New evidence from the past two years’ work on Orkney has revealed breathtaking perspectives on the nature and importance of the finds at the Ness of Brodgar…
(1000 words, a ten-minute read)
(Above: technical reconstruction of Structure 10 and its dramatic ‘pyramid’ roof on the Ness of Brodgar by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)
Staring, breathless, at the TV, desperately trying to keep notes, I was clutching my pencil so hard, it began to splinter…
There was a silence among the archaeologists and assorted technical specialists grouped near Structure 10 on the Ness of Brodgar World Heritage Site; the kind of silence that follows feverish activity and intense speculation – most of it expectantly negative…
We are a cautious species. If we long for something that might change the world, and hope it might happen, we prepare ourselves to be wrong.
The group of intense people were waiting for a phone call regarding a date. A diving team had drilled a ‘time-core’ into the base of the shallow sea that is Loch Stenness, north of the tiny strip of land that houses the Ness of Brodgar site. Extensive ‘geophys’ (basically radar for archeological work) had revealed a sunken island in the middle of the loch’s basin, and the surface had revealed the shape of a natural stone circle.
In revelation after revelation, the story of what was likely the world’s first ‘common culture’ had come together, centred on the Ness of Brodgar, an impossibly narrow strip of land north of Stromness, on Orkney, seven miles north of the tip of Scotland.
Older than the Great Pyramid, the nearby Ring of Brodgar had been dated to a time in the Neolithic period when the tribes of hunter-gatherers had settled in fertile lands, creating the first permanent settlements and beginning what we today call a common culture.
I was watching the BBC’s ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’. If you follow my blogs, here and on Sun in Gemini, you’ll know that Orkney and its ancient history are a favourite topic. Other relevant posts from the Silent Eye’s 2019 workshop on Orkney are listed at the end of of this piece. The BBC programme features, amongst others, Neil Oliver and Chris Packham, two well-know authorities in their own fields; together with the dedicated team excavating the Ness of Brodgar each summer.
Chris Packham had just shown how the presence of the Orkney Vole was really an interview with a time-traveller. He revealed that, thousands of years ago, the non-native vole species had arrived from Belgium, not by itself, but carried and bred as an eaten delicacy by the farmers who originally populated Orkney, five thousand years ago… Meat-eater or not, you’ve got to admire the science…
Back to the waiting crowd at the Ness of Brodgar. Neil Oliver read out the results of the core’s dating. The researchers had dared to consider that the presence of the natural stone ring had been the ‘first stone circle in Britain’… and therefore something that inspired all the rest. Archaeologists have long puzzled how such structures sprang into existence ‘fully formed’. Finding the first would have been a seminal moment.
The documentary had already shown that Orkney was the place from which all other stone circles in Britain had originated; following a development that would move south through Scotland and the rest of Britain, and culminate with Stonehenge, in Wiltshire – considered to be a masterpiece of the art, but now dated at least three hundred years after the Ring of Brodgar.
Neil Oliver looked realistic but sad as he reported the data had shown the sunken ring feature was thousand of years older than needed to fit the possibility; millennia before the ‘spiritual farmers’ who came to settle and create this outstanding culture of the Stone Age – with villages such as Skara Brae amazingly intact, including the interior of their houses.
You could feel the disappointment in the team. But so much had already been uncovered and proved – including a reconstruction of how the Orkney people, finally leaving their beloved archipelago, crossed the deadly Pentland Firth to reach the mainland near present day Thurso. And all this in boats made from tree branches and waterproofed hides.
The series reached its final few moments with Neil Oliver and Chris Packham visiting a now-deserted island, off Hoy, to ‘feel’ what an abandoned land was like – They found that the cattle left behind, thirty years prior, had not only survived, but, in seven generations, had reverted back to their genetic forbears in order to reorganise and survive, alone.
But then it was back to the Ness of Brodgar for the final sentiments. So much has been achieved; so much revolutionary ancient history uncovered. Orkney had been placed as the ancient capital of Britain. Who would have thought a place so far north could have been such a cradle of civilisation!
And then, as the archeological team were pulling over the vast tarpaulins that would protect the site through the coming winter, they stopped to show the latest and strangest find. Located in the deep earth below Structure 10 (the pyramid-roofed ritual centre of the complex) was a long, thick slab of stone on its side. Further examples of this strangely aligned stone revealed a random layout, clearly not a part of what had been constructed above it.
The camera pulled back to show the face of the Site Director, Nick Card, calm and unruffled, as he had been through the three programmes. “We think they’re full standing stones that have been laid on their edges,” he said. “As though the whole of this Ness of Brodgar complex had been built above the first stone circle… which, of its type, it might well be.”
The dig had run out of time and weather. It will take another season of careful excavation to confirm that possibility. But, bearing in mind that the Ness of Brodgar has been re-dated back to at least 3,500 years BCE, They may already have found the indisputable heart of the relationship between the stonemasters of ancient Orkney and their beloved sky…
To be continued.
Other parts in this series:
The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:
©Stephen Tanham, 2021.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.