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Mysteries of the Stones of Orkney

by Ilona Kauremszky

Face burrowed inside my rain jacket for shelter, I battled against the raging elements as I slowly inched forward in this rain-soaked, wind-swept no man’s land.

Perched north off Scotland’s mainland, along a 70-island archipelago known as the Orkney Islands, is a remote outcropping of underground stone buildings. Until recently, the site was hailed as Europe’s oldest Neolithic settlement, known as Skara Brae.

Archaeologists first came across these beautifully preserved buildings by accident, when a violent storm tore off a layer of dunes (howe to the Scots), revealing a hidden world locked in time

It’s a peculiar setting. This is a subterranean world that resembles a sci-fi movie set, with its strange circular earthen walls dug deep underground. Boulders carried from away are smartly set as doorways, plints and furniture pieces. The whale bone, skin and turf used for roofing has long since deteriorated, but viewing it from above leaves a perfect vantage point to see what life must have been like around 3180 BCE.

I let my imagination run wild and played out a happy house scene. The stone bed against the wall was for the husband and wife, the rocky kitchen cabinet was for food. A hearth in the middle of this ancient home provided warmth, and fire for cooking and drying fish and game.

Once a thriving settlement, these Neolithic people disappeared without a trace—which fuels much lore on the Orkney mainland.

“They say my ancestors are from here, ” says Margaret Spence, a custodian who’s been minding this Scottish Pompeii for years. She’s convinced the small community thrived quite nicely for nearly 600 years; the artifacts reveal tools, pottery and even a sewage system.

While Skara Brae has been known for nearly two centuries (since 1850), it’s what is toiling beneath the soil down the road, the Ness of Brodgar, that’s now baffling archaeologists—some say even rewriting ancient history.

Nick Card, senior project manager at the Ness of Brodgar excavation site, is the big kahuna. The chance discovery happened a decade ago, when a farmer tilling his field overturned an unusual stone.

The rest, as they say, is history. There are some rumblings that the Ness of Brodgar was the model for Stonehenge.

On the day we meet, Nick is in between tagging finds and preparing field notes.

This is a subterranean world that resembles a sci-fi movie set, with its strange circular earthen walls dug deep underground.

He says it’s the flagship excavation site in the U.K. at the moment—if not the world—due to the significance of the findings (pottery, religious artifacts, wall paintings) and what they represent about the Stone Age civilization’s culture.

“We have uncovered the largest known Neolithic settlement that has a massive temple, allowing us to finally learn about the Neolithic religion.” He’s talking about the site’s 5, 000-year-old Neolithic cathedral. “It’s 800 years older than Stonehenge, ” he says.

“We even had a TV crew document the site, which aired last New Year’s Day, ” he says, referring to the Neil Oliver-hosted “A History of Ancient Britain” BBC documentary.

Since then, bus loads have been flocking there. The curious want to see for themselves.

All around Orkney, mounds contain secrets that the locals know possess a mystical quality.

My friend Sheila Fleet, a jewellery designer who uses the landscape and archaeology as inspiration in her work, lured me to see for myself.

I was a bit of a skeptic and not quite sure what I would find. The four of us—Sheila and our spouses, Rick and Steve—high-tailed it from her place, a magical setting in Tankerness, only to suddenly stop a short stretch from her home.

“Before we go any further, see this? It’s Mine Howe. People haven’t a clue on the 29 steps leading down to this prehistoric man-made chamber. To top it off my neighbour who was a local farmer found it only recently, ” says Sheila. She’s standing by the very road sign she designed to help showcase the Iron Age landmark.

After a half-hour drive through dramatic countryside dotted in sheep farms and a few sleepy villages, we made it to a desolate area where there was nary a person or tree in sight. It was mid-way between the rocky skyscraper-looking standing Stones of Stenness and the mysterious Ring o’ Brodgar, home to the renowned Stone Age ring, where we finished our quest.

“Some say it was the passageway to the living and the dead, ” says Sheila.

The hollowing wind provided all the character necessary to spark our imagination. We stumbled on more mounds and I froze in my tracks to what lay ahead, the excavation site of a once bustling Neolithic society.

sea-cliffs-Orkney-Scotland

I stood over the smooth stones splayed in intricate geometric patterns, and wondered about the meaning of the patterns and how primitive and sacred life must have been all those millennia ago. What were they praying to? Who were their Gods?

They say if you scratch the surface of Orkney, archaeology bleeds. On that day, I felt small and insignificant as I stood beside these towering stones that have stood as markers against the test of time.

An exclusive exhibition called Ness of Brodgar: The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, is the world’s first display of these artifacts and is now on display in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands until September 29, 2012.