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Science: Orkney – hot spot of the Stone Age

Evidence shows that Britain’s megalithic monuments started on these islands about 5,200 years ago, along with new styles of architecture and pottery

The Orkney Islands, off Scotland’s north coast, are famous for their wealth of Stone Age monuments. Until recently, these had been seen as the peripheral flowering – in a cold, wet and remote location – of a culture that had spread north from a more hospitable climate.

But the latest archaeological evidence, described in the journal Science this month, shows that Britain’s megalithic monuments really started on Orkney’s Mainland Island about 5,200 years ago, along with new styles of architecture and pottery. From there the innovations swept south across the British Isles, culminating hundreds of years later in Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire.

“We’re looking at a fairly major transformation across Britain – the impact of a whole way of life, religious and social, which comes out of Orkney,” says Michael Parker Pearson of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. “Orkney was a place of synthesis, where the Neolithic worlds came together.”

Although most of Orkney’s Neolithic monuments, such as the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, have been famous for centuries, new discoveries are coming from a vast complex of stone buildings, the Ness of Brodgar, that had been buried for millennia until excavation started less than a decade ago.

The Ness of Brodgar was built about 3200BC on the middle of a narrow isthmus dividing freshwater and saltwater lochs. It included a dozen or more buildings with outer walls up to four metres thick and inner walls incised with mysterious butterfly-like patterns. The central gathering hall, 500 sq m in area, had a cross-shaped inner sanctum.

Carbon dating of organic material found at the Ness suggests that the complex was used for about 1,000 years. Activities included feasting on a huge scale, judging from the number of cattle bones found on the site and pottery with residues of beef and dairy fats. It must have been a gigantic ceremonial centre, not only for the 10,000 or so people believed to have lived on Neolithic Orkney but probably also for outsiders who made a perilous voyage by boat from the mainland.

Archaeologists say the combination of stone circles and earth henges that is so characteristic of British Neolithic monuments – and unknown elsewhere in Europe – is seen on Orkney at least 100 years earlier than the rest of Scotland or England. The Grooved Ware style of incised pottery associated with henge monuments also appeared on Orkney before anywhere else. So did a distinctive style of housing – with a central hearth, stone beds and an area for storing household goods. But why such a remote spot became Britain’s hotbed of cultural innovation 5,000 years ago remains a mystery.

Hopefully the link works as it is the FT...
moss Posted by moss
11th January 2014ce

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