This is the fourth 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 third Neolithic site of interest, the Ring of Brodgar. Three earlier posts in this series will provide you with an introduction to the Ness of Brodgar, the region in which most of these sites are located, as well as the Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse Settlement. Please go and read these three posts if you haven’t already, as they 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 Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic henge and stone circle monument that is located on a thin peninsula, known as the Ness of Brodgar, that runs between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray about 9.5 kms (6 miles) northeast of the town of Stromness, on the Orkney Mainland. The southern tip of the Ness of Brodgar does not quite stretch all the way across the two lochs to meet with a wedge of the mainland, known as the Stenness promontory, where another stone circle (the Stones of Stenness) is located. Instead, a causeway spans the short gap between the Ness and the Stenness headland where the two lochs meet. A bridge or causeway has been located in this area for at least the last 1,000 years. Brodgar comes from the name of a farm that is situated near the causeway, which is itself a combination of the Old Norse words for bridge (brúar) and farm (garðr). The word has been spelled in various ways throughout the centuries, and both Brogar and Brodgar are considered correct. Brogar conforms to the etymology of the name, brúargarðr. However, in the local dialect, Brogar is traditionally pronounced “broad-yeur” with a slight emphasis on the “d”, which gradually led to the inclusion of this letter when the word was written down. In 2004, Historic Scotland decided to switch from the Brogar to the Brodgar spelling in all of its promotional materials; a move that was favoured by Orkney residents. In recent years, beyond the local community, the pronunciation of Brodgar has shifted more towards how it is spelled, “broad-gur.”
The age of the Ring of Brodgar is uncertain, although it is generally thought to have been erected between 2600-2000 BCE. Scientific data is unavailable for the interior of the monument, as it has never been excavated. However, archaeological work into parts of the ditch has indicated that it was dug between 2600-2400 BCE. It is unknown whether the ditch was built before, after, or during the construction of the stone circle. If the 2600-2000 BCE range is correct, that would make the Ring of Brodgar the last of the great monuments built on the Ness of Brodgar, having been preceded by the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site (with its first structures appearing around 3300-3200 BCE); the Stones of Stenness (where work was underway by 3100 BCE); the Barnhouse Settlement (occupied around 3100-2800 BCE); and Maeshowe (built around 3000 BCE). Although the Ring of Brodgar could be considered “young” by the standards of Neolithic Orkney, it is worth noting that the site is still over 4,000-4,500 years old! For context, the ring may have been contemporary with the Great Pyramid of Giza (work commenced on it around 2,650 BCE), and could possibly be older than Stonehenge (which was built between 3,000-2,000 BCE).
The Ring of Brodgar measures 103.6 meters (340 feet) in diameter and encloses an area of 8,435 square meters (90,790 square feet). This makes it the largest stone circle in Scotland, and the third largest stone circle in Britain and Ireland—bested only by the outer ring of stones at Avebury and the Greater Ring at Stanton Drew, both in England. The Ring of Brodgar is the only major henge and stone circle in Britain whose shape is almost that of a perfect circle; it is also the one located the furthest north. The Ring of Brodgar is the larger of the two stone circles situated in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It is nearly six times the size of the Stones of Stenness, although its monoliths are smaller than those found at its southeastern neighbour which, at a distance of 1.8 kms (0.9 miles), is a short 18 minute walk away. The stones at the Ring of Brodgar range in height from 2.1-4.7 meters (7-15 feet), whereas three of the surviving monoliths at the Stones of Stenness are more than twice that height, spanning 4.8-5.5 meters (16-18 feet); a fourth Stenness stone, possibly an outlier, measures a comparable size of 1.8 meters (6 feet).
Only 21 stones1 remain standing at the Ring of Brodgar, most of which feature an angled top. There are also 2 fallen stones, both struck down by lightning during the 20th century, and the remnants of a further 10 monoliths that exist either as stumps or foundational sockets filled with packing stones. It was long believed, based upon the spacing of the surviving monoliths, that the Ring of Brodgar once contained 60 stones in total. However, a 2008 excavation and research project revealed that there might have been even more. A tomographic survey focused on the southeastern half of the ring uncovered 19 additional socket holes. When combined with the previously known stones, socket holes, and stumps, this adds up to there being 36 monoliths that may have once stood in this section of the ring. If the other half of the ring contained a similar number, this means that the Ring of Brodgar could have once had around 70 standing stones. Curiously, though, there is evidence that these stones may not have all stood in place at the same time.
