Orkney Islands Neolithic Sites: History, Tombs, Art, Buildings, Skara Brae

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Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands is a group of quiet, wind blown islands just off the north of Scotland. During the summer time the days here last almost 24 hours, something they have in common with the Scandinavian countries that once governed them. The treeless landscape is punctuated by narrow sea lochs called voes and fertile farms. Neolithic people in most parts of the world built houses with wooden frames. But here they built their houses from stone as trees and wood were hard to find. They also built the 5,000-year-old village of Skara Brae and some of the finest Neolithic monuments in the world, including the giant chambered grave of Maeshowe, a Stone Age mausoleum whose internal walls were later carved with runes by Vikings; and the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, two huge neighbouring circles of standing stones. In 1999 they were given World Heritage status by UNESCO.

The Orkney Island is arguably the place where British culture began. "We need to turn the map of Britain upside down when we consider the Neolithic and shrug off our south-centric attitudes," Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, told the Observer, "London may be the cultural hub of Britain today, but 5,000 years ago, Orkney was the centre for innovation for the British isles. Ideas spread from this place. The first grooved pottery, which is so distinctive of the era, was made here, for example, and the first henges – stone rings with ditches round them – were erected on Orkney. Then the ideas spread to the rest of the Neolithic Britain. This was the font for new thinking at the time." [Source: Robin McKie, The Observer, October 6, 2012]

Card told National Geographic: “This is almost on the scale of some of the great classical sites in the Mediterranean, like the Acropolis in Greece, except these structures are 2,500 years older. Like the Acropolis, this was built to dominate the landscape—to impress, awe, inspire, perhaps even intimidate anyone who saw it. The people who built this thing had big ideas. They were out to make a statement.” [Source:Roff Smith, National Geographic, August 2014 \=/]

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “Orkney has long been good to archaeologists, thanks to its deep human history and the fact that nearly everything here is built of stone. Literally thousands of sites are scattered through the islands, the majority of them untouched. Together they cover a great sweep of time and settings, from Mesolithic camps and Iron Age settlements to the remains of Old Norse feasting halls and ruined medieval palaces. “I’ve heard this place called the Egypt of the North,” says county archaeologist Julie Gibson, who came to Orkney more than 30 years ago to excavate a Viking cemetery and never left. “Turn over a rock around here and you’re likely to find a new site.” \=/

“Why Orkney of all places? How did this scatter of islands off the northern tip of Scotland come to be such a technological, cultural, and spiritual powerhouse? “For starters, you have to stop thinking of Orkney as remote,” says Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. “For most of history, from the Neolithic to the Second World War, Orkney was an important maritime hub, a place that was on the way to everywhere.” It was also blessed with some of the richest farming soils in Britain and a surprisingly mild climate, thanks to the effects of the Gulf Stream. Pollen samples reveal that by about 3500 B.C.—around the time of the earliest settlement on Orkney—much of the hazel and birch woodland that originally covered the landscape was gone. \=/ ““It’s been assumed that the woodland was cleared away by Neolithic farmers, but that doesn’t seem to have been entirely the case,” says Michelle Farrell, a paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast who studies past land use and environmental change. “Although early farmers accounted for a degree of woodland loss, in some areas much of the woodland was already gone by 5500 B.C. It seems to have been a prolonged event and largely caused by natural processes, but what those processes were we really can’t say without better climate records.” One thing is certain, says Farrell: “The open nature of the landscape would have made life much easier for those early farmers. It could have been one of the reasons why they were able to devote so much time to monument building.”“\=/

Good Websites Archaeology News Report archaeologynewsreport.blogspot.com ; Anthropology.net anthropology.net : archaeologica.org archaeologica.org ; Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com ; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org ; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com; Livescience livescience.com/ ; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine ; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk

Orkney Islands Settlers

Orkney Islands

Robin McKie wrote in The Observer: “The people of the Neolithic – the new Stone Age – were the first farmers in Britain, and they arrived on Orkney about 6,000 years ago. They cultivated the land, built farmsteads and rapidly established a vibrant culture, erecting giant stone circles, chambered communal tombs – and a giant complex of buildings at the Ness of Brodgar. The religious beliefs that underpinned these vast works is unknown, however, as is the purpose of the Brodgar temples.|+|

