Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Heart Of Neolithic Orkney
Cultural United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland Europe And North America Mainland Orkney, Scotland Multiple Locations

The monuments of Orkney bear unique or exceptional testimony to an important indigenous cultural tradition which flourished over 500-1,000 years but disappeared by about 2000 BC. They are an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape which illustrates a significant stage of human history, during which the first large ceremonial monuments were built. They are testimony to the cultural achievements of the Neolithic peoples of northern Europe, during the period 3000-2000 BC.

The Orkney Islands lie 15 km north of the coast of Scotland. The island of Mainland is the largest in the archipelago. The Brodgar Rural Conservation Area lies around an isthmus dividing the Loch of Harray to the east and the Loch of Stenness to the west;it includes the sites of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae is on the west coast of Mainland on the southern edge of the Bay of Skaill. It was covered by an immense sand dune until 1850.

The Neolithic period in the British Isles is mostly characterized by monumental architecture and a strong development of ritual. Collective burials and ceremonial enclosures appear, revealing a more complex social structure and a mobilization of the efforts of a large number of individuals towards a common goal. Passage graves such as Maes Howe, built around 3000 BC, were large structures, made from stones ordered to form a passage leading from the outer edge of the mound to the chamber containing the remains of the dead. The large amount of human and animal bones, pottery and other objects discovered in these mounds testify that they were important social and religious centres. The general orientation of these structures also demonstrates the knowledge of the builders in respect to seasonal movements. In the same area, a Neolithic village of stone-built houses connected by passages was discovered and excavated.

The house styles vary according to the different periods of occupation, but the basic components of the interior remain the same: beds to either side and built into the walls, central hearth and dresser, also in stone, in the back. Activities include cattle and sheep herding, fishing and cereal farming, all characteristic of Neolithic communities. There is an evidence for ritual reuse of the religious sites in the early Iron Age, suggested by the presence of pottery in pits.

In the mid-12th century AD, Norsemen and Viking crusaders set foot on the islands. Carved runes on the stones of the main chamber of Maes Howe testify to their presence at that time. The site, quite isolated, is at the present time sited within what is essentially a pastoral landscape.

When it was built 5,000 years ago, the settlement of Skara Brae was further from the sea than it is now, as the sea level was much higher then. The settlement was abandoned some 600 years after it was built, and most of the houses were emptied of their contents. The first written reference to the Ring of Brodgar dates from 1529. The Stones of Stenness were first recorded in 1700. The Norse runic inscriptions at Maes Howe were first recorded in 1862. In the mid-19th century the remains of Skara Brae were revealed when the overlying sand was swept away by a violent storm, and some clearance work took place in 1913. In 1924 a protective breakwater was built. Some restoration work was carried out, respecting the principles of anastylosis as later defined by the Venice Charter (1964), at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.

Maes Howe is a Neolithic masterpiece, an exceptionally early architectural accomplishment. With its almost classical strength and simplicity it is a unique survival from 5,000 years ago. It is an expression of genius within a group of people whose other tombs were claustrophobic chambers in smaller mounds. Stenness is a unique and early expression of the ritual customs of the people who buried their dead in tombs like Maes Howe and lived in settlements like Skara Brae. The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring. Skara Brae has particularly rich surviving remains. It displays remarkable preservation of stone-built furniture and a fine range of ritual and domestic artefacts, which together demonstrate the domestic, ritual, and burial practices of a now vanished 5,000-year-old culture with exceptional completeness.