27 June 2010

The Shorkneys: Neolithic Orkney, Part One

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

As I mentioned in our previous post, Orkney is probably best known for its stone-age heritage, and rightfully so. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising the four sites described below, each of which we visited in one action-packed day.

Of the four sites, three--Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar--are within sight of one another, arrayed around a land bridge between a salt-water inlet and a fresh-water loch at the center of a bowl-shaped valley. For complicated meteorological reasons, this area is one of the sunniest spots in all of Orkney, and on the day we visited it seemed to be suspended in a conspicuous bubble in the middle of a wall of sea mist.

(A major site at the Ness of Brodgar, between Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, is still being excavated. Early reports suggest evidence of a "Neolithic cathedral"--similar, perhaps, to the Maltese megaliths we visited earlier this year.)

The fourth site, Skara Brae, is a short drive away from the other three. It will get its own short post sometime this week.

Maes Howe

Our first stop in Neolithic Orkney was Maeshowe, a burial chamber in the passage grave style. From the outside, the structure looks like a grassy hill plopped incongruously in the middle of a low plain.

Inside, the structure consists of a long, low passage (you have to double over to get in) leading to a large chamber, with smaller chambers branching off to three sides. (No photos inside, I'm afraid.)

Like many Neolithic structures, such as the much more famous Stonehenge in England, Maeshowe was apparently built to align with astronomical events. Here, on the winter solstice, the sun shines through the narrow entryway and illuminates the back wall of the chamber.

The current theory is that the chamber was used as an ossuary (a building for the ritual storage of bones), but the chamber was empty at the time of its "modern" discovery in 1861--emptied, possibly, by the Vikings, who also used Maeshowe as a shelter and, possibly, a burial chamber or treasure horde. In fact, in an upcoming post on Viking Orkney and Shetland, we'll look at Maeshowe again, as it's the largest repository of Old Norse runic inscriptions outside of Scandinavia.

Maeshowe dates from about 3000 BC--about 500 years older than Stonehenge.

Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness, which also date to around 3000 BC, are the remnants of a stone circle standing roughly halfway between Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar. Some archaeologists speculate that the circle was a temple to the moon, while the Ring of Brodgar across the way was a temple to the sun.

The surviving stones are very tall, as you can see below, and the complete ring must have been an awesome sight back in the day!

Stenness has been used as a ritual site into modern times, though usually associated with Norse mythology rather than with any direct Neolithic connection. Local couples used to use the Odin Stone (now toppled) to pledge their engagements. Couples would hold hands through the hole in the stone and speak a traditional oath.

The Standing Stones of Stenness even bear the mark of Sir Walter Scott, whose shadow one just cannot escape in this country. Scott visited the site in 1814 and decided to incorporate it into one of his novels, The Pirate, which is the fictionalized tale of a local boy, John Gow, who sailed off into the wide world and made good by going bad.

In The Pirate, Scott (who was never afraid to pull out all the stops) used Stenness as the setting for an attempted human sacrifice, adding an entirely fictional sacrificial altar to the scene. Later visitors to the site, presumably unwilling to live in a universe in which Walter Scott could be proven wrong, duly erected an altar of their own.

It was only much later that some pranksters knocked the false altar down.

The Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar is an enormous henge and stone circle a few hundred meters on the other side of Stenness from Maeshowe. To get there, you pass the Watchstone of Stenness and cross a narrow man-made causeway dating to Neolithic times.

In fact, it was this causeway that caused the water on the right to turn fresh while the water on the left remained salty. This phenomenon likely attracted even more settlers to the area, as from one spot you can fish for both saltwater and freshwater fish.

The stones of Brodgar themselves aren't all that big (much smaller than either Stenness or Stonehenge) . . .

. . . it's the scale of the site as a whole that's impressive. When you're inside it almost doesn't feel like a circle.

The fact that Historic Scotland, who administer all of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney sites, has left the center of the ring overgrown with an impassable thicket of heather only adds to the desolate beauty of the place.

Like Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar has also become a focal point for more recent traditions. Local legend has it that if you walk around the circle counterclockwise three times, you will have a baby within the following year.

(Don't get too excited--we walked around clockwise, and then only once!)

Bonus Question: Where did the other stones go?

Both circles (Stenness and Brodgar) are currently incomplete, but we know they used to be complete because archaeologists have found the holes where the other stones used to be. Some of the stones were broken by the weather. When lightning strikes on the open plain around Stenness and Brogdar, it's likely to hit one of the stones. That's what got the stone below--though this one stayed standing.

Some stones, after they were broken or fell over, were carried away to be used in other building projects to save the builder from having to quarry new stone. Such stones were especially in demand because wood is so scarce in Orkney, making stone the preferred building material since times immemorial.

In fact, that's one of the wonders of these sites: you'd expect them to be even more incomplete. But it seems that later cultures largely respected (possibly, feared) these Neolithic monuments and tried to leave them be.

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