“Farmers first reached Orkney on boats that took them across the narrow – but treacherously dangerous – Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland. These were the people of the New Stone Age, and they brought cattle, pigs and sheep with them, as well as grain to plant and ploughs to till the land. The few hunter-gatherers already living on Orkney were replaced and farmsteads were established across the archipelago. These early farmers were clearly successful, though life would still have been precarious, with hunting providing precious supplies of extra protein. At the village of Knap o'Howar on Papay the bones of domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs have been found alongside those of wild deer, whales and seals, for example, while analysis of human bones from the period suggest that few people reached the age of 50. Those who survived childhood usually died in their 30s. |+|

“Discarded stone tools and shards of elegant pottery also indicate that the early Orcadians were developing an increasingly sophisticated society. Over the centuries, their small farming communities coalesced into larger tribal units, possibly with an elite ruling class, and they began to construct bigger and bigger monuments.” Stone-Age artifacts found in Orkneys include polished stone axes, ceremonial mace heads, flint knives, a human figurine, miniature thumb pots, beautifully crafted stone spatulas, refined and delicate colored pottery and more than 650 pieces of Neolithic art, by far the largest collection in Britain. \=/|+|

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “Estimates of Orkney’s population in Neolithic times run as high as 10,000—roughly half the number of people who live there today—which no doubt helps account for the density of archaeological sites in the islands. Unlike other parts of Britain, where houses were built with timber, thatch, and other materials that rot away over time, Orcadians had abundant outcrops of fine, easily worked sandstone for building homes and temples that could last for centuries. [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, August 2014 ]

“What’s more, the Neolithic homesteaders and pioneers who settled Orkney knew what they were doing. “Orkney’s farmers were among the first in Europe to have deliberately manured their fields to improve their crops,” says Jane Downes, director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands. “Thousands of years later medieval peasants were still benefiting from the work those Neolithic farmers put into the soil.” They also imported cattle, sheep, goats, and possibly red deer, ferrying them out from the Scottish mainland in skin boats, braving miles of open water and treacherous currents. The herds they raised grew fat on the island’s rich grazing. Indeed, to this day, Orkney beef commands a premium on the market. In short, by the time they embarked on their ambitious building project on the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney’s farmers had become wealthy and well established, with much to be grateful for and a powerful spiritual bond to the land.” \=/

Skara Brae: the Orkney’s 5100-Year-Old Stone Village

Skara Brae

The Stone Age village of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands is beautifully situated near the sea. The people that inhabited this site built peat-burning hearths and stone furniture without metal tools. Near Skara Brae are the standing stones of Stenness and the 5,000-year-old Maes Howe burial mound, described as the best preserved chambered tomb in Western Europe.

Skara Brae archaeological site is one of the world's best-preserved Neolithic villages. It was discovered in 1850, after a major storm swept away the tops of sand dunes that were covering it. Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “A gale tore away some sand dunes along the Bay of Skaill, on the western flank of Mainland island, exposing an astonishingly well preserved Stone Age village. Archaeologists date the village, called Skara Brae, to around 3100 B.C. and believe it was occupied for more than 600 years. Skara Brae must have been a cozy setup in its day. Lozenge-shaped stone dwellings linked by covered passages huddled close together against the grim winters. There were hearths inside, and the living spaces were furnished with stone beds and cupboards. Even after the passage of thousands of years the dwellings look appealingly personal, as though the occupants had just stepped out. The stage-set quality of the homesteads and the glimpse they offer into everyday life in the Neolithic. [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, August 2014 \=/]

The Skara Brae settlement on the Orkney Isles dates from between 3200 and 2700 B.C. According to Live Science Skara Brae is especially famous for the preservation of its stone buildings and the abundance of Neolithic artifacts that have been found there. Archaeologists think the site was occupied from around 3180 B.C. until around 2500 B.C., when a cold change in climate may have caused the inhabitants to abandon the village. Other finds from the Skara Brae site include bone necklaces, pendants, beads and pins. Archaeologist Antonia Thomas, of the University of York, says bone artifacts from the Neolithic period are very rare, and that the many bone finds from Skara Brae were likely preserved by the alkaline sand that covered the site. [Source: Tom Metcalfe, Live Science June 22, 2016]

