Orkney – Britain’s Neolithic heartland (part 1)

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 two-part 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 sea, land and sky
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 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 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.

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.

This article continue continues in part 2 – but check out the maps below first…

Scotland and the Orkney islands

Orkney maps

Brodgar map

Ness of Brodgar map 2


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