Skara Brae is only one of a remarkable collection of Neolithic sites that can be seen while touring the Orkney Islands of Scotland. During our brief visit to the Mainland of Orkney, we had the opportunity to visit four other incredible prehistoric monuments: the Stones of Stenness; the Barnhouse Settlement; the Ring of Brodgar; as well as the Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave. I am going to discuss each of these sites in turn in a series of four posts1 titled “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” I will then follow these up with a fifth post in which I examine a few other monuments including three distinctive standing stones known as the Watch Stone, the Odin Stone, and the Barnhouse Stone (we didn’t visit these sites ourselves, but I want to include them in this discussion). In this introductory post, I am going to describe the region, known as the Ness of Brodgar, in which these prehistoric sites are located. I will then provide you with some background information on three types of Neolithic monuments: causewayed enclosures, henges, and stone circles. Breaking all of this down before we look at the individual sites will help guide you through their complexity, and hopefully give you an appreciation for how special and incredibly they truly are.
Many of Mainland Orkney’s Neolithic sites, including the ones I am going to discuss in this series, can be found on or near the Ness of Brodgar. The Ness of Brodgar is a thin finger of land, measuring only a few hundred meters across at its widest point, that runs between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray about 8 kms (5 miles) northeast of the town of Stromness. The Loch of Stenness, located to the west of this narrow peninsula, connects with the open ocean a short distance away. The Loch of Harray, situated on the east side, is mostly fresh water. The southern tip of the Ness does not quite stretch all the way across the two lochs to meet with a wedge of the mainland, known as the Stenness promontory. 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 (referred to as the Brig O’ Brodgar) for at least the last 1,000 years: Brodgar is derived from the Old Norse Brúgaror, meaning “bridge farm.” In 1968, an engineering project altered the transfer of water at the causeway so that less sea water now flows into the Loch of Harray.
The Ness of Brodgar and the nearby Stenness promontory feature an unusually high concentration of Orkney’s prehistoric sites. The Ness of Brodgar itself contains a stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar, about midway through its span. Less than 1 km (0.6 miles) south of this stone circle is an exciting, ongoing archaeological site (begun in 2003) that is known as the Ness of Brodgar, named for the area in which it is located. Across the water, the Stones of Stenness can be found south of the Brodgar causeway on the Stenness promontory. The Barnhouse Settlement is situated a short 200 meters (0.12 miles) northeast of the stone circle, also on the Stenness headland. The Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave can be found about 2.25 kms (1.4 miles) east of the Barnhouse village. Skara Brae is the site located the farthest out, about 9 kms (5.5 miles) northwest of the Ring of Brodgar; however, even this is a manageable walking distance of about 2 hours. There are many other historical sites of interest nearby including the Watch Stone, the Barnhouse Stone, Fresh Knowe (also known as the Plumcake Mound), Salt Knowe, the Comet Stone, and the Ring of Bookan2. However, these surviving sites are only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. As the 2003 excavation site3 on the Ness of Brodgar demonstrates, there is a vast archeological landscape that remains unseen and undiscovered just below the surface. Sadly, there were probably even more prehistoric sites once located nearby that are now unknown to us, having since been submerged by the rising water levels of the lochs4.
There was something special about the landscape around the Ness of Brodgar that strongly appealed to the people of Neolithic Orkney. The ridge of higher land dividing the two lochs, the natural amphitheatre created by the shape of the surrounding hills, the wildlife, and other features may have all magically combined to create a place where they felt transcendent. The light may have glowed a little more dramatically, sounds could have resonated more fully, and their other senses could have been similarly heightened. Whatever the inspiration, these early Orcadians chose to make this area a focal point of their spiritual practice, potentially through ceremonies that celebrated their connection with nature as well as the relationship between living and past communities. They put a lot of effort into building their ritual monuments here, the scale of which would have required the participation of an entire community, if not several. UNESCO recognized the significance of this region when they designated it a World Heritage Site in 1999, aptly titling it “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” The monuments that make up the site of patrimony are the village of Skara Brae; the Stones of Stenness (inclusive of its stone circle, henge, and the nearby Watch Stone); the Ring of Brodgar (also inclusive of its stone circle, henge, plus the adjacent Comet Stone and nearby burial mounds); as well as Maeshowe and the nearby Barnhouse Stone. The archaeological site on the Ness of Brodgar was discovered in 2003, after the World Heritage designation in 1999, so it is not a part of the UNESCO site.