Excavation work in 2008 revealed that the foundational sockets at the Ring of Brodgar were not dug as deep as those at the Stones of Stenness. Generally speaking, the depth of a socket should be around 25% the height of the stone it is trying to secure in order for it to provide adequate, long-lasting support. At the Stones of Stenness, the foundational sockets range in depth from 0.9-1.3 meters (2.95-4.27 feet). They are used to brace three tall surviving stones that measure 4.8-5.5 meters (16-18 feet). Let’s say that the shallowest socket (0.9 meters) is used for the shortest stone (4.8 meters), and the deepest socket (1.3 meters) for the tallest stone (5.5 meters). These calculations reveal that the depth of these sockets measure around 18.75-23.6% of the total height of the stone they are supporting: a touch shallower than might be desired, but still enough to endure. In comparison, two foundational sockets at the Ring of Brodgar were measured as having a depth of 0.18 meters and 0.27 meters (7 inches and 10.6 inches). Let’s set up our calculations as if they were meant to hold the smallest and largest of the stones, respectively, at 2.1 meters (7 feet) and 4.7 meters (15 feet). In this case, the foundational sockets are calculated to only have a depth spanning 5.7% and 8.5% the total height of their standing stones. This is a significant difference! For some reason, the foundational sockets at the Ring of Brodgar were engineered to be around 3 times shallower than the ones at the Stones of Stenness. This suggests that, in spite of the considerable effort that was put into quarrying and transporting the monoliths, the stones used in the Ring of Brodgar were not meant to be erected permanently. In fact, some stones were intentionally removed, and others were snapped off and left as stumps in the ground. The monument’s focus seems to have been more directed toward the grandiosity and ceremony of a single moment, when a stone was finally pulled into place, rather than on creating a long-lasting impression. The Ring of Brodgar does not seem to have been a site that was designed and carefully constructed with a final, permanent objective in mind. Rather, its purpose looks to have been more fluid, with its appearance constantly transforming and adapting to the needs of its various users.
Geological examination of the stones at the Ring of Brodgar indicates that they came from at least 7 different quarries all across Orkney. Most of the monoliths are reddish-brown and blue-grey in colour, but there is a surviving fragment of yellow stone that could have been sourced from an outcrop of rock at Houton, located 14.5 kms (9 miles) to the south. Another likely extraction site was one that can be found about 12 kms (7.6 miles) northwest of the monument in Vestra Fiold, Sandwick. There, other quarried stones of a similar size to those used at the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar can still be seen lying in the fields, with at least one of them propped up on supports as if waiting, several millennia later, for their Neolithic collaborators to drag them away to their final destination. A third probable source could have been a quarry at Staneyhill. Why so many different quarries? One possibility lies in the likelihood that multiple communities participated in the mining, transportation, and raising of monoliths at the Ring of Brodgar; they may have even competed with each other while doing so. Perhaps the various groups were each responsible for a particular section of the ring, and their respective stones were taken from the specific quarry that they were associated with (possibly because the quarry was part of their territory). Support for this idea comes from the fact that the stones used in the ring seem to have been arranged in different clusters according to their type.
A lot of thought and effort went into mining the standing stones used at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness so that their faces and edges had a uniform appearance. Neolithic workers extracted the monoliths from outcrops of rock, usually found on hillsides, by using stone wedges and hammers to split off a large fragment from along the top. This process provided a stone that had one rough, natural face and edge (the exterior portion of the rock, which had been weathered by the elements) and one smooth, quarried face and edge (the interior part that had been separated from the rest of the rock, which had not been exposed to the wind and rain). Interestingly, the Neolithic workers would only extract one stone from each outcrop, so that all of the monoliths they procured would have consistent faces and edges. If they had cut a second stone from the same area of rock by mining deeper into the hill, either behind or below where the first stone had been carved out, then that second stone would respectively have two smooth edges and/or faces, having been protected from the outside environment. This was decidedly not done, as it did not produce the type of stone that the miners wanted. For some reason, it was really important to the creators of these monuments that the faces and edges of all these monoliths feature one rough and one smooth surface. Back at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, these quarried stones were erected so that their rough surfaces were faced towards the inside of the circle, where the main actors/participants could see them, and their brighter, smoother surfaces were pointed outwards, towards the audience. Was there a symbolic element to this, a sense of duality that played a part in their ceremonies? Or was it a preference merely based on how nice the smoother rock surface looked? The recent discovery of painted stones at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site could also mean that these monoliths were once decorated with colourful designs.
Unlike the Stones of Stenness, there is no indication that the central platform of the Ring of Brodgar has ever been plowed. Unfortunately, a known period of extensive turf-stripping in the 1800s may have resulted in the loss of any potential archaeological evidence it once contained. A geophysical survey conducted in 1973 revealed hints of anomalies beneath the interior surface of the ring—the results were not significant enough to indicate that there are stone features present, but there could be structures made of wood. However, as previously mentioned, the central area of the Ring of Brodgar has yet to be excavated by archaeologists. Whatever has managed to survive beneath the soil and heather remains a mystery.
In my introductory post to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, I explained that a henge monument involves the pairing of a raised, roughly circular, earthen bank with an interior ditch. Given this criteria, the Ring of Brodgar would not technically be considered a henge. Although the site does contain a massive ditch and a central platform, there is no current evidence that indicates they were ever enclosed by the requisite bank of earth and rock. In spite of this, the Ring of Brodgar is still referred to as a Neolithic henge and stone circle monument—possibly for simplicity’s sake, but also because the site still retains some crucial henge-like elements.
