2. Funerary stone circles
The Standing Stones
The Stones of Stenness were partly excavated by Graham Ritchie in the 1970’s and some of the surrounding area was examined by Colin Richards and his team in the late 1980’s and early 90’s as part of the Barnhouse project. They stand at the centre of a circular henge—a ditch with an external bank—about 44 metres across. The fill of the ditch, which was about 7 metres wide and 2 metres deep, produced some animal bone (mainly domestic cattle and sheep but also some belonging to dogs or wolves). There were also some sherds of Grooved Ware, suggesting the remains of sacrificial offerings or ritual feasts (or both). A radiocarbon date from one of the bones has produced a date of 2356 bc ± 65 (by convention, archaeologists use the lower case ‘bc’ when referring to raw dates), which calibrates to a little over 3000 BC.
The causewayed entrance to the henge faces north-northeast, in the general direction of the neolithic settlement at Barnhouse, which about 150 metres away on the shore of Loch Harray. There seems to have been only the one entrance, making Stenness a Class I henge but, given the fact that no digging has taken place in the southern part of the site, this conclusion can only be tentative. Excavation of the terminals of the ditch (right) revealed that the one on the west had been extended at some point to make the entrance narrower. This was probably done at about the same time as the stones were put up because the gap in the ditch lines up with the space between Stones 7 and 8. The earthen bank has been all but obliterated by ploughing but enough remains to indicate that it was about 6.5 metres thick.
The stone circle itself is approximately 30 metres in diameter and is assumed to have been made up of 12 standing stones. However, only four of these were still standing in the 18th century when the earliest reliable descriptions were recorded. In December of 1814 the site was vandalized by the tenant farmer, an outlander by the name of Captain W. MacKay, who felt that the stones interfered with ploughing and began to destroy them. One of the stones was toppled over and another was broken into pieces. The fallen stone [Stone 5] was re-erected in 1907 as part of a plan to restore the site and joined the two survivors [Stones 2 & 3]. The socket for it still had most of the original packing material and the stone was a perfect fit. In the process, a hitherto unknown slab was discovered underneath the turf, set up in one of the empty sockets and packed in concrete. However, this stone [Stone 7] is much smaller than the others and there is some doubt that it was ever part of the circle. The stumps of four more uprights [Stones 4, 8 10 & 11] have survived (Stone 10 is shown, below right) and Ritchie’s investigations in the 1970s uncovered sockets for another three [Stones 1, 6 & 9]. The position of Stone 12 is inferred by the spacing of the others but upon excavation the ‘socket’ turned out to be much to small and rather than all at once and that they may have replaced wooden posts. Something similar occurred during the Archaic Period in Greece, ca. 700-480 BC, when it was common practice to replace the original wooden temple columns with stone versions as it became necessary. It was considered a most pious act and was undertaken by wealthy individuals or families as a sign of their status.
The tallest surviving stone is 5.7 metres high and they are all approximately 25-40cm thick and about 1.5 metres across at their broadest.
At the centre of the site Ritchie’s team uncovered a roughly square setting, 2.1 x 1.9 metres, of fairly substantial stone slabs set in individual bedding trenches. They look like the hearths in the houses at Skara Brae or Barnhouse and contained a deposit of ash and burnt bone. Hearths were sacred places in ancient Europe (as, indeed, they were elsewhere), representing the security of the home and serving as a gathering place.
Careful investigation revealed that the ‘hearth’ was not the first thing to occupy this space (see the plan below). The remains of what appear to be the footing for a pole supported by a wooden brace were found in the fill. Some sort of totem pole seems a likely interpretation or perhaps a representation of the tree of life. Whatever it was, it clearly predated the construction of the hearth.
Coming through the entrance, the first thing a visitor encounters is a setting of small uprights known as the ‘dolmen’ but it is not known for certain whether or not it was part of the original monument. It appears in an early print by John Cleveley published in 1772. Two uprights are depicted standing side by side and a third, larger one leaning up against them. Sir Walter Scott, who visited the islands some four decades later, thought it was a ruined altar used for human sacrifice. When the site was restored by the Office of Public Works in 1907, the consensus was that it was meant to be a dolmen, a type of tomb common in Ireland and South-western Britain. The word means “table” in the Breton language and they were essentially large flat slabs supported by three or more uprights. To that end, they straightened up the two existing uprights, setting them in concrete, and brought an additional stone to the site and set it up facing them and aligned with the gap between them. It looks like they levelled the tops of the stones to a height of about 1.90 metres and then laid the large slab across the top. Early plans indicate that the pair of stones on the east are in their original positions, aligned edge to edge roughly along the north-south axis of the circle.
The dolmen idea was never terribly popular with scholars and the spurious stone was finally removed in 1972. The table stone, which measures 2.74 x 1.99 x 0.49 metres, was laid on the ground in front of the surviving pair but nowadays it is widely believed that it originally stood upright, in more or less the same position as the restored stone of 1907. That would certainly be consistent with the angle at which it is depicted in the early drawings. Unfortunately, if there had been a socket there it was destroyed by the construction of the concrete foundation bed of the later addition. The resultant setting would, according to Aubrey Burl, have resembled the arrangement found at the end of a typical stalled cairn—a pair of side slabs and a back stone. He calls this feature a cove after a similar arrangement found at Avebury and believes that it represents a transference of rites of the dead from inside the tombs and into the open.