We’ll now shift our discussion away from a description of the Ness of Brodgar region and focus, in turn, on three different types of Neolithic monument construction: causewayed enclosures, henges, and stone circles.
Some of the earliest Neolithic monuments were large constructed earthworks known as causewayed enclosures. They appeared on the European continent around 5000 BCE and crossed over to the British Isles in 4000 BCE when Neolithic settlers began to permanently occupy the region. These enclosures were often located on hilltop sites, and they featured a series of 1-4 concentric ditches that were dug into the ground, each fronted by a bank. The ditches were excavated in sections, and large causeways (from which these monuments get their name) were left intact between them. The function of these causewayed enclosures is not conclusively known, although there are a few theories. However, it is unlikely that they had a defensive purpose. Archaeological evidence also suggests that they were not a place of permanent occupation but, rather, served as regional gathering places for special occasions. The ditches were repeatedly re-dug and, each time, the builders deliberately deposited pottery as well as human and animal remains within them. This activity may have been done as a community ritual that provided locals with a means to venerate their dead, worship their ancestors, and also connect with the natural landscape. The concentric circles may have been gradually added to the site over time in order to allow succeeding generations an opportunity to contribute to the monument. The use of causewayed enclosures seems to have declined around 3000 BCE. Many of them have since been ploughed over, but a few sites can still be seen and studied through aerial archaeology. Windmill Hill, built in Avebury around 3675 BCE and used until 2500 BCE, is one of the best and largest surviving examples of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure in Britain.
The construction of causewayed enclosures varied by region, and it is possible that their general decline came about due to an increase in the building and use of more localized types of monuments. In particular, the British Isles saw the development of a new style of earthworks around 3000 BCE known as henges. The Orkney Islands have been theorized as an origin point for the use of henges, with the Stones of Stenness containing possibly the oldest surviving example. Henges, and the Grooved Ware pottery5 found within them, are two elements of the Neolithic period that are nearly exclusive to Britain; they very rarely occur elsewhere in Europe. A henge is the pairing of a roughly circular or oval-shaped earthen bank with an interior ditch. The bank and the ditch both enclose a central flat area, which is accessed via one or more entrances located through the bank and over the ditch. Henges are similar to causewayed enclosures in that they both seem to have served a social and/or ritual function. There is also little evidence that henges were ever places of permanent occupation, and they were similarly not constructed for defensive purposes. However, unlike causewayed enclosures, henges were usually built on low-lying ground instead of at higher elevations on hilltops. They were also located near water causeways and agricultural land. Their popular use declined somewhere around 2000 BCE.
Henges sometimes formed part of a ritual landscape or complex. Other monuments such as stone circles could be situated inside and outside of a henge. However, it is important to note that henges and stone circles are separate entities that can exist together or separately. There are many stone circles that don’t have henges, and plenty of henges that don’t have stone circles (Britain and Ireland have around 120 known sites containing henges, and more than 1,000 stone circles). It can be a little confusing to talk about henges and to recognize them as monuments that are distinct from stone circles because, in 1932, a British archaeologist named Thomas Kendrick backformed the -henge from Stonehenge into a new term that was then used to classify this type of earthworks. As a result, it’s really easy to merge the concept of a henge with that of a stone circle even though they are not the same thing6. The defining characteristic of a henge is that its construction involved the purposeful digging and shaping of the ground into a raised bank with an internal ditch. A stone circle or other type of monument may be part of a henge site, but not always.
This brings us to an examination of stone circles, arguably the most famous of all Neolithic monuments. It would be difficult to state when and where the first stone circle was built, because this category of prehistoric structure contains a wide variety of similar monuments with different architectural features7. There are a few contenders, including sites in southeast Turkey (Göbekli Tepe, dating from 10,000-8,000 BCE); southern Egypt (Nabta Playa, 7500 BCE); and northwest France (the Carnac Stones, 4500-3300 BCE). However, it seems that the Brittany region of France served as the origin point for the spread of stone circle construction throughout Europe and the Mediterranean in 3000 BCE due to its trade routes. The earliest stone circles appeared in Britain around 3000-2500 BCE, and there is some debate as to whether their design was independently developed or imported from mainland Europe. Stone circles ceased being built around 1800 BCE8, and their use declined steadily from that point onward with the rise of new types of communal structures.