The Ring of Brodgar’s second most impressive feature, next to its numerous standing stones, is its enormous interior ditch. Today, the ditch looks a lot less expansive than it once did, as thousands of years of erosion have since led to it filling with silt. But it once measured over 3 meters (9.8 feet) deep, 9 meters (30 feet) wide, 123 meters (403 feet) in diameter, and 380 meters (1,250 feet) in circumference. The most astounding part of the ditch is that it involved digging through solid bedrock, with the removal of an estimated 4,700 cubic meters (11,000 tonnes or 2.4 million pounds) of sandstone using only antler picks, hammer stones, and shovels made from the shoulder blades of livestock. These tools were likely used along with stone wedges to fracture the rock along its natural fissures. Unfortunately, the composition of this sandstone would not have allowed for the successful extraction of an entire, unbroken monolith, so the ditch did not serve as a quarry site for the ring’s standing stones. However, it is possible that some of the excavated material was dumped a short distance away from the site, and was then used to form the nearby mound known as “Salt Knowe” (more on that later). It is estimated that the amount of work required to dig the Ring of Brodgar’s ditch was 80,000 man hours. Given a hypothetical workforce of 100 people labouring for 10 hours a day, this could have been completed in as little as 80 days—or over the course of one summer. However, it appears that the ditch was not excavated as part of one continuous process. Rather, it was dug in segments through a series of numerous pits that were then joined together. Like the raising of the stones, the digging of the ditch could have taken place over a long period of time and been undertaken by many different groups of people from all over Orkney, perhaps even by multiple generations.
It is likely that the various sections of ditch at the Ring of Brodgar filled with standing water shortly after they were dug. In 2008, excavation work2 in a trench located along the northern section of the ditch revealed that, near its base, the sandstone had once been so saturated with water that it became discoloured, transforming it from its original orange-brown to a deep grey-blue. It was this same archaeological work that dated the construction of the ditch to sometime between 2600-2400 BCE. This means that, some 500 years after work was estimated to be underway on the ditch at the Stones of Stenness in 3100 BCE, having a water-laden ditch was still integral to Neolithic monument construction at the Ness of Brodgar. Interestingly, Maeshowe also had a surrounding ditch built around 2700 BCE—just a short time prior to the one at the Ring of Brodgar. It’s possible that the ditch continued to serve as a symbolic, even sacred, division between the activities inside the ring and the outside world; filling it with water made that separation even more profound. The site’s physical features may have also been meant to represent their home, essentially serving as Orkney in miniature, mirroring how the island-dwelling residents were encircled by the ocean.
One of the most intriguing elements of the Ring of Brodgar, and the one that may provide the strongest clue to the site’s purpose, is the existence of its two entrance causeways. The causeways are located opposite each other at the northwest and southeast corners of the monument; the northwest entrance is 3.4 meters (11.15 feet) wide, while the southeast one is narrower, at just over 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide. These causeways control and provide access across the ring’s interior ditch into the central platform and the stone circle. Having two causeways, instead of just one like the Stones of Stenness, suggests that movement from one side of the monument through to the other was an important part of its design; perhaps such an activity was done as part of a ceremony. It’s possible that, prior to the construction of the Ring of Brodgar, the causeway formerly existed as part of a path that ran along the entire span of the Ness of Brodgar. At some point, the Neolithic community may have decided to embellish this section of the path by encircling it with the Ring of Brodgar. Regardless of the causeway’s origin, it is clear that it was later used to give approaching visitors a grand first impression of the monument. Numerous standing stones were packed tightly around the causeway’s two entry points into the ring, and the stones used here were broader than those located elsewhere in the monument—suggesting an attempt to make the stone circle appear bigger than it actually was.
The Ring of Brodgar has been charming visitors for thousands of years, both local and from further afield. Over the centuries, a number of these people have been moved to carve their name into the stones of the monument (please don’t do the same3 when you are visiting the site, it is now illegal!). In one such instance, a Viking-era (800-1065 CE) resident or visitor left behind a series of mysterious runic figures, known as twig runes due to their twig-like appearance. These can be seen, counting clockwise from the ring’s north entrance causeway, on the broken stump of the third standing stone. They were discovered in 1907, shortly after the Ring of Brodgar came into state care, when this prone stump was raised and placed into a nearby socket; the runic script had been on the side of the stone that was pressed into the ground. Unfortunately, these twig runes are somewhat indecipherable using the normal method of decrypting twig runes. There is a theory that they could translate as the name “Bjorn,” but this isn’t accepted by everyone. A small cross can also be found scratched into the stone below this possible name. To the east, a taller slab of stone features a small engraving of an anvil. A second twig rune, now lost, was also found in 1908 on a loose stone discovered in the southwest section of the ring. Fortunately, a record was made of this finding before it was mysteriously carried away. It consisted of a solitary runic figure, possibly translating as the letter “O,” with a cross carved below it as well.
The Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by several interesting Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments that may have been a part of, or at least later supplementary to, its purpose. These include a single monolith, the Comet Stone, that may have once been part of a more significant stone setting; 13 prehistoric mounds of earth, some of which may have possibly been used as burial sites; as well as a prominent earthwork called the Dyke of Sean, which may have played an important role in the Ness of Brodgar’s ritual activity by marking a significant boundary. The most recent of these monuments may date to 500 BCE, but the earliest may predate the Ring of Brodgar itself. The sheer quantity of these sites seems to indicate that this region remained important to the community for a long time, as it continued to be a focus for ceremonial and funerary activities. Members of the Bronze Age, in particular, seemed to consider the area around the Ring of Brodgar a desirable place to be buried.
