The Ring of Brodgar, the Neolithic Henge of Orkney Island
On the largest island of Orkney, Scotland called The Mainland, amongst the rugged cliffs and almost constant wind, there sits a Neolithic henge and stone circle known as The Ring of Brodgar. It is the third largest circle in the British Isles after Avebury & Stonehenge. Built in a true circle, the Ring of Brodgar is thought to have been originally composed of 60 individual stones, though presently there are 27 intact. The stones themselves are of red sandstone and vary in height from 7-15 feet. The stones are surrounded by a large circular ditch or henge.
Orkney is located in a truly fascinating area made up of around seventy islands, most of which are uninhabited. There are ancient monuments on nearly every corner of the islands and most of the nearly 3,000 identified Neolithic sites in the area are in remarkable condition. The earliest surviving mention of the Orkney Islands comes to us from the accounts of Roman geographer Diodorus Siculus in 56BC.
The Ring of Brodgar was constructed around 2600BC, within a hundred years of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. The astronomical importance of Stonehenge and Avebury are well documented and the same is true for the Ring of Brodgar. It seems that Brodgar was part of an enormous prehistoric ritual complex that also incorporated The Stones of Stenness, one mile to the Southeast & the Ring of Bookan to the Northwest. Interestingly, if you were to overlay the stars of Orion’s Belt over a map of Stenness, Brodgar and Bookan you get a matching layout.
Why were they built?
Theories about the true purpose of the Ring of Brodgar and the surrounding sites are many and varied. Festivals of thanks, places for animal sacrifice, general meeting areas, religious temples, and funerary complexes are just some of the explanations that have been given. However, in the 1960s a man named Alexander Thom concluded that the Ring of Brodgar and many of the other megalithic sites in the area were astronomical observatories. An expert in the field of archeo-astronomy, Thom spent decades studying the stone circles. He discovered that all these sites seemed to show remarkable geometric precision despite having been built long before the age of Pythagoras.
Thom said, “The Brodgar site is the most perfect example of a megalithic lunar observatory we have left in Britan. The ring and ditch were probably placed on this hill at first because from here there are four far-sights marking the approximate position for the rising and/or setting of the moon at the major and minor standstills. Large mounds were built so that watchers could be placed on the top to warn people below of the impending rising of the moon.”
This would mean that the Ring of Brodgar was part of a scientific instrument. For its ancient users it may well have provided a horizon that was perfectly flat in all directions and allowed the heavens to be viewed as an exact hemisphere.
Whether or not the Brodgar stones were used to measure the passage of time or the position of the stars and their relation to growing seasons, the area in which the circle is built is ideal for these purposes. Using natural landmarks like dips between the surrounding hills, it becomes very easy to chart the seasons from the positions of the ring and setting sun throughout the year.
Whatever the true purpose for The Ring of Brodgar and the surrounding sites, the people who built them went to a great deal of trouble to put them at this particular northern latitude. Other than the stones themselves, and the very apparent and curious astronomical alignments found therein, so little remains of the people that built the henge that it becomes difficult to offer anything but speculations. As we’ve learned there are thousands of these sites in the surrounding areas and it certainly is curious that there can be so many monuments and so little evidence left of the settlements and lives of the people who built them.
The remains of the earthworks or henge can still be seen today. Photo source: Wikimedia
According to Aubrey Burl, the Ring of Brodgar could have held 3,000 people if there was any sort of timber placed above the standing stones as a roof. It’s an incredible size for such a place considering that in April of 2008, environmental coring results revealed that prior to around 1500BC the area was a marshy bog.
Colin Renfrew has estimated that the amount of labor needed to cut just the ditch into the bedrock was at the very least 100,000 man hours. Other studies have shown the number to be anywhere from 85,000 to 200,000 man hours. We can figure that if 40 men worked 50 hours every week through all the seasons that it would have taken at least a full year to cut the henge alone. These workers would have needed food, clothing, shelter and tools. Considering, as mentioned earlier, that this area was a marshy bog at the time of construction (if we are to presume that all of our dating methods are indeed accurate) we must also realize that there would be very minimal amounts of fuel on the islands and certainly no timber for houses or boats.
The large megalithic stones in the Ring of Brodgar. Photo source: Wikimedia
There is a widespread notion that the megaliths were hauled into place from quarries on wooden rollers. The lack of timber in the area at the time of construction certainly takes issue with that notion. Not to mention that if you’ve ever trekked through a marshland, it quickly becomes clear that the terrain is troublesome to maneuver through without having hauling megaliths. Dr. Colin Richards made a brief excavation in 2008. His theory posits that it was not the completed stone structure that was so important so much as the physical act of constructing it.
As of today, the interior of the Ring of Brodgar has never been fully excavated. Other than the standing stones, there have been found some late Neolithic pottery shards that are congruent with a group of early people known simply as the Beaker People, an 'archaeological culture' of prehistoric western Europe starting in the late Neolithic and running into the early Bronze Age, and the Grooved Ware People, a name given to the people who manufactured grooved ware, which is believed to have developed in Orkney in the 3 rd millennium BC. However, this simply tells us that these people were here at some point, and does not confirm that they were the original builders. We are left to wonder about the rest.
Featured image: The Ring of Brodgar. Photo source: Wikimedia
By Greg Sorrell
Before Civilization by Colin Renfrew
Prehistoric Britian by Timothy Carville
Circles and Standing Stones by Evan Hadingham
Uriel's Machine by Christopher Knight & Alan Butler
Been there twice, its a fantastic place, along with the Ness of Brodgar, Skara Brae and the stones of Stenness. I think however that the theories of Alexander Thom are a lot more controversial than the article implies. For a start the astronomical alignments he used for Brodgar were based on the ring being 1000 years younger than the accepted age. Also the mounds he talks about surrounding the ring have never been reliably dated. See http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/brodgar/brodgar3.htm From what I've read he is quite a divisive figure in the archaeological world
Such a stunning site - and so enigmatic! The unfolding discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar are revealing more about the rich heritage of Orkney - very exciting!
I really hope to visit all the fascinating sites there one day.......soon hopefully!
Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk
What wonderful knowledge these people must have had to motivate them to work on these structures. You can't get the staff now eh?