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The Stones of Stenness: The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, part 2

This is the second in a series of five posts I am doing about a collection of Neolithic monuments that can be found in a region of Mainland Orkney known as “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” In this post I am going to visit our first Neolithic site of interest, the Stones of Stenness. My earlier post in this series will provide you with an introduction to the Ness of Brodgar, the region in which most of these sites are located. Please go and read this post if you haven’t already, as it will help provide a fuller understanding of the current topic at hand. I also have a post available about Skara Brae, as well as a historical overview of Orkney that extends beyond the Neolithic era (this is where you’ll find out more about the Vikings!).

The Stones of Stenness. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Stones of Stenness are a Neolithic monument that contains both a henge, possibly the oldest in all of Britain and Ireland, and a stone circle. The site is located on the Stenness promontory, a wedge of the Orkney mainland that lies between the southern ends of the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray, across the water from the Ness of Brodgar. Stenness, pronounced “Stane-is” in the Orcadian dialect, comes from the Old Norse Stein-nes, which means “stone headland.” This place name was derived not just from the main stone circle, but from the presence of a number of other stone groupings that formerly adorned this landscape during the Neolithic period (more on this later). 

A view of the location of the Stones of Stenness on the Stenness promontory in relation to (from L-R): the Loch of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar, and the Loch of Harray. Image sourced from Google Maps.
Aerial view of the Stones of Stenness, situated on the Stenness promontory across the water from the Ness of Brodgar. Image sourced from Youtube.

It is difficult to know for certain how old the site containing the Stones of Stenness is. Radiocarbon dating indicates that work on the monument had begun by at least 3100 BCE, but other findings suggest a wide range of related human activity taking place onsite between 3400-2500 BCE. Like Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness are older than Stonehenge (built between 3000-2000 BCE) and the Great Pyramid of Giza (circa 2,650 BCE). It is also hard to tell whether the henge and stone circle elements of the monument were built separately, or if their work coincided. This is due to the fact that, unlike the exceptionally well-preserved state of Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness have long been exposed to the surrounding environment. The integrity of the site has been eroded by time, weather, and—most significantly— centuries of human use; the actions of one hot-headed 19th century farmer, in particular, were especially devastating. As a result, the present site of the Stones of Stenness contains only a few surviving elements, although questions linger about how period-authentic a couple aspects of it truly are. 

Visitors enjoying a sunny moment at the Stones of Stenness. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

It was once believed that the Stones of Stenness contained 12 equally shaped monoliths laid out in a circular fashion. However, excavation work has since revealed that the monument was more elliptic in shape, measuring around 32 meters (105 feet) in diameter with only 10 or 11 stones ever erected onsite. Four of these stones survive today, shown as Stones 2, 3, 5, and 7 in the illustration below. They are held in place by foundational socket holes whose depth measures around ¼ the height of their secured stone, with broken rocks and gravel used as supportive infill. Four additional sockets also contain the stumps of Stones 4, 8, 10, and 11. Archaeological excavations in 1973-1974 further uncovered sockets for Stones 1, 6, and 9, although there is some doubt concerning the existence of Stone 9. The position of Stone 12 was determined based on the spacing of the other stones. However, excavation at this location revealed only a shallow scoop of dirt, which would have been insufficient for supporting a large standing megalith. One possible explanation for this is in a theory that the circle originated as a series of timber posts that were gradually replaced by stone; perhaps the Neolithic builders didn’t ultimately replace the 12th timber post with a final monolith.

The layout of the Stones of Stenness. The surviving stones are shown in black, and foundational sockets for other stones are shown in grey. There is doubt as to the existence of Stones 9 and 12. The three tall stones are located at numbers 2, 3, and 5. A fourth shorter stone is located at number 7. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the four surviving standing stones. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Three of the four surviving standing stones (Stones 2, 3, and 5) stretch to a height of 4.8-5.5 meters (16-18 feet) tall. These stones are relatively thin, measuring approximately 30 cms (12 inches) in width with sharply angled tops. Interestingly, two of these large stones are angled toward each other in a way that mirrors the hills of Hoy behind them on the horizon. This intentional positioning makes a convincing case that the monument may have been designed to reflect the surrounding landscape.  

