Older Than Stonehenge

“You’re pretty much guaranteed to ketch a broon troot there.”
– Tour guide in Kirkwall, pointing out
a favorite local fishing pond

Every once in a while we realize that we were in close connection to something really extraordinary and we had no idea it even existed. That was my experience on our shore excursion in Orkney. We had signed up for an “island tour” which usually is a rather bland drive through the local historical and scenic stops that everyone who comes here should see. I knew very little about Orkney so it was all going to be new to me.

The one thing I did know of Orkney was that there is at least one prehistoric stone circle there because it had been featured in a mystery I read. For those of you who might know even less than that, let me go back a bit.

The Ring of Brodgar is the larger circle with more stones still standing.  Photo by G.Emmons

The Ring of Brodgar is the larger circle with more stones still standing. Photo by G.Emmons

The Orkney Islands are at the northern tip of Scotland. Most of us would assume they are remote and cold, the sort of “back of beyond” place that only the hardiest wilderness-seeking sort of individual would want to inhabit. But the reality, nicely summarized by Wikipedia, is different: “The climate is mild and the soils are extremely fertile, most of the land being farmed. Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy and the significant wind and marine energy resources are of growing importance.”

Stones like this tease the curious about what their history might have been. Photo by G. Emmons

Stones like this tease the curious about what their history might have been. Photo by G. Emmons

When you learn even a little of the history – and look at a map of the British Isles with a fresh perspective – a new understanding emerges. For the prehistoric seafaring world, Orkney was “on the way to anywhere.” Anyone trying to go beyond what we now call the British Isles would have sailed through the English Channel or around the north through the Orkney Islands. The British Royal Navy had a major base here in both World Wars.

But let’s go back to the stone circles. Our tour took us past two stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. We stopped for pictures at the parking lot beside the smaller circle, Stenness, which has fewer remaining stones than Brodgar. Both locations have only vertical stones with no lintels across the top like Stonehenge has. But both are centuries older than even the earliest phases of Stonehenge site.

The Stones of Stenness are accessible to the public but it is a smaller, less complete circle than the Ring of Brodgar. Photo by G. Emmons

The Stones of Stenness are accessible to the public but it is a smaller, less complete circle than the Ring of Brodgar. Photo by G. Emmons

But the revelation that has blown me away since the tour is learning that these circles are just a tiny bit of the incredible archaeological finds between the circles. Only ten years ago researchers realized that there are remains of extensive human-made structures below the soil. This ritualistic center has been named the Ness of Brodgar. Around 3200 BCE this temple complex was the center of a vast ritualistic landscape which lasted for over 1000 years! The complex has survived for rediscovery all these centuries because all the structures were made of stone. Wood and thatch buildings dissolve quickly (archaeologically speaking) but stone doesn’t go anywhere. It just gets covered by silt, sand and vegetation.

Though I have come late to the news of the huge revelations in Orkney, I am not alone in being surprised. According to the excavation site manager Nick Card,

The discoveries are unparalleled in British prehistory. The complexity of finds is changing the “whole vision of what the landscape was 5,000 years ago” and “it’s of a scale that almost relates to the classical period in the Mediterranean with walled enclosure and walled precincts”. The site could be more important than Stonehenge.

This issue of National Geographic tells the story of the new discoveries.

This issue of National Geographic tells the story of the new discoveries.

The dig in Orkney was the cover story of the August 2014 issue of National Geographic. As usual the Geographic photos are brilliant, bringing the information to life. Seeing more artist renderings of how the site might have looked would have been nice, but I can understand that it is “early days” yet in their understanding.

The excavation site is right next to the road, but it was closed for the weekend when our tour passed. In hindsight I am surprised our guide did not place more emphasis on the discoveries. I expect she deals with some people (unlike me) for whom a 5000 year old dig is not a Big Deal. I am very glad she directed us to the Geographic article so I could get more background. Now I will be watching for more reports of new discoveries about Neolithic Scotland. Stay tuned!

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

23 October 2014

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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