We did indeed pay for the good weather yesterday. I thought we’d got away with it at first – the morning was overcast, but not too dark – and we were only going a short way, eh, to a bunch of talks on the various big, famous structures round Stenness. So it turned out neither of us put on All the clothes like we did yesterday, and it turned out that was an error. The first raindrops hit the windscreen just as we pulled up at the Stenness stones (half an hour early) and within five minutes there was a biting gale and we were getting hammered by the rain. We did meet some nice foreign people as we all tried to shelter behind the same standing stone (and failed miserably). Note to self: just dress for the worst, like at home.
had gloves. God, I was envious of the gloves. It’s summer.)
talk was really good, actually, and I suppose the awful pelting added
to the ambience. Someone did ask if the Neolithic folks had this sort
of weather to contend with and the tour guy assured us that Orkney
was actually a few degrees warmer back then – and that we’re at
latitude 59 degrees, the same as where the Hudson freezes a metre
deep in winter, and as Moscow, but it doesn’t get anything like
We don’t know anything, the guide kept telling us. We think the Barnhouse Settlement behind the Stenness stones is to do with it, what with them being so close, the same age, orientated together and the hearth in the middle of the stones appearing to be from there, but that’s not the same thing as proof. We think the same people built Maeshowe, and indeed Stenness is orientated towards it, and we think the beds are so small because they all slept sitting up and huddled against each other for warmth because that was probably a massive priority (eep!)
the other hand, they obviously had the leisure to hack out a great
big henge four metres wide and two deep, right out of the rock (the G
Monster pointed out that it’s ‘only sandstone’, aye catch me
doing that without metal tools; he also says me hacking out a smaller
area for a retaining wall with a pickaxe will be impossible). Then
they hauled stones weighing several tonnes apiece overland for at
least eight miles, probably without the aid of wooden rollers since
the islands were scrub trees at that point, although they might have
used seaweed as lubricant.
we are in the pub and the G Monster is telling me they could well
have made roads of ice using buckets of water, if they were patient
and waited for a winter day, and that’s very efficient for moving
big weights along.)
This much is probably true for all the stone circles around here. However! They reckon this one is the very first circle, not just in Orkney but in the whole of the UK and western Europe (it’s 5,100 years old, happy birthday to it). Which might explain why it’s an ellipse. (‘Arg say not bad, but next time, use string’.) It’s a good six hundred years older than the Ring of Brodgar up the road, I think he said, and a lot older than Stonehenge. (He also said they’ve found the bones of cattle raised in Orkney at Stonehenge, so there was a fair amount of moving around back then). Maybe stone circles were invented here partly because the rock cleaves so easily into big, thin slabs (another game you can play while driving around is ‘standing stone or gate post?’) The stones for this circle were brought in from all around, however, each of them aligned in the circle so that their outer surface points back towards where they came from, which makes me wonder if it was a sort of ‘and we all bring a bit and all build it together’ as some kind of kinship affirmation, or ceremonial ‘binding’ of the settlements or something. Hey, your man said since we don’t and cannot know the why, then every theory is true!
(Personally, I would have said ‘every theory is Schröedinger true’ – like, only one (or none, if we’re all way off) is actually true, and just because nobody can ever open the box and find out which doesn’t mean ‘as viable as each other’ = ‘Totes Legit How it Went Down!’ – but then, I’m surprisingly pernickety about that sort of thing, you know, for someone who finds the word ‘trundle’ hilarious.)
Anyway, the stones were cut horizontally out of their beds – apparently we can tell that now – and the upper side faces outwards, while the ‘fresh’ side faces inward; which made me think maybe they were meant to be a huge mouth for eating the sky – remember! This too is totally as true as anything! – but he went on to say one of the notable archaeologists of this place has discovered the stones of the tomb inner walls are also orientated like this, i.e. fresh face in, weathered face out, and he has an exciting new theory that the inner face absorbed the essences of the corpses inside, and then made the bones stronger in return, so the tomb itself became the ancestors, as it were, and the bones were discarded. Which could explain why the living had no problem moving them about and putting them here and there after they were, erm, clean. They weren’t really the ‘resting place’ of the soul anymore, right?
guide did say this chap – Colin Richards, I think he said his name
is and I hope I have that right because I want to look up his work –
is full of off-the-wall ideas. However, he does have a pretty big ace
up his sleeve in terms of being right, because he discovered the
Barnhouse Settlement, back in 1984, I think he said it was. Despite
being right next to the Stenness Stones, nobody knew this was here,
until your man drew a line through from, um, something to something,
possibly Skara Brae to Maeshowe, but I could be making that up, and
then went round all the sites during the spring ploughing, having a
look at what was churned up (pottery shards, vole bones etc –
apparently the Neolithic peeps brought voles and red deer and all
sorts with them, which is pretty damn organised for people who didn’t
have a cruise liner). And was there ever a lot churned up at this
place! So he dug an experimental trench, which the guide helpfully
pointed out on the Barnhouse Settlement map. It was exactly in
between all the houses, along the only possible line which could have
missed them all, so let’s hope he never played Battleship. However,
he dug again and this time discovered the village, which was still a
hundred percent better than anyone else had ever managed.
