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 Location: Mainland Orkneys, Scotland.  Grid Reference: 59° 00' N. 3° 00' W.

 

      The Orkneys: (Megalithic Complex).

The Orkneys complex has been seen for a long time as a separate cluster of megaliths. However, it is now realised that several of the megalithic sites are connected, forming a prehistoric ceremonial landscape.

The stark landscape of the Islands also offers a unique backdrop for these beautifully constructed sites, against which they take on an ethereal quality, as the builders must have been aware.

(Click here for Orkneys map)

 

 

   The Orkneys Complex:

There are several prominent megalithic sites on the Orkney Islands. The availability of such good quality local stone gave these megaliths a unique quality which still remains today. Until now there has been little solid evidence for dating the sites. This year (2008), Renfew's 1973 trenches were re-opened at Brodgar, and a series of samples have been sent for radio-carbon dating (4). We await the results.

 

Who were the builders of the Orkneys megaliths?

It is suggested that because the the two stone circles have henges that were dug from the living rock, that the builders may have introduced this technique from elsewhere, such as England where vast henges were dug, but usually into soil.

The Neolithic immigration of the Orkneys began around 3,500 BC.

There are several features of the primary Orkneys megaliths which have similarities to other Megalithic structures from further south in Europe (i.e. Ireland, England, France), with all have similarly orientated passage-mounds, Henges, Stone-circles suggestive of astronomical observation. Also the structures themselves show strong cultural similarities through art, technique and design. At present, these people are commonly referred to as the 'Beaker-people', or 'Boat people' from the Neolithic period. A trend for migration along the western coast of Atlantic Europe can be seen from southern to northern with the Orkney complex representing the northerly most example of socio-astro-religious civil-scale constructions.

Recent archaeology at the 'Ness' of Brodgar have revealed that the Orkneys placement of the monuments into the landscape shares similarities with the 'ritual' landscape at Stonehenge. It has been proposed by archaeologist Mike Pearson that the landscape represents the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Suggestions that the Neolithic megalith builders were closely connected with the Irish passage mound builders, for example can be seen through the art, construction and preference for orientation.

This beautiful mace-head (right), was found at Knowth. The flint itself comes from the Orkney islands, which are by no means the nearest source of flint to the Boyne valley. It is one of several clues that testify to a cultural exchange between these two important megalithic complexes, along with the style of art, exterior and interior similarities in design of the passage mounds (Maes Howe) and a strong astronomical theme underlying the development of the structures. 

(Prehistoric Irish/Scottish/French connections).

 

 

   Featured Locations:
 

Maes Howe Passage Mound:

Maes Howe was carefully constructed to allow the winter solstice sunlight to enter the passage, entering the inner chamber for several minutes only each year. The sun shines into the chamber for a few minutes each year before it passes behind the Hill of Howe, re-appearing for another few minutes before setting between the two hills.

Meas Howe should not be viewed as an independent structure. It was an integral part of the prehistoric landscape, as the photo above illustrates. The whole area can be seen as an outdoor ceremonial arena, with the ever-present Hills of Hoy in the background receiving the midwinter sun and marking the new year.

(More about Maes Howe)

 
 

Stones of Stenness

View from Stennes across the artificial causeway. Although it is difficult to see, the 'Watch-stone', the 'Ness' of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar are all visible in this photo.

(Watch-stone between centre and right stones, Brodgar left of left-hand stone)

There were once two 'watch-stones' at the entrance to the causeway and archaeologists are currently in the process of uncovering the complex between across the causeway, believed to have once been a 'ceremonial' walled complex separating the sites.

(More about the Stones of Stennes)

 
 

The Ness of Brodgar.

This walled enclosure is currently being revealed by archaeologists. It separates the Stones of Stenness from the Ring of Brodgar making it essential part of the landscape. It is now realised that the site is composed of as many as 100 structures, with several vast, complex, and beautifully constructed buildings)

(More about the Ness of Brodgar)

 
 

The Ring of Brodgar.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkneys.