There are many theories about the purpose of stone circles, but their precise function remains unknown. It is likely that they were employed for a variety of different activities, and many of them seem to have served as centres for community celebrations and sacred practices. Unfortunately, the lack of written historical documentation for the Neolithic period means that many aspects of prehistoric life, including the use of stone circles, is largely conjectural. Theories concerning their possible political and social functions, in particular, rely more on imagination than evidence. However, not all has been lost. Archaeological excavation has provided some crucial clues to their purpose through the discovery and dating of structural components and artefacts such as pottery fragments, bones, food waste, and burnt materials. Other surviving pieces of the story may also be discerned from a stone circle’s location as well as its physical characteristics. Scientists have noted that the positioning, shape, and alignments of many stone circles seem to indicate that their builders had a sophisticated awareness of the surrounding landscape. Some of these circles even seem to correspond with celestial phenomena such as the natural cycles of the sun and the moon. This suggests that Neolithic people may have used stone circles to record the knowledge they had about the natural landscape, and to even express the deep connection they had with it.
I find stone circles really intriguing. In particular, I am interested in how the specific location of a stone circle and the careful, effortful arrangements of its megaliths actually manages to tell us a lot about the Neolithic people who built it. These early prehistoric communities may not have had access to pen or paper, but they were still able to leave a partial record of what was important to them through the way they shaped these colossal monuments. It is now up to us to try and piece together a message from their surviving elements. There is certainly plenty of opportunity for us to do so: more than 1,000 stone circles can still be found throughout Britain and Ireland, ranging in size and design. If a monument’s location was integral to its purpose, then a certain site could have been chosen based on how well it met various political, scientific, and even spiritual requirements. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
It is very likely that politics played a role in where stone circles were located, as well as what they were used for and by whom. The massive scale of their construction alone would have required considerable social collaboration within and possibly across communities. Some sites may have been selected because they shared a special historical connection with the people who built them, and it was in a community’s political interest to commemorate it. Perhaps the monument marked where an earlier village was located, or paid tribute to where a momentous event, such as a battle, took place. It’s also possible that stone circles may have been situated in neutral territories so that they could serve as places where different communities were able to peacefully gather together. The monuments would have then acted as regional assemblies where trade was conducted, marriages were arranged, alliances were managed9, and council was held on local issues. On the other hand, stone circles could also have served as a venue for regional political conflict. The massive scale of labour that these stone circles and their henges required, as well as the ability to deploy that labour, could have served as a mark of prestige. Power could have been asserted and contested by different groups of people through the monuments they built, with hostilities heightening as efforts were made to surpass their rivals in terms of scale and design. Regardless of their political intent, harmonious or otherwise, stone circles would have certainly been a factor in regional expressions of political power—their locations would have been made carefully with this in mind.
A stone circle’s location may have also been selected based on its scientific suitability. Earlier, I mentioned that scientists have determined that Neolithic builders had a complex understanding of the region in which they constructed a monument. Their intentional positioning, shaping, and alignment of a stone circle’s physical features often allowed it to correspond with other aspects of its wider environment in meaningful ways. For example, the Stones of Stenness feature two standing stones (seen in the picture below) that are shaped and angled towards each other in a manner that seems to mirror the distant hills of Hoy. Other aspects of the Stones of Stenness align it with monuments both near and far such as Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Ness of Brodgar, as well as the Barnhouse and Deepdale Stones. Other stone circles have revealed similar relationships with various landmarks in their respective territories. This indicates that, for some reason, the location of a stone circle was at times very carefully chosen so that it integrated with other regional monuments. This is especially true in Orkney, where many of the sites in the Ness of Brodgar region seem to align with each other as if they were part of a carefully arranged puzzle. But why were the pieces of the puzzle assembled in this particular manner? Perhaps there was something about the local geography that the Neolithic people had observed and were interested in; a scientific or mathematic pattern of sorts that they felt compelled to record and emphasize through the construction of their various monuments. The design and function of a stone circle could thus be heavily dependent on the specific scientific criterion its builders felt its location had met, including its geographical relationship with neighbouring sites. It’s also possible that certain topographical elements of a landscape made one area more appropriate than others for the placement of a monument, which would explain why there is such a high concentration of Neolithic sites found in the Ness of Brodgar10 region of Mainland Orkney.
