Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Cultures are changed by the resources they have available. Whatever journey you make, wherever you go, you can, at a glance, see the materials that people have been able to make use of.
Houses, for example, require a lot of sound, structural material. On my current lecture cruise, we began in Bergen; the hills are full of forests and, as a result, the towns are full of wooden houses. And the Stave Churches were completely made of wood. Grieg’s house is a wooden delight too.
The Hanseatic League that traded here, did so from their warehouses that lean precariously against each other, each hauling their wares up into the covered hatches. The strong ‘heel’ of the trees support the beams and wood was not only strong, but plentiful. The danger, of course, is fire; so only one building, separate from the others, was allowed to have the kitchen and warming hearth …
Wood continued to be the prime building material in Norway. Why would you not, when strong mountain trees are all around you, supplying you with good, straight timbers?
Having sailed the North Sea to Shetland, trees are very evidently in short supply here. Windswept, the rolling landscape provided peat, not wood, for burning. And the town of Lerwick in recent centuries and the ancient structures of the great archaeological site, Jarlshof, boast stone-built homes.
At Jarlshof you can stand looking down to your left at the beach rocks and the sloping bedding rocks which have been used in the buildings to your right since 5,000 years ago. It’s a welcoming location for settlement; a combination of fresh water supply, a gentle neck of land providing access to the sea on the east and the west (avoiding having to sail around the treacherous currents around the southern rocky tip of Sumburgh) and a ready supply of building material.
Head further south to Orkney, and the same is true. Skara Brae, the Neolithic village built before 3,000 BC, survives for us to visit and study precisely because it is built in stone. Organic, wooden structures rarely survive, just as the organic goodies that these folk must have owned, have perished. But the basic hardware of the homes, the beds, the hearths, the grinding stones and storage boxes, the ‘dressers’ (likely altars/shrines) and the handy niches and even drains, all remain.
As do the monumental megaliths (‘great’ ‘stones’) that these people built at and around the Ness of Brodgar, in the centre of the island. Those bedding rocks split to create slabs that are several metres long. The effort and intentionality of bringing these remarkable stones to sites such as the Stones of Stenness and the later, larger Ring of Brodgar (and other sites) is clear. Their actual use is less clear but must have been many and varied. So it is at the Ness of Brodgar where sacred (certainly not domestic) spaces were built and used over a 1,000-year span. Tombs litter Orkney, all constructed beautifully with stone.
It is clear that, whatever your local material, that is what you become skilled at using, and it becomes a celebration of your culture. Norway’s wooden buildings created the world the traders lived and worked in and the home Grieg wrote his symphonies in and the buildings that house and greet folk today. In Shetland and Orkney, stone has been the tactile world of people since the first permanent homes were built on these islands. It has housed the farmers and fishermen of prehistory, and built the great Cathedral of St. Magnus in Kirkwall that has resounded to Christian songs of faith for 1,000 years.
Resources shape us and our lives. And, combined with the goodies we trade far and wide for (which is another story …), they always have.