The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Surviving Neolithic Landscape

Landscape of the Neolithic

Neolithic Orkney sits in the midst of a magnificent and extensive landscape scattered with archaeological remains from Western Europe’s Neolithic as well as the later period of Orcadian history. The prehistoric people of the Orkney Islands, located in the far north of Scotland, built extraordinary stone monuments for domestic and ritual purposes, all of which are extremely well-preserved. Occupied roughly between 3100-2500 BCE, the Neolithic Orkney grouping of monuments and structures includes six sites: Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, Stones of Stennes, Watch Stone, and Barnhouse Stone.

The Neolithic period in the British Isles is largely characterized by monumental architecture and a strong development of ritual. The grouping of monuments and structures at Neolithic Orkney constitutes a major prehistoric cultural landscape which provides a glance into life 5,000 years ago in this remote archipelago.

Ritual and Domesticity

The stone monuments of Neolithic Orkney give us unique insights into the society, occupation, and spiritual belief system of the people who built them. Juxtaposed at the site are domestic features—such as stone walls, passageways, even beds—and ritual sites like the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar stone circle, and the Stones of Stenness circle and henge.

A pristine example of Neolithic domestic life, the settlement of Skara Brae lies near the dramatic white beach of the Bay of Skaill. Buried over time in sand and uncovered in 1850 by a storm, Skara Brae displays remarkable preservation of stone-built furniture and a diverse range of ritual and domestic artifacts from a now vanished culture.

Maes Howe

Passage graves such as Maes Howe, built around 3000 BCE, were large structures, made from stones ordered to form a passage leading from the outer edge of the mound to the chamber containing the remains of the dead. Whether these graves were meant for the elite or for all the people of the community is still unknown, but the large amount of human and animal bones, pottery and other objects discovered in these mounds testify that they were important social and religious centres. The general orientation of these structures also demonstrates the knowledge of the builders in respect to seasonal movements. The passage of Maes Howe, for example, points close to midwinter sunset and the setting sun of winter solstice shines on its chamber.

Neolithic Ceremony

The two ceremonial stone circles at Orkney are magnificent testimonials to the late Neolithic period. The Stones of Stenness Circle and Henge was built approximately 5400 years ago, with four stones surviving, as well as stone stumps and concrete markers outlining the estimated 30 meter diameter stone enclosure. A large hearth at the center of the circle interior is still visible today, indicating the site's use in ceremony and food preparation. The slightly younger Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge, dating approximately between 2500 and 2000 BCE, is one of the largest and finest stone circles in the British Isles. Surrounded by a circular rock-cut ditch, or henge, the Ring of Brodgar is a large ceremonial enclosure and stone circle representative of the period.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

The grouping of monuments and structures at Orkney were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 under the title, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The inscription recognizes the site’s remarkable testimony to a significant stage of human history and the ingenious amount of engineering required in creating the stone monuments. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a popular tourist destination today, and is one of ten sites digitally documented as part of the Scottish Ten project.


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