The Comet Stone is located about 140 meters (460 feet) southeast of the Ring of Brodgar. It stands 1.75 meters (5 feet 9 inches) tall at the centre of a low, circular platform that measures about 14 meters (45 feet) in diameter. This platform also contains the stumps of two other stones, suggesting that the Comet Stone may have once been part of a small group of standing stones, or some other stone structure such as a dolmen. Notably, the Comet Stone aligns with the centre of the Ring of Brodgar, as well as with the Stones of Stenness and the distant Barnhouse Stone. According to a (not entirely trustworthy) local source writing in the late 19th century, the older residents of Orkney used to refer to this monolith as the “Ulie Stane” (Oil Stone) and, up until around the 1850s, tipped their hats or bonnets as a sign of respect when passing it. The monolith acquired its present name courtesy of a group of 19th century antiquarians who considered it to be “orbiting” the greater Ring of Brodgar, which they fancifully dubbed “the Temple of the Sun.”
The Comet Stone plays a prominent role in a local folk story that concerns the origin of the Ring of Brodgar. In the tale, a group of giants cross the Ness of Brodgar on a dark, starry night. Once across, they gather in a field that is bordered on one side by the Loch of Harray and on the other by the Loch of Stenness. There, a fiddler pulls out his instrument and begins to play. His companions join hands, form a circle, and dance the night away. They are so caught up in their whirling movements that they fail to notice the approaching morning. As the sun breaks over the horizon, its cresting beams strike the giants and turn them into cold, hard stone. There they remain to this day, with the dancers frozen into their places around the Ring of Brodgar. The fiddler, now the Comet Stone, remains in his position just outside of the circle, forever locked where his playing once entranced his companions.
There are 13 prehistoric mounds of earth found near the Ring of Brodgar, some of which are referred to as a knowe (pronounced “now”), a Scottish word that refers to small hills or knolls. Most of these mounds were sampled by unsystematic excavation in the 18th and 19th centuries but few records, if any, were made of their findings. There is not a lot of evidence available to indicate the purpose of these mounds, although what little information has been obtained suggests that at least a few of them were used as Neolithic and Bronze Age burial sites. A group of nine smaller, unnamed mounds situated south of the ring vary in diameter from 4.5-12.8 meters (14.7-42 feet) and are up to 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) high; most of these were probably built for burial purposes between 1500-500 BCE. There are also four larger mounds: Salt Knowe; Fresh Knowe; the Plumcake Mound; and South Knowe. These four mounds were excavated in the 1850s, and they are thought to have been constructed sometime between 2500-1500 BCE.
Salt Knowe, situated near the Loch of Stenness, is named for the saltwater that fills the loch near which it resides. It is a massive mound that measures 40 meters (131 feet) by 33 meters (108 feet), and stands 6 meters (19.6 feet) tall—making it comparable in scale to Maeshowe. For many years, this similarity in size led many to theorize that Salt Knowe was also a Neolithic chambered cairn. However, a 2008 scan of the knowe using ground-penetrating radar showed that the mound lacked a central structure, and contained little more than earth and rock, possibly fill from the Ring of Brodgar’s ditch, located 100 meters east. The top of the mound does feature a large Bronze-Age burial cist, measuring 2.6 meters long and divided by a stone partition. Archaeologist James Farrer, who excavated Salt Knowe in 1853, recorded that he had found some animal bones near the top of the structure, but no human remains.
Fresh Knowe is one of two mounds located by the Loch of Harray and, similar to Salt Knowe, gets its name from the freshwater loch it neighbours. It is also locally known as “Farrer’s Knowe” after Farrer who, along with local antiquarian George Petrie, dug a trench across its north end in 1853. Fresh Knowe measures 38 meters (124 feet) by 26 meters (85 feet) across, and is 5.7 meters (18.7 feet) tall. Its elliptical shape suggests that it may be a Neolithic barrow that predates the Ring of Brodgar. However, it is also possible that, like Salt Knowe, it was constructed using fill from the ring’s ditch. Farrer observed that the mound had been carefully constructed but, unfortunately, had no further information to report.
The Plumcake Mound is also situated alongside the Loch of Harray. It was given its name by 19th century antiquarians who were trying to describe its appearance. Unfortunately, the mound was damaged following repeated excavations in the 1850s, so now it looks more like a collapsed plumcake. It is slightly smaller than the nearby Fresh Knowe, measuring 22 meters (72 feet) in diameter and surviving to 3 meters (9.8 feet) in height. When Farrer and Petrie examined the mound in 1854, they discovered two stone cists. One contained a decorated soapstone urn, the other a pottery urn: both contained cremated human remains. A date of 1745-1566 BCE was obtained from a single piece of this burnt bone, indicating use of the mound in the Early Bronze Age.
