Orkney is rightly celebrated for its incredible 5,000 year old Stone Age remains. With so many exceptionally-preserved sites, this group of islands off Britain’s north coast continue to attract tens of thousands of visitors each year – marvelling at this area of Britain’s extraordinary prehistoric heritage. And it’s a heritage that archaeologists and researchers are continuing to learn more about.
Thanks to remarkable art and architecture that has been uncovered, today we have some wonderful insights into what life was like for those living in Orkney 5,000 years ago – alongside many exciting mysteries that still abound.
The Neolithic Period (or New Stone Age) in Orkney dates from roughly 3,500 BC to 2,500 BC. The Period is loosely divided into two: the Early Neolithic (c.3,500 – 3,000) and the Later Neolithic (c.3,000 – 2,500). It’s an important distinction to point out first and foremost. Different architectural, monumental and artistic features are associated with the two periods.
During the earlier Neolithic, visual archaeological remains suggested that Orkney’s first farmers constructed their houses out of stone. A good example are the two early Neolithic houses at the Knap of Howar, which date to the Early Neolithic and have been labelled two of the oldest standing buildings in northwest Europe.
But these first farmers do not seem to have built their houses solely out of stone. A recent excavation, conducted on the small island of Wyre, revealed the remains of both stone and wooden houses – dating to the last centuries of the 4th millennium BC. The discovery is rewriting what archaeologists once thought about residential life in Orkney: that these farmers didn’t just build their houses out of stone.
Nevertheless, the importance of stone as a residential building material is evident for Neolithic communities all across Orkney. Most famously we see this at Skara Brae, the best preserved Neolithic settlement in western Europe. Officially rediscovered in 1850 after a vicious storm peeled the earth away from a group of sand dunes to reveal the remains of these prehistoric stone buildings, the settlement consisted of several houses – packed close together and linked by winding passageways.
The houses feature some interesting, architectural features. In several, for instance, you have the remains of stone ‘dressers’. Despite the name, what these dressers functioned as is debated; some have suggested that they served as household altars for their Late Stone Age residents. Alongside the dressers, you also have the rectangular stone outlines of beds. Cube-shaped stone tanks (or boxes) are also visible – sometimes sealed to potentially retain water inside of them. One suggestion is that these tanks were used to store bait.
All of these stone features surrounded a central hearth and in the walls themselves, geometric artistic designs and coloured stones featured – emphasising how vibrant and colourful a place Skara Brae would have looked during the New Stone Age.
Today it’s easy to think of the Neolithic Period as being a bit dull, a bit grey. But no, they had colour.
Roy Towers – Project Officer, Ness of Brodgar Excavation
And then there’s Skara Brae’s incredible secret underworld: its incredibly sophisticated drainage system. Consisting of a mix of larger, larger drains and accompanying smaller ones, this c.5,000 year old system emptied out into nearby Skaill Bay. Just over 150 years ago, the local antiquarian George Petrie compiled a report of the first excavation at Skara Brae. Petrie refrained from dating the site to the Neolithic Period; he didn’t believe that such a well-constructed settlement could have been built by late Stone Age people, with their ‘rude’ stone and flint implements. He was wrong.
The artefacts discovered at Skara Brae also deserve mention. Whale and cattle bone jewellery and dress pins, polished stone axe heads and ochre pots are a few of the most extraordinary.
And then there are Skara Brae’s mysterious carved, stone balls. They’re not unique to Skara Brae; examples of these carved balls have been found all across Scotland, with a few examples also in England and Ireland. Dozens of theories exist as to what these prehistoric people used these balls for: from mace heads to children’s toys. But they’re one of many artefacts that have provided archaeologists with a remarkable insight into the homely lives of these Neolithic Orcadians.
Stone Age social lives
Archaeologists have also gained insights into the communal activities of these Stone Age farmers, most visible on a stretch of land dividing the Lochs of Harray and Stenness.
The most striking monumental structure that you can still see there is the Ring of Brodgar. Originally, this stone circle – the largest in Scotland – consisted of 60 stones. The monoliths that make up the Ring were quarried from several different sources across the Orkney Mainland and hauled across to this location.