Standing beside one of the tallest stones, Stone 2, which measures around 5 meters (18 feet) high. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
View of the Stones of Stenness with the hills of Hoy in the background. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The short height and crooked shape of a fourth standing stone (Stone 7) marks it as vastly different from its peers. It measures only 1.8 meters (6 feet) high, around ⅓ the length of its taller neighbours. There is some controversy about whether this crooked stone is authentic to the original Neolithic stone circle. It was discovered lying underneath the turf in 1906, with its end located close to an empty socket hole. The bottom of the stone corresponded with the shape of the socket hole, so the irregular stone was lifted and placed within it. There have been some doubts about whether this was the correct course of action. Some critics believe that the crooked stone is too different from the other three surviving monoliths to have been a true part of the circle. On the other hand, it’s impossible to know what all the stones missing from the original circle looked like, since at least four (and possibly five) of them disappeared long before written records were made of them. They may have stood as straight and tall as the three present survivors, or they could have come in a range of shapes and sizes, like the stones at the nearby Ring of Brodgar. Perhaps the distinctive crooked shape of the shorter stone was intentional, resulting in its potentially symbolic position on one side of the entrance to the henge’s causeway. It could have even had a twin of similar proportions situated on the opposing side of the causeway; that missing stone (Stone 8) only survives as a stump. It’s also possible that the crooked stone is a broken fragment of what was originally a larger stone. The true story behind this stone and its irregular shape may never be known. Nonetheless, it remains standing in its current position, intriguing visitors and archaeologists alike with its continued mystery.

View of the Stones of Stenness with the crooked stone at center. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Geologists have determined that the monoliths used in the Stones of Stenness are made of five different types of stone, and would have thus been sourced from a number of different, but possibly significant, locations in Orkney. One of these was likely an ancient quarry site that can be found about 14.5 kms (9 miles) northwest of the monument, in Vestra Fiold, Sandwick. There, other quarried stones of a similar size to those at Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar can be seen in the fields, with at least one of them still propped up on supports as if waiting, several millennia later, for their Neolithic collaborators to drag them away to their final destination.

Location of Vestra Fiold (indicated by the red pinpoint) in relation to the Stones of Stenness (indicated by the green pinpoint), a distance of about 14.5 kms (9 miles). Image sourced from Google Maps.
Large quarried slabs of stone lying in the field at Vestra Fiold. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

During the Neolithic period, the area containing the Stones of Stenness would have looked vastly different than it does today. That is because the stone circle was enclosed by a henge—possibly the oldest henge in all of Britain and Ireland! The stones themselves rested on a central platform that was surrounded by a waterlogged ditch, cut partly through solid rock, that measured up to 4 meters (13 feet) wide, 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) deep, and 44 meters (144 feet) in diameter. The stones and ditch were then enclosed by an outer bank that had a width of 6.5 meters (21 feet) and a substantial, but unknown, height. The raised level of this surrounding bank would have provided audiences with the best view of the activities taking place inside the stone circle. The only access point into the platform containing the stones would have been provided via an 8 meter (26 foot) wide causeway that passed through the outer bank and crossed over the ditch at the north end of the site. Interestingly, this causeway was oriented so that it faced the nearby Barnhouse Settlement.

Aerial view of the Stones of Stenness, with traces of its outer bank and interior ditch. Note the causeway at the bottom right, which points in the direction of the nearby Barnhouse Settlement. Image sourced from Youtube.
The exceptionally-preserved Arbor Low Henge, located in the Derbyshire Peak District of England, hints at what the henge surrounding the Stones of Stenness may have once looked like. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Ground-level perspective from inside the stone circle towards the Loch of Stenness. In Neolithic times, a tall bank would have blocked the view looking outward. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

By the time measurements and illustrations of the site containing the Stones of Stenness began to appear in the late 18th century, it had undergone more than 4,000 years of decline. In 1760, only four of the ten or so original standing stones were still erect: Stones 2, 3, 5, and 6. (This number doesn’t include Stone 7, which was later discovered in 1906). A near-total moment of disaster struck in December 1814 when a tenant farmer, Captain W. Mackay, who had recently moved to Orkney, set out to destroy the remaining stones by drilling holes in them and packing them with gunpowder. His motives are unclear, although it is posited that he was either annoyed by the constant flow of people trespassing on his land to visit the stones, or that he wanted to use the shattered rock as building material. Mackay began by demolishing the Odin Stone, which was located 140 meters (460 feet) north of the Stones of Stenness (more on this stone later). He then managed to destroy Stone 6 and had toppled Stone 5 before officials forced him to stop. It took only a matter of days for Mackay to obliterate two stones that had been beloved by the community for nearly 5,000 years. Thankfully, he was prevented from doing the same to the rest. The locals were infuriated and, in response, twice tried to burn down his house, with little effect. Charges against Mackay were dropped when he promised to leave the rest of the stones alone.

