The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

A Voyage into the Neolithic

Cruises can take you to many destinations (all without having to keep packing and unpacking!).  But one of the great joys of such a voyage is to travel back in time.  Recent cruises (with Smithsonian Journeys) have led our guests and myself back over 5,000 years to the great prehistoric sites of Orkney and Shetland.  We have sailed through the Neolithic, into the Bronze Age and on through the Iron Age and Pictish era to the raiding and settling Vikings.  We have enjoyed the castles and stories of the medieval period and the thrill of the age of Steam.

Humans are explorers.  Now and long ago.  Once we know that an island or a land we previously didn’t know about exists, we find a way to get there.  We still do this today; we’ve been to the moon, and manned spaceships to Mars are now being discussed.  So it should be no surprise that humans sailed to Orkney perhaps as early as 9,000 years ago.  That’s the earliest dating evidence (so far) from the science of archaeology at the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney.  But what of the upstanding evidence we can visit and see?  That was Skara Brae, the Neolithic village that dates back to before 3,000 BC.

At Skara Brae we can see the covered winding ‘street’  between the houses – a warm and welcome respite from the weather blowing in from the Atlantic.  The houses are cosy, with a ‘dresser’ (now considered a household altar) facing the door, lined pits to store fresh seafood, a central hearth bringing light and warmth, and beds, once lined with comfortable furs.  There are even indoor toilets – alcoves that have running water channelled beneath them.    As we gaze down into these homes, once buried by sand dunes until a storm uncovered them in the 1850s, the millennia fade away.  The chatter of children, stories by the fire in the long winters’ evenings, the crackling of the fire and the smell of the smoke can all be imagined.  These were people like us; they simply had different technology (stone, not metals or plastics or electronics).

They were amongst the first farmers to settle down; their homes (as far as we’ve found) are roughly identical.  The power elite and hierarchies of the Bronze Age had not yet evolved.  Their ceremonial and spiritual lives were lived both at home (those ‘dressers’/altars) and at the great stone circles that litter the nearby Ness of Brodgar.

The Ring of Brodgar is the largest circle here (and the third largest in the world).  Its stones were brought from around the islands of Orkney, each community celebrating, probably competing, and worshipping together at this communal site.  Few clues survive, except for the stones themselves, staring out over the deep rock-cut ditch surrounding them at their origins and looking in at the gathered communities.

Also, within sight, just down the , is the Ness of Brodgar.  The ongoing excavations at this ritual site (no settlement here!) are changing our view of the Neolithic.  A special site since 7,000 BC (at least), great stone ‘temples’ were built with massive walls, beautiful paving, pecked and shaped stones and great architecture.  Stone tiles roofed at least one of the huge buildings.  This site was a major centre for an astonishing 1,000 years.

One building aligns with the winter solstice and Maes Howe, the stunning chambered tomb further down the road.  Tombs such as this burial mound were the homes of the dead.  Orkney is full of such tombs, of varying types – chambered, stalled and hybrid ones – marking the landscape as permanent homes for generations.  The farmers were here to stay.

As we sailed on, we could visit the future generations of mankind on Shetland.  Here, the sparse stone remains of Neolithic homes set into the ancient shellfish middens (rubbish dumps) rub alongside the later Bronze Age houses (2,500 BC – 800 BC).  Now they built separate chambers around the central hearth, and the bronze smelting moulds found here provide excellent evidence for the axes, daggers and swords made here.

Then, enlarged Iron Age houses were built, with their underground chambers (for storage or safety?).  Great brochs rose into the sky, with windowless, thick, double-skinned walls that still remain a mystery; were they defence, status, watchtowers, or all three?

And, while England was ruled by the Romans, the Picts lived here, building their wheelhouses, a variation on brochs – great spurs lead in towards the central hearth and the little cubbyholes are corbelled over with stone.  It’s safe, windowless (again) and you either feel cosy or claustrophobic in them!

Jarlshof is remarkable for having evidence of every age within its very small confines.  Half of it though stretches out into a Viking village.  The  longhouses run at angles to each other and are set back from the prehistoric features.


With a medieval house and bere barley kilns too, and the ruins of the Earl’s House of AD 1600 providing a great vantage point, Jarlshof  is an archaeological jewel.  Combined with Orkney’s Neolithic wonders, and you have destinations that take you through history and into people’s lives centuries and millennia ago.

One comment on “A Voyage into the Neolithic

  1. Patrick Byrne
    June 22, 2018

    Will look forward to future posts!


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