The Neolithic Revolution, a term coined by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in the 1920s, commenced from about 10,000 BC onwards and eventually encompassed every human community around the world.
It consisted of a series of independent discoveries about how to control food resources with the taming of cattle and other prospective livestock (such as pigs and sheep) providing a consistent source of sustenance, as well as fibres for cloth and bones for tools. The realisation that crops could be selected and sown in seasonal cycles culminated in the cultivation and production of early forms of edible grains such as barley and wheat. Moulded ceramics were made and began to be used as food containers; while flint, obsidian and quartz tools became smaller and much more specialised: hinting at the emergence of a caste of skilled craftsmen. Concentrated settlements that developed were permanent and walled and dependent on local supplies but goods brought across distances were more accessible than before. Neolithic communities were perfectly capable of establishing hierarchical political institutions such as monarchy, and of dividing societies into castes defined by status and labour.
More than five thousand years ago, the ancient inhabitants of Orkney, a green and fecund archipelago on the northern periphery of the British Isles, quarried thousands of tons of finegrained sandstone; trimmed it, dressed it, and then transported it over several kilometres to a grassy promontory with commanding views of the surrounding countryside. Their workmanship was quite superb, and the monumental buildings they erected even more impressive, when one considers that the Roman legions stationed in northern England only commenced work on Hadrian’s Wall some thirty centuries later, hundreds of miles to the supposedly more civilised south.
There are the remains of a large stone wall – known colloquially as the Great Wall of Brodgar – which may have been 100 metres long, and four or more metres wide. It appears to occupy the entire peninsula and may have been a physical and symbolic barrier between the ritual landscape and the less sacred world beyond. Cloistered within the walls were dozens of domestic and ritual structures, including one of the most sizeable roofed buildings in prehistoric northern Europe. Th e templelike edifi ce, rediscovered six years ago, was 24 metres long and 18 metres wide, with walls almost four metres thick. Th e complex featured paved walkways and carved stonework, coloured facades, and slate roofs which were quite unusual and extravagant, as most buildings were customarily covered with sod and hides and thatch. Today, an assorted team of experts (archaeologists and university professors) and captivated enthusiasts (students and volunteers) is bringing to light a series of grand structures concealed beneath the Orkney soil for centuries. Th is discovery is unquestionably turning British prehistory on its head. Nick Card of the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands believes that these structures are almost on the scale of some of the classical sites in the Mediterranean (such as the Acropolis in Greece) which they predate by 2500 years. Th e buildings raised on the Ness of Brodgar – a scenic headland on Orkney’s largest island – were intended to dominate the landscape and almost certainly fulfi lled multiple functions with locals gathering for seasonal feasts and rituals and Neolithic trade negotiations. Th e ruins are all the more intriguing because they are situated in the heart of one of the densest collections of ancient monuments in Britain. Th e area had been pored over since Victorian times by antiquarians and archaeologists who were oblivious to the ruins until a geophysical survey revealed their existence just twelve years ago.
Orkney has long been good to archaeologists due to its deep human history, and the fact that almost everything on its 70 or so islands is built of stone. Thousands of sites – the majority of them untouched – comprise and evoke an outstanding number of cultures and historical periods from Mesolithic camps and Iron Age settlements to the remains of Old Norse feasting halls and despoiled medieval palaces. When much of the Western world was preoccupied with cringe-inducing trepidation about the Y2K bug, four Neolithic sites on Orkney were simultaneously afforded World Heritage status. Th e archipelago’s Neolithic Heart comprises a chambered cairn and passage grave illuminated on the eve of the winter solstice by the rays of the setting sun (Maes Howe); an enormous collection of stones situated on a heatherclad knoll that constitute the northernmost example of a British circle henge (the Ring of Brodgar); a cluster of dwellings that form the bestpreserved Neolithic village in northern Europe (Skara Brae) and the surviving megaliths of quite possibly the oldest henge site in Britain (the Stones of Stenness). This definition of the UNESCO site has remained unchanged since December 1999 despite the monumental discoveries on the Ness of Brodgar, which some archaeologists suspect may be a crucial piece of a much larger puzzle no one dreamed existed.
As recently as the 1980s the aforementioned Neolithic sites were thought to be isolated monuments with distinct histories. The uncovered ruins at the adjoining Ness have led archaeologists to contend that the landscape was much more integrated than had previously been thought. The monuments are inextricably linked in a magnificent, confounding, but hopefully comprehensible theme that attests to the tremendous capabilities and complexities of an ancient society, erroneously presumed to be close-minded and cloddish. Stone Age Orkney served as a religious complex and pilgrimage site dotted with megaliths, settlements and tombs. Its cultural influence was felt far beyond its shores and the Neolithic island dwellers were certainly well connected to the rest of their world.
Geophysical analysis of the headland prompted the digging of test trenches and several years of exploratory excavations. Archaeologists have begun to grasp the scale of their discovery, even though only one tenth of the Ness has been uncovered. Many more stone structures are known to be hidden nearby, but this small sample of the site has opened an invaluable window into the past, yielding thousands of priceless artefacts such as ceremonial mace heads and polished stone axes; miniature thumb pots and a human figurine; crafted stone utensils and coloured pottery, remarkable in their delicacy and refinement, and the largest Neolithic art collection ever found in Britain, with over 650 pieces (decorative stones incised with geometric motifs etc.) extracted hitherto. These objects offer a glimpse into the minds and imaginations of the men and women who sought to adorn their surroundings with such exquisite creations.
