Neolithic Orkney was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. The Orkney World Heritage site is in fact a group of Neolithic monuments that is made up of a large chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), plus a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites. The total group makes up a major prehistoric landscape giving a window onto life in this remote northern archipelago 5,000 years ago.
The site at Skara Brae is thought to have been occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after a change in the climate (it became much colder and wetter) the settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants.
Skara Brae then lay under the sand dunes until 1850, when rough seas stripped away the grass, and uncovering several houses. In 1924 more houses were uncovered by similar rough weather. The neolithic settlement is of eight similar houses, linked together by a series of low alleyways. Vere Gordon Childe excavated the site between 1928 and 1930.
It is believed that 50 to 100 people lived here at any one time. The houses used earth as extra shelter and they were built into mounds rubbish called as "middens". The earth and the middens gave a layer of insulation against Orkney's harsh winters. Each house is about 40 square metres, with a large square living room with a hearth for heating and cooking. Driftwood and whalebone, with turf thatch on top, roofed the houses as there were few trees growing on the Orkneys for wood.
The houses used stone furniture, including a full range of cupboards, dressers, seats, and box beds. A sophisticated drainage system in the village may have included a primitive form of toilet for each dwelling.
The ancient inhabitants of Orkney built pyramid-like structures as communal burial places, and burials would be according to tribal status. These chambered cairns were built over a period of thousands of years, and are one of two main types: the Orkney-Cromarty and the Maeshowe type of chambered cairn.
Maeshowe (or Maes Howe) is termed a neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave. It is close to Skara Brae. Built originally by grooved ware people, it was looted by Vikings led by Earl Harald Maddadarson and Ragnvald, Earl of Moer in the 12th century AD. The vikings left runic graffiti on the stone walls of the chamber. There are over thirty individual inscriptions. The corbelled roof was broken in 1861 by careless archaeologists, but they did relatively little structural damage.
The mound is 35m in diameter and 7m high. It is made up of packed stones and clay, with an inner layer of stones around the chamber itself. The chamber is roughly a cube 4.5m on each side. The walls contain three cells sealed with stone blocks, and the entrance tunnel, which 14.5m long and 1.4m high, is lined with very large slabs, the largest weighing over 3 tonnes.
When opened in 1861, it was literally empty except for a piece of human skull. So it is not known what it was actually used for. The large stone blocking the door seems designed to be shut from the inside. The quality of the construction is impressive, with large sandstone blocks used, which have been skillfully quarried and cut. On the the winter solstice, the setting sun shines directly down the passage of Maeshowe. It illuminates the back wall of the chamber for a few minutes. The sun sets directly over the Barnhouse Stone on the summer solstice.
Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness are 1.2 km west of the Maeshowe chambered cairn. The Stones of Stenness are on a promontory on the southern end of the Loch of Stenness and the freshwater loch Loch of Harray. The name "Stenness" comes from Old Norse meaning "stone headland". .
The stones are slabs about 1 ft thick. The circle originally was 104 ft in diameter and had 12 stones. Now only four of these unusually shaped stones remain; the tallest is about 16 ft high. The were surrounded by a ditch cut into rock that was 7 ft deep and is 23 ft wide. The that in turn was surrounded by an earth bank, with a single entrance on the north side. The entrance faces towards the Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement which has been found adjacent to the Loch of Harray.The pottery links the Stones of Stenness to Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and the site is thought to date from around 3000 BC.
The site was visited by Walter Scott in 1814, but later that year, the tenant farmer, Captain W. MacKay, felt that visitors to the site were damaging his fields, and set about trying to destroy the stones. MacKay broke up one stone, the Odin Stone, and toppled another before he was stopped. In 1906 an inaccurate attempt was made to reconstruct the circle
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar) is a neolithic henge and stone circle. The Ring of Brodgar lies about 1.2 km away to the north-west of the Stones of Stenness.
The centre of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists. So it has not been scientifically dated, but it is believed that it dates from 2500 BC, and therefore contemporary with Stonehenge.
The circle one of the largest in the United Kingdom at about 120 yards in diameter. The henge was made up of 60 stones, of which only 27 are now standing. The stones are surrounded by a circular ditch 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide, carved out of the solid bedrock. There are carvings on four of the stones, a runic inscription of the name Bjorn - probably a Norse visitor, an anvil, and an ogham inscription. These were all carved many years after the erection of the stones.
World Heritage Sites in Britain