Houses of Skara Brae

The Skara Brae settlement is made up of a group of one-roomed circular houses that are made of stone and are recessed into the ground, possibly as protection and insulation against the weather. According to the BBC: These houses have built-in furniture made completely from stone. There are stone seats and beds and even stone shelves where precious objects were kept! Today, the homes at Skara Brae are open to the air, but they were probably covered with roofs of turf and bracken. Each home would have been linked by a set of covered passageways, so people could visit whilst keeping warm and dry.” |::|

“Inside, there was a central fireplace and a dresser made from stone. The dresser would have been the first thing you would see when you came through the door. It was clearly important. As you sat on the large stone seat directly in front of the dresser, you'd have a clear view of the door and be able to see whoever crawled in. As they entered, they'd have to look up at you. The door itself is only lockable from the inside. So when you came in here, you’d be able to shut the outside world out, have privacy. We think a bone, or a piece of wood, could have been used to hold the door in place. But today all that remains are the holes in the stone which held the bar. |::|

“Once your guest had arrived and the door was closed, you could offer fresh fish and meat cooked on the fire. And in winter, smoked meat stored in the smoky roof space would be available. Huge storage jars, too big to be brought in through the door, were buried in the corner of the house. The top of these pots were beautifully decorated and the area where they sat was surrounded by stone to protect them from being bumped and broken.” |::|

Antonia Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands, told National Geographic: “Nowhere else in all Britain or Ireland have such well-preserved stone houses from the Neolithic survived, so Orkney is already punching above its weight. To be able to link these structures with art, to see in such a direct and personal way how people embellished their surroundings, is really something.” \=/

Monuments of the Orkney Islands

inside a Skara Brae house

According to UNESCO: “The Orkney Islands lie 15 kilometers north of the coast of Scotland. The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites. The group constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which gives a graphic depiction of life in this remote archipelago in the far north of Scotland some 5,000 years ago. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website =]

“The monuments are in two areas, some 6.6 kilometers apart on the island of Mainland, the largest in the archipelago. The group of monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney consists of a remarkably well-preserved settlement, a large chambered tomb, and two stone circles with surrounding henges, together with a number of associated burial and ceremonial sites. The group constitutes a major relict cultural landscape graphically depicting life five thousand years ago in this remote archipelago. =

“The four monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney are unquestionably among the most important Neolithic sites in Western Europe. These are the Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and Skara Brae. They provide exceptional evidence of the material and spiritual standards as well as the beliefs and social structures of this dynamic period of prehistory. =

“The four main monuments, consisting of the four substantial surviving standing stones of the elliptical Stones of Stenness and the surrounding ditch and bank of the henge, the thirty-six surviving stones of the circular Ring of Brodgar with the thirteen Neolithic and Bronze Age mounds that are found around it and the stone setting known as the Comet Stone, the large stone chambered tomb of Maeshowe, whose passage points close to midwinter sunset, and the sophisticated settlement of Skara Brae with its stone built houses connected by narrow roofed passages, together with the Barnhouse Stone and the Watch Stone, serve as a paradigm of the megalithic culture of north-western Europe that is unparalleled. =

“The property is characteristic of the farming culture prevalent from before 4000 BC in northwest Europe. It provides exceptional evidence of, and demonstrates with exceptional completeness, the domestic, ceremonial, and burial practices of a now vanished 5000-year-old culture and illustrates the material standards, social structures and ways of life of this dynamic period of prehistory, which gave rise to Avebury and Stonehenge (England), Bend of the Boyne (Ireland) and Carnac (France). =

“The monuments on the Brodgar and Stenness peninsulas were deliberately situated within a vast topographic bowl formed by a series of visually interconnected ridgelines stretching from Hoy to Greeny Hill and back. They are also visually linked to other contemporary and later monuments around the lochs. They thus form a fundamental part of a wider, highly complex archaeological landscape, which stretches over much of Orkney. The current, open and comparatively undeveloped landscape around the monuments allows an understanding of the apparently formal connections between the monuments and their natural settings. The wealth of contemporary burial and occupation sites in the buffer zone constitute an exceptional relict cultural landscape that supports the value of the main sites.” =

The site is important because: 1) The major monuments of the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, and the settlement of Skara Brae display the highest sophistication in architectural accomplishment; they are technologically ingenious and monumental masterpieces. 2) The Heart of Neolithic Orkney exhibits an important interchange of human values during the development of the architecture of major ceremonial complexes in the British Isles, Ireland and northwest Europe. 3) Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC. The state of preservation of Skara Brae is unparalleled amongst Neolithic settlement sites in northern Europe. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape that illustrate a significant stage of human history when the first large ceremonial monuments were built.

