Orcadian Genesis: The Origins of the Orkney Isles’ Unique Megalithic Culture and its Roots in Britain’s Own Lost Atlantis - Part Two
This is a continuation on discoveries showing how the Ness Of Brodgar Excavations on the Orkney Mainland are revealing a Mesolithic past with links not only to Britain’s own Lost Atlantis, but also to Göbekli Tepe in distant Anatolia.
Standing Stones and Burial Sites
An incredible amount of work has been done in recent years to map the topography of Doggerland, which included navigable rivers as well as a vast lake area known as the Outer Silver Pit. This is thought to have been the site of a thriving Mesolithic community responsible for the establishment of outlying settlements on the British mainland around 10,000 years ago. In addition to this, there is tantalizing evidence that during its final phase of occupation, the Doggerland population erected standing stones and established human burial sites. These were recorded during the geophysical modeling of data obtained from oil and gas companies, and confirmed by direct evidence from material recovered from the seafloor.
Investigating Doggerland’s Mesolithic settlements will be difficult indeed, since they now lie beneath hundreds of feet of water. What is more, they are now under threat both from deep-sea trawling and from massive commercial development. However, some knowledge of the Doggerland population is possible from an examination of human artifacts occasionally dredged up by fishing vessels trawling the Dogger Bank.
Map of Doggerland as it might have appeared around 10,000 years ago (copyright: Andrew Collins). The area known as the Outer Silver Pit is thought to have been the center of the landmass’s Mesolithic community 10,000 years ago. Over time it was transformed from a great lake into a saline estuary attached to the North Sea.
The Leman and Ower Bank Harpoon
One of the first human relics retrieved from the Dogger Bank was a beautiful barbed harpoon made of red deer antler. It was found in September 1931 by the fishing vessel “Colinda” whilst trawling an area marked on nautical maps as the Leman and Ower Bank. This lies south of the former site of the Outer Silver Pit, and east of what is today the Wash on the British mainland.
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Although the Lewan and Ower Bank harpoon (or fish spear) was initially identified as belonging to a Mesolithic culture known as the Maglemosian, which thrived in Denmark circa 9000-6000 BC, Grahame Clark, at the time a leading authority on Britain’s Mesolithic culture, rejected this idea. He recognized it as belonging, not to the Maglemosian culture of Denmark, but to the Post-Swiderian Kunda culture of Estonia.
Clark’s formal identification of the Leman and Ower Bank harpoon is important, for we should recall that the Mesolithic arrowheads bearing the Swiderian retouch to their tips found at the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Mainland and during excavations on the Orcadian island of Stronsay, greatly resemble those manufactured by the very same Kunda culture. The question then is whether it is possible that groups belonging to the Kunda culture not only established key settlements in Doggerland, but also continued their migration westwards into northern Scotland and the Orkney Isles.
Kunda culture harpoons (a & b, credit: Wiki Commons) and the Leman and Ower Bank harpoon (c) found on the site of Doggerland in 1931 (public domain). To its right (d) is a stylized reconstruction (public domain) of how the harpoon might have been used.
Rising Tides Project
One of the people responsible for the establishment of the Mesolithic Room in the museum at the Tomb of the Eagles is Orcadian archaeologist Dr. Caroline Wickham-Jones of the University of Aberdeen. She has dedicated her life to understanding the origins of the Orkney Isles’ megalithic culture, and is currently part of the Rising Tides project, which looks for potential artificial features drowned by rising waters following the end of the last Ice Age. Several potential underwater archaeological sites have been identified, including rectilinear features in the Bay of Firth off the Orcadian island of Damsay, and others in Mill Bay on the southern coast of Hoy. These structures are likely to date back to the Neolithic age, although some might easily go back to the Mesolithic age.
If correct, then there is every chance that, as with Doggerland’s own Mesolithic culture, the one present in the Orkneys somewhere between 8000-4000 BC was related to the Post-Swiderian Kunda culture.
A Link to Göbekli Tepe
The link therefore with Göbekli Tepe in distant Anatolia (modern-day Asiatic Turkey) is the presence of stone tools bearing an unmistakable Swiderian signature found as far south as the Caucasus in what is today the Republic of Georgia. These date from the eleventh to the ninth millennium BC, and hint at the presence of Swiderian groups in neighboring Anatolia at the time of construction of Göbekli Tepe’s remarkable stone enclosures. Indeed, the discoverer of Göbekli Tepe, Professor Klaus Schmidt, who led excavations there from 1995 through until his untimely death in 2014, drew comparisons between the hunting techniques of the Swiderians and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic peoples responsible for the construction of Göbekli Tepe.
Section of the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site. (Klaus-Peter Simon/CC BY SA 3.0)
Thus, it seems likely that the same human population responsible for the creation of Göbekli Tepe might also have been responsible for the establishment, not only of Doggerland’s Mesolithic culture, but also the similarly aged settlements thought to have existed in the Scottish Orkney Isles. They in turn provided the momentum for the genesis of the island group’s much later Neolithic culture, which, as the Ness of Brodgar excavations are slowly making clear, developed from an existing Mesolithic population sometime during the fifth millennium BC.
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Long has it been thought that Britain and Ireland’s megalithic monuments were the work of incoming groups from continental Europe who arrived around 3800-3700 BC. They, in turn, were succeeded by the Bronze Age Beaker Peoples, who reached the British Isles circa 2500 BC. Archaeologists are now, however, beginning to accept that this cannot be the full story, and that aspects of the Orkney Isles’ material culture, and perhaps even its community’s spiritual beliefs, had a powerful impact on the development of Britain and Ireland’s megalith builders.
