On Neolithic Orkney

Day 1 

Ring of Brodgar

As you may have noticed, I have an overdeveloped interest in islands, particularly northerly ones, all the better if they are mist-shrouded and desolate and have ancient stone circles and old Norse feasting halls on them. I suppose that is what brought me here, to the Orkney Islands. 

Orkney is one of the densest collections of ancient monuments in all of Britain, and the oldest. The Stones of Sternness predate Stonehenge by almost a thousand years, and Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. It’s called the Scottish Pompeii. I try to stay away from tours, but I booked one this time, led by two archaeologists. There is a dig going on at a 5,000 year old temple complex called the Ness of Brodgar and it’s otherwise closed to tourists. 

I first learned about the excavation two years ago when National Geographic did a story about it called “The First Stonehenge; Scotland’s Master Builders”. The excavation director, Nick Card, described the scale of what they are uncovering to be almost like some of the great classical sites of the Mediterranean, except 2,500 years earlier. He had me at “2,500 years earlier”. 

My preference for history is for the really, really ancient kind, like Middle-earth ancient. Like, I want to know what was going on from 10,000 - 2,000 BCE. The city of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey dates back to 10,000 BCE, and the city of Jericho dates back to 9,000 BCE. Both these cities appear to be built upon hills, but that’s just the layers of older cities stacked up on top of each other.

I find it so fascinating that there was 7,000 years of civilization, and by that I mean people living in permanent settlements with cultures based around agriculture, that happened before the so- called “birth of civilization”. There has only been 5,000 years of history between the building of the pyramids and now. That is so much history that we don’t know anything about. Maybe there really were hobbits. Who knows?

All high fantasy seems to take place in this mythological past, this alternate- universe- ancient world, but there really was another ancient world. Think of all the stories and battles and people we’ve never heard of. Imagine Westeros forgotten.

So when I read about the Ness of Brogdar, this epicenter of Neolithic British culture dating back to 3,300 BCE, I had to see it, and all the chambered cairns and stone circles and Viking feasting halls too. They say, “turn a rock over and you’re likely to find a new site.” Maybe that’s why there are no trees here — too much ancient history under the ground. 

I’ll be posting daily and in a Scottish accent.