My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology

  Ring of Brodgar, The Neolithic Landscape

The views of the Ring of Brodgar, framed by hills, with lochs on two sides, is very pretty, but it is not the original landsacpe.

(The Ring of Brodgar)

Sure, the hills were there already, but the area of what today is Loch Stenness instead was a marshy bog with pools of water. Makes one wonder how those Neolithic people managed to set the stones up on such tricky ground, but I suppose the spot they chose for the ring may have been less marshy; it is a bit higher even today. That still leaves the problem of transporting heavy boulders across mossy ground, but the Neolithic people must have solved it somehow (timber causeways and such would not leave any traces).

The sea - still rising since the last Ice Age - breached the narrow landbridge about 1500 BC and created the saltwater loch of Stenness. The place where this happened is today the Brig o'Waithe in Stenness. The Ring of Brodgar had been around for at least 500, maybe 1000 years at that point. I wonder if there are silt-covered remains of Neolithic buildings at the bottom of the loch.

The Ring of Brodgar is not the only henge in the area; I've already mentioned the Standing Stones of Stenness a mile to the south-east; but there is another ring north-west of Brodgar, the Ring of Bookan. This one is a massive earthwork with a ditch that surrounds an oval raised platform of 44.5 by 38 metres. The role of that platform is still disputed. It may have housed a cairn, or another set of standing stones. There are some stones within the ditch which could support the theory of both a ring or a chambered cairn, but the size of Bookan connects it with the Stones of Stenness - the area enclosed by the ditch and wall are of similar size.

Ring of Brodgar, some stones with a view towards Loch Harray

There are several solitary standing stones in the area as well, like the Comet Stone east of Brodgar or the Watchstone at the causeway near the village of Stenness. Add to this the settlements of Barnhouse, Skara Brae and Ness of Brodgar as well as the cairn at Maes Howe, and you got a veritable time travel spot into the Neolithicum.

View towards Fresh Knowe

Cairns didn't get out of fashion any time soon. There are several cairns and mounds around the Ring of Brodgar some of which presumably date to the Bronze Age (South Knowe and Plumcake Knowe, where Bronze Age burial cists have been found). Fresh Knowe and Salt Knowe may be Neolithic, the latter with a secondary cist burial in the upper part of the mound.

Another view of some stones

Several of the stones in the Ring of Brodgar are splintered along their crystalline structure and it's not impossible that some of the fallen or missing stones may have lost their stability that way. Most of the stones used in the henges and other buildings derive from the Old Red Sandstone strata (which is not always red), which lends well to the forming of regular-shaped slabs; but limestone was also used.

(One of the splintered stones)

The question arises what exactly was the function of this complex of henges, standing stones, cairns, burial mounds and villages in such a small area (if we add the village of Skara Brae and Unstan Cairn, it's still only some ten miles around).

The Neolithic people living on Orkney 5000 - 3500 years ago were the first to abandon the nomadic lifestyle and built settlements. Building henges of stones that needed to be transported over long distances by boat, or with ropes on timber rolls, took an enormous communal effort that could not have been achieved by just one village. About 80,000 man-hours went into the construction of the Ring of Brodgar alone. It is therefore assumed that there must have been some sort of hierarchial structure where some leaders could persuade people to work together to a common goal, and organise the work.

The Rings of Stenness, Brodgar and Bookan are likely some sort of markers, visible in the landscape. Albeit there is no clear connection with the solar or lunar cycles like in Stonehenge, one can assume that those places served as gathering spots for festivals and rituals. The Neolithic people were able to determine those cycles as Maes Howe with its winter solstice orientation proves. The ditches of the rings and the entrance passage of Maes Howe also mark those sites as special places, likely taboo for most people outside the festivals.

They may also have attracted visitors from all over Orkney. If those people walked along the path from the Stones of Stenness to the Ring of Brodgar, they would have to pass Barnhouse village and the Ness of Brodgar settlement, which should have lent some prominency to those.

Another detail shot

I'll get back to the cairns in another post (since I got extra photo material). They were more than just tombs, though bones have been found in most of them; they were the focal point for gatherings and ceremonies - likely mostly religious - much like churches are today. As such, they had their place besides the stones and henges. Since the active use of cairns survives into the Bronze Age, one may assume that the Ring of Brodgar and other sites may still have had a function then as well.

Against the light

The Ring of Brodgar was first mentioned by Jo Ben, probably a priest or traveling monk, in his Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum in the early 16th century. The first research was done by the archaeologist and painter George Petrie and one Captain Thomas, among others, in the 1850ies, and is still going on today. There is much to discover yet.

Sally Foster: Maes Howe and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Historic Scotland Official Souvenir Guide. 2006
The Orkneya website

  Neolithic Orkney - The Ring of Brodgar

Orkney is rich in Neolithic sites, and the area between the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and Maes Howe in particular so. On the landbridge separating Loch Stenness and Loch Harray, the Ness of Brodgar, a Neolithic settlement is being excavated, with cool new finds popping up almost daily. Those guys and gals must love playing in the mud right now. *grin*

Partial view of the Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar is the most visible and iconic of those Neolithic sites. It makes for splendid photo motives, too; I got too many to cover by one post. So I'll give you some general information about the ring here, with another post about the role of the site in Neolithic Orkney to follow.

Part of the ring seen from outside

The interior of the ring was disturbed by peat harvesting and has never been excavated. Therefore the monument was not scientifically dated, though it is generally assumed the Ring of Brodgar was built between 2500 and 2000 BC, which puts it in the later period of Neolithic activities on the site. The Standing Stones of Stenness on the other side of the causeway are much older: 5400-4500 BC).

Another view

The Ring of Brodgar has a diametre of about 104 metres (340 ft). Only 36 stones remain today, but there may have been as many as sixty stones once. Several of them had fallen and were re-erected in the 19th century. They vary in heigth from 7 feet (2 metres) to 15 feet (15ft 3 in - 4.7 metres) and are thus smaller than the Stones of Stenness. But the ring itself is pretty large and comes third in the British Isles, after Avebury and Stanton Drew. The famous Stonehenge site is actually a bit smaller than the Ring of Brodgar.

The two largest stones

The Ring of Brodgar is enclosed by a rock-cut ditch (10 metres wide and 3.4 m deep) that brings the diametre to 130 metres. It is crossed by two causeways; a smaller on in the south-east, and a 3.4 metres wide one in the north-west. Interestingly, there is no outer bank made of the material from the trench like at other rings. Some of the material may instead have gone into the several mounds that surround the Ring of Brodgar.

Seen from the ditch
(That path in the foreground is not one of the causeways)

As mentioned above, some fallen stones in the Ring of Brodgar had been re-erected by the Edwardian archaeologists who first researched the monument, though some stones still can be found where they fell at some point in time. One of the standing stones was hit by lightning in 1980. It split and part of it crashed to the ground.

The fallen stone

The name of the ring was recorded as 'Broager' in 1563, but the local Orcadian pronounciation always added a 'd' in the middle which has become part of the official spelling in 2004.

Next time we'll look at the Neolithic landscape and culture of the place.

The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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