View of a Semi-Circle of Stones on the Banks of Stenhouse Lake in the Island of Pomona, James Clevely, 1772. Although not entirely accurate (given the title), the illustration shows the four standing stones that were present before Mackay destroyed one and toppled another in 1814 (from L-R, they are 2, 3, 5 and 6). Two other standing stones can be seen in the distance: the Watch Stone (distant centre) and the Odin Stone (distant right), which was also demolished by Mackay in 1814. The Ring of Brodgar can be seen in the far distance. The small pile of rocks on the right were later used to make a dolmen (discussed later in this post). A small raised bank can be seen outside the stone circle on its southwest (left) side. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Stone 5, on the left, was toppled by Mackay in 1814. It was later re-erected in 1907. If you ever get a chance to get up close to this stone in the future, see if you can spot the holes (now filled) that Mackay drilled in this stone in order to pack it with gunpowder. They are supposedly diagonally opposite each other at the top and bottom, but I don’t think they can be seen in this picture. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The henge elements of the Stones of Stenness had also undergone a lot of deterioration by the end of the 18th century. Most of the monument’s outer bank had been flattened and the ditch filled in by centuries of erosion and ploughing. In the 1770s, the remnants of the outer bank were described as a semi-circular “mound of earth.” In 1848, an account further defines this bank as a raised “circumscribing ring” that had only survived for “one third of the circumference” around an interior ditch. An illustration from 1848, shown below, indicates that this remaining bank existed only in the southwest quadrant of the site. By 1973, when an archaeological excavation was undertaken at the Stones of Stenness, the bank had all but disappeared. In 1984, a partial restoration of the outer bank and interior ditch was undertaken based on measurements that had been recorded in the mid-19th century. This work managed to return some of the lost henge elements to the monument, with an emphasis on staying true to what had already been documented. When it comes to historic restoration work, especially on sites as sensitive as the Stones of Stenness, it is important to adhere to the available information, even if it is incomplete. This was already learned the hard way in 1906-1907, when a misguided effort to “reconstruct” a theorized dolmen strayed into the realm of fabrication, and forever destroyed crucial archaeological evidence that had not yet been unearthed. 

1848 plan of the Stones of Stenness, illustration by Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas. The writing indicates that Stones 2 & 3 are standing, while Stone 5 was “prostrated December 1814” and is estimated to “weigh 10.71 tons.” Stone 7 had not yet been discovered, so it exists as an empty socket across from the “Stump” of Stone 8. The “upright stone”, “stone tumbled outward”, and “stone slab” refer to the stones that were used to make the dolmen, which we’ll discuss next. Note in the illustration of the bank, located above the circle, that the centre platform containing the stones is said to have “furrows of the plough visible throughout.” This and the presence of “corn rigs” indicates that agricultural activity contributed to the disappearance of the monument’s henge elements. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

In addition to the four standing stones discussed earlier in this post, the Stones of Stenness contain another grouping of stones that are believed to have survived from the monument’s construction and use in the Neolithic era. This grouping consists of three stones found midway between the henge’s north causeway entrance and a centrally placed hearth. One of these stones consists of a large slab, measuring approximately 2.74 x 2 x 0.5 meters (9 x 6.5 x 1.6 feet), that is positioned flat on the ground. Along this stone’s eastern edge are a pair of angular uprights that stand to a height of 1.9 meters (6.2 feet).

View of the flat stone slab and the two angular uprights. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Prior to 1906, only one of these angular stones stood upright, while its partner lay on its side, with the stone slab resting on top; a rough approximation of this is shown in the detail of Cleveley’s illustration, below.