Temple Complex of Ness of Brodgar


On the temple complex of the Ness of Brodgar, Robin McKie wrote in The Observer: “Its size, complexity and sophistication have left archaeologists desperately struggling to find superlatives to describe the wonders they found there. "We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine," says discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology."In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres of land." [Source: Robin McKie, The Observer, October 6, 2012 |+|]

“Once protected by two giant walls, each more than 100m long and 4m high, the complex at Ness contained more than a dozen large temples – one measured almost 25m square – that were linked to outhouses and kitchens by carefully constructed stone pavements. The bones of sacrificed cattle, elegantly made pottery and pieces of painted ceramics lie scattered round the site. The exact purpose of the complex is a mystery, though it is clearly ancient. Some parts were constructed more than 5,000 years ago. "This wasn't a settlement or a place for the living," says archaeologist Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University, who excavated the nearby Barnhouse settlement in the 1980s. "This was a ceremonial centre, and a vast one at that. But the religious beliefs of its builders remain a mystery." |+|

“What is clear is that the cultural energy of the few thousand farming folk of Orkney dwarfed those of other civilisations at that time. In size and sophistication, the Ness of Brodgar is comparable with Stonehenge or the wonders of ancient Egypt. Yet the temple complex predates them all. The fact that this great stately edifice was constructed on Orkney, an island that has become a byword for remoteness, makes the site's discovery all the more remarkable. For many archaeologists, its discovery has revolutionised our understanding of ancient Britain. |+|

Orkney Monuments as a Cohesive Unit

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “Stand at “the Ness” today and several iconic Stone Age structures are within easy view, forming the core of a World Heritage site called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. On a heather-clad knoll half a mile away rises a giant Tolkienesque circle of stones known as the Ring of Brodgar. A second ceremonial stone circle, the famous Stones of Stenness, is visible across the causeway leading up to the Ness. And one mile away is an eerie mound called Maes Howe, an enormous chambered tomb more than 4,500 years old. Its entry passage is perfectly aligned to receive the rays of the setting sun on the eve of the winter solstice, illuminating its inner chamber on the shortest day of the year. [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, August 2014 ]

“Maes Howe also aligns with the central axis and entrance to the newly discovered temple on the Ness, something archaeologists believe is no coincidence. They suspect that the freshly uncovered ruins may be a key piece to a larger puzzle no one dreamed existed. \=/

“Until as recently as 30 years ago, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and the Maes Howe tomb were seen as isolated monuments with separate histories. “What the Ness is telling us is that this was a much more integrated landscape than anyone ever suspected,” says Card. “All these monuments are inextricably linked in some grand theme we can only guess at. And the people who built all this were a far more complex and capable society than has usually been portrayed.” \=/

“One of the more startling discoveries has been discernible traces of colored pigments on some of the stonework. “I’ve always suspected that color played an important role in people’s lives,” says Card. “I had a sense that they painted their walls, but now we know for sure.” Indeed one of the structures apparently served as a kind of paint shop, complete with piles of pigment still on the floor: powdered hematite (red), ocher (yellow), and galena (white), together with the dimpled rocks and grinding stones that served as mortar and pestle. \=/

Orkney Island Tombs

Skara Brae house entrance

Kate Ravilious wrote in Archaeology magazine: The very earliest tombs, such as the ones on the Calf of Eday, an outlying island, are simply small oval rooms with radial divisions — scaled-down versions of the earliest buildings at the Ness of Brodgar. [Source: Kate Ravilious, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2013]

These are followed by “stalled” tombs, rectangular structures with stone piers creating a series of “stalls” down either side, such as the Midhowe tomb on the island of Rousay. These clearly reflect the rectangular buildings with internal stone piers seen at the Ness of Brodgar.