Grooved Ware Origins
For example, direct comparisons exist between spirals and lozenges that appear on carved stone slabs and pottery from the Orkney Mainland and examples found both at megalithic sites in Ireland’s Boyne Valley and at Neolithic sites in Anglesey, North Wales. Moreover, hand decorated, flat-bottomed pottery found at Late Neolithic sites across Britain and Ireland and known as Grooved Ware is now thought to have developed on the Orkney Mainland around 3100 BC (it replaced a much earlier style of decorated pottery with a rounded base known as Unstan Ware).
Reproduction of a Grooved Ware pot like those manufactured in the Orkney Isles from around 3000-2900 BC onwards (copyright: Andrew Collins).
A more direct connection between Orkney’s Ness of Brodgar settlement and the Stonehenge landscape was the discovery in one of the structures (Structure 26) of a highly distinctive Grooved Ware “incense cup,” identified on site by archaeologist Claire Copper, who by strange coincidence had just completed a research study on this subject. Only four other examples of these incense cups are known, all of them found during excavations at Durrington Walls, a ritual center forming part of the Stonehenge ceremonial complex. The existence of this fifth incense bowl, more or less identical to the others, is compelling evidence of contact between these two distant places as early as 3000 BC.
All this demonstrates the enormous impact of the Orcadian culture on Late Neolithic ceremonial complexes throughout Britain, including that of Stonehenge, which is itself now thought to have developed from a pre-existing Mesolithic culture that utilized the local landscape in a ritualistic manner.
The apparent relationship between the Orkney Isles’ Late Neolithic culture and that found in southern England at places like Stonehenge and Durrington Walls was something noted as early as the 1970s by Scottish archaeologist and prehistorian Euan W. MacKie (b. 1936). He saw the presence at all these locations of Grooved Ware (formerly known as Rinyo-Clacton Ware) as indicative of the existence of a highly influential group, almost monastic in lifestyle, responsible for the emergence some 5,000 years ago of important ceremonial complexes across Britain, along with the spiritual maintenance of their inhabitants.
That Grooved Ware is now accepted to have spread outwards from the Orkney Isles, hinting strongly that this was the power base of this elite group, which we can assume was shamanistic in nature with a profound knowledge of cyclic time and celestial events. MacKie proposed that their primary settlement was the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in the northwest part of the Orkney Mainland.
One of the room structures forming part of the Skara Brae Neolithic village (copyright: Andrew Collins).
However, the discovery of the Ness of Brodgar settlement, which clearly acted as an axis mundi to the Orcadian culture, suggests that the center of operations of this shamanic-based community was here, and not at the outlying Skara Brae settlement. From the Ness of Brodgar it cast its influence beyond the Orkney Isles to such far-flung places as the Boyne Valley of Ireland, the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, and Stonehenge in southern England.
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That the Ness of Brodgar settlement also probably emerged from a pre-existing Mesolithic culture makes it possible that the island’s shamanic community derived from the Post-Swiderian Kunda culture that by 8000-6000 BC had established major settlements on Doggerland. From here, members of its culture had continued their journey westwards onto the British mainland, establishing new communities in places like the Orkney Isles; this leading finally to the establishment of the Ness of Brodgar settlement sometime during the fifth millennium BC.
That the modern-day descendants of the Kunda include the Sami peoples of northern Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia, who even to this day utilize a complex system of shamanic beliefs and practices incorporating celestial events and the establishment of an axis mundi in the center of an settlement, makes this theory attractive indeed.
Let’s hope that future excavations at the Ness of Brodgar can help shed further light on all of these fascinating subjects, which today paint a strikingly different picture of the emergence of civilization in both Britain and Ireland.
The entrance sign to the Ness of Brodgar excavations (copyright: Andrew Collins).
The Ness of Brodgar excavations rely on public support. Please donate funds by visiting the Ness of Brodgar website. Follow the team as they make their discoveries on Twitter (@NessofBrodgar) and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/FriendsNessBrodgar).
Top Image: The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar, or Ring o' Brodgar) is a Neolithic henge and megalithic circle on the Mainland, the largest island in Orkney, Scotland. Source: Andrea Mucelli/CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Andrew Collins
Andrew Collins is a science and history writer, and the author of various books that challenge the way we perceive the past. His latest book is ‘The Cygnus Key: The Denisovan Legacy, Göbekli Tepe and the Birth of Egypt’. His website is www.andrewcollins.com
Several of the topics outlined in this article are taken up by historical writer Graham Phillips in his forthcoming book Wisdomkeepers of Stonehenge, published by Bear & Co. in 2019.
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Clark, J. G. D, 1932. The Mesolithic Age in Britain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 115. In 1988 radiocarbon testing of the harpoon provided dates in the range of c. 11,950–11,300 BC (See Record Details: NHER Number: 11171, Norfolk Heritage Explorer, http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF11171-Mesolithic-harpoon-from-Leman-and-Ower-Bank-Doggerland&Index=10473&RecordCount=56734&SessionID=53b0c8f7-1a35-4192-b9c0-ed79fd5e349b).
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Press Office, University of St Andrews (July 2, 2012). “Discovering drowned Doggerland,” https://news.st-andrews.ac.uk/archive/discovering-drowned-doggerland/
Schmidt, Klaus, 2002. “Göbekli Tepe and the Early Sites of the Urfa Region: A Synopsis of New Results and Current Views.” Neo-Lithics 1:1: 9–11
Weinstock, John, 2016. “Sami Prehistory Revisited: transactions, admixture and assimilation in the phylogeographic picture of Scandinavia,” University of Texas, http://www.laits.utexas.edu/sami/dieda/hist/SamiPrehistRevisitNew.htm
Wickham-Jones, C. R., S. Dawson, and R. Bates, 2010. “Drowned Stone Age settlement of the Bay of Firth, Orkney, Scotland” Orkney, Scotland.