Orcadian Genesis: The Origins of the Orkney Isles’ Unique Megalithic Culture and its Roots in Britain’s Own Lost Atlantis – Part One
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.
For a decade and a half archaeologists and specialists from various fields of study have been investigating a unique occupational site in the Scottish Orkney Isles. Situated on the Orkney Mainland between the fresh water Loch Harray and the brackish Loch Stenness, which flows out into the Bay of Ireland and Hoy Sound, it housed an advanced Neolithic community across a period of some 1,000 years.
On this narrow isthmus of land, the Orkney inhabitants built a series of free-standing, monumental stone buildings enclosed by a massive stone wall. All the structures display evidence of immense sophistication and style, as well as a shared communal usage. Together they formed the heart of a major ceremonial complex embracing several important outlying monuments including the Ring of Brodgar , Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe chambered cairn, and Neolithic village of Skara Brae . Yet beneath the existing buildings lie still earlier structures that arguably date back to the very earliest phases of the Neolithic age, which emerged from a preexisting Mesolithic population as much as 10,000 years old.
The Ring of Brodgar stone circle on the Orkney Mainland (Image: © Andrew Collins).
Currently, around thirty buildings, all dating to the Middle to Late Neolithic age circa 3300-2400 BC, have been uncovered in some 20 separate trenches. All were constructed of drystone walling using a type of flagstone readily available on the Orkney Mainland. Being layered, it splits easily and is an ideal building material. Huge slabs of flagstone were also used to create the island’s distinctive chisel-shaped standing pillars (megaliths); the largest remaining example being the Watchstone situated at the southern end of the Ness. At 5.6 meters (18.4 ft.) in height, it formed part of an almighty avenue of monoliths that stretched between the Ring of Brodgar in the northwest and the Stones of Stenness in the southeast.
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General view of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar excavations (Image: © Andrew Collins).
Each structure is rectangular in shape with many internal features, including upright stones known as orthostats build into walls, pairs of opposing drystone piers, as well as drains to carry away rainwater (one preserved example in Structure 27 worked perfectly when a sudden downpour engulfed the site recently). Each also had a stone roof, the remaining tiles from which were found strewn across the floors of several structures. The largest building in the settlement (Structure 10) is 25 meters (82 ft.) long and 19 meters (62.5 ft.) across, with walls 4 meters (13.12 ft.) thick.
The 5.6 meter tall Watchstone on the Orkney Mainland and behind it the isthmus dividing Loch Stenness (left) and Loch Harray (right). This enormous stone pillar once formed part of an almighty avenue of stones. (Image: © Andrew Collins).
Understanding what was going at the Ness some 5,000 years ago is one of the main priorities of the archaeologists working at the site. They have determined that the settlement was not simply the focus of a local farming community as was initially assumed. It was a place of special significance to the peoples living on the islands. This seems certain from the discovery in the walls of various buildings of what are likely votive offerings to some spirit or deity. They include various inscribed stones, the presence of polished stone axes, a single example of a mysterious petrosphere (like so many others found at sites in the Orkneys and elsewhere on the Scottish mainland), along with a single human arm bone and the articulated legs of several large cattle.
Gneiss stone axe found during excavations at the Ness of Brodgar during the 2018 digging season (Image: © Andrew Collins).
Some of the earliest buildings on the site cluster around a paved area containing a massive standing stone. This huge pillar, very clearly the axis mundi of the complex, was oriented north-south with its decorated eastern face aligned towards the nearby chambered cairn of Maeshowe and beyond that the rising sun at the time of the equinoxes.
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Signboard at the Ness of Brodgar excavation site showing plans of the buildings uncovered so far (Image: © Andrew Collins).
A further indication of the importance of celestial events to the community comes from the fact that to the southwest of the settlement, beyond Loch Stenness, is the ominous presence of two prominent hills located on the neighboring island of Hoy; these being Ward Hill to the south and Cuilags to the north. Not only is the Maeshowe chambered cairn’s opening corridor directed towards these same two hills, but at the winter solstice (December 21, and around 10 days before and afterwards) the sun as viewed from the Watchstone is seen to set into Ward Hill. It then reappears briefly in the deep valley between the two hills before disappearing for a second time.
There is little question that this powerful visual spectacle would have been visible from the Ness of Brodgar settlement, the southern boundary of which is just 200 meters (656.17 ft.) to the northwest of the Watchstone. Just maybe, this annual event established a unique moment outside of the sun’s regular yearly cycle. Alignments of this kind further emphasize the location and importance of the settlement, which must have served to address the spiritual needs not just of the local Orcadian peoples, but also of visitors to the islands during the Neolithic era.
View from the Stones of Stenness (pictured) across to Ward Hill and Cuilags on the neighboring island of Hoy (Image: © Andrew Collins). This becomes the setting for a remarkable double setting sun phenomenon every winter solstice that would have been visible from the nearby Ness of Brodgar.
The community’s spiritual life probably included a profound understanding of the relationship between the Orcadian landscape and cyclic time as reckoned by the horizonal positions and movement of the sun, moon, and stars across the course of a year. What is more, the Neolithic inhabitants of the islands are likely to have practiced forms of animism and shamanism. Great importance was seemingly placed on local fauna such as the sea eagle, red deer, and domestic dog. Their remains have been found in abundance alongside human internees in specific chambered cairns, which would seem to have been set aside for this special relationship between the world of the living and one or other of these creatures (hence modern designations applied to these sites such as the Tomb of the Eagles, Tomb of the Deer, and Tomb of the Dogs).