South Knowe is the smallest of the four large mounds, measuring 1.8 meters (6 feet) in diameter and 1.8 meters (6 feet) in height. It is situated on the outer southern edge of the ditch that encircles the Ring of Brodgar. In fact, one of the arguments supporting the idea that the Ring of Brodgar lacked an outer henge lies in the location of South Knowe. If there had been a henge, it would have occupied the space where South Knowe was later constructed—the mound would have thus been built elsewhere. The shape of South Knowe, which features a depressed hollow at its top, suggests that it was also previously excavated. However, there is no record of the dig, nor if there was anything discovered within the mound.
The Dyke of Sean (pronounced “see-ann”) is a man-made earthwork that curves erratically across the short 500 meter (0.3 mile) span of the Ness of Brodgar, east to west, from the Loch of Harray to the Loch of Stenness. This earthen wall has sections that survive up to 7 meters (about 23 feet) in width and up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) in height; it contains one entrance. A substantial, occasionally water-filled ditch can be found on the dike’s northern side, and it is also flanked by two large pools of water. The water may have been what led to the monument’s name, as sean is a corruption of an Old Norse word, tjǫrn (pronounced sort of like “shorn”), which means “small lake” or “pool.” The Dyke of Sean is located about 0.64 kms (0.4 miles) northwest of the Ring of Brodgar. Its age is not certain, although recent geophysics data suggests that it may be contemporary with the Ring of Brodgar. In 2009, erosion from cattle activity revealed Neolithic-style stone masonry beneath the soil, as well as a stepped foundation similar to that used in the earth-covered wall at Maeshowe.
Although there are a few theories, the purpose of the Dyke of Sean remains unknown. Today, the dike forms the boundary between the West Mainland parishes of Sandwick (to the north) and Stenness (to the south). It is possible that, in the Neolithic era, the Dyke of Sean served as a similar divider of territory—perhaps even acting as a significant boundary within a ceremonial landscape. Support for this comes from the fact that geophysics scans seem to show a lack of residential and agricultural activity along the Ness of Brodgar between the Dyke of Sean and the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site. For some reason, the Neolithic community treated this region differently: no houses, no farms, no planting or ploughing, and no grazing of livestock. These activities were permitted at the nearby Stones of Stenness, but not around the Ring of Brodgar. Why? Was this section of the Ness of Brodgar considered a sacred/otherworldly space and, as a result, deliberately partitioned from the rest of the region? The mystery deepens when you look south of the Ring of Brodgar towards the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, where there is evidence that the peninsula was further marked by at least two similar boundaries.
The Dyke of Sean may have been one of three, perhaps four, Neolithic walls that were built across the Ness of Brodgar. Two of these walls flank the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site and a fourth possible wall, located a short distance south of the Ring of Brodgar, was noted on early maps drawn of the region in 1772, 1812, and 1852. Discussion about this fourth wall remains speculative as there is no surviving evidence of it nor any guarantee that, if it indeed existed, that it was prehistoric in nature. However, the confirmed existence of three Neolithic walls (including the Dyke of Sean) allows for the intriguing possibility of a fourth. The 1772 map4 made note of a “stone wall” that crossed the entire length of the Ness of Brodgar, except for a single entrance that aligned with the southeast causeway of the Ring of Brodgar. The wall was unnamed in the 1812 map, but was later referred to as a “Dilapidated Dike” in 1852.
Of all the mysteries that we have considered so far in this discussion of the Ring of Brodgar, the greatest one of all is its purpose, which remains unknown. In a couple of previous posts in this series, I have explored how the location of a stone circle may play a defining role in its function. This seems to be especially true in the Ness of Brodgar region, which appears to have been designed as an elaborate, ritual landscape that contains a series of interconnected sites. These monuments seem to align with each other as if they were part of a carefully arranged puzzle. The estimated date of the Ring of Brodgar’s construction suggests that it was the last of the big puzzle pieces to be slotted into place, having been preceded by the structures at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site; the Stones of Stenness; the Barnhouse Settlement; and Maeshowe. Why were the pieces arranged in this manner? Why were the monuments built in this order? What was it about the Ring of Brodgar that completed the puzzle? The possible answers may all have something to do with its location.
Neolithic builders seem to have had a sophisticated understanding of the region in which they were working. Consequently, the specific location of a stone circle and the effortful arrangement of its monoliths can tell us a lot about what was meaningful to them about the surrounding landscape. They may not have had access to pen and paper, but they still managed to leave a partial record of what was important to them through the construction of these sites. What was meaningful to them about the Ring of Brodgar? If you ever have the opportunity to visit the monument, spend a few minutes looking beyond the stone circle in all directions to the surrounding horizon (alternately, you can do this on Google Maps using their Street View). You will notice that the ring is situated on a plateau with a gentle eastward slope. Otherwise, your immediate surroundings tend to be relatively flat. There is no dense vegetation to block your view5 of the neighbouring lochs or the wide sky overhead. However, in the distance, almost beyond your range of vision, you will find a low series of hills that encircle you and the ring entirely. It is as if you are at the centre of a large bowl or cauldron, with the physical elements of the landscape forming a natural amphitheatre around you. If you suddenly feel like you are exposed, as if you are a player on a stage that can be seen by people from many miles away, that’s because you are: the standing stones used in the Ring of Brodgar are visible on the skyline from many directions and over a considerable distance. The ring was built in a location from which the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe could both be seen, and vice versa. This positioning of the Ring of Brodgar in relation to the hill-laden horizon and its resulting prominence throughout the region was likely intentional. Perhaps this is even why the ring seems to have lacked a raised exterior bank of earth—this unimpeded panoramic view could have been key to the monument’s purpose and design.