Detail from Cleveley’s 1772 watercolour, showing the arrangement of the trio of rocks before they were used to “reconstruct” a dolmen in 1906. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Although there was no evidence to indicate the original positioning of the stones, nor what purpose they had been used for, it was suggested in 1805 that the large stone slab may have formerly been “raised and supported on pillars” in order to create a dolmen1. A visit in 1814 by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish writer of historical fiction, later did much to promote this theory. In his 1821 novel, The Pirate, Scott reimagined this grouping of rocks as a dolmen that had been used as an altar for human sacrifice. It was a fun idea, worthy of a dramatic novel, but had no basis in fact. However, the mistaken belief that these stones had once been part of a dolmen soon held firm.

19th century edition of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The Stones of Stenness came into state care in 1906. At some point between 1906-1907, these three stones were used to “reconstruct” what was believed to have been a true historical feature, but was actually just a case of artistic license. Unfortunately, the construction destroyed any surviving evidence that could have indicated the original form of these stones. The second angular stone was pulled upright to match its partner, and concrete was used to hold the two angular stones in place, obliterating their original sockets. The two stones may have had their tops levelled off at this point to their current 1.9 meter (6.2 feet) height. A third stone was brought to the site to serve as an additional support, and a bed of concrete was poured to secure it. The flat slab was then placed overtop these three stones. This creation thus became known as “the Altar Stone.”

View of the so-called dolmen in 1956. Image sourced from the Historic Scotland Photographic Image Library.
Another view of the dolmen in 1956. Image sourced from the Historic Scotland Photographic Image Library.

Debate about the authenticity of the Altar Stone built steadily throughout the first half of the 20th century. It had reached a fever pitch by the 1970s, with locals strongly asserting that it had no place within the monument. The Altar Stone was mysteriously toppled in September 1972 by an unknown party, officially explained away as the result of “a drunken prank.” (The weight and size of the stones would have required the use of a car or tractor, but no matter). Discussions about whether the dismantled dolmen should then be restored led to the first official excavation work at the Stones of Stenness in a 7-week dig from 1973-1974 by Graham Ritchie. No evidence was found to indicate that a dolmen was ever located inside the stone circle, so the structure was disassembled, with the stone slab lying prone on the ground once more. Today, archaeologists now believe that these three stones may have helped to define two sides of a narrow space—possibly a paved pathway that ran from the entrance of the stone circle to the central hearth.

View of the dismantled dolmen, at centre, with the original trio of rocks. The four standing stones are shown to the right. I think the rock on the far left might have been used as the third leg of the dolmen, but that’s merely a guess. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Historical accounts and illustrations seem to confirm that the two angular upright stones are in their original locations, while it remains uncertain whether the stone slab was originally located on the eastern side of the uprights or on their western side, where it currently resides. Interestingly, if you stand on the west side of these two upright stones and peer eastward through them, you can see the tomb of Maeshowe, which is located about 1.1 kms (0.68 miles) away. The uprights are also aligned with the Deepdale Stone2, a 2 meter (6 foot) monolith located about 3.5 kms to the west across the Loch of Stenness. This framing is very likely to be intentional. As with other stone circles, the design of the Stones of Stenness indicates that its Neolithic builders had a sophisticated awareness of the surrounding landscape. We’ve already seen one example of deliberate stone positioning, in which two of the surviving standing stones correspond with the shape of the distant hills of Hoy. This second example between the two angular uprights, the Deepdale Stone, and the tomb of Maeshowe seems to confirm that there was an interest in aligning the Stones of Stenness and its various features in a very particular way.

Looking eastward through the two angular uprights. The small green mound in the distance is the tomb of Maeshowe. I was unaware of this alignment when I took this picture, otherwise I would have framed it better. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Looking westward through the two angular uprights. Although the Deepdale Stone is too far away to be seen, this perspective aligns with it. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
The Deepdale Stone. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The interior of the Stenness stone circle also features a large, centrally-placed hearth measuring around 2 square meters (21.5 square feet) that archaeologists determined had a “prolonged history of reconstruction and use.” Within it, archaeologists discovered fragments of Grooved Ware pottery, ash, charcoal, and cremated animal bone; some of the charcoal was dated to about 2900 BCE. The pottery found in the hearth and elsewhere at the site was identical to vessels found at the nearby Barnhouse Settlement. This indicates that people living in the nearby village gathered at the Stones of Stenness and, among other possible activities, roasted food and feasted, perhaps even “on a lavish scale.” Further evidence of a link between the hearth and the Barnhouse Settlement is through indications that its stone slabs were brought over from the village, possibly transplanted from the site where Structure 8 would later be built (more information on the significance of Structure 8 can be found in my post on the Barnhouse Settlement). Excavation of the hearth also turned up the remains of what appeared to be the footing for a pole supported by a wooden brace, which would have predated the existence of the hearth. It is not known what purpose a large central pole would have once served, nor why it was later taken down and replaced with the hearth from the Barnhouse Settlement.

