30 June 2010

The Shorkneys: Ancient Orkney (and Shetland)

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

Orkney and Shetland entered the historical record much later than most of the rest of Europe, including the rest of the British Isles. The Romans wrote about Orkney as early as the first century AD. They probably also knew about Shetland, as the Orcadians of that time would have been in regular contact with Shetland--in clear weather, you can actually sail from Orkney to the Fair Isle and on to Shetland without ever losing sight of land.

But after the end of the Roman presence in Scotland in the third century AD, Orkney and Shetland fell out of history again. During this time, Orkney was part of the Pictish kingdom, a confederation of Celtic tribes that later merged with the better-known Gaels in the tenth century AD.

The Picts remain a mysterious people. They had no writing, at least that we can decipher--though some have argued that their carvings could have been a kind of primitive pictographic language. In Orkney and Shetland, they're known mostly for their brochs and the settlements that grew up around them.

A broch is a round drystone tower, usually built on the coastline as a lookout tower and fortification, or possibly as a stately home for local leaders. You can think of a broch as a kind of simple castle.

They're all over Scotland, but pretty much nowhere else--possibly because in other areas, such things were built of wood, but up until modern times wood had been scarce in Scotland for thousands of years. For the same reason, they're especially common in Orkney and Shetland. There's even a ruined broch next to a small loch by the Tesco in Lerwick, Shetland.

After our excursion to Skara Brae, we visited one of Orkney's most famous brochs, the Broch of Gurness.

This broch is special for a number of reasons. First, the tower itself is very well-preserved, to the point that it's still fairly easy to make out some of the interior rooms.

Second, the Broch of Gurness is surrounded by a broch village. Such villages have only been found in Orkney, and suggest either that the broch-building culture was centered in Orkney (so that its largest and most permanent settlements were there) or that other brochs were used more like forts or outposts than castles.

(Those were houses.)

One of the remarkable things about this broch village is how similar much of the architecture is to that found at Skara Brae, which is several thousand years older.

(Look familiar?)
(Cooler/cooking pot, anyone?)

A hands-on display at the Broch of Gurness visitor's center shows how basic technologies, such as hand mills for grain, had changed little since Neolithic times--probably because Orkney and Shetland lacked the natural resources needed for large-scale metalworking.

Third, the Broch of Gurness is important because archaeological finds at the site seem to confirm a Roman report about the King of the Orkneys submitting to the Emperor Claudius in 43 A.D.
Finally, the Broch of Gurness is also important because it, like many other earlier sites in Orkney and Shetland, were taken over by later Norse invaders. But that's a topic for another post!

Bonus! Ever wonder what an iron-age toilet based on stone-age technology might look like?

Then stop giggling and imagine a kind of chamber pot stashed beneath there.

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