If the position of the two original standing stones is correct, they are part of what must have been a significant alignment. A clear line of site projects from a point midway between the two eastward to Maes Howe (left). If Burl is correct in his assumption that the ‘cove’ is funereal in nature, then the link between it and Maes Howe is understandable. Interestingly, if you project the same line in the opposite direction it is aligned directly to the standing stone at Deepdale on the western shore of Loch Stenness.
Between the dolmen or cove and the hearth, Ritchie uncovered what appears to be a roughly square arrangement of bedding trenches and the sockets for a pair of standing stones (right). There were circular depressions in the corners of the former that may have once held posts and Ritchie believes that they were the remains of a mortuary structure, perhaps a platform where corpses were laid out to rot before the bones were placed in a tomb. Colin Richards, on the other hand, interprets it as the remains of a stone hearth that was later removed and replaced. The upright stones were positioned less than a metre away from the timber structure, between it and the hearth, and perhaps served as a portal.
On the opposite side of the hearth there is a group of five pits [Pits A-E] the largest of which is over a metre across and some 60cm deep (see the main plan). Ritchie found some stone slabs when he cleared the pits and suggests that they may well have been lined with stone. A pot had been set in one of them and others contained carbonized material including cereal grains. In later times, European farmers dug shafts and pits in which they placed offerings to the gods of the earth and underworld, and something similar may well have been going on here.
It is impossible to say for certain what the exact sequence of construction was but Ritchie believes it would have been much easier to move the stones into position before the encircling ditch was cut out of the rock. There are a number of sites in this part of Orkney that could have been the source of the monoliths. Vestrafiold, where similar stones can still be seen lying on the hillside, is the most notable of these. The effort involved in that operation was enormous—some 50,000 man-hours at least—and would have called on labour from a fairly extensive area. Bone from the bottom of the ditch produced a radiocarbon date of 3040 BC, while some charcoal from the hearth dates to about 2900 BC. Some decomposed wood from the timber structure suggests that it was built several centuries after that, sometime before 2000 BC.
A short distance away to the northwest, at the near end of the causeway that once linked Stenness and Brodgar, is a solitary monolith 5.6 metres tall known as the Watch Stone. Originally it was one of a pair of stones that probably served as a sort of portal linking the two great circles. In 1930 the stump of its companion was uncovered about 13 metres to the southwest, near the edge of Loch Stenness. It was once widely believed that the two were part of a stone lined avenue connecting Stenness and Brodgar but recent geophysical surveys could find no trace of it.
The Odin Stone
Until 1814 there was a perforated monolith known as the ‘Stone of Odin’ about 140 metres to the north of the site. According to antiquarian accounts it was about 8 feet (2.5 metres) tall by 3½ feet (1 metre) broad and was perforated near the base. When Captain Mackay began his campaign against the stones in Christmas of that year, he decided to start with the Odin Stone and ordered it to be pulled over and broken up with hammers. His actions caused outrage among the locals who attempted, on at least two occasions, to burn down his house. Their anger arose from the fact that the stone was believed to hold magic powers and played an important role in the life of the community. It protected the health of newborns who were passed through the perforation and was thought to prevent certain diseases if you stuck your head through it. It was best known for the role it played in the marriages. When James Ker visited the islands in the 1780’s he noted in his log a conversation he had with a certain Dr. Groat and says that, near the stone circle,
are two large Stones standing singly, the shortest perforated with a hole near the Edge large enough to admitt a Man's Head, thought to have been used to bind the Victims to and called therefore the Stone of Sacrifice…. Dr Groat says that about 20 years ago he remembers it customary with Lovers, when Circumstances did not admitt of their marrying immediately in a publick manner: to put their Hands thro' on opposite Sides and joining them Swear Fidelity to each other, likewise that whenever Circumstances would admitt their marriage should be publicky solemnised. He adds, that after this they proceeded to Consummation without further Ceremony & that no Instance was ever known of their refusing to keep their agreement afterwards.
A resistivity survey of the area directly north of the stone circle revealed anomalies that turned out to be the empty sockets of three standing stones. Excavation revealed that, unlike the other two, the southernmost contained fill very similar to the overlying ploughsoil suggesting that the stone had been removed relatively recently and is therefore the likeliest candidate for the Odin Stone. If that was the case then the Odin Stone was originally one of a pair set with their broad sides flanking the gap—much the same arrangement as the ‘dolmen’ at Stenness itself and the opposed pairs of uprights in the chambers of ‘stalled cairns’ (see article Orkney-Cromarty Cairns).
|Burl, Aubrey||(2000)||Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany|
|Cunliffe, Barry||(2001)||Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples|
|Garnham, Trevor||(2004)||Lines on the Landscape, Circles from the Sky|
|Renfrew, Colin||(1979)||Investigations in Orkney, Society of Antiquaries of London, Research Report No. 38|
|Renfrew, Colin (edit.)||(1985)||The Prehistory of Orkney|
|Ritchie, J.N.G.||(1978)||‘The Stones of Orkney,’ Proc. Soc. Antiq. Scot., 107|
|Scarre, Chris||(2007)||The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland|
|Wickham-Jones, Caroline||(2006)||Between the Wind and the Water, World Heritage Orkney|