Orkney – Britain’s Neolithic heartland

Skara Brae - Neolithic settlement

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a World Heritage Site, which has also been dubbed Britain’s Ancient Capital in a recent BBC TV series. It is described as a major prehistoric cultural landscape in the far north of Scotland, dating back some 5000 years. In this article, we feature some of Orkney’s archaeological treasures, including those at the Ness of Brodgar, and reflect on external influences on the Neolithic occupation of Orkney…

Orkney origins

The Orkney islands are an archipelago of around 70 islands located off the north coast of mainland Scotland. An old manuscript indicates that the islands were once known by the name Argat, possibly meaning Above the Getes, or Above the Cat (i.e. north of Caithness). The name Orkney (or Orcades in Latin) apparently derives from “Island of the Orc”s, with ‘orc’ meaning young pig, and perhaps referring to wild boar. When the Norseman arrived in Orkney, this became ‘Orkneyjar’, or Seal islands – before being shortened to the current ‘Orkney’.

Orkney land, sea and sky
Orkney archaeology

The Orkney islands are rich in archaeology, and part of the main island (or mainland) is inscribed as a World Heritage Site: the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. This incorporates the ancient settlement of Skara Brae, and various sites focused around the Ness of Brodgar (‘Ness’ meaning headland or promontory, although anciently it may have had a different connotation). The Ness area sites include two megalithic stone circles, a large chambered tomb and a major archaeological dig. Overall, UNESCO refers to these as “unquestionably among the most important Neolithic sites in Western Europe”.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae (see photo at top) is a sophisticated Neolithic village in the Bay of Skaill, which was occupied from about 3100 to 2600 BC. There are six dwellings that were buried in midden (domestic rubbish mound), along with a freestanding ‘workshop’.

The dwellings were designed to be locked from the inside. They featured stone dressers and beds, ‘grooved ware’ pottery, bone and stone tools, jewellery made from bone and shell, and small pots containing iron-based pigments. The dwellings also had their own drainage systems, and possibly even their own toilets. The roofs are likely to have been of animal hides, potentially with thatch made of straw or reed. The occupants of Skara Brae were probably animal farmers who also fished the sea and grew Bere Barley (likely to be Britain’s oldest cultivated cereal).

Some researchers have drawn parallels between the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae and ancient cultures much further south – suggesting that the Neolithic Orcadians came from, or more likely spread their ideas to, far away places such as northern Africa. For more on the Skara Brae, check out the following links:

Article: The Astronomers of Skara Brae – How much do we owe these Neolithic geniuses?

Article: Inhabitants of Skara Brae as priest astronomers from Egypt

Article: Obscure history of Skara Bare home to Dwarfs

Book: The Mystery of Skara Brae: Neolithic Scotland and the Origins of Ancient Egypt

The stone circles
Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness (the latter from Fantoman400 at English Wikipedia)

On the left above is the Ring of Brodgar, which features 27 surviving standing stones (from around 60 originals), in a perfect circle, surrounding by a 3 metre deep and 10 metre wide ditch cut into the bedrock. On the right are the Stones of Stenness, the remains of a circle of perhaps around 12 monoliths, surrounded by a ditch of 2 metres deep and 7 metres wide – which may have been filled with water, to create an island monument.

Stenness is older at circa 3000 BC, and Brodgar dates from around 2600 BC. Both are henges completed by the addition of the standing stone circles. Both have been observed to have astronomical alignments. And both would have represented major endeavours for the Neolithic people at the time.

For more on the henges of Stenness, Brodgar and (the less visited) Bookan, including a possible astronomical link to the constellation of Orion, see Kate Masters’ talk on the Megalithomania YouTube channel.

Maeshowe
Maes Howe
Maeshowe mound and cross-sections (the latter from Fantoman400 at English Wikipedia)

Described on the Orkneyjar website as “one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland”, Maeshowe is a large chambered tomb not far from the Stones of Stenness. The mound measures 35 metres in diameter and around 7 metres height, and it encases a beehive-type vault with a corbelled roof. Interestingly, this particular monument also features Norse runes carved on the inside, dating from the 12th century. Surrounding the mound is a circular ditch and raised bank.

Originally, Maeshowe dates from around 2700 BC, and is likely to have been the repository of ancestral bones. The entrance passageway is aligned so that the setting sun illuminates the chamber for several weeks before and after the winter solstice.

The Ness of Brodgar
The ‘cathedral’ on the left, archaeologists at work on the right

The final site to mention is the Ness of Brodgar, which has been the location of archaeological digs since it was discovered through geophysical survey work in 2003. The first use of the site by Neolithic peoples is likely to have taken place around 3500 BC, based on sherds of carinated bowls have been found. The main use of the site came later, according to archaeological director Nick Card:

“At its zenith, in the main phase that we are currently exploring (dating from 3100 BC), the Ness was dominated by huge freestanding buildings enclosed by a massive stone wall. This was much more than a domestic settlement: the size, quality, and architecture of these structures, together with evidence from tiled roofs, coloured walls, and over 800 examples of decorated stone – all add to an overall sense of the Ness being special in some way”

The Neolithic peoples appeared to use the Ness of Brodgar intermittently, possibly as a meeting place rather than a place of permanent occupation. At the 3100 BC high point, the Ness was dominated by Grooved Ware pottery and several large communal buildings, which fell out of use around 2800 BC.

