2. Funerary stone circles
Although henge monuments can be found elsewhere in Scotland, at Cairnpapple Hill just outside Edinburgh and Balfarg in Fife for example, they can hardly be considered common. It is a little bit surprising, therefore, that there are two major henge monuments within a mile of one another in the remote Orkney Islands.
The Orkneys lie off the extreme northeast corner of the Scottish mainland and, although the distance is only a few miles, the intervening stretch of water—the Pentland Firth—is among the most treacherous in the world. Violent tidal races flow through from the North Sea and the Atlantic and gale force winds are not infrequent. Even so, they were settled very early in the Neolithic. The houses at Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, which date to about 3600 BC, represent the earliest standing buildings in Europe. The slightly later community at Skara Brae has been described in detail elsewhere on this web site. Although there are many similarities between the two settlements, they are distinguished by their pottery. Unstan Ware, characterized by shallow bowls with rounded bottoms and decorated rims, is found at Knap of Howar while the highly decorated, flat-bottomed Grooved Ware is more common at Skara Brae. Whether this distinction represents different cultural traditions (different ‘tribes’ for example), different functions, or simply the passage of time is unknown.
As was the case elsewhere, the earliest inhabitants erected chambered tombs (such as the one at Taversoe Tuick on Rousay, left) to serve as repositories for the bones of their ancestors and to mark their territory. Through these relics they could summon the spirits of their ancestors to give them guidance and approval. They could intercede on the family’s behalf with the external forces that controlled their lives. The tombs are divided into two types, each associated with a different type of pottery—Orkney-Cromarty Cairns normally contain Unstan Ware while Grooved Ware is found in Maes Howe Tombs. Of the 80 or so tombs that have been discovered, all but ten of them are stalled cairns. The Maes Howe tombs are much larger and more elaborate requiring much more effort on the part of more people. This suggests that they were later. Unfortunately, the radiocarbon evidence is not entirely conclusive owing to their wide margin of error.
Of all the tombs, by far the most impressive is Maes Howe itself. It looks onto a pair of lochs, the Lochs of Harray and of Stenness, separated by a narrow spit of land. This particular spot is at the centre of what seems to have been a natural meeting place for the inhabitants of the islands It is readily accessible by both land and water and surrounded by a ring of hills—very reminiscent of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis. While Harray is a freshwater loch, Stenness is open to the sea. Here is yet another dualistic element in the Neolithic cosmology, along with male-and-female, life-and-death, summer-and-winter, good-and-evil, etc. It is interesting, therefore, that there are two great stone circles here—the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
In addition to the circles and the tomb, there are a number associated sites, including a small stone circle at Bookan, a number of Bronze Age tombs and several standing stones. So dense is the concentration that the area has been designated a World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
Within 100 metres or so of Stenness (and probably contemporary with it) is small village known as Barnhouse. The unusual character of the buildings (discussed in greater detail in an upcoming article) suggests that they may have housed a community of priests or priestesses.
It has been suggested that the smaller of the two circles, the Stones of Stenness, is the earlier. Both are associated with tombs but, while those near Stenness are mainly Neolithic in date, the Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by round cairns belonging to the Early Bronze Age.
Since 2003, there have been annual excavations at Ness of Brodgar, the area just north of the causeway separating the two stone circles. These are bound to have an enormous impact on our understanding of the relationships among all of the monuments in the vicinity. As far as I am concerned, that is a neat excuse for setting my conclusions aside for a few years, until all of this new information can be properly digested.
|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|