In my post about the Stones of Stenness, I discussed how two of the site’s monoliths seemed to mirror the distant hills of Hoy behind them, and how two smaller upright stones aligned with Maeshowe to the east and the Deepdale Stone to the west. I assumed that the Ring of Brodgar, which has many more surviving features, would contain a wealth of similar examples. However, I was surprised to discover that it is difficult to find conclusive evidence of similar geographic relationships between the Ring of Brodgar and other landmarks. This may be due to the fact that many of the Ring of Brodgar’s stones have been re-erected in recent centuries, and their repositioning may have led to the loss of these potentially subtle connections. Or it could be that, by the time the Ring of Brodgar was constructed, similar relationships were already well established elsewhere, and there was no need to have the new stone circle repeat them. Perhaps the location of the Ring of Brodgar was determined based on other features, such as the prominent position it would have had throughout the surrounding landscape, the panoramic view it provided, and the existence of a path that may have been developed into the ring’s causeway. Still, some interesting links have been observed between the Ring of Brodgar and other monuments in the area. The first is that the Ring of Bookan6, located about 1.6 kms (1 mile) to the northwest, aligns with the Ring of Brodgar. The centre of the Ring of Brodgar is also aligned with the Comet Stone which, in turn, lines up with the Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse Stone. Notches between the hills surrounding the monument can also be used to track the passing seasons based on where the sun rises and sets throughout the year. In any case, the location of the Ring of Brodgar still seems to have been deliberately chosen because it had a meaningful relationship with the wider environment.
The Ring of Brodgar represents a huge feat of social and physical engineering. The massive scale of its construction alone would have required considerable collaboration within and across communities. Previously, I have discussed how politics likely played a role in where a stone circle was located, how it was built, what it was used for, and by whom. One of the unique aspects of the Ring of Brodgar is that its physical characteristics hint at how its construction was likely shaped by the political environment of Neolithic Orkney. Both the monument’s segmented ditch and the arrangement of its standing stones by type (likely because they were sourced from different quarries) indicate that it was built by different groups of workers, perhaps from all over Orkney. The scale of the project would have likely demanded regional participation: the excavation of the ditch required at least 80,000 hours; and the quarrying and transportation of the monoliths from their distant extraction sites, as well as their raising, would have similarly involved a lot of effort—at least 20 people would have been needed to lift the tallest of these stones into place. Who had the ability to command and deploy that level of labour? Was the ability to do so a mark of prestige? What political goal did their participation in the building of the monument serve? What purpose could have united these people in such a physically demanding project? Were they drawn to the site based on a spirit of collaboration, or of competition? Political rivalry could have certainly driven the Ring of Brodgar’s development. Power could have been asserted and contested between communities based on their respective contributions to the monument. The difficulty of digging through solid sandstone or dragging a heavy monolith across miles of countryside could have been exactly the point: perhaps the harder the task, the greater the renown. (This is quite different from our modern approach to construction, which tends to value processes of efficiency and expediency, but I digress). Was the Ring of Brodgar placed in neutral territory so that it could be accessed and worked on by all these groups in a relatively conflict-free manner? If so, did their respective communities all gather here together for special ceremonies and/or regional assemblies? The Ring of Brodgar was an expansive venue, with the ability to hold 3,000 people. Perhaps everyone took their places in the ring according to the section that their community had been responsible for building. Regardless of its political intent, harmonious or otherwise, the Ring of Brodgar was certainly a factor in regional expressions of political power—its location would have been made carefully with this in mind.
The Ring of Brodgar’s location could have also been determined based on its scientific suitability. In my previous post on the Stones of Stenness, I theorized that it was possible that the Neolithic community had noticed and were interested in documenting a natural pattern in the landscape—namely, that the Ness of Brodgar was situated so that it aligned with the sunrise at the midwinter solstice, and the sunset during the midsummer solstice. Survival in the Neolithic period meant adapting to the changing seasons, so having a means to track and anticipate these fluctuating rhythms would have been extremely beneficial. Some stone circles, like Stonehenge, are set up so that they showcase the longest and shortest days of the year in dramatic fashion. Neither the Ring of Brodgar nor the Stones of Stenness currently seem to do this, but some of the other monuments located in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney do: Maeshowe is oriented so that the midwinter sun shines directly down its main passage on the shortest day of the year; House 2 in the Barnhouse Settlement was aligned so that, for one hour on midwinter’s morning, a beam of sunlight would shine through its doorway and illuminate the cover of a mysterious stone cist; and the entrance to Structure 10 in the Ness of Brodgar’s archaeological site was also aligned with the solstice sunrise. Clearly, the annual passage of the sun was an important component to the design of several of these sites. It’s possible that the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness also formerly contained features that showed similar alignments with the winter and/or summer solstice, but they have since been lost. Or perhaps the stone circles tracked the changing seasons in a different way. There is also a theory that the Ring of Brodgar once served as a lunar observatory, and that both its standing stones and nearby burial mounds were aligned with astronomical phenomena. Although this latter idea is intriguing, and the Ring of Brodgar certainly provides an impressive vantage point of the sky, there is an unfortunate lack of conclusive scientific evidence to back it up.
