
There are no known stones within the circle (unlike Avebury, for example) but there has never been a detailed excavation of Brodgar, and wooden structures may have been located within. The Ring of Brodgar was created later than most of the surrounding sites, such as the chambered mound of Meashowe and the nearby settlement of Skara Brae. It is likely that it represented the pinnacle of the work of these mysterious people, who may well have been the forerunners of the Picts.
The Ring of Brodgar is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, whose ‘Statement of Significance’ for the site describes its significance better than I could:
The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation…The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae’
The Ring of Brodgar’s natural setting did not function alone. There is a final addition to the story of Brodgar’s sacred landscape. The mapping of the heavens carried out by the ancient priests required they mark the position of the winter solstice sunset… ideally against a feature on a hill in the landscape, as used throughout the Scottish Pictish world.
(Above: The Brodgar stone marking the winter solstice setting sun points to a valley on the neighbouring island of Hoy)
The chosen position (above) – a valley between two mountains – looks close to Brodgar, but is in fact on the neighbouring island of Hoy. A mysterious shrine, now known as the ‘Dwarfie Stane’ was constructed at the exact spot on Hoy corresponding to this line of sight from the Ring of Brodgar.
(Above: the mysterious Dwarfie Stane on the island of Hoy)
The information board at the Dwarfie Stane reads:
This unique monument has attracted attention for centuries and many scholars have visited it and theorised. It has been described as the dwelling place of giants, of dwarves, and as the home of an early Christian hermit.
It was actually a tomb, related to the many chambered cairns found throughout Orkney. It dates to between 3500 and 2500 BC. Its construction, carved from a single enormous block of stone, is without parallel in the British Isles.
The labour involved, given the lack of metal tools, suggests that although small, it may have been of special significance.’
During the 2020 workshop, we did not have time to visit Hoy. But we were fortunate to have stumbled across it on our 2018 personal trip, during which we had visited the neighbouring island. Then, we had no knowledge of the link between Brodgar and the mysterious ‘natural shrine’ we came across on our way to the far side of that mainly uninhabited island.
(Above: from 2018 – Hoy’s dramatic west coast – the Old Man of Hoy is an hour’s walk from here)
(Above: Hoy is beautiful but bleak)
(Above: from 2018, the Dwarfie Stane looks back towards the Ring of Brodgar – lone sentinel of the winter solstice sun)
We took away some wonderful memories of that earlier trip to Hoy. Two stand out in memory. The first was a Persian inscription on the walls of the ‘Dwarfie Stane’, left by a Victorian artist, soldier and traveller, Willam Mounsey. On the outer wall of the tomb, he wrote ‘I have sat for two nights and have found patience’. To me, this immediately suggested a Sufi thought.
No-one knows what its meaning is. But Mounsey was a learned scholar who could speak and write in several middle eastern languages, including Persian and Hebrew. He is believed to have operated as a spy for the British Army. He was an accomplished historian and an authority on the Celts. His work suggests to me that he had a ‘mystical bent’. It’s entirely fanciful, but I like to think he may have sat there, looking back along the line of sight to Brodgar and musing about the spiritual nature of the Celts who created this ‘line of light’.
The second memory is of a startled Bernie seeing a golden eagle minutes later, in the telescope of a bird-watcher parked in the lay-by. He had been watching the eagle on its nest for many hours and offered us each a viewing. Only Bernie saw it… but what an end to the day it had provided.
At the time, we knew nothing of the visual link across Scapa Flow to the Ring of Brodgar, but, now, two years later and standing at the Brodgar marker stone, looking across at Hoy and remembering, I marvelled at how connected our human experience can be…
In the next post we will look at the remaining sites at or near to the Ness of Brodgar and summarise the incredible story of this heart of Sacred Neolithic Orkney.
A ten-minute journey from Stromness, on Orkney, lies an ‘isthmus’ which recent excavations have shown to contain one of the richest archeological concentrations in the world… It is nothing less than an ancient spiritual city, lost to time until the early years of this century.
(1200 words, a ten-minute read)
An ‘isthmus’ is defined as ‘a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land’. It’s an old word, not seen often these days. Scotland – land of lochs, lochans and vast waterways has many of them. But this is a land beyond Scotland, yet just a few miles off its north-eastern coast.