What sort of pattern, observable in the natural environment, could have been important enough for Neolithic builders to physically dedicate hundreds of thousands of man hours towards recognizing? A clue may come from the fact that some monuments seem to have been designed so that they can track the cycles of the sun and the moon as they move through the surrounding landscape. These sites often showcase seasonal extremes such as the longest and shortest days of the year in a dramatic fashion. In this way, stone circles may have provided prehistoric communities with a means to record their knowledge of the natural world. This information could then be used to make structured predictions about the future. Neolithic survival depended on their ability to adapt to the changing seasons; having a means to track and anticipate these fluctuating rhythms would have thus been essential to their well-being. In time, this observation of natural cycles may have taken on a communal spiritual aspect that involved having people gather at the stone circles to mark and pay tribute to the passing seasons. What we know of Neolithic people seems to indicate that they had a deep appreciation for the natural world. A community may have experienced this as a close, perhaps even sacred, relationship that was just as important to them, if not more so, than any political tie they shared with a neighbour. At midwinter, the darkest time of the year, prehistoric communities may have coped with their sense of fear and hardship by undertaking specific rituals that they believed were necessary to ensure the return of warmer, longer days. A case for this can be made from the fact that many stone circles are oriented so that they align with either the sunrise (in the southeast) or sunset (in the southwest) at this time of year. Conversely, people may have also come together at midsummer to express gratitude for the good weather and to make offerings that would guarantee a bountiful harvest11. These developing social and spiritual elements could have provided Neolithic communities with the motivation to expand on their existing monuments, build additional ones, and even construct elaborate ritual landscapes with multiple interconnected sites—as seems to be the case at the Ness of Brodgar.
Stone circles may have also provided Neolithic people with a way in which they could comprehend their mortality and venerate their dead. It is not a stretch to see how monuments installed for the purpose of marking seasonal extremes such as summer/winter and light/dark could then have their commemoration extended into a spiritual metaphor for life/death. A popular theory concerning one possible function of stone circles is that they were built as massive outdoor houses for the spirits of the dead. Support for this idea comes from the fact that there are some shared features between the layout of stone circles and certain Neolithic residences; this is particularly true for the Stones of Stenness and a couple of nearby dwellings in the Barnhouse Settlement, which we’ll later discuss. Neolithic communities may have used the standing stones of stone circles as symbolic substitutes for their ancestors who, although no longer in possession of their physical bodies, remained spiritually ubiquitous through the presence of these horizon-dominating monoliths.
This concludes my introduction to The Neolithic Heart of Orkney. In my next post, I’ll be writing about the Stones of Stenness. Thank you for reading!
1 Originally, I was going to try and fit all of the Ness of Brodgar monuments into one post, but have since realized in that way madness lies, in the form of 20,000+ words.
2 Below is a closer look at the different sites that are concentrated in the region with the Ness of Brodgar and the Stenness promontory. The 2003 excavation site is not indicated, but it is located near where the “Ness of Brodgar” is written.
3 When we visited, a local joked with us that nobody in Orkney digs too deep when they’re doing garden work, for fear their spade uncovers the next big Neolithic site in their backyard. This is a very legitimate concern! In 2003, two locals living on a farm on the Ness of Brodgar decided they wanted to change the view out of their back window from a sheep pasture to a wildflower meadow full of poppies and buttercups. Just as their plow made its turn around the last bend, it hit a notched slab of stone. They contacted an archaeologist and, instead of a field full of flowers, ended up with front-row seats to one of Orkney’s most exciting Neolithic discoveries.
4 When monument construction at the Ness of Brodgar began around 3300 BCE (peaking around 2500 BCE), the waters of the Loch of Stenness would have been considerably lower. In fact, rather than a loch, the area might have instead consisted of a wet, marshy bog that surrounded small lake-like pools of water. The Brodgar isthmus would have been at least 50% wider on the side that faces the Loch of Stenness, and possibly the same along the Loch of Harray. The southern tip of the Ness of Brodgar may have consisted of dry land or marshy ground that managed to connect with the mainland Stenness promontory—dividing these two watery areas along their entirety. Even with the lower water levels of this time period, the division between these two water courses made by the higher ridge of the Brodgar peninsula would have still made for a striking geographic feature. The Ness of Brodgar might have been seen as an even more liminal space, depending on how water-laden the southern portion of the peninsula was. Water was important to the Neolithic people of Orkney: it provided them with their primary mode of transportation, and their monuments were often located near watercourses, suggesting that it played a role in their ceremonies and rituals. The waters of the Loch of Stenness neared their current height around 2000 BCE, some 500 years after a significant building known as Structure 10 was abandoned at the Ness of Brodgar excavation site. It has also been pointed out that the Loch of Stenness did not fill with sea water until the sea breached the narrow land bridge at the Brig O’ Waithe near Stenness in 1500 BCE.