From the centre of this, the second largest circle in Britain, it can be seen how a mound was deliberately built at the same place the sun set behinds the left-hand Hill of Hoy on the winter solstice. This attempt to replicate the horizon can be seen in several other megalithic sites in Scotland where it is also generally associated with astronomical observation.

(More about the Ring of Brodgar)

 
 

Skara Brae: A Priestly centre?

Skara Brae was built by the coast, in a beautiful bay facing the setting sun. The 'village' lies in line with the great circles of Bookam, Brodgar and Stennes which are now realised to have been part of a ceremonial route, through what must have seemed a most sacred landscape through Neolithic eyes. The position of Skara Brae at the end of such a significant grouping of monuments combined with discoveries inside offers the possibility that the structures (and inhabitants) may have even been a part of the ceremonial process.

Skara Brae, Orkneys.

The overall layout of Skara Brae has several design factors which suggest a specialised function, such as  'workshops', a room lockable only from the outside..?? and the discovery of several hoards of precious items hidden in the walls of the chambers (such as 2,400 inscribed beads and pendants in one find alone).

(More about Skara Brae)

 

 

   Archaeoastronomy on the Orkneys:

At the latitude of the Orkneys the major lunar standstills north becomes almost circumpolar, (neither rising nor setting - with the effect that the moon 'rolls' along the horizon). Because the Earth’s axial tilt has changed by nearly half a degree since the majority of the stone circles were built, this effect is no longer accurate and the latitude today would have to be 63° north for a lunar standstill north to be truly circumpolar (5), while a truly circumpolar Moon would have been visible on the Orkneys at around 3,500 BC.

Maes Howe: The entrance to the Maes-Howe passage-mound is orientated towards the setting winter solstice sun behind the prominent Hills of Hoy in the distance. The chamber was placed so that for several days before and after the winter solstice, the sunlight flashes directly into the passage not once, but twice, with a break of several minutes between each illumination.

The passage is aligned facing Southwest, facing Ward Hill. For 20 days before the solstice and for 20 days after the solstice, the sun shines into the chamber twice a day. Every 8 years Venus causes a double flash of light to enter the chamber. This last happened in 1996 and will happen again in 2004. “At around 2.35 p.m. on the winter solstice, the sun shines on the back of the chamber for 17 minutes, and then sets at 3.20 p.m. At 5.00 p.m. the light of Venus enters the first slot, lighting the chamber, and then at 5.15 p.m. it sets behind Ward Hill. But 15 minutes after its first setting, Venus reappears beyond Ward Hill, and the light enters the chamber for a further two minutes, before setting for a second and last time”. (16).

 

 

   Geometry on the Orkneys:

A series of measurements and alignments have been taken which connect the Maes Howe Tumulus with the Ring of Brodgar revealing a common unit of measurement.

In a direction 60° south from the centre of the Ring of Brodgar at a distance of 63 chains is the 'Watchstone' (18ft high), 42 to 43 chains further on in the same line is the 'Barnstone', (15 ft high). At the same distance of 42 or 43 chains to the north-east of the Barnstone is the tumulus of Maes Howe.

The Ring of Brodgar is a stone-circle which originally consisted of 60 equally spaced megaliths. The Stones of Stennes was originally a stone-circle consisting of 12 equally spaced stones. The numbers of stones used for the circles is suggestive of base-6 mathematics, the same base upon which all time and space was measured in the ancient middle-east

Burl makes note of the 'mistaken coincidence' in connection with this fact. He says of it:

'From Brodgar, where there was once 60 stones, to the Stripple stones with a probable thirty, the builders may have counted in multiples of six. Stennes had twelve. The inner and outer rings at Balfarg have been computed at twenty-four and twelve respectively. Twenty-four has been suggested for Cairnpappel, thirty-six for Arbor Low, and the same number for the devils quoits'. (3)

Avebury geometry

Thom radically suggested that geometry was used in the design of certain prehistoric sites. He surveyed hundreds of European megaliths and concluded that fundamental mathematic principles, based upon a common unit of measurement (which he called the megalithic yard), had been applied in the design of certain sites. As the megalithic tradition in Europe can be traced back to at least 4,000 BC, if not earlier still, his work is still not accepted by most archaeologists, although such a strong presence of geometry should not be ignored, as is clearly suggests that the design of many sacred sites seems to have been based on a sophisticated philosophy of sacred science such as was taught centuries later by the Pythagorean school.  As Professor Thom observes in his book Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967):

 

It is remarkable that one thousand years before the earliest mathematicians of classical Greece, people in these islands not only had a practical knowledge of geometry and were capable of setting out elaborate geometrical designs but could also set out ellipses based on the Pythagorean triangles.”

