zaterdag 4 februari 2012

UK, Heart of Neolithic Orkney

The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites. The group constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which gives a graphic depiction of life in this remote archipelago in the far north of Scotland some 5,000 years ago.


The monuments of Orkney bear unique or exceptional testimony to an important indigenous cultural tradition which flourished over 500-1,000 years but disappeared by about 2000 BC. They are an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape which illustrates a significant stage of human history, during which the first large ceremonial monuments were built. They are testimony to the cultural achievements of the Neolithic peoples of northern Europe, during the period 3000-2000 BC.
The Orkney Islands lie 15 km north of the coast of Scotland. The island of Mainland is the largest in the archipelago. The Brodgar Rural Conservation Area lies around an isthmus dividing the Loch of Harray to the east and the Loch of Stenness to the west; it includes the sites of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae is on the west coast of Mainland on the southern edge of the Bay of Skaill. It was covered by an immense sand dune until 1850.
The Neolithic period in the British Isles is mostly characterized by monumental architecture and a strong development of ritual. Collective burials and ceremonial enclosures appear, revealing a more complex social structure and a mobilization of the efforts of a large number of individuals towards a common goal. Passage graves such as Maes Howe, built around 3000 BC, were large structures, made from stones ordered to form a passage leading from the outer edge of the mound to the chamber containing the remains of the dead. The large amount of human and animal bones, pottery and other objects discovered in these mounds testify that they were important social and religious centres. The general orientation of these structures also demonstrates the knowledge of the builders in respect to seasonal movements. In the same area, a Neolithic village of stone-built houses connected by passages was discovered and excavated.
The house styles vary according to the different periods of occupation, but the basic components of the interior remain the same: beds to either side and built into the walls, central hearth and dresser, also in stone, in the back. Activities include cattle and sheep herding, fishing and cereal farming, all characteristic of Neolithic communities. There is an evidence for ritual reuse of the religious sites in the early Iron Age, suggested by the presence of pottery in pits.
In the mid-12th century AD, Norsemen and Viking crusaders set foot on the islands. Carved runes on the stones of the main chamber of Maes Howe testify to their presence at that time. The site, quite isolated, is at the present time sited within what is essentially a pastoral landscape.
When it was built 5,000 years ago, the settlement of Skara Brae was further from the sea than it is now, as the sea level was much higher then. The settlement was abandoned some 600 years after it was built, and most of the houses were emptied of their contents. The first written reference to the Ring of Brodgar dates from 1529. The Stones of Stenness were first recorded in 1700. The Norse runic inscriptions at Maes Howe were first recorded in 1862. In the mid-19th century the remains of Skara Brae were revealed when the overlying sand was swept away by a violent storm, and some clearance work took place in 1913. In 1924 a protective breakwater was built. Some restoration work was carried out, respecting the principles of anastylosis as later defined by the Venice Charter (1964), at the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.
Maes Howe is a Neolithic masterpiece, an exceptionally early architectural accomplishment. With its almost classical strength and simplicity it is a unique survival from 5,000 years ago. It is an expression of genius within a group of people whose other tombs were claustrophobic chambers in smaller mounds. Stenness is a unique and early expression of the ritual customs of the people who buried their dead in tombs like Maes Howe and lived in settlements like Skara Brae. The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring. Skara Brae has particularly rich surviving remains. It displays remarkable preservation of stone-built furniture and a fine range of ritual and domestic artefacts, which together demonstrate the domestic, ritual, and burial practices of a now vanished 5,000-year-old culture with exceptional completeness.

Historical Description

The Neolithic period in the British Isles is mostly characterized by monumental architecture and a strong development of ritual. Collective burials and ceremonial enclosures appear, revealing a more complex social structure and a mobilization of the efforts of a large number of individuals towards a common goal.
Passage graves such as Maes Howe, built around 3000 BC, were large structures, made of stones ordered to form a passage leading from the outer edge of the mound to the chamber containing the remains of the dead. Whether these graves were meant for the elite or for all the people of the community is still not proven by the specialists, but the large amount of human and animal bones, pottery and other objects discovered in these mounds testify that they were important social and religious centres. The general orientation of these structures also demonstrate the knowledge of the builders in respect to seasonal movements. The passage of Maes Howe, for example, points close to midwinter sunset and the setting sun of winter solstice shines on its chamber.
The Ring of Brogar, a true circle formed by sixty tall standing stones with an outer ditch in circular form, also seems to have served the purpose of observing solar and lunar events, although conclusive evidence has not yet been brought forth by scientists.
In the same area, a Neolithic village of stone-built houses connected by passages was discovered and excavated. The earliest settlement started around 3100 BC. The site was then occupied for some 600 years. The buildings visible today are dated between 2900 and 2600 BC. The house styles vary according to the different periods of occupation, but the basic components of the interior remain the same: beds to either side and built into the walls, central hearth, and dresser, also in stone, in the back. Activities include cattle and sheep herding, fishing, and cereal farming, all characteristic of Neolithic communities. This site also has evidence for ritual activity, closely interlinked with domestic activities, which is demonstrated by the presence of scratched shapes close to doors and divisions in the passages connecting the houses, caches of beads and pendants, and buried individuals inside some houses.
The structures of Orkney were built during the period extending from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. There is evidence for ritual re-use of the religious sites in the Early Iron Age, suggested by the presence of pottery in pits. The settlements, however, had a fairly short life span of about 600 years.
In the mid 12th century AD, Norsemen and Viking crusaders set foot on the islands. Carved runes on the stones of the main chamber of Maes Howe testify to their presence at that time. The site, quite isolated, is at the present time sited within what is essentially a pastoral landscape.


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