The traces of coloured pigments observed on some of the stonework are truly fascinating, with mounds of powdered hematite (red), ochre (yellow) and galena (white) unearthed on the floor of a building that appears to have functioned as a Neolithic paint shop. Dimpled rocks and grinding stones served as mortar and pestle. Also found among the ruins were prized trade goods such as volcanic glass from the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, and superlative flints from across the archipelago and further afield. The items introduced to Orkney are undeniably compelling, but of even greater significance are the possessions and beliefs acquired by passing traders and pilgrims who departed with material and spiritual riches to enhance their own societies. Distinctive coloured shards discovered at the Ness suggest the type of grooved pottery emblematic of the Neolithic age in Britain was pioneered by affluent and sophisticated Orcadians. This is completely at odds with the received wisdom that enlightenment emanated from the genteel south and slowly spread to the barbarian north. Visitors also returned home with reminiscences of the marvellous sandstone structures they had seen and sought to celebrate special places in the landscape in a similar fashion to the people of Orkney. Such notions would find their ultimate expression in southwestern England in the forms of Avebury and Stonehenge.
The most obvious question to ask is how did this assortment of sparsely populated islands come to be such an important centre of culture and technology? It is necessary to stop thinking of Orkney as remote as the archipelago was a bustling maritime hub from the Neolithic period to the middle of the twentieth century, or more specifically, until the closure of the Royal Naval base at Scapa Flow in 1957. Aside from being a nautical stop-off point, Orkney is blessed with some of the richest farming soils in Britain and a temperate climate largely shaped by the effects of the North Atlantic Drift, a warm ocean current that carries the Gulf Stream towards Europe and confers mild and stable weather on the islands despite their latitude. Pollen samples suggest that due to natural processes much of the hazel and woodland birch that originally covered the landscape had disappeared by the time the settlement of Orkney commenced approximately 5500 years ago.
The open nature of the landscape – exacerbated by Neolithic clearances – would have made life much easier for those early farmers and possibly afforded them more time to commit themselves to monument building. The homesteaders who settled Orkney were among the first Europeans to have purposely manured the soil to improve their crops. Medieval peasants were benefiting centuries on from their aptitude and labour, which also saw them defy treacherous currents to import cattle, sheep and goats (and possibly red deer) on skinboats from the Scottish mainland. The herds they raised grew fat on the island’s rich agricultural bounty, and even today, Orkney beef commands a premium on the market. By the time they embarked on the ambitious project at the Ness of Brodgar, the Stone Age farmers of Orkney enjoyed prosperity and comfort, with a deep spiritual bond and sense of gratitude to the land. There was an abundance of strong backs and willing hands as the population of the archipelago is thought to have exceeded 10,000 in the Neolithic period which doubtless contributed to the density and scale of archaeological sites on the islands.
The preservation and discovery of dwellings on the Ness, and elsewhere on the Mainland, has been made possible by the abundant outcrops of easily worked Old Red Sandstone, which dates from the Devonian age, and is deposited throughout the Orcadian basin that stretches from Aberdeenshire to southern Shetland. This sedimentary rock was used for constructing homes, temples and monuments – that could endure for centuries – at a time when dwellings in other parts of Britain were built of materials such as timber and thatch that decayed as a consequence of their exposure and use.
The temple complex on the Ness and its walled compound towered over the landscape for one thousand years as a symbol of cultural energy, power and wealth. To generations of Orcadians who assembled there, and to seafarers who traversed the Pentland Firth to conduct business or simply gape, the sandstone structures must have seemed totemic and everlasting. The elaborate and imposing buildings – for reasons that remain obscure – were demolished and buried roughly 4300 years ago. Climate change could have brought about this dramatic step as evidence suggests that the north of the continent became cooler and wetter towards the end of the Neolithic era and those conditions may have had a baneful effect on agriculture. A new toolmaking material – the primarily copper alloy, bronze – appears to have had a pronounced impact on the community, introducing better tools and weaponry, and encouraging fresh ideas and values which could have triggered a reshuffle of the social order. Bronze artefacts are conspicuously absent from the ruins on the Ness of Brodgar.
The ancient temple was decommissioned and partially destroyed, deliberately and symbolically. Before the Orcadians distanced themselves from entrenched and timehonoured customs they participated in a decadent farewell feast, with enough meat – over 400 cattle were slaughtered – to have fed thousands of people. Bones were arranged in piles around the temple, with obvious significance bestowed upon the tibia as shinbones were the only skeletal remains of the livestock left behind. After cracking open the bones to extract the rich marrow from within, orderly heaps were formed around the base of the temple. Were the men and women of Orkney consciously damaging the future productivity of their herds? Deer carcasses were then draped over the tibiae – presumably as offerings – and a cattle skull was deposited in the centre of the chamber, alongside a large stone engraved with a cuplike motif. The final act of closure shortly followed.
The islanders demolished the buildings and buried them under thousands of tons of debris and rubbish. They were evidently attempting to erase the site and its importance from memory, perhaps to herald the introduction of other belief systems. Over the millennia that followed the abandonment of the Ness, whatever stones remained visible from the old forgotten walls were carried away by descendents of the Neolithic farmers for use in their cottages and homesteads. Old Red Sandstone has continually served as the building block of Orcadian culture and society, an abiding source of inspiration and invention for the robust and resourceful inhabitants of that windswept archipelago.
Article by David Stock. Originally published in Issue #26 of Discovering Stone Magazine.
Abulafia, D.S.H. (2011) The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, London, Penguin.
Smith, R (2014, August). Before Stonehenge, National Geographic, volume 226, pp. 2751