guide did say, we don’t know anything about what Neolithic people
thought, or believed, and given that there can apparently be enormous
differences in outlooks in different cultures and times; to the
extent that if someone modern had been living in, say, 400 BC China,
it might be impossible for them to think in terms of some modern
concepts (and vice versa) so we will never know whether the Neolithic
peeps even had religion as we understand it. He did say, however,
that they were extremely prone to losing things, given the amount of
really amazing artefacts that had apparently just been put down and
forgotten about, which makes me think about toddlers and their
habits – though, the idea that people who can organise something
like this and have the minds of toddlers is a bit scary, really. Then
again, my abilities at organisation are simultaneously a) ferocious!
at work, and b) involve forgetting to pack socks, so maybe I should
stop while I’m ahead.
G Monster had speculated that this place was so clustered with sites
because of the two freshwater lochs, but we found out the Barnhouse
Settlement predates them – that used to be a marsh, and the sea
broke through some hundreds of years later and flooded the place,
taking out at least part of the village, which must have been quite
traumatic. I suppose wherever it got through closed up again at some
point and the salt… leached out again? (Oh look, something else
that I totally don’t know how it works and should look up).
even though we were soaked through and horribly cold, that was an
hour well spent. Fortunately, the Maeshowe visitor centre had a wee
cafe we could go thaw out in, too, before we took the guided tour to
that. The guided tour is the only way to get to Maeshowe, if anyone
reading this is thinking of going; you go to the visitor centre down
the road, get in a wee bus, trundle for about two minutes and have a
short walk. And do mind out you don’t bang your head on the way in.
The guide for this one said – and I have noticed it at other sites – that the Neolithic people were well into restricting the way into sacred places; aye, look at the avenues to Stonehenge and similar sites, and the henges (the ditch and embankment, it took me ages to realise ‘henge’ does not mean, the big stones with a stone across them) round them. Also, apparently, at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar up the road (currently shut, alas), there is one very big building, with no sign of domestic use, which had a hearth right in the entranceway (Barnhouse) and no less than five hearths in the entranceway (Ness) which… well, it did a good job at restricting access, but nobody knows why.
guy in the party did declare it might be a doorbell, with the person
trying to enter yelling ‘ow! Ow! Ow!’ and the guide laughed and
laughed and said he was stealing it. If you ever go, and hear this
theory, know it was formed on this day, year of our lord etc etc.
I’m pre-ruining the tour spiel, so I’ll knock it off now. The
tour is free, however, and that particular guide was very good, so
I’m glad we went. Even if we were soaked.
– well, about as much is known about that as about the other sites,
i.e. close to eff all. However, it does have a midwinter sunset
alignment – as opposed to Newgrange, which has a midwinter sunrise
alignment – only in Maeshowe’s case, you do have a three-week
window, and at Newgrange I think this is the only day?
for some reason (nobody knows! The mating call of the TV programme
QI) it all got abandoned at some point, until a group of
Vikings, sheltering from a snowstorm – ha the climate must have
changed then – broke in through the roof. Their legend says there
were a hundred of them (the twenty or so of us looked around at this
point, as if trying to imagine how the hell five times our
number fitted) and they were in there for three days. During which
time, they amused themselves carving outlandish Boasts on the walls.
“I am so and so and I carved this using [a famous axe I almost
certainly did not lay hands on and would never have wrecked in such a
way if I had]’ was a typical one, as well as ‘There was all this
treasure and you totally missed it (spoilers, there was probably not
– the Neolithic did not have any metal, including gold or
silver)’ and ‘look at me I am standing on my mate’s shoulders
to carve this higher than anyone’ (it could explain how they all
fitted in, after all). One of them was even a high-ranking woman who
joined in the Boasting (boasting was a Viking Accomplishment, as far
as I can tell from the sagas, there was none of this being all
backward about blowing your own trumpet. Though the Vikings did give
the English language the word ‘shy’, although hell, it might well
have meant ‘someone who did not kick your teeth down your
throat as a greeting’). And there was a tiny, gorgeous dragon
someone had carved, and I like to imagine all the others, once they
had hacked out their biggest and best runes*, being dismayed because
Sven (or whoever) had just quietly and patiently made something
guy’s runes got much smaller as he went up the wall, and then went
sideways, giving a good indication of his height, if nothing else.
mind aflame with all sorts of ideas and failing to fathom five
thousand years, I got back in the car to Skara Brae. Seeing as we had
free entry and high hopes that we might get a seat for lunch. Which
we did. And then, the Ring of Brodgar, though my camera was still all
fogged up from all the changes in hot/cold, wet/slightly moist and I
will have some pretty damn atmospheric pictures, despite the obvious