The Neolithic

Neolithic Orkney

Maeshowe interior. (Jim Richardson)
The interior of the Maeshowe chambered cairn. Stenness, Orkney. (📷 Jim Richardson)
“What was the Neolithic? It was a matter of new resources, among them pottery, polished stone tools and domesticated plants and animals.”
Professor Mark Edmonds. Orcadia.

In Britain and Ireland, the Neolithic was the period between around 4000BC and 2500BC that saw the widespread adoption of agriculture.

Introduced from Europe, the Neolithic “package” contained more than the domesticated animals and crops that came with farming and included pottery, new stone tools and monument building.

How this new technology reached, and spread through, Britain and Ireland has been the subject of much debate. Was it the adoption of farming by the native Mesolithic population, who had encountered it on forays to continental Europe, or the result of an influx of migrants?

An analysis of ancient DNA in 2019 suggested that most of Britain’s hunter-gatherer population was replaced by European farmers. But it could not explain the circumstances. It may be that the Mesolithic population was small and mixed with the newly arrived farmers, meaning the hunter-gatherers left little genetic legacy overall.

However it arrived, and from where, the spread of agriculture was not instantaneous. First reaching Britain in the centuries around 4000BC, it took centuries for farming and its trappings to disseminate to all corners of the isles.

The Ring of Brodgar (Jim Richardson)
The Ring of Brodgar (📷 Jim Richardson)

The first farmers

The Knap of Howar – an Early Neolithic farmstead dating to around 3300BC. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Until recently, the earliest evidence of Neolithic activity in Orkney came from the island of Papa Westray.

There, a pair of stone-built Neolithic structures – the Knap of Howar – were initially dated to around 3600BC, some four centuries after farming arrived in south-east England. This early date earned the Knap of Howar the distinction of being the oldest standing buildings in northern Europe.

More recent redating, however, suggests the buildings were much later, dating to around 3300BC – although they sit on top of earlier occupation evidence from c3500BC.

But although the Knap of Howar might not be as old as once thought, more recent excavations on the Orkney Mainland pushed the arrival of farming in Orkney back to 3700BC.

So, some 300 years after the Neolithic “agricultural package” first reached Britain, groups of farmers had started making their way north, by boat, into Orkney. These people were crossing the Pentland Firth from northern and western Scotland and perhaps Ireland.

At this time Orkney was much as it is today but there were differences.

Although the sea had continued rising throughout the Mesolithic, it only reached its present levels around 2000BC. As such, there were swathes of low-lying land in the Neolithic that are now submerged.

In addition, average temperatures were slightly higher than today. This, together with fertile soils, meant Orkney was ideal for agriculture. It is little wonder that after transporting livestock, seed and new ideas to the islands the farmers flourished.

Despite the importance of agriculture, the people of Neolithic Orkney continued to rely on hunting and gathering – although the nomadic lifestyle of the Mesolithic ceased. The reason for this lay in the nature of farming.

The farmer must