The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times


25 Aug 2013
  Ring of Brodgar, The Neolithic Landscape

The views of the Ring of Brodgar, framed by hills, with lochs on two sides, is very pretty, but it is not the original landsacpe.

(The Ring of Brodgar)

Sure, the hills were there already, but the area of what today is Loch Stenness instead was a marshy bog with pools of water. Makes one wonder how those Neolithic people managed to set the stones up on such tricky ground, but I suppose the spot they chose for the ring may have been less marshy; it is a bit higher even today. That still leaves the problem of transporting heavy boulders across mossy ground, but the Neolithic people must have solved it somehow (timber causeways and such would not leave any traces).

The sea - still rising since the last Ice Age - breached the narrow landbridge about 1500 BC and created the saltwater loch of Stenness. The place where this happened is today the Brig o'Waithe in Stenness. The Ring of Brodgar had been around for at least 500, maybe 1000 years at that point. I wonder if there are silt-covered remains of Neolithic buildings at the bottom of the loch.

The Ring of Brodgar is not the only henge in the area; I've already mentioned the Standing Stones of Stenness a mile to the south-east; but there is another ring north-west of Brodgar, the Ring of Bookan. This one is a massive earthwork with a ditch that surrounds an oval raised platform of 44.5 by 38 metres. The role of that platform is still disputed. It may have housed a cairn, or another set of standing stones. There are some stones within the ditch which could support the theory of both a ring or a chambered cairn, but the size of Bookan connects it with the Stones of Stenness - the area enclosed by the ditch and wall are of similar size.

Ring of Brodgar, some stones with a view towards Loch Harray

There are several solitary standing stones in the area as well, like the Comet Stone east of Brodgar or the Watchstone at the causeway near the village of Stenness. Add to this the settlements of Barnhouse, Skara Brae and Ness of Brodgar as well as the cairn at Maes Howe, and you got a veritable time travel spot into the Neolithicum.

View towards Fresh Knowe

Cairns didn't get out of fashion any time soon. There are several cairns and mounds around the Ring of Brodgar some of which presumably date to the Bronze Age (South Knowe and Plumcake Knowe, where Bronze Age burial cists have been found). Fresh Knowe and Salt Knowe may be Neolithic, the latter with a secondary cist burial in the upper part of the mound.

Another view of some stones

Several of the stones in the Ring of Brodgar are splintered along their crystalline structure and it's not impossible that some of the fallen or missing stones may have lost their stability that way. Most of the stones used in the henges and other buildings derive from the Old Red Sandstone strata (which is not always red), which lends well to the forming of regular-shaped slabs; but limestone was also used.

(One of the splintered stones)

The question arises what exactly was the function of this complex of henges, standing stones, cairns, burial mounds and villages in such a small area (if we add the village of Skara Brae and Unstan Cairn, it's still only some ten miles around).

The Neolithic people living on Orkney 5000 - 3500 years ago were the first to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and built settlements. Building henges of stones that needed to be transported over long distances by boat, or with ropes on timber rolls, took an enormous communal effort that could not have been achieved by just one village. About 80,000 man-hours went into the construction of the Ring of Brodgar alone. It is therefore assumed that there must have been some sort of hierarchial structure where some leaders could persuade people to work together to a common goal, and organise the work.

The Rings of Stenness, Brodgar and Bookan are likely some sort of markers, visible in the landscape. Albeit there is no clear connection with the solar or lunar cycles like in Stonehenge, one can assume that those places served as gathering spots for festivals and rituals. The Neolithic people were able to determine those cycles as Maes Howe with its winter solstice orientation proves. The ditches of the rings and the entrance passage of Maes Howe also mark those sites as special places, likely taboo for most people outside the festivals.

They may also have attracted visitors from all over Orkney. If those people walked along the path from the Stones of Stenness to the Ring of Brodgar, they would have to pass Barnhouse village and the Ness of Brodgar settlement, which should have lent some prominency to those.

Another detail shot

I'll get back to the cairns in another post (since I got extra photo material). They were more than just tombs, though bones have been found in most of them; they were the focal point for gatherings and ceremonies - likely mostly religious - much like churches are today. As such, they had their place besides the stones and henges. Since the active use of cairns survives into the Bronze Age, one may assume that the Ring of Brodgar and other sites may still have had a function then as well.

Against the light

The Ring of Brodgar was first mentioned by Jo Ben, probably a priest or traveling monk, in his Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum in the early 16th century. The first research was done by the archaeologist and painter George Petrie and one Captain Thomas, among others, in the 1850ies, and is still going on today. There is much to discover yet.

Sources
Sally Foster: Maes Howe and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Historic Scotland Official Souvenir Guide. 2006
The Orkneya website
 
Comments:
I like that view towards Loch Harray, it gives me a good idea of what it might of felt like to stand among the stones. How common are rings of stone? Are there a lot of places there were stones and they're gone now? Or were rings rather far flung?
 
If the site was an area of slightly highr and drier ground at the edge of a boggy area, that may have made it a special place. I wonder if there were any votive offerings in the bog? Presumably they would be under the loch by now.
 
Great photos - they capture the bleakness of the place. So many unanswered questions.
 
I don't knee jerk feel that any random pile of stones must be a religious in origin, (conspicuous consumption is its own reward. Witness the comandant's offices at Corstopitum, for instance or my local court house...a monument to traffic fines if I ever saw one!) I fully believe though, that as soon as you put something like that up, some twinkie has to hold a ritual of some sort in it.

(I have a great story in which I watched people throat singing (didging) into random caverns in Malta. They got most excited over one "resonant cavity" which I pointed out was actually the entrance to a modern sewer)

Speculating on such practices, neolithic or otherwise is pointless, and possibly even misdirecting. It could be a meeting place, a place to pay your taxes, even a place to select a new Queen. The Great Wall of China was built to work Emperor Chin's political opponents to death...just as a for instance.

I like to leave mysteries where they lie. There are a lot of them.

http://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/a/archaeology.asp

 
Constance,
there are some more stone rings on the Hebrides. Cairns can be Scottish highlands. And there's Stonehenge, of course.

Carla,
I'd like to know what lurks in the loch. :-)

Thank you, Anerje.

Stag,
I agree that the automatical assumption such places were only for religious ceremonies is one-sided. Though considering the work people put in it, they surely were special in a way.
 
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, geologically themed hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Beaches at the Curonian Spit
Geology of the Curonian Spit



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