The central hearth found inside the Stones of Stenness. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Excavation photo of the central hearth. Image sourced from the Historic Scotland Photographic Image Library.

Beyond the central hearth, archaeological excavation throughout the rest of the interior of the stone circle determined that, ultimately, it could not be fully interpreted. Still, there were some interesting findings that suggest that there was a lot of structured space within the circle, all of which had specific and even restricted uses. To the north of the hearth, two sockets were found for a pair of standing stones. At some point, the stones had been removed and the sockets filled in. But prior to their removal, the stones had been connected to the hearth by a rough stone path. Just north of these twin megaliths, less than 1 meter (3.28 feet) away, four bedding trenches were found. They may have contained a small, 2 meter (6 foot) wooden structure, as tiny bits of decomposing wood (dated to sometime around 2150 BCE) were found within them. Circular depressions in the four corners of the trenches indicate that the structure may have had supportive posts. The east and west sides of the trenches were aligned with the two standing stones, suggesting that the megaliths may have acted as some form of porch or monumental entrance leading into it. At some point, the structure was dismantled. The stones may have been removed at the same time. It is unknown what purpose the structure served. One archaeologist theorized that it could have been a funerary platform where bodies were laid out; another suggested that it served as a hearth that was later removed and relocated to the Barnhouse Settlement. There was also evidence of a hearth located at the causeway entrance. On the south side of the central hearth, the remains of five pits were discovered, the largest of which measured over 1 meter (3.28 feet) across and 0.6 meters (1.96 feet) deep. These pits may have once been lined with stone. A pot was found placed within one of these pits, and contained carbonized material including cereal grains. It’s possible these pits reflect later use of the site during the Iron Age, as charcoal was found within them dated to 469-669 CE.

Excavation photo of the bedding trenches and the two sockets for the standing stones. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Plan of the interior features showing (from L-R): the bedding trenches, the stone sockets, the stone pathway, and the central hearth. After G. Ritchie, 1976. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the central hearth of the Stones of Stenness. Archaeological evidence for the two stone sockets and the bedding trenches were found in the area between the hearth and the stones that were formerly used in the dolmen. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The work that went into creating the Stones of Stenness would have required a community effort—and likely even several communities. It is roughly estimated that it would have taken 50,000-80,000 man hours to build the stone rings at Stenness and Brodgar. There are various theories concerning how many people participated and over what length of time the construction took place. Assuming these hours are correct, if a large workforce of 300 people laboured nonstop, 8 hours a day, the task could have been completed somewhere between 20-33 days. If a smaller workforce of 50 did the same, it would have required 125-200 days. Of course, these numbers are all based on purely hypothetical calculations: the reality of the building would have looked much different. Further, it’s important to remember that what is present at the Stones of Stenness is the result of a finished product, and this final appearance could be misleading. Still, these calculations show that it is possible for the site to have been completed in as little time as the course of one summer, if a massive effort was made. It’s also feasible that a smaller group of committed workers undertook the labour over a course of several seasons. The work could have even been sporadic, with generations of labourers following either a fixed plan that had been made in advance, or gradually adapting the site to suit changing needs.