It is very likely that the Ring of Brodgar was used by the Orkney community for a long period of time and for a variety of different activities. The presence of the nearby burial mounds alone indicates that the region remained an important focus for ritual activities well into the British Bronze Age (2,500-800 BCE), and perhaps for many years after. However, I believe that the Ring of Brodgar’s original design and purpose had something to do with the Ness of Brodgar’s alignment with the midwinter and midsummer solstices. My theory—which is entirely a summary of other people’s research and ideas guided by my curiosity—is that the Neolithic community’s interest in the Ness of Brodgar region was at first scientifically motivated, rooted in their survival. At first, members of a local Neolithic group may have had their builders document the sun’s annual passage through this specific landscape by constructing some smaller monuments that were a little less labour intensive, such as a circle made of timber posts (a possible origin story for the Stones of Stenness). What began as a scientific observation of a natural pattern soon evolved into a set of communal spiritual practices that eventually drew people from all over Orkney, and possibly from regions well beyond this small cluster of northern islands. But well before all that, the members of this first community may have found themselves increasingly drawn to these monuments on the shortest and longest days of the year. What little we do know of Neolithic people suggests that they had a deep connection with nature, which they could have experienced as a close, even sacred, relationship. Perhaps to cope with the darkest, most uncertain time of the year they began to enact certain rituals (bonfires and/or sacrifices) to ensure the return of longer, warmer days. Conversely, they may have also gathered on the longest days of the year to celebrate (through feasting) and to give thanks. These developing social and spiritual elements would have provided Neolithic communities with the motivation to expand on their existing monuments (replacing timber posts with standing stones), build additional ones (including the later Ring of Brodgar), and maybe eventually transform the Ness of Brodgar into a complex ritual landscape.
The Ness of Brodgar consists of a raised ridge of higher ground that runs from the northwest to the southeast, and is clearly visible from miles around. Today, this peninsula serves as a practical route across the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray. In the Neolithic era, it would have likely done the same. The water levels of the Loch of Harray were possibly lower, and the area containing the Loch of Stenness may have been more of a watery bog than a fully-filled lake, but walking along the Ness of Brodgar would have still given someone the impression that they were being carefully balanced in a liminal place. Water was important to Neolithic people, and played a part in many of their rituals. If you combine that fact with the alignment of the Ness of Brodgar towards the winter and summer solstices, it’s not hard to imagine that the Neolithic community came to believe that this was a truly special place. What may have started as a simple means to get from one end of the peninsula to another could have evolved into a journey of spiritual meaning. Perhaps by the time the Ring of Brodgar was constructed, the Ness had become the focus of a larger regional ceremony that involved a procession7 through all the monuments located along its span; an observance or tribute may have been required at each of the respective sites. One’s access to and movement across the landscape was significant, and so the route was controlled by the ditches, walls, and causeways of the various sites. The Ring of Brodgar may have been built so that it enclosed a section of the pathway upon which this procession took place; this would explain why the monument has two opposed causeway entrances, which encourage passage through its stone circle. It is theorized that this structured, ritual journey could have begun at the Ness’s highest point of elevation at the Ring of Bookan, on its northwestern end. It then continued south across the Dyke of Sean; onward through the Ring of Brodgar; past the complex at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site and the walls that flanked it; and towards a possible final destination at the Stones of Stenness.
As fun as it is to theorize about the purpose of the Ring of Brodgar—and, indeed, of the other monuments located throughout the Heart of Neolithic Orkney—it is crucial to keep in mind that what we see today is only representative of a single stage in the site’s development, and its appearance may be deceiving. Such monuments have a long lifespan, and may have evolved considerably over time. We also have to consider how modern biases may affect our interpretation of them. For example, there is a tendency to look at monuments such as the Ring of Brodgar and think of them as being “completed.” That there was an end stage that the builders purposefully strode towards that was, eventually, successfully reached. However, it is possible that these monuments were never meant to be “finished.” The Ring of Brodgar is especially suggestive of this. Although the ring contains the spacing, and at least half the sockets, for around 70 stones, it is not known whether they were all ever raised. A modern interpretation of the Ring of Brodgar may assume that its builders had intended to fill the entire circle with all of these upright stones. But if this was the case, then why were some of them purposefully removed? Why were their sockets so shallow, making it less likely that they would stand there permanently? It is possible that the Ring of Brodgar was designed to be an ever-changing, evolving site. That its appearance constantly shifted as centuries of workers added, removed, and replaced its monoliths—completing some sections, altering others. It is likely that at least some of these builders were the descendants of those who constructed the Stones of Stenness and other nearby monuments. Perhaps they had been raised in a tradition that consistently laboured to adapt their ceremonial structures to the changing needs of their community. What is certain is that these Neolithic people lived very different lives from us, and so we need to be creative and open-minded when trying to envision their motivations.