It’s incredible to think about how much time and effort – how many people – were involved in the whole process of erecting this stone circle. From quarrying the monolith out of the parent rock outcrop, to transporting it to the Brodgar headland, to digging the massive rock-cut ditch that surrounds the ring. The whole process of making the Ring, and the incredible amount of manpower it required, seems to have been very important to these Neolithic Orcadian communities. Perhaps the whole building of the Ring was actually more important than its final purpose.
Why these Neolithic Orcadians decided to build the Ring of Brodgar where they did, on this slightly-slanted piece of land, is unclear. One suggested reason is that the Ring was constructed to sit alongside an ancient routeway.
As for the Ring’s final function, it almost certainly served a communal purpose. This was likely a place for ceremonies and rituals, with the massive ditch almost dividing the Ring’s interior from the outside world.
It gives us a profound sense of exclusion… there is a sense that maybe the internal space was restricted to certain people at certain times and maybe other people were watching from the outside.
Jane Downes – Director of UHI Archaeology Institute
The Ness of Brodgar
5,000 years ago, the landscape that surrounded the Ring of Brodgar was one bustling with human activity. Evidence for which archaeologists have unearthed on the nearby headland, at one of the most significant excavations currently underway in the British Isles.
There’s an old saying (that) if you scratch the surface of Orkney it bleeds archaeology. But the geophysics (at the Ness of Brodgar) just showed this was true.
Dr Nick Card – Director, Ness of Brodgar Excavation
5,000 years ago, the Ness of Brodgar was an incredibly important meeting place. Filled with (probably) more than a hundred structures of all shapes and sizes, beautiful art and pottery, the artefacts unearthed here over the past 20 years have further confirmed the extraordinary connections that Late Stone Age Orkney had with the wider Neolithic world. A world that stretched across Britain, Ireland and beyond.
The surviving archaeology, combined with scientific developments, have also allowed researchers to discover more about the diets of these Neolithic Orcadians. At the great communal gathering centre that was the Ness of Brodgar, feasting on a milk / meat-based diet seems to have been the mainstay.
The problem with this analysis however is that these Stone Age Orcadians were lactose-intolerant; they could not digest unprocessed milk. Researchers have therefore proposed that these Stone Age people processed the milk into either a yoghurt or a cheese for consumption. Traces of barley have also been detected at the Ness; seafood does not seem to have been as prominent a component of a Neolithic Orcadian’s diet, compared with livestock and crops.
We’ve talked about houses for the living and communal centres in Stone Age Orkney, but arguably the most visual legacy of these Neolithic farmers are their houses for their dead. Today, monumental tombs can be found all across Orkney. Earlier Neolithic tombs are largely defined by the so-called Orkney-Cromarty Cairns – stalled cairns like the ones we see at places such as Midhowe, on Rousay. But as the Neolithic progressed, these tombs became more and more elaborate. They ultimately resulted in one of the most incredible Stone Age tombs in the entire world: Maeshowe.
Maeshowe is larger than any other chambered cairn in Orkney. But its real quality is in the stonework itself. These Neolithic Orcadians constructed Maeshowe out of drystone, embracing a building technique called corbelling to construct its arch-like roof.
They placed a large monolith in each of the four corners of Maeshowe’s central chamber. Initially, archaeologists believed that these monoliths served as buttresses. It is now believed, however, that they were inserted purely for show. A stone symbol of power and authority that the people who oversaw the building of Maeshowe likely had over those doing the actual constructing.
The monumental scale of Maeshowe, alongside the rest of Stone Age Orkney’s incredible architecture, emphasises how these people weren’t just farmers. They were expert builders too.
Today, Orkney’s extraordinary prehistoric remains continue to awe tens of thousands of visitors each and every year. Many mysteries still abound as to how the ancient people who made these structures lived. But fortunately, as passionate archaeologists and researchers continue to study artefacts and unearth more and more remains, new information is coming to light. And who knows what exciting developments they will announce in the years ahead.