Finally, the stalled tombs give way to “chambered” tombs, which consist of a central room with an entrance passageway and side chambers coming off of it, such as nearby Maes Howe, which is aligned with the winter solstice so that the setting sun shines down the entrance passageway on the shortest day of the year. At the Ness, this final phase is reflected by the “cathedral” (Structure 10), which has the same interior shape and alignment as Maes Howe.

Art, Pottery and Painted Stonework Found at Neolithic Orkney Island Sites

On the pottery found at Ness of Brodgar, Kate Ravilious wrote in Archaeology magazine: “At the time, different settlements tended to have their own motifs for decorating the pottery of their village or clan. A variety of motifs and colors (another Ness first — the earliest evidence of colored pottery from Neolithic Britain) have been identified among the Ness finds. Distinct buildings and pottery for different communities suggest separate ceremonial practices and decision making. “We think it is possible that the pottery was brought from all over Orkney to a special place, which was the Ness, representing a more holistic sense of identity between settlements as society became more centralized,” says Towers. [Source: Kate Ravilious, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2013]

“Inside Structure 10, also known as the “cathedral,” the discovery of ancient grinding stones, containing little hollows and the remains of pigments, indicates that the paints daubed on the walls and brushed onto the pots at the Ness of Brodgar complex were made by grinding down locally derived minerals and mixing them with animal fat or egg white to create a paste. “The nearby island of Hoy is known to produce hematite [an iron ore used to make different colored pigments], and not far away from the Ness there is a known source of galena, a lead-bearing ore that can produce a white pigment,” says Scott Pike, an archaeological geologist from Willamette University in Oregon, who has been analyzing the Ness paintwork. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy carried out by Pike and his team has shown that the colors are chemically distinct from the stone walls, confirming that they were painted on and not naturally occurring.

Skara Brae passage

It seems that only certain parts of the walls were painted (such as the stones surrounding a door), and only a small percentage of the pots were colored. What the colors signified remains a mystery. “These colors are sometimes taken as a strong reference to the self, the body, and its fluids, but colors such as red, white, and black could also refer to fire and its transformative effects. Certain colors and patterns could also have signified ownership,” says Roy Towers of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

“Meanwhile, the carved artwork emerging from the Ness of Brodgar is puzzling archaeologists. A huge variety of types of inscriptions has been found across the site, but some of the most elaborately carved stones were found in dark corners and deep recesses, where they wouldn’t have been fully visible. Possibly the act of carving the stone was more important than viewing it afterward. Meanwhile, some of the faint scratchings are barely visible with the naked eye, leading to speculation that the bold designs may have been scratched through pigment.

Orkney Trade of Goods and Ideas

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “Also found among the ruins were prized trade goods such as volcanic glass from as far afield as the Isle of Arran in western Scotland, and high-quality flints from across the archipelago and beyond. These artifacts suggest that Orkney was on an established trade route and that the temple complex on the Ness may have been a site of pilgrimage. [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, August 2014 ]

“More intriguing than the items traders and pilgrims brought to the site, say archaeologists, is what they took away: ideas and inspiration. Distinctive colored pottery sherds found at the Ness and elsewhere, for example, suggest that the trademark style of grooved pottery that became almost universal throughout Neolithic Britain had its origin in Orkney. It may well be that rich and sophisticated Orcadians were setting the fashion agendas of the day. This is totally at odds with the old received wisdom that anything cultural must have come from the genteel south to improve the barbarian north,” laughs Roy Towers, a Scottish archaeological ceramicist and the site’s pottery specialist. “It seems to have been just the reverse here.” \=/

“Traders and pilgrims also returned home with recollections of the magnificent temple complex they had seen and notions about celebrating special places in the landscape the way the Orcadians did—ideas which, centuries later, would find their ultimate expression at Stonehenge.”