View of Stones 2, 3, and 5. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Most of the work at the Stones of Stenness would have involved forming the henge by digging the ditch and building the bank—cutting partly through solid rock!—using only flint or stone axes, antler picks, and shovels made from the shoulder blades of oxen. Quarrying and moving the monoliths, which were on average 2-3 tons (1,814-2,721 kgs or 4,000-6,000 pounds) but could weigh over 10 tons (9,071 kgs or 20,000 pounds), would have also been an enormous task, likely done with the use of ropes and timber rollers over land. It’s not known if the stones were moved into place before or after the henge was created. It would have certainly been more efficient to do so beforehand, as it would have been very challenging to maneuver them through the causeway. On the other hand, the difficulty may have been the entire point of this whole endeavour. The act of bringing and raising the stones may have served a ritual purpose, and/or provided communities with a way to compete or collaborate with each other. In 1907, eight men were needed to help re-erect Stone 5, which had been toppled by Mackay in 1814. It was inched up and into its foundation using a timber-framed ramp. Up to 20 people may have been needed to do the same for the largest and heaviest of monoliths. I can imagine how, after all the work that preceded it, this final task of raising a stone would call for a momentous celebration; the people selected to undertake it, similarly, would be bestowed with a high degree of respect and prestige.

Sunset view of the Stones of Stenness.
Pointed implement made of bovine bone found at the Broch of Gurness, Aikerness, Orkney. Tools like this would have been what was used to dig the ditch and build the henge at the Stones of Stenness. Image sourced from National Museums Scotland.

During the Neolithic period, other groups of standing stones would have adorned the landscape alongside the Stones of Stenness. Archaeologists believe that these stones were used as markers to direct the flow of people between the various ceremonial sites and settlements found throughout the Ness of Brodgar region. Unfortunately, many of these monuments have since disappeared3. Today, the Watch Stone is the sole monolith still standing at the head of the Stenness promontory, located at the south end of the Brodgar causeway. It measures more than 5.6 meters (18 feet) high, and is situated a short 160 meter (0.1 mile) walk north of the Stones of Stenness. The Watch Stone used to have a partner stone that stood about 12.8 meters (42 feet) to the southwest; its stump was discovered during roadwork in 1930. A charming folk legend attests that at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Watch Stone has the power to walk down to the water’s edge of the Loch of Stenness, where it then dips its head for a drink.

The Watch Stone. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Location of the Watch Stone in relation to the Stones of Stenness. Image sourced from Google Maps.
An illustration of the Watch Stone at “The Bridge of Brodgar, Stenness, 1875.” Waller Hugh Paton, 1828-1895. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Earlier in this post I made reference to the Odin Stone, which was a distinctive standing stone that formerly stood in a field 140 meters (460 feet) north of the Stones of Stenness. The Odin Stone is thought to have been erected around 3000 BCE and was around 2.5 meters (8 feet) high with a width of 1 meter (3.5 feet). It was believed to have magical properties, due to a circular hole that was pierced through its surface4. Local myths and traditions evolved around this perforation: couples held hands through the stone as part of a betrothal ritual, and other people were reported to have taken the “Vow of Odin” by placing their hand in the stone and either swearing an oath or making a promise. Unfortunately, the Odin Stone was one of the two stones demolished by Mackay in December 1814.

Western Circle of the Stones of Stennis. Etching by Harriet Elizabeth Georgiana Leveson-Gower (neé Howard), Duchess of Sutherland. From her 1807 book “Views in Orkney,” using drawings she made in 1805. The Watch Stone is shown on the left, and the Odin Stone on the right. The Ring of Brogdar is in the background. Some artistic liberty has likely been taken with the illustration, notably with the mountain range depicted behind the Odin Stone. Image sourced from the Historic Scotland Photographic Image Library.
An illustration of the Stones of Stenness from the frontispiece of the book “Rude Stone Monuments.” Percival Skelton, 1872. The Odin Stone can be seen on the left side of the illustration, and the Watch Stone in the foreground at the head of the causeway that crosses over to the Ness of Brodgar. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

This brings us to the most intriguing topic surrounding the Stones of Stenness: what was it used for? Why was it built? Unfortunately, its precise function remains a mystery. The absence of a documented historical record for this period of Neolithic Orcadian life means that we have to rely on the surviving physical characteristics of the monument and the archaeological evidence in order to piece together its meaning. Let’s begin with the firmest date we have associated with the Stones of Stenness, that of work on the site being underway by at least 3100 BCE, and consider how it relates to the construction and occupation of nearby monuments. The earliest structures built at the nearby Ness of Brodgar archaeological site appeared around the same time as the Stones of Stenness, if not a little earlier, between 3300-3200 BCE. The two sites are also located a mere 0.48 kms (0.3 miles, a 6 minute walk) away from each other. It is very likely that whatever was going on at the Ness of Brodgar also influenced the Stones of Stenness; hopefully, the ongoing archaeological excavation at the former site will shed some light on the mystery of the latter.

