My summer travels have included visits to three major archaeological sites which have all been awarded World Heritage listing.
A trip to the Orkneys gave me the opportunity to visit Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. Skara Brae was revealed in 1850 when a wild storm uncovered what is now recognised as the best preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe. Inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built and flourishing many centuries before construction began at Stonehenge, Skara Brae is around 5000 years old.
The structures of this semi-subterranean village are remarkably well preserved, as is the furniture of its houses. The stone built houses with their connecting passage ways would once have been covered with roofing made of timber or whale bone, the roofs themselves probably being made of turf. One can see beds, dressers – the equivalent of today’s mantelpiece or sideboard where a family’s prized possessions would have been displayed – hearths, cupboards, alcoves and storage areas which were all, like the structures’ walls, made of the easily worked local flagstone [see photos]. Evidence has also been found there which provide an idea of their farming, fishing and leisure pursuits.
The Ring of Brodgar is an impressive Neolithic henge and stone circle also on Mainland Orkney. Most henges don’t contain stone circles: Brodgar ranks along with Avebury and Stonehenge as among the greatest of such sites. The ring of stones, standing on a small isthmus between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, is the northernmost example of circle henges in Britain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The ring originally comprised 60 stones, of which only 27 remained standing at the end of the 20th century [see photo]. The immediate environs reveals a concentration of ancient sites – circle-henges, chambered tombs, groups of standing stones, single stones, barrows, cairns and mounds – making a significant ritual landscape. One cannot fail to be moved by the triumphs of the human spirit demonstrated in early ages and isolated places in these two outstanding Orkneys monuments.
In July, I joined a party from the Thames Valley Dowsers which had a permit to enter the very circle of Stonehenge itself after the more restricted public access had finished. (I remember how one could once walk in among stone circles at no cost and with no barriers, as is still the case at Avebury.) We also viewed Woodhenge and, as I write this, news has broken of the discovery of another wooden, henge-like late Neolithic monument that appears to be aligned with Stonehenge itself. It joins a growing complex of tombs and mysterious Neolithic structures found across the area. Last year, researchers discovered a small prehistoric circle of stones on the banks of the nearby River Avon. Experts speculated that this stone circle – dubbed “Bluehenge” because it was built with Prescelli Mountain bluestones – may have served as the starting point of a processional walk that began at the river and ended at Stonehenge. Such continuing discoveries remind us that this World Heritage site, probably the most complex ceremonial landscape in Europe, is still yielding up its secrets.
by Jeff Griffiths