That’s it for the Ring of Brodgar! Thank you for sticking with me through this very long, involved post. In my next post, I will (finally) conclude my five-part series on the Heart of Neolithic Orkney with an examination of the Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave. Thanks for reading!
1 The Ring of Brodgar made its first documented appearance in a Latin document, Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum (“Descriptions of Orkney”), purportedly written in 1529 by an author known only as Jo Ben; however, it’s possible that the book was penned later that same century. The stones at the Ring of Brodgar are described in this account as being “high and broad, in height equal to a spear, and in an equal circle of half a mile.” In 1729, the first record of the number of stones at the site noted that there were 18 standing and 8 recumbent. In 1815, it was reported that there were 16 upright monoliths and 17 fragments that measured less than 1 meter (3.28 feet) tall. In 1851, Captain Frederick William Leopold Thomas of the Royal Navy, a historian and photographer who also worked as a hydrographer for the Admiralty, made the first detailed account of the Ring of Brodgar. He noted that the site contained 13 perfect upright stones; 10 that were “near perfect” but prone; as well as the stumps or fragments of 13 more. Thomas was also the first to record the name of the monument as “the Ring of Brogar.” Prior to this, both the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar had been referred to collectively as “the Stones of Stenness.” Thomas, however, wanted to distinguish between the two. He likely selected the name because it was what the locals called the circle. In 1905, immediately prior to the Ring of Brodgar coming into state care in 1906, the site was listed as having 13 upright stones; 3 that were partly upright; 11 prone; 10 stumps; and 1 stone that had only survived as fragments. In September 1908, most of the fallen stones were re-erected. Two upright stones were later struck and felled by lightning in the 20th century, which leaves the current tally of standing stones at 21 of a surviving 33 (including the 2 fallen and the other 10 stubs and fragments).
2 The ditch was originally excavated in 1979 by Colin Renfrew, who cut two trenches across the ditch and one outside of it. Unfortunately, no samples suitable for dating were obtained at that time. Two of these trenches were later reopened and extended in 2008 during an excavation by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, who had more success in obtaining archaeological samples suitable for dating and research purposes.
3 As interesting as this Norse graffiti is, please note that it is now illegal to carve, deface, and/or vandalize the stones at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness in any way. I also want to stress that I think it is extremely selfish of modern visitors to commit similar activities, anywhere. It’s not fun or cool, it is an arrogant, immature act that risks damaging irreplaceable historical features and forever ruining the site for everyone else. In 2015, these very twig runes were nearly destroyed by someone who presumed their presence at the site was more important than a historical record that had already existed for around 1,000 years. Such vandalism is also highly disrespectful of the local community, who can only trust that visitors will act responsibly when they are granted access to such a valuable piece of their history. But I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, here!
4 This 1772 map comes from an expedition to Iceland made by Joseph Banks, an English naturalist, botanist, and patron of the natural sciences. Banks also visited the Isle of Wight, the Hebrides, and the Orkney Islands during this trip. He was joined by English illustrator John Frederick Miller, who created the early depictions of the Ring of Brodgar shown below, which were referred to both on the illustrations and the 1772 map as the “Ring of Loda.” This uncommon name for the Ring of Brodgar may have been derived from the Ness of Brodgar’s causeway of stepping stones, as the Old Norse word hlað-á means “to pile/stack.”
5 It is highly possible that the current view from the Ring of Brodgar of the surrounding landscape was very similar to the one that existed 4,000-4,500 years ago when it was built. Pollen samples retrieved from the ditch indicate that the ring was constructed in open grassland, with an identically sparse level of trees and vegetation. Cereal pollen was also found within the fill of the ditch. The climate of Neolithic Orkney was probably also very similar to that experienced today, and may have been a little warmer.
6 The Ring of Bookan is a prehistoric henge that consists of a ditch that measures 2 meters (6.5 feet deep) and 13 meters (42.6 feet) across, as well as a central platform about 44.5 meters (146 feet) by 38 meters (124 feet). The Ring of Bookan has not yet been excavated, so it is not certain what kind of monument it was. However, the results of a geophysical survey revealed a subterranean structure whose appearance was very similar to Structure 8 at the Barnhouse Settlement and Structure 10 of the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site.
7 If, indeed, there was a processional route located along the Ness of Brodgar, it could have been an example of a type of Neolithic monument known as a cursus. Cursus monuments consist of long, rectangular earthworks that are defined by banks, ditches, pits, or posts. They can run for miles across a landscape, seemingly connecting separate monuments and/or natural features, and tend to be located near rivers or bodies of water. They were generally built between 3600-3000 BCE. Although seemingly unknown in Orkney, several cursus monuments have been found elsewhere in Britain and Ireland; Stonehenge has one situated close to its stone circle that measures roughly 3 kms (1.9 miles) long, and between 100-150 meters (330-490 feet) wide. The Ness of Brodgar can’t technically be classified as a cursus, as it lacks the banks, ditches, pits, and posts that define one. But perhaps these weren’t necessary because the Ness of Brodgar was already naturally defined by the lower regions of water that flank it. Other important features of a cursus monument, such as the guided movement between interconnected ritual monuments and the presence of water, are present. An interesting possibility to keep in mind!