Thursday, February 16, 2017

Prehistoric Orkney: The People of the Stones

By Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, I examined the evidence for the earliest human settlement of the Orkney Islands, between 4000 and 3700 BC. Using stone axes (since they had no knowledge of metals), these Neolithic settlers rapidly cleared the islands of whatever tree-cover they may once have had, in order to create fields in which they might grow barley and oats, and graze their cattle and sheep. The islands have been almost entirely devoid of woodland ever since, the strong westerly winds, laden with salt, being hostile to any potential regeneration. Across much of prehistoric Europe, wood was an important building material, but on these northerly islands, stone took its place: the sandstone of the Orkneys fractures into flat-faced rectangular blocks, giving these buildings, among the most ancient in the world, a surprisingly modern appearance.

The settlement of Barnhouse, dating to around 3400 BC, is significantly larger than the earlier one at the Knap of Howar, with fifteen houses. Its inhabitants seem to have fished, as well as growing cereal crops, and keeping cattle, sheep and pigs. The finds from the village include several elaborately carved stone balls: quite what significance these had is unclear, but similar artefacts have been found across the Scottish mainland, as well as in Ireland and northern England, showing that the island populations were by no means cut off from what was happening elsewhere.

One of the Neolithic houses at Barnhouse. Photo: Martin McCarthy (licensed under GNU).
Neolithic carved stone balls, Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow Photo: Johnbod (licensed under CCA).


The people who lived at Barnhouse (and doubtless at many similar settlements which either have not survived the ravages of time, or have yet to be discovered) buried their dead in stone-built tombs. A visitor to Orkney will encounter many of these, but I will focus on just two, both of which are located on the small island of Rousay (one of the less-developed islands in modern times, on which more of the prehistoric sites have consequently been preserved).

The tomb of Midhowe is what is termed a "stalled cairn:" an elongated stone chamber, divided into "stalls" by stone slabs, with most stalls containing human remains, in some cases complete skeletons, in other cases disarticulated bones. The remains of at least twenty-five people were found at Midhowe, together with bones of cattle, sheep, and seabirds. "Stalled cairns" are distinctively Scottish, but not uniquely Orcadian (there are many examples across Caithness), although the island tombs are, in some cases, larger and more elaborate than those on the mainland.

The Midhowe chambered cairn. Photo: Lawrence Jones (licensed under CCA).
Plan of the Midhowe chambered cairn, showing the position of burial deposits. Image: Fantoman400 (licensed under CCA).


The tomb of Taversoe Tuick, by contrast, is a "passage grave," or "passage tomb," with a narrow stone passage leading to a larger chamber, covered by a mound. In architectural terms, it represents a variation on a theme more widely distributed along the Atlantic coast of Europe, with examples found in Iberia; western France; the Channel Islands; Wales; Ireland; the Hebrides; Denmark; and Sweden. Taversoe Tuick is unusual, perhaps unique, as a "double-decker" passage grave, with two tombs, one on top of the other, and entered from opposite sides of the mound.

The chambered cairn of Taversoe Tuick. Photo: Colin Smith (licensed under CCA). The entrance shown leads into the lower tomb. 
The passage of the lower tomb at Taversoe Tuick (Photo: Stephen McKay (licensed under CCA). 
The junction between the upper and lower tombs at Taversoe Tuick. Photo: Stephen McKay (licensed under CCA).
Plan of the chambered cairn of Taversoe Tuick. Image: www.aroundrousay.co.uk. 
Neolithic pottery ("Unstan Ware") from Taversoe Tuick. Image: Fantoman400 (licensed under CCA).


Both "stalled cairns" and "passage graves" have been seen as "territorial markers" ("this land is our land, because it was cleared and cultivated by our ancestors, whose bones stand as witness to the fact"), and both are constructed in such a way as to facilitate ongoing "communication" between the living and the dead. This may reflect a belief system in which death was seen, not as a journey from one world to another, but rather as a changed state of being ("the dead remain among us, but, as ancestors, they differ from elders, just as elders differ from adults, and adults differ from children"). This "communication," however, seems to have been a largely private affair, the narrow entrances of the passages, and the small size of the chambers, limiting the number of people who could participate in whatever rituals were conducted within.

Some archaeologists, notably Lord [Colin] Renfrew, have seen, in the structure of these tombs, a reflection of a "segmentary lineage society:" a form of social organisation observed by ethnographers in tribal societies in Africa and elsewhere, in which a tribe is made up of clans; which themselves are made up of major lineages; which in turn are made up of minor lineages; each division defined by descent from a historical or mythical ancestor.

Diagram of a segmentary lineage society (adapted from E.E. Evans-Pritchard).


Such societies may have been widespread in Neolithic Europe, but are, perhaps, more easily imagined in a context such as Orkney, where both the houses and the tombs are built in durable stone, and have been relatively undisturbed by later agricultural and industrial development.

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Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.

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