View of the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site which has, so far, revealed a massive 6 meter (20 foot) thick wall with foundations, as well as a large building that is being referred to as a “Neolithic cathedral” or “temple.” Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Elsewhere, the Stones of Stenness were found to predate the building of Maeshowe (around 3000 BCE) and the Ring of Brodgar (2600-2000 BCE). However, the nearby Barnhouse Settlement was occupied during the same time period as the development of the Stones of Stenness, from around 3100-2800 BCE. We’ve already discussed a few other clues that link the Stones of Stenness with the Barnhouse Settlement: first, their proximity, as they are located only a short 200 meters (0.12 miles, a 2 minute walk) away from each other; second, the henge’s causeway points in the direction of the village, allowing for easy access between them; third, identical pottery fragments were found at both sites, suggesting that villagers brought their dishes to the stone circle and used them for feasting activities; fourth, the stone slabs of the circle’s central hearth appear to have been relocated from the village. Further, the Barnhouse Settlement and the Stones of Stenness have some structural similarities—please read this post to find out more. Clearly, the villagers of Barnhouse had a close connection with their neighbouring stone circle, and may have even had a hand in building it.

2009 aerial view of the Barnhouse Settlement and the Stones of Stenness. (↘N) The entrance to the Stones of Stenness was aligned so that it faced the village. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
A view across Structure 8 of the Barnhouse Settlement towards the Stones of Stenness, which can be seen in the distance. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

With these possible relationships between the Stones of Stenness, the Ness of Brodgar, and the Barnhouse Settlement in mind, let’s consider how the stone circle relates to other landmarks in the region. We’ve already considered how the design of the Stones of Stenness seems to reflect the surrounding landscape. Two of its standing stones seem to mirror the distant shape of the hills of Hoy, and the space between its two angular uprights are aligned with Maeshowe in the east and the Deepdale stone in the west. It is likely that more examples of similar relationships once existed between other sites and the now-lost monoliths that formerly made up the stone circle. This suggests that a lot of thought and effort seems to have gone into the location of the Stones of Stenness, as well as the arrangement of its physical features. In my introductory post on the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (where I examine general theories on the purposes of stone circle in greater detail), I mentioned that scientists had noticed that Neolithic builders seem to have had a sophisticated awareness of the surrounding landscape. This is especially true for many of the sites in the Ness of Brodgar, which seem to align with each other as if they were part of a carefully arranged puzzle. The Stones of Stennes were likely one of its earliest pieces, and other monuments were carefully slotted into place around it. But why? 

View of the interior of the Stones of Stenness, with the hills of Hoy in the distance. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

It is possible that there was something about the local geography that the Neolithic people had noticed and were interested in—namely, that the Ness of Brodgar is positioned so that it aligns with the sunrise during the midwinter solstice and the sunset during the midsummer solstice. Perhaps the Stones of Stenness were erected in order to record and track this yearly progression of the sun through the surrounding landscape. Survival in the Neolithic period depended on their ability to adapt to the changing seasons, so having a means to anticipate these fluctuating rhythms would have been extremely beneficial. Other stone circles, such as Stonehenge, are set up so that they showcase the longest and shortest days of the year. The Stones of Stenness do not have enough remaining physical features to determine whether this was the case, but it is entirely possible that the annual cycle of the sun played a role in its design. Support for this comes from the fact that Maeshowe, with which it is aligned in the east, is oriented so that the midwinter sun shines down its main passage on the shortest day of the year. After the Stones of Stenness were constructed other monuments, such as Maeshowe, could have soon followed, with their location and design similarly dedicated to and even expanding upon this goal of tracking a local natural pattern, until the Ness of Brodgar had developed into a complex monumental landscape. Evolving social and spiritual components could have also provided Neolithic workers with the motivation to build more of these sites. Perhaps what began as a scientific observation of a natural pattern evolved into communal spiritual practices. Communities may have started gathering at the stones on the shortest days of the year, where they enacted specific rituals that they believed would ensure the return of longer, warmer days. Conversely, they may have gathered at the stones on the longest days of the year to celebrate and give thanks.

