Saturday, 3 August 2013

Travels with Li Dongni - Neolithic Orkney (July 2012)

Sometimes when you travel you go where the wind takes you, where the opportunity arises, where the flight is cheapest. Other times, you finally get the chance to go somewhere you've been desperate to go to for years but somehow never have. So it was with me going to the fabled Orkney Islands, off the north east coast of bonny Scotland, a round trip in the car of some 1,500 miles from Lincoln.

I'll be dividing this trip up into two posts - this one looking at the unique Neolithic heritage of the island, and the other looking at the more varied historic sites of other periods and the beautiful landscapes we saw whilst we were there.


The grassy mound of Maeshowe is one the most famous elements of Orkney's surviving Neolithic landscape, as it is the largest surviving burial mound on the islands.  Believed to have been constructed around 2700BC, theories about its alignment and connection with the midwinter sunset abound.  Its importance in the landscape continued long after its original construction, as some of the most interesting aspects of the interior are the Viking graffiti scratched into the stone supporting columns.  These were supposedly made by a group of Vikings sheltering from a bitter storm who broke through the roof of the mound.  Whatever their origins, they form a valuable collection of inscriptions, and certainly say something of the nature of the men who carved them.  The first modern investigation of the mound took place in 1861 by James Farrer, who also went in through the roof, which is now supported with concrete to ensure that the mound's shape is maintained, though it has certainly changed since before the 1861 investigation.

Sadly, though completely understandably, photography is not allowed inside the mound, which is now accessed through the original entrance tunnel.  Stooping through the long tunnel before emerging into the gloomy chamber is a wonderfully atmospheric experience, and the Orcadian guide we had was excellent, and clearly very passionate about the monument and its preservation.

Skara Brae

The Neolithic village at Skara Brae is one of the most iconic of all British archaeological sites.  Finally being able to visit it was one of the highlights of the trip, and an almost surreal experience after seeing so many photographs of it over the years.  Visiting the site gives a real sense of just how exposed the settlement would have been to the sea, and why the occupants constructed such tight, protected paths between their houses.

The reconstructed house outside the museum is also worth a mention, as it really brings the scale of the dwellings to life, but also just how homely they must have been.  When looking down on the real remains, it is easy to see the houses as almost hobbit-like, but the reconstructed example felt more like a southern wattle and daub roundhouse inside, and certainly not claustrophobic.

And isn't it just amazing - no matter where you go and what camera equipment you take, someone will always have brought something bigger...

Tomb of the Eagles

Although it feels more off the main tourist track than some of the other monuments, the Tomb of the Eagles is one of the most fascinating of Orkney's tombs.  Being run by a private organisation rather than Historic Scotland, the interpretational approach is also somewhat different.

Visitors arrive at a visitor centre around a mile away from the tomb itself.  There, they wait for the next introductory talk to start.  The talks take place over two rooms, each with a different staff member in them.  The first room talks about the Neolithic tomb and the various finds made within it (particularly the human and animal bone, including the eagle talons which have given it its modern name), the second about the small Bronze Age site discovered nearby.

The Neolithic talk takes place with the staff member stood behind display cases, using the objects within to explain the site.  My eyebrows raised slightly, however, when objects began to be removed from the displays for visitors to handle.  Although I'm all in favour of tactile museum experiences, I do start to worry when Neolithic skulls are being waved around every thirty minutes, day after day!  Also, giving the skulls names such as 'Charlie Girl', 'Granny' and 'Jock Tamson' struck me as being rather against most modern guidance on the ethical treatment of human remains.

After leaving the visitor centre, the clifftop walk to the tomb begins.  About halfway there, the Bronze age site is encountered, which takes the form of the layout of a single stone dwelling with interesting evidence of water management.  The limelight is almost bizarrely stolen, however, by the heap of rust standing next to it, which turns out to be the remains of a German WWII ambulance which was driven across the Sahara, then used on site as a shelter for the landowner while giving tours.  Apparently there are plans to refurbish it.

The tomb itself is wonderfully positioned on the coast, and there is a tangible feeling of isolation.  We were lucky to have a good few minutes alone at the site before any other visitors arrived. Entry is achieved through a narrow passage that is easiest to traverse using a little wheeled skate and a rope - provided of course!  Inside, the tomb is surprisingly spacious, but the most notable thing is that a group of skulls are still in situ, albeit now behind dirty perspex.  They were incredibly difficult to get photographs of, using a mobile phone torch for light, and the image below is the best I could manage.

Although we didn't manage to see any eagles, the walk back along the clifftops was rather special, and a few seagulls were at least kind enough to fly in front of my lens.

Ness of Brodgar

We were very fortunate that at the time of our visit, the archaeological excavations at the Ness of Brodgar were ongoing.  The 'Ness' is a thin piece of land between the stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stennes, which has been yielding some remarkable finds over the past few years, and really makes you wonder just what else Orkney has yet to offer.  The site was discovered in 2002 through geophysics, and is revealing new information on a weekly basis - monumental walls, buildings, clay figurines, carved stones - most of which rival anything found anywhere else.  The excavations are complex, so I suggest you head across to the excavation's own blog pages here to read more about them.

Ring of Brodgar

Next to the Ness of Brodgar stands the stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar - the third largest stone circle in the British Isles, and certainly one of the most enigmatic.  Believed to have been constructed between 2500BC and 2000BC, the remaining stones are incredibly evocative and stand in an almost exact circle, almost 104 metres across.

Stones of Stennes

Although standing less than a mile from the Ring of Brodgar, and appearing pretty much the same type of monument at a casual glance, the few remaining stones at Stennes are not only much larger, but much older than Brodgar, being erected around 3100BC.  There is evidence to suggest that the stones were never arranged in a  complete circle, though whether that was by design isn't fully understood.  The 12 original stones surrounded a hearth, and it is possible that the arrangement represented a dwelling.  Nearby stands the 'Watchstone', another single large standing stone that must have been part of the same sacred landscape, but now seems more at risk of cars passing within a few feet of it!

Neolithic Orkney fully deserves its recognition as a World Heritage site, and is a place that every archaeologist should go on pilgrimage to at least once in their lives.  Most excitingly of all, it is a place that seems to have a lot of secrets still to reveal in the coming years.

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