Sunday, 22 January 2017

Secrets of Orkney's Ancient Capital

Secrets of Orkney's Ancient Capital

Anyone who watched the BBC mini-series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney
will have had their imaginations captured by the mind-blowing discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar.  Presenters Andy Torbet, Chris Packham, Neil Oliver and Shini Somara investigated the archaeological dig unlocking Orkney’s archaeological secrets.

Archaeologists started uncovering this new discovery in a 2010 dig, and were so amazed at what they’d exposed, that they are still there, seven years later. Brick by brick, bone by bone, they are
Artists impression of the ancient site
revealing a 5500-year-old temple in that could be earlier, and more important, than Stonehenge.

The excavation used geophysics technology to get started,  revealing that there are 100 buildings on the Ness altogether, forming a kind of temple precinct. Some of the buildings are 800 years older than the trilithons at Stonehenge. The entire complex was surrounded by a 10-foot high wall. The Ness has produced decorated and painted stone work unlike any other site. On the walls of the buildings, they’ve found painted symbols; they’d use paint formed by rubbing stone into dust, mostly hematite that creates a lovely red colour. The symbols were zigzag lines, and so these are going to be some of the oldest artworks ever found. It has revealed a well-preserved and sophisticated complex of monumental stone buildings enclosed by walls that are 6 metres thick. Its architecture is unique and it shows evidence for stone-tiled roofing never previously understood.

The team has also found ritually deposited artefacts, including pottery representations of humans, and the remains of a massive feast of BBQ’d beef for perhaps tens of thousands of celebrate, it seemed, the pulling down of the final temple.
The full era of the various temples was as long as the whole of the middle ages at least - some were pulled down and new ones built. The doorways into the buildings were twisted and concealed...all of this does suggest that magic was a major part of the world-view of the Neolithic communities, as the sort of worship that might have gone on in the temples suggest a certain ritual element. This only confirms for me personally, that working with ritual magic nowadays is something that is locked into our DNA and only needs to be re-discovered.

Amazingly…frustratingly, I went to Orkney with Jim, my husband, in 2009. We missed the dig by one year. Even so, ours was a quest to learn more about the ancient pre-history of the islands. 

Our first trip, once we’d unpacked in our Orkney croft, was a drive to the very bottom of South Ronaldsay, to the Tomb of the Eagles, also featured on the BBC programme. This passage grave contained evidence that the burials in the tomb included the bones and feathers of the sea eagle, a bird that was thought extinct in Britain but is now coming back to us.

Set at the edge of the raging sea at a place called Isbister, it’s a remarkable site. The passage grave had been discovered by the farmer of that land while moving stones to use for walling. Suddenly, he was staring at a line of skulls and realised he’d discovered something unique. This was in 1950 – right away, he informed the Ministry of Works. Twenty-five years later, he rang them again, to ask when they were going to come and even look at the remains, let alone excavate the tomb. They said they wouldn’t be long…but ten years later Ronald Simison gave up hope of seeing them and asked a team of student archaeologists if they’d like the job.

Because of this anomaly, the tomb, and the bronze age site discovered later, still belong to Ronald Simison, and he is generous with his discovery. There is a small museum, where visitors are allowed to handle the artefacts. The tomb was packed with grave gifts – bowls, buttons and pins, some food, but mostly remains of sea eagles. We held an eagle’s talon – 5,000 years old and as thick as a toddler’s finger .

Half a mile up the wild coast, under its fur coat of grass, is the tomb itself. To get into the tomb, we had to lie on a modified skateboard and scoot our way in on our stomachs!  In one of the chambers,
four of the skulls are laid out behind a Perspex screen, giving us some idea of the shock Ronald must have had as he harvested stone all those years ago. 25 separate sets of bones (none complete) were found in the tomb, which was used for over 600 years.

The Ness of Brodgar, the thin spit of land where the dig is taking place, links two of the stone circles we saw when we were in Orkney. In the centre of the Stones of Stenness is a square defined by kerbstones. To the east side of the circle is a small ‘cove’ – three waist-high stones. I had no idea what these inclusions are, but then neither did the guide, pontificating to the little crowd of people he’d brought to the site. But he told them (I was lying on my back in the centre square at the time, looking up at the intense blue of the sky), that one night, unable to sleep, he’d come here in heavy mist. He’d got out of the car and become quite disorientated in the mist, not even able to see the stones until up close to them. But when he lay in the square in the centre and gazed up, the stars were clearly visible above him. 

The Neolithic Ring of Brogdar in Orkney 
At the other end of the Ness is the Ring of Brodgar. Originally, 60 massive sandstone monoliths stood in a vast circle between two lochs, surrounded by tumuli. There are still enough standing stones to make the heart skip a beat as one walks slowly round, touching them, listening to them. The centre is filled with the purple of heather and dreamy puffs of cotton grass. Each stone is taller than two men, and have slanting tops as if pointing towards the sky, although this is the natural way the stone breaks, apparently. The sandstone is quarried very thin and has the appearance of wafer biscuits.

All of this is also not far away from Maes Howe, the burial chamber that predates the stone rings, and the stone-built Neolithic village of Skara Brae – you know – the one that has cavity walls, stone beds and even a stone Welsh Dresser! I won’t try to describe Skara Brae physically – everyone’s seen the pictures. Instead, I tried to express what I felt in a poem:

Whether I am in the hills
Hunting boar,
Or on the sea
Hunting fish
Or in the fields
With the barley or the beasts,
When the sun moves down,
I begin to think of Cadd,
Too heavy now with our second child
To stray far from the house.
I think about how the fire will be blazing
Before I reach the outer wall,
How, as we crouch to share out the shellfish catch
She will be heating the water and tearing herbs.

The day has been cloudless across the sea.
My face is burnt with sun and wind
My hands chilled as stone.
I stride through the passageway and Nitta comes running,
Grasps my knee, hugs and giggles.
She is the one that swells my heart.

When I went to find a stone for my mattock,
Nitta followed, singing to the flowers,
Gathering purple, yellow and white.
Cadd sat with her and named their gifts –
Which plants ease pain, which brings up a fever.
She spoke them after, like an echo of the cliffs,
With such clear intent 
It brought more water to my eyes
Than the passing of the Old One
Five moons ago.

The sun will go down red tonight,
As if bleeding into the hills.
After the fish is baked on the stones of the fire
And we are warm and replete,
I will take Cadd out.
We will lie on the soft heather and stare at the sky.
I will tell her the stars 
Are like the flowers of the land.
Both are scattered and purposeful and named.
And when she speaks them in her voice,
High as a bone pipe,
I will not mind if water comes again to my eyes

The Dig will go on, and every year amazing and exciting artefacts are revealed, and our understanding of early man widens. But excavation on this scale is expensive. Each season in the field costs over £100,000. You can donate here,

No comments:

Post a Comment