The setting sun casts a halo around Stone 5. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the sun setting between Stones 2 and 3. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Although a number of the stone monoliths that once made up the Stones of Stenness have long since disappeared, along with whatever clues they may have provided, the site does contain another mysterious feature that was found to contain a number of interesting archaeological finds: the interior ditch of its henge. During excavation, the fill of the ditch was found to contain Grooved Ware pottery (likely sourced from the Barnhouse Settlement), as well as the bones of sheep and cattle. The bones of large dogs, possibly wolves, were also excavated—as were two burnt bones from a human hand. The radiocarbon dating of some of these bones at the bottom of the ditch to 3040 BCE is what provided researchers with the information that construction had begun on the Stones of Stenness by at least 3100 BCE. The pottery fragments and animal bones suggest that ritual feasting was at least one of the activities that took place on the site; perhaps they were tossed down from spectators seated atop the outer bank. The excavation also uncovered plant remains at the bottom of the ditch, which indicates that the stone circle was built in open grassland with evidence of farming nearby. The discovery of aquatic plants also revealed that the ditch contained standing water from the very start; it was lower than the water table, so it would have nearly always been filled. Water was important to the people of Orkney: it provided them with their primary mode of transportation, and they often situated their monuments nearby, suggesting that it played a role in their ceremonies and rituals. The watery ditch would have served as a symbolic, even sacred, division between the activities taking place on the central platform within the monument and the external world of the outer bank and beyond. It is interesting that a community that lived on a small northern island (that was by no means remote) seems to have gone to great effort to physically recreate such a scenario in a ceremonial monument. Were the Stones of Stenness representative of Orkney, in miniature scale? Is that why the site’s physical features seem to mirror the surrounding landscape? Whatever the case, their festivities would have made for a magical spectacle: flickers of firelight illuminating the stones amidst a night sky full of stars; the possible distant rumble of waves; the smell of roasting food; as well as the social warmth of people laughing, dancing, and even playing music.

Some water fills the surviving ditch at the Stones of Stenness after what was probably a particularly rainy period. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Everyone loves a good bonfire. Image sourced from Pixabay.
Water-filled ditches can be kind of mystical. Image sourced from Pixabay.

I am going to wrap up our discussion on the Stones of Stenness at this point. A few further pieces of information about them will be included in my post on the Ring of Brodgar. In the next part of this series, we’ll visit the nearby Barnhouse Settlement. Barnhouse is a prehistoric village that is similar to and contemporary with Skara Brae, but with some key differences—particularly in the structure of and purpose behind a couple of its residences. And, as we’ve already discussed, the Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse Settlement also seem to have had a close relationship. To find out more, check out the next post! Thank you for reading!

1 A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of 2 or more stone slabs supporting a large horizontal capstone. 

The Lanyon Quoit dolmen in Cornwall, UK, dated from 3500-2500 BCE. Image sourced from Wikipedia. The capstone is 5.5 meters (18 feet) long and weighs more than 12 tonnes! Image sourced from Wikipedia.

2 The Deepdale Stone is situated along the southwestern edge of the Loch of Stenness. It once had a companion stone that was removed sometime between the 1940s-1970s after it had been loosened by ploughing. The stump and socket hole of this companion stone, which is thought to have stood slightly taller than the Deepdale Stone’s own height of 2 meters (6 feet), was discovered during an archaeological excavation. The Deepdale Stone is located on private land. It is unknown what purpose these two stones held, beyond the Deepdale Stone’s alignment with the Stones of Stenness, 3.5 kms (2.17 miles) away.

Location of the Deepdale Stone in relation to the Loch of Stenness and the other monuments along the Ness of Brodgar. Image sourced from Google Maps.

3 A pair of standing stones can also be seen in the front yard of Loch View Cottage, part of the Brodgar farm where the Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig is situated.

A pair of standing stones in front of Loch View Cottage. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

4 In Norse mythology, Odin is the god of both war and death. He sacrificed one of his eyes so that he could see everything that happens in the world. The single hole in the Odin stone led to it being named after the one-eyed Norse god.

An illustration of Odin from an 18th century Icelandic illuminated manuscript. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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