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ness of Brodgar settlement revealed through excavation is the manner buildings were disposed of once they had fallen into disuse. After their drystone walls had been dismantled and their internal features removed, they would be buried beneath many tons of midden material composed of human refuse and rubble. This continued through to the arrival on the islands of the Bronze Age Beaker people around 2500 BC. They covered over the last of the buildings, although kept open one large communal structure (Structure 10), which was eventually decommissioned during an elaborate ceremony involving a massive feast around 2450 BC. During this extraordinary event the skulls and tibia of some 400 cattle were deposited, over which the complete carcasses of red deer were afterwards laid.
This enormous midden mound, which was in size around 70 meters (229.66 ft.) in length and width, covered an estimated area of 2.5 hectares (6.2 acres), and was enclosed by two massive boundary walls as much as 6 meters (19.69 feet) in thickness. These extended right down to the shores of the nearby lochs. Estimates suggest that this enormous mound of refuse and rubble was originally 15-16 meters (49.21-52.49 ft.) in height, although today it rises to around 5-6 meters (16.40-19.69 ft.) It is within this that all the buildings exposed so far have been found.
Not only would the site’s original midden mound have been visible for miles around, but its presence will have sent out a clear message to all who saw it. It would have been a statement that here lived an affluent and politically powerful community of immense prestige. Who exactly this community might have been is explored shortly.
The manner buildings were decommissioned at the Ness of Brodgar bears uncanny similarities to the way stone enclosures were disposed of at Göbekli Tepe in southeast Anatolia. Here structures that had fallen into disuse were also buried beneath hundreds of tons of refuse and rubble after any reusable materials had been robbed out for use elsewhere. Even though this was as much as 5,000 years before the established dates of the Ness of Brodgar settlement we shall see that there are even closer ties between these two great spiritual centers of the Neolithic age, divided in distance by as much as 3850 kilometers (2400 miles).
Part of the Göbekli Tepe archaeological site. (Benefits/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Although the Ness of Brodgar settlement is known to have thrived circa 3300-2400 BC, there is now mounting evidence of much earlier activity on the site. A round-based, carinated bowl found in one of the buildings has been radiocarbon dated to circa 3600-3300 BC, while what appear to be even older pottery sherds were found beneath Structure 12. These discoveries seem borne out by the fact that below some of the excavated buildings are even older structures. How old these might be remains to be seen. Radiocarbon dating of redeposited materials found on site have produced dates in the fifth millennium BC, which could indicate that the original settlement dates to the Mesolithic age, circa 9600-4000 BC. The discovery on the Orkney Isles of various highly diagnostic stone tools of Mesolithic age could also help show that the Ness of Brodgar settlement has Mesolithic roots.
One of the stone tools, an arrowhead found on the site of the Ring of Brodgar stone circle northwest of the Ness of Brodgar site, displays a very distinctive style of retouching to its tip. This appeared for the first time at the end of the Upper Paleolithic age as part of the so-called Swiderian tradition. It was afterwards adopted by a Post-Swiderian culture known as the Kunda, named after its type-site in Estonia. The Kunda thrived in northern Europe—Finland, Lithuania, Estonia and Karelia, northwest Russia, in particular—between circa 9000-6000 BC. A similar projectile point, displaying the same style of retouching to its tip, was found during excavations on the Orcadian island of Stronsay, showing that the example found at Brodgar is not unique to the islands.
The Ring of Brodgar stone circle where a 10,000-year-old Mesolithic arrowhead bearing the Swiderian retouch to its tip was found (Image: © Andrew Collins). It matches another example found on the island of Stronsay.
Ahrensburgian, not Swiderian
That the Brodgar point bears unmistakable evidence of the Swiderian retouch is noted by lithics experts Torben Ballin and Hein Bjerck. They have written that such “ventral modification … is commonly found on tanged points from Finland and Russia, such as the Kunda, Butovo and Sujala sites … rooted to the Swiderian or Post-Swiderian complex.”
Despite such clear evidence for the presence of Swiderian-influenced groups in the Orkney Isles, Ballin and Bjerck concluded that the Brodgar point is “unlikely to be related to the post-Swiderian” tradition.’ Instead, Ballin and Bjerck attribute it to the Ahrensburgian tradition. This was a culture of nomadic hunter-gatherers who thrived in northern Europe, Denmark, and Germany in particular, towards the end of the Epipaleolithic age, ca. 10,800-9600 BC. Projectile points bearing their workmanship have been found at several sites in Britain, making them more obvious candidates for the manufacture of the Mesolithic points found in the Orkney Isles.
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The conclusions of these two noted lithic experts make good sense. Yet it is becoming increasing apparent that the origins of Orkney’s Neolithic culture are to be looked for not in Scotland, or even in continental Europe, but in Doggerland, a lost landmass that once stretched between Denmark in the east and Britain in the west. It is a theory accepted by Ballin and Bjerck themselves, and promoted also within a whole series of display boards to be seen in the Mesolithic Room of the small, privately-owned museum attached to the Tomb of the Eagles.
This is an archaeological site of great importance on the island of South Ronaldsay, southeast of the Orcadian Mainland. These display boards state clearly that the earliest inhabitants of the Orkney Isles, who arrived here circa 8000 BC, most likely came from Doggerland. This lost land, akin to the North Sea version of Plato’s Atlantis, existed in ever diminishing forms from the earliest withdrawal of the ice sheets towards the end of the last ice age, circa 16,000 BC, through until the landmass’s final submergence around 6000 BC.
In its final form, Doggerland was an enormous island in the middle of the North Sea, which archaeologists refer to today as Dogger Island. Since its final disappearance, possibly in the wake of a massive tsunami event around 6200 BC, the landmass has continued to exist as an underwater sea platform known as the Dogger Bank. This takes its name from a type of Dutch fishing vessel known as a dogger.
Location of the Dogger bank. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands. A Neolithic henge and stone circle. Source: Zugrocker/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
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.