Structure 10, dubbed the ‘Cathedral’, was erected around 2900 BC – see photo above left. It measures 20 by 19 metres, and – according to Card – “must have been one of the most impressive buildings in northern Europe at the time”. It stood alone when the other structures were cleared around 2600 BC, and was re-visited around 2400 BC, when it was surrounded by a deposit of cattle skulls and tibia bones from over 400 animals. Perhaps this represented a communal event, or feast, commemorating the end of the use of the structure?

For more on the excavations, see the Ness of Brodgar website, a BBC news article about a Neolithic axe find, and an article (with some great photos) on the National Geographic website.

What happened when?

Archaeologists and researchers are still piecing together the puzzle of Neolithic Orkney, helped by the continuing archaeological investigations, and improvements in radiocarbon and other dating techniques. What follows is an attempt to set some of the recent research against evidence of a couple of very significant climatic disturbances…

Research published in 2017 compared the development of Orkney’s heartland or core (what is now the World Heritage Site) with the peripheral areas of the islands. In his article in Northern Earth magazine featuring this research, Mike Haigh sets out a chronology for Orkney, starting around 3500 BC, with a population living mostly in the periphery in timber (and latterly stone) houses and burying their dead in stalled cairns or passages graves.

Departing from Orkney for a moment, around 3200/3100 BC a major climatic disturbance had significant impacts around the globe. It featured abrupt cooling at higher latitudes, and both flooding and desertification in lower latitudes. There have been suggestions that this was caused by an incoming storm of meteors or comet fragments. It was followed by the emergence of new civilisations around the world, and in Scotland, the Edinburgh area was first settled around this time. And as for Orkney…

“Around 3150-3100 BCE activity started at Orkney’s core, with a vibrant and competitive culture whose members seemed to have been engaging with each other as to who could build the largest and most impressive buildings and megalithic sites” (Haigh)

Perhaps this active Neolithic culture represented new settlers arriving at the islands, pushed from their homelands due to catastrophic environmental changes? Whatever the case, this period sees the establishment of Skara Brae village, the building of megalithic stone circles and the introduction of flat-based pottery. Settlements were transformed to appear as large mounds, with nucleated houses and the deposition of substantial midden materials (domestic waste). Given the evidence of abrupt cooling at higher latitudes, perhaps the Neolithic islanders were doing their best to stay warm?

After around 3000 BC the population in Orkney declined, and there was evidence of villages being abandoned around 2800 BC. A short time after this, most activity in the core had ceased, although things started to pick up again in the periphery for a couple of thousand years. There is also evidence of intermittent activity at the Ness of Brodgar in the mid-third millennium, including the possible ‘final feast’ around 2400 BC. In the periphery, Neolithic houses continued to be occupied until around 2200 BC, although there is little evidence after around 2350 BC.

This ties in very well with another major event that took place in around 2300 BC, after which there was little Neolithic activity in Orkney. It appears to have been a worldwide occurrence, possibly involving asteroid or comet-fragment impacts again, leading to abrupt climate change, sudden sea level changes, catastrophic inundations, widespread seismic activity and evidence for massive volcanic activity.

Wetter weather prevailed in Orkney

This event led to the collapse of many cultures worldwide, and it caused a climatic change for Scotland and the Orkney islands, which became wetter thereafter. Could this have pushed the remaining Neolithic Orcadians further south? Whatever the case, the Bronze Age had started in Northern Europe, and in Britain the Beaker culture came to the fore. The time of Orkney’s Neolithic culture had come to an end.

For more on the 3200/3100 BC event, check out these webpages…

And for more on the 2300 BC event…

There are maps and references below, and you are welcome to add your own thoughts and feedback in the comments section.


Scotland and the Orkney islands

Orkney maps

Brodgar map

Ness of Brodgar map 2

Further references and resources

Article by Nick Card in Current Archaeology magazine: ‘The Ness of Brodgar – Uncovering Orkney’s Neolithic Heart’, issue 335, February 2018

Article by Mike Haigh in Northern Earth magazine: The Dating Game in Orkney, issue 154, Sept 2018

Book by Caroline Wickham-Jones: Monuments of Orkney – A Visitor’s Guide, Historic Scotland, 2017

Book by Charles Tait: The Peedie Orkney Guide Book, fourth edition, revised 2017

Booklet: The Ness of Brodgar – Digging Deeper, The Ness of Brodgar Trust, 2017

TV series: Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney: Details available on BBC website, or you can view episode 1 at vimeo.com

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