Orkney's archaeological treasures
Well the new top destination tourist place according to The Telegraph. Skara Brae and The Flintstones for goodness sake!
Scotland's Orkney Islands provide a rare glimpse of Stone Age life, says Paul Humphreys...
Many archaeological sites are baffling to the layman. How often do you see a few bits of half-buried wall accompanied by a not-very-informative plaque telling you that this might have been the palace of a bishop? Or perhaps it was the outer wall of a stonemason's workshop…
Neolithic structures such as Stonehenge are awe-inspiring and magical, but they don't tell us much about everyday life in the Stone Age. To get an idea of how Neolithic people actually lived, you should head for the far north of Scotland, to Orkney, home to some of the most impressive prehistoric settlements in the whole of Europe.
Here you will find remains so well preserved that you don't need an expert to tell you what's what. You can see for yourself. The best-known example is Skara Brae, a settlement on Orkney Mainland (the largest island) that was buried for centuries until its cover was blown by a storm in 1850.
What came to light was a 5,000-year-old housing complex that surely inspired the creators of The Flintstones. For here there are beds, hearths, dressers and storage units, all carefully crafted in stone. It's easy to imagine a Stone Age chap arriving home in the evening after a hard day's cattle herding, hanging his stone axe up by the front door, sitting around the fireplace and sharing a meal with his family before snuggling up for the night under a pile of warm animal skins.
There are so many extraordinary sites in Orkney that it's difficult to know where to start – so Visit Scotland has done visitors a great favour by launching an online Archaeological Treasures Trail that covers all the major sites (there are also trails for the Outer Hebrides and Shetland). Here you'll find suggested itineraries and potted histories of the sites, together with opening dates and times and other useful tips.
Skara Brae, with the Ring of Brodgar stone circle and henge, the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe, together form a World Heritage Site called The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, and these are the highlights of the Orkney trail.
Places such as these abound in Orkney, with one island alone having 200 known prehistoric sites. Sometimes called the "Egypt of the North", Rousay is home to Midhowe Broch, probably the finest surviving example of the tower-style fortified homes that were common in Iron Age Scotland. Here again, so much remains of the interior – including dividing walls, a stone tank and the like – that it's easy to imagine people living there and going about their everyday lives.
Of course, not all the sites of Orkney are so easily understood. Only yards away from Midhowe Broch is the much older Midhowe Cairn, known as the "great ship of the dead", a vast 30-metre Neolithic chamber. County archaeologist Julie Gibson says that only a few skeletons were found within a monument that seems to have been used for hundreds of years – so it looks as though a few individuals were selected in some way. It's possible that the bones of ancestors were brought out from time to time and used in rituals – but that is really just an educated guess.
The word "ritual" is a favourite term of tour guide and archaeologist Caz Mamwell, who is candid enough to admit that whenever the experts are baffled by such things as stone circles, "ritual" is a handy explanation. Sometimes, though, the archaeologist's job is made a good deal easier – as in the case of the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, back on Orkney Mainland.
This monument was already ancient when the Vikings came across it in the 12th century – and left their mark in the form of runes carved into the stone. The building is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga – the History of the Earls of Orkney – a fascinating account of the 300 or so years (from AD 900-1200) when Norsemen ruled the waves in these parts.
Their influence can be felt to this day in the Orkney accent: Scottish, yes, but with a distinctive Scandinavian lilt that sets these islanders apart from their southern countrymen.
But not all historical monuments here date from the distant past, Continues here..
Posted by moss
10th August 2010ce