5 Grooved Ware pottery seems to have first developed in Orkney around 3000-2001 BCE before spreading throughout the rest of Britain and Ireland. Interestingly, this southward spread of Grooved Ware pottery seems to have accompanied the use of henges as well as timber and stone circles in other areas along this Neolithic Orcadian trading network. Orkney seems to have had particularly close links with people in western Scotland, the Boyne Valley in Ireland, and southern England where, of course, Stonehenge was constructed in several stages between 3000-1500 BCE.
6 It’s even more confusing when you consider that Stonehenge is not considered to be a proper henge, because it contains a ditch that lies to the outside of its main bank rather than its inside (although there is a small external bank as well).
7 Other Neolithic structures that share similarities with stone circles include: timber circles; stone alignments (stones arranged in rows, rather than circles); dolmens (stone tombs); tumuli (burial mounds, also known as barrows); and single standing stones (known as menhirs). If you are interested, an excellent resource for more information on prehistoric henges and circles can be found here.
8 Some northern Iron Age communities are known to have later adapted stone circles for use as cremation cemeteries and pyres from 1200-800 BCE.
9 The exchange of stone axes seems to have played an important role in Neolithic society, and stone circles could have served as the ceremonial stage where these axes were traded as a means of confirming political relationships. Axes would have made for a very meaningful gift in Neolithic society as they were a practical, multi-purpose tool. However, they also appear to have served as objects of veneration as well as symbols of status and power. Archaeologists have recovered axes that were clearly designed to be decorative, and showed no signs of manual use. Some axes appear to have been deliberately buried, including one at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site that was discovered opposite the entrance of the structure in which it was found—a structure, further, that was aligned to capture the equinox sunrise. Axes were later considered to be symbolic of nature and fertility.
10 The Ness of Brodgar also contains Orkney’s only known henge sites: the Stones of Stenness; the Ring of Brodgar; the Ring of Bookan (located about 1.6 kms/1 mile northwest of the Ring of Brodgar); and possibly at Maeshowe. This suggests that the landscape at the Ness of Brodgar was very special, indeed.
11a Anthropologists have considered whether the known cultural practices of later societies have deeper prehistoric roots. In addition to celebrating the winter solstice (December 21) and the summer solstice (around June 21), other Neolithic celebrations could have included:
11b February 1, which marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is celebrated as the 1st of 6 Gaelic seasonal festivals, known as Imbolc or Imbolg, which marks the beginning of spring. In Christian traditions, it is observed as the feast day of Saint Brigid. For farmers, this date marks the onset of lambing season and the beginning of spring sowing. The ritual lighting of candles and fires are meant to represent the returning sun. Traditional activities may include spring cleaning, feasting, and divination.
11c May 1, which marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It is celebrated as the (2nd) Gaelic festival of Beltane, which marks the beginning of summer. In Christian traditions, this is observed as the feast day of Saint Walpurga. For farmers, this date marks when cattle were driven out to summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops, people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were lit to take advantage of their cleansing and protective powers. People and cattle would walk around, and even leap over, bonfires and their embers. All household fires would be doused and relit from the Beltane fires.
11d August 1, which marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It is celebrated as the (4th, after Midsummer) Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh, which marks the beginning of the harvest season. It is celebrated with feasting, athletic contests, matchmaking, the offering of “first fruits”, handfasting, and visits to holly wells. Doors, windows, barns, and livestock would be decorated with yellow flowers, which are symbolic of fire.
11e October 31-November 1, which marks the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is celebrated as the (5th, Midwinter is the 6th) Gaelic seasonal festival of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. In Christian traditions, this is observed as All Saints’/ All Souls’ Day. Some Neolithic tombs in Ireland are aligned with sunrise around the time of Samhain. It was the time when cattle were brought down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for winter. Bonfires were lit, and they were seen as having protective and cleansing powers. This was seen as a liminal time when the boundary between this world and the other world of fairies/spirits/the supernatural could be easily crossed. Offerings were made and places were set at dinner tables for the souls of dead kin. Of course, this has evolved into our modern celebration of Halloween.
11e Circles are commonly used among preliterate peoples to mark off sacred space from the surrounding world. Dances and processions around the perimeter are generally part of the ceremonies, as are sacrifices and feasting. Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (May 1), Midsummer (June 21), Lughnasadh (August 1), Samhain (October 31-November 1), and Midwinter (December 21) were celebrated as Celtic festivals in Britain and Ireland. They were connected to the rhythms of the land and took place at specific times of the year: planting, harvesting, lambing, etc. Many of these pagan celebrations were later re-dedicated to Christian saints, and continue to be celebrated today. There is every reason to suspect that their origins lay even deeper in the past… perhaps even as far back as the Neolithic period.