Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Orkney. This is one of my favourite places on earth. The skies are wide, the scenery peaceful and broad, and the archaeology unique and breath taking.
As we sailed towards these great islands, I had the great honour and pleasure of opening the cruise lectures. My introduction to Neolithic Orkney, a 5,000 year old way of life and death was followed by the distinguished Nick Card, director of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar site. I had enjoyed the privilege of digging at the site last year and it was an immense pleasure to share the lecturing with Nick. The Smithsonian group cocktail party that evening gave us even more opportunities to share even more with our guests as we set sail for Orkney.
The following morning took us to Kirkwall and around the large natural harbour of Skapa Flow that sheltered the fleet in World War II (due that week to honour the Jutland Battle). Then on to the fascinating site of Skara Brae. Our organisers, Gohagan, had organised us so that we avoided the occasional crush of visitors and we headed out to the ancient settlement.
The houses are so intact that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that they really are 5,000 years old. The houses are sunken into the even more ancient middens with discarded sea shells piled high around them (providing excellent insulation against the island’s winds). The houses’ curved corners draw your attention into the single room, dominated by the dresser. Or maybe this is a shrine to household gods – a proposal by Nick that I very much like.
Low lintels cover the door which faces out to the winding narrow covered streets which effectively and totally block out the strong winds. Some houses have very low entrances to indoor toilets as water flowed out away from the homes here. An Orcadian winter must have been the necessity of invention!
Beds, storage boxes and a central hearth are common features. No home faces out to another’s doorway and holes in the doorways for large bolts show that privacy was valued here. The houses that were revealed by the storms in the mid 1850s are all of a similar size, which indicates an egalitarian approach to life in this 3,000 BC community. Unless, of course, a large chieftain’s house is yet to be discovered out there in the fields and arms of the glorious and inviting sandy bay (which was once a fresh water loch, buffering the village from the open sea beyond.
All the houses we know of follow the same pattern, changing only over time as the beds, once built into the dry stone walls, become free-standing, jutting out into the room. Useful niches were built into the wall and into the bed structure too.
A complex ‘workshop’ nestles in the downwind corner of the site. (Always look for the local industry downwind … no one wants noisy, smelly neighbours and smoke and smells wafting into their homes …). Niches, hearths and working areas once echoed to industrious activity.
We drove on, down to the totally captivating site of Ring of Brodgar … we shall explore this great stone circle in tomorrow’s Blog.