Neolithic Sites of the Orkney Islands

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Fifteen kilometers off the northern tip of Scotland at latitude 59° north lie the Orkney Islands. This northerly location makes Orkney a land of contrasts. During the summer, the days are long, with only a few hours of darkness, while in winter the situation is reversed. The islands have a desolate but verdant landscape on which few trees are found. Thus the sky and the horizon dominate all views of Orkney. Under the fertile soil lies sandstone bedrock that yielded the stone slabs that provided much of the building material used by the prehistoric inhabitants of these islands in the absence of timber.

The Orkney Islands were settled by farmers in the first half of the fourth millennium b.c. Radiocarbon dates place the oldest recorded Neolithic settlement at Knap of Howar (on the tiny island of Papa Westray) between 3600 and 3100 b.c., but since this is a fairly elaborate habitation site, it seems likely that pioneers reached Orkney somewhat earlier. The Neolithic settlement at Knap of Howar appears to have been a farmstead with two adjacent oval houses. Both are built of sandstone slabs with a main entrance at the west end. One of the houses is larger, 10 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, while the smaller one is 7.5 meters long and about 3 meters wide. Both are divided into rooms with large upright stone slabs. The large house is interpreted as the dwelling, while the smaller as a workshop, but it is puzzling why they were built as separate units rather than sharing a wall. Alongside the houses is a thick midden, or trash heap, containing bones of cattle, sheep, pigs, whales, seals, sea birds, mollusks, and fish. Grain and pollen from wheat and barley provide faint traces of cultivation.

Neolithic settlement on the Orkney Islands expanded in the late fourth millennium b.c. Along the Bay of Skaill on the largest Orkney island, called the Mainland, a settlement was constructed five thousand years ago at Skara Brae, again using the best local alternative to timber, sandstone slabs. After being occupied and rebuilt over several centuries between about 3100 and 2500 b.c., Skara Brae was abandoned and slowly covered over by drifting sand and turf. In 1850 a severe storm tore away the turf and opened the sand to erosion, revealing the buried settlement. In the 1920s the renowned prehistorian V. Gordon Childe cleared the sand from the houses and exposed the settlement plan at Skara Brae, one of his rare excavation projects. Since then, Skara Brae has become one of the most famous Neolithic settlement sites in Europe, although its unusual character often relegates it to only a brief mention in surveys of European prehistory.

The central precinct of Skara Brae consists of at least eight sandstone houses that had been built in hollows scooped into an old midden, or trash heap. The consolidated midden fill provided external backing for the walls, and the decision to build in it was made consciously. Each house consists of a large rectangular area between 4.5 and 6 meters across with a central hearth. In some houses, smaller alcoves, or cells, open from this central chamber. The houses are connected by tunnel-like passages roofed with stone. We do not know how the houses were roofed, but in light of the general scarcity of timber on Orkney, it is possible that they had rafters of whale ribs covered by hides. Since the house walls survive at a height of about 3 meters, movement under the roof would have been easy even if it was flat.

Of particular interest are the stone fittings within the houses that Childe interpreted as built-in furniture. Slabs and blocks of stone were fashioned into tiered shelf units, often characterized as "dressers," that may have held family belongings, although they could just as easily have stored vessels with food. Stone chests along the sides of the houses may have been filled with heather, straw, and furs to make beds. Stone pits in the floors had their seams filled with clay to make them watertight and may have served to store shellfish, either for human consumption or for bait. In the center of each house was a sunken stone-lined hearth.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae fished, kept cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep, and cultivated barley and wheat on a small scale, very similar to the economy at Knap of Howar. There is some evidence that deer were hunted, and stranded whales were prized as sources of massive amounts of fat and meat. Small fragments of sea-bird eggs suggest that these were gathered.

The pottery found at Skara Brae is known as Grooved Ware due to its characteristic decoration, and it was made in the form of large vessels up to 60 centimeters in diameter. Bone was used for many types of artifacts, including beads for necklaces and awls for working hides. Some of the most distinctive artifacts at Skara Brae are carved stone balls of unknown function, although one theory interprets them as badges of status and prestige.

Several sites with houses similar to those at Skara Brae have been found in the Orkney Islands. Rinyo on the island of Rousay is one such site, although it is not as well preserved as Skara Brae. The settlement at Links of Noltland on the island of Westray is believed to be substantially larger than Skara Brae. It seems that Orkney was the location of quite a few such Neolithic farming communities during the period between 3100 and 2500 b.c.

The most important Neolithic settlement excavated since 1980 on Mainland Orkney is Barnhouse, located on a low promontory in the center of the island, very close to several passage graves and stone circles. Barnhouse was constructed in several stages, with houses built, demolished, and built over. One house was rebuilt four times. The houses were freestanding, without the midden backing and connecting passageways observed at Skara Brae. Two of the houses are more complex and much larger than the others. The larger of the two is a square space 7 meters across with walls up to 3 meters thick, set on a clay platform that in turn was surrounded by a stone wall. It contained a large central hearth and a stone "dresser." The function of this building is difficult to discern. Was it the residence of a high-status individual, or was it a communal ceremonial hall?

Some of the most important information from Barnhouse has come from the chemical analysis of residues on sherds of Grooved Ware. Many of them tested positive for residues of wheat and barley, cattle meat, and, most interestingly, milk. The need to keep milk cool in upright vessels where they could not be knocked over suggests a function for the stone "dressers" and perhaps the other stone furniture as well.

The windswept Neolithic landscape on Orkney must have been dramatic. Coastal and interior communities with stone houses kept livestock, grew grain, and fished. Immense passage graves like Maes Howe and Quanterness were the repositories for the dead members of these communities. Silhouetted against the sky were ceremonial stone circles such as the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. Although remote from the main developments of prehistoric Europe, the Neolithic sites of the Orkney Islands provide a glimpse of a thriving tribal society making use of everything it could wring from the land and the sea.

See alsoBeginnings of Farming in Northwestern Europe (vol. 1, part 3); The Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4).


Childe, V. Gordon. Skara Brae: A Pictish Village in Orkney. London: Kegan Paul, 1931.

Renfrew, Colin, ed. The Prehistory of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.

Richards, Colin. "Monuments as Landscape: Creating the Centre of the World in Late Neolithic Orkney." World Archaeology 28 (1996): 190–208.

Ritchie, Anna. Prehistoric Orkney. London: Batsford, 1995.

——, ed. Neolithic Orkney in Its European Context. Cambridge, U.K.: McDonald Institute, 2000.

Peter Bogucki