(More about prehistoric geometry)

 

 

   Comparisons with other European Complexes:

There are several noticeable similarities between the megalithic structures of the Orkneys, and those found at other contemporary European complexes. In particular, there are some distinct examples of art and design which appear common to the Irish passage mounds, such as those of the Boyne Valley. The discovery at Knowth of a stone axe-head from the Orkneys confirms this relationship.

There are several fundamental similarities between the Orkneys 'ceremonial' complex and other contemporary complexes along the western Atlantic coast. In particular, the Orkneys provides a perfect example of the two essential components of many complexes; a prominent mound and circle in close proximity to each other. The mound, which can be seen as the 'primal hill', is often realised in the form of a passage mound although regional variations exist such as at Avebury/Silbury. 

On the Orkneys, the monuments were constructed so as to merge with the landscape, in such a way that the stones compliment their backgrounds. The same sensitivity is seen at other megalithic sites, but nowhere is it realised quite so well as on the Orkneys. The creation of these large-scale civil constructions represents a form of higher communication between ourselves and the universe we live in. Their intimate connection with the living landscape into which we place them connects us to the earth, and their invariable orientation towards Solar and Lunar events brings us into time, with the visibly beating heart of the universe.

 

Other Similarities:

Both Gavr'inis in France and Newgrange in Ireland were built at around the same time as Orkneys monuments (c. 3,100 BC). Along with Maes Howe, they all have their passages aligned to mark the winter solstice. (Close to the Moons eastern major standstill). This single alignment offers the potential for the realisation of the Metonic cycle.

(More about Prehistoric Astronomy)

 

As well as astronomical orientation, the Maes Howe passage mound has several specific construction features which are common with other European passage mounds, such as their rounded shape, lowered passageway with raised internal chambers, cruciform chambers, stone libation bowls and an absence of contemporary funerary remains.

The theme of a Mound and Circle together is also repeated at Neolithic Complexes across Europe.

(Similarities Between European Passage Mounds)

 

The interior floor-level of both Gavr'inis and Newgrange were raised towards the centres. At Newgrange, the upwards-sloping passage narrows the beam of light into a thin strip. In fact, the only light that would have originally been able to enter the internal chambers would have come through the 'light-box', above the passage entrance. Light-boxes are a megalithic construction feature that have so far only been recorded at three (possibly four) sites in the UK, with two in Ireland (Newgrange and Carrowkeel - see below) both having the same design, and the other two on the Orkneys in Scotland. This particular connection is very specific.

(More about Light-boxes)  

 

Spiral Art.

The 'Westray Stone', from Pierowall (left). The Eday Manse stone, Isle of Eday. (right).

Bugibba, Malta, (Left), Newgrange, Ireland (right).

(More about Spirals)

(Stenness)   (Brodgar)   (Maes Howe)   (Ness of Brodgar)   (Skara Brae)

(Neolithic Complexes: Similarities between European Sites)

(Sacred Landscapes)

(Other Scottish Sites)

 

 

References:

1). D. Zink. The Ancient Stones Speak. Muson Books. 1979.
2). A. Service and J. Bradbury. Megaliths  and their Mysteries. 1979. Macmillan Publ.
3). Burl. A. Prehistoric Henges. 1997. Shire publ.
4). www.24hourmuseum.org.uk
5). http://www.astrocal.co.uk/lunarstandstills.html
6). Trevor Garnham. Lines on the Landscape, Circles from the Sky, Monuments of the Orkneys. Tempus. 2004.
16). C. Knight & R. Lomas. Uriel’s Machine. Century. 1999.

 

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