Decline and Fall of Orkney’s Stone-Age Culture

Roff Smith wrote in National Geographic: “But sometime around the year 2300 B.C., for reasons that remain obscure, it all came to an end. Climate change may have played a role. Evidence suggests that northern Europe became cooler and wetter toward the end of the Neolithic, and these conditions may have had a negative effect on agriculture. Or perhaps it was the disruptive influence of a new toolmaking material: bronze. Not only did the metal alloy introduce better tools and weapons. It also brought with it fresh ideas, new values, and possibly a shake-up of the social order. “We’ve not found any bronze artifacts so far on the Ness,” says Card. “But a society as powerful and well connected as they were must surely have known that profound changes were coming their way. It may have been they were one of the holdouts.” [Source: Roff Smith, National Geographic, August 2014 ]

“Whatever the reason, the ancient temple was decommissioned and partially destroyed, deliberately and symbolically. Before the people moved on, they left behind one final startling surprise for archaeologists to find: the remains of a gargantuan farewell feast. More than 400 cattle were slaughtered, enough meat to have fed thousands of people. “The bones all appear to have come from a single event,” says Ingrid Mainland, an archaeozoologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands who specializes in ancient livestock. She has been analyzing the piles of bones that were deliberately arranged around the temple. Curiously, the people who ate that final feast left behind only the shinbones of the animals they slaughtered. “What the significance of the tibia was to them, where that fits in the story, is a mystery,” says Mainland. \=/

Long chambered burial cairn, Midhowe, Rousa, Orkney

“Another unknown is what impact killing so many cattle may have had on this agricultural community. “Were they effectively taking out the future productivity of their herds?” wonders Mainland. “We don’t know.” After cracking open the bones to extract the rich marrow inside, the people arranged them in intricate piles around the base of the temple. Next they draped unbutchered deer carcasses over the piles, presumably as offerings. In the center of the chamber they deposited a cattle skull and a large stone engraved with a sort of cup motif. Then came the final act of closure. “They deliberately demolished the buildings and buried them under thousands of tons of rubble and trash,” says Card. “It seems that they were attempting to erase the site and its importance from memory, perhaps to mark the introduction of new belief systems.” Over the centuries that followed the abandonment of the Ness, time and the elements took their toll. Whatever stones remained visible from the old forgotten walls were carried away by homesteaders for use in their own cottages and farms.” \=/

Impact of Climate on the Orkney Islands around 5000 Years Ago

Kate Ravilious wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Gradually, environmental changes appear to have intensified competition between communities, perhaps leading to a more hierarchical form of society, something that Card believes is reflected in the changes of building style. During this portion of the Neolithic, Orkney’s land was slowly sinking due to a phenomenon called glacial rebound. When glaciers melt, the land (which floats upon the Earth’s molten mantle), relieved of the weight, rises like a ship with its cargo removed. As this was happening in western Scotland, Orkney was left on the other end of a seesaw, being pushed down. [Source: Kate Ravilious, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2013]

Valuable farmland was submerged by rising waters. “This changing landscape would have made life quite stressful and the flourishing of sophisticated monuments may have partly been a response to this changing landscape,” says Caroline Wickham-Jones, from the University of Aberdeen, who has studied the sea-level change in the area. People may have turned to spiritual matters to make sense of the changes around them. The monuments and associated ceremonies may have helped the society organize and work together, but also likely reinforced a social hierarchy and the rise of powerful leaders who made decisions for everyone. And as the water continued to slowly rise — a process that continues today — the neck of land at the Ness of Brodgar is likely to have taken on even greater spiritual importance, as the only dry passage between the two stone circles.

“For the people living at the Barnhouse settlement, it appears that the rising waters took their toll around 2700 B.C., when the site was abandoned. “We think the boggier land may have made it too difficult for them to grow crops, and they abandoned the village,” explains Wickham-Jones. And around the same time, a new phase of building began at the Ness of Brodgar. Excavations have revealed that the oval-shaped buildings were replaced by several much larger buildings with more angular architecture, including internal stone “piers” that divide the buildings into rectangular alcoves. These buildings are three or four times larger than the dwellings uncovered at Orkney’s most famous Neolithic village, Skara Brae, about five miles away. “Skara Brae is like a shantytown in comparison to this,” says Card. Some of the new buildings slice over portions of the old oval buildings, suggesting a fresh start and a new way of doing things.

Skara Brae Neolithic Village

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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