We were in the final few days of the Silent Eye’s exploration of the land of the Picts, having reached the tip of the mainland and journeyed to the beautiful archepelago of Orkney – a place so far north you are on a line of latitude with southern Norway.
The arial image above, from the official archeological dig site of the Ness of Brodgar – one of several sites on this isthmus – says it all. It is a land within a land, a place whose location has such intense beauty that you can imagine why the ‘stone’ age priests who came here stopped and stayed to make it not just a home, but a spiritual city.
We have largely lost the sense and meaning of the word ‘Priest’. A priest was a wise one; a teacher of life, a way-shower to relationship. And that relationship was with the world around us. The heart of that relationship was our own individual sense of self, an ‘I’. Later, understood more deeply, the ‘I’ became an ‘I am’ and bore a deeper relationship with the beauty around us. Over time, organised religion has the unintended effect of taking away our relationship with what should be the vivid edge of our own existence. When that happens, we lose the chance to dissolve that barrier…
It is only with the advent of ‘object relations’ psychology’ that we are finally understanding the many facets of the ‘I’, and its importance in the development and maturity of the individual, transiting through separation to maturity… and for a ‘priest’, beyond.
The ancient priests of Orkney did not have the psychology of object relations; but they did have stories and myths; and for those of emotional maturity, they had ritual, an action they knew spoke to a deeper part of themselves, individually and collectively. It took a giant of psychology, Carl Jung, to show our modern age what we had lost in not talking and listening to our deeper minds, to translate the need and usage of ritual into modern language.
We can imagine families, grouped around a fire beneath a sky full of stars, sharing the wisdom stories that would act as a reliable canvas for the experiences of the maturing child, guiding her or him through play, then puberty and into sexual and societal maturity – each aware of their powers and their responsibility to the tribe, the land and, above all, to self. From that, all else flowed.
Thousands of years later, Shakespeare was to encapsulate that thought in Hamlet:
“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…” (my italics).
For the ancient priests, the truth was written by nature into the world – as experienced by a self-honest human. The land had the properties of earth: it was solid and held the seeds of that which fed them. These were farming people, and the seasons of growth, fullness, harvest and fallowness were profound truths, whose existence was self-evident. Their own bodies were sustained by the air and the earth and the earth in turn was sustained by the seasons, powered in shorter and longer cycles by the moon and sun. The moon was strongly linked with women, the sea and the shorter cycles of sex and fertility; the sun controlled the longer cycles of life-giving energy that flowed from the sky onto the earth… and specially for humankind, into the daily miracle of fire, something no other creature seemed to possess.
The great story of this relationship with nature was told in the heavens. The priests, as with any civilisation, were deeply concerned with the constantly unfolding saga within which life on their given and fertile ‘earth’ was set. People’s natures were indicated – though not entirely – by the placing of the mysterious ‘wanderers’ in the sky – what we now know as the visible planets – ending with Saturn, the limit of unaided sight without magnifying lenses.
Within the city of learning that was built here, the isthmus, surrounded on nearly all sides by a soft and gentle sea, had a special relationship with the constellation of Orion – the hunter, which is bright and easily visible at these latitudes. The symbolic link, and the stories told of its significance to the ancient people of Orkney is lost to time…
The Ness of Brodgar is the name of the isthmus that separates the lochs of Harray and Stenness. The name derives from the Old Norse nes – headland; brúar – bridge and garðr – farm, and translates roughly as the “headland of the bridge farm”.
Within this small area of land are several ancient archeological sites. The image below gives an idea of the sheer scale of what has been recently uncovered.
The Ness is the centre of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. The Ness is covered in, and surrounded by, ancient archeology. Until the start of the 21st century, this was best known as the location of the Ring of Brodgar. That changed in 2002 when, on the south-eastern end of the Ness, excavations revealed a massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings along with associated artwork, pottery, bones and stone tools. The design of the dwellings here closely resembles that at Skara Brae, and hence my suggestion that they may have been tightly linked.
The Ring of Brodgar is an open site and was not subject to Covid restrictions, apart from social distancing. Situated on the isthmus between the Lochs of Harry and Stenness. It is one of the best stone circles in the world and originally comprised 60 megaliths, of which 27 remain upright. It is a perfect circle, 104 metres in diameter. In the next post, we will examine it in detail.
Skara Brae’s modern story began in 1850 when a violent sea-storm tore off the layers of grass, sand and soil that had covered what appeared to be two ancient and completely intact Neolithic houses. For 4,000 years, they had been lost to history, having been mysteriously abandoned.
(1000 words, a ten-minute read)
The local landowner at the time was William Watt, who lived at Skaill Hall, which is located next to Skara Brae and can be visited in its own right. Watt explored the two exposed houses and collected many objects. Like several other local explorers, Watt left few records of his work. In the 1860s, George Petrie, an able Orcadian historian and antiquarian, made frequent visits to the site and discovered there were other buried houses. He made copious notes and left them to public posterity. By the end of 1867, this dedicated man had cleared and documented the contents of Houses 1,3,4 and 6. – See key below.
This foundational work paved the way for the detailed excavations carried out by Gordon Childe, the first Professor of Archeology at the University of Edinburgh. It was due to Professor Childe’s work that Skara Brae became one of the foremost Neolithic sites in the world.
The far side of Skara Brae is adjacent to the present beach of Skaill Bay. The sea level has risen and gradually encroached. When the village was occupied the bay was fertile farmland. The new outer wall is massively reinforced to protect the site well into the future. Skara Brae has been classified as a World Heritage Site and is cared for by Historic Scotland.
The whole site is around 100 metres across. It’s compact, and most of the houses are connected by internal paths and what appears to be stone plumbing! You can simply ‘feel’ the quality of the dwellings, as though something of their ancient spirit survives…
The long path from the visitor centre brings you to Houses 10, 9 and 7. The path narrows but continues around the site. It has been constructed at a higher level allowing visitors to look down and into the ancient dwellings. You can’t actually go into the houses, but you can get very close.
The entire village of Skara Brae was set into a midden, which had been transported from another site as a prerequisite to building the house structures. The midden was essentially a rubbish tip for organic waste – food, shells, carcasses of animals. As it decomposed it gave off heat and warmed the houses. It might have been smelly but it was warm! Humour aside, it showed the sophistication of both planning and living in this ancient settlement.
All the surviving houses at Skara Brae are remarkably similar to each other. The main building material was stone, which was locally available. For all the houses, the outer and inner faces of the walls are dry stone, meaning without mortar. The spaces between the walls were packed with additional midden material, as detailed above. The resulting wall was over two metres thick. The midden core of the buildings not only provided heat, it kept the houses waterproof as well.
Historically, it had been thought that the roofs – possibly constructed of whalebone and cloth – were kept low because of the winds. But recent evidence suggests they were conical, high, and lined with eel grass which absorbed smoke, allowing a much more pleasant interior space.
Detailed excavation has revealed that each house had at least one ‘storage cell’. The larger dwellings had a large storage cell that linked with a central drain with running water. This points to the provision of toilets at Skara Brae, their earliest known use in Britain.
(Above: Structure 8, or the Workshop)
‘House 8’ was the only building in the settlement which was not actually a house. Whilst there was a central hearth, it lacked beds and a dresser. Known as Structure 8, it appears to have been a workshop for making stone tools and perhaps pottery, bone tools and wooden implements. The walls were thicker than the other houses because they were not dug into the midden for support and heat.
To my mind, the ‘dressers’ are the most curious aspects of the houses in the settlement. The guide book admits they may have been individual shrines, something I hadn’t read prior to this visit. Being close to them, again, there came the strong conviction that the dressers were holy places within the houses. Moreover, given the opulent nature of the settlement, I strongly felt there was a good chance that Skara Brae did not house ordinary farming people.
I consider it possible that the whole of Skara Brae was a ‘school’ for a priesthood whose central authority was a few miles away at the Ness of Brodgar – next to the famous Ring of Brodgar. I will go into more detail in the next post. The picture of Orkney thrown up by the continued sophistication of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar has changed, dramatically, and there is world-wide interest in its potential to update the history of this part of the world.
The more you learn about Orkney, the more it is evident that, in Neolithic times, it was the centre of a pivotal civilisation. It is likely that these people were the forerunner of the Picts, driven south by some unknown force or, possibly, warring armies from pre-Viking Scandinavia.
The group, quiet with the depth of the experience, moved back to the cars. We had important things to consider, and the Ring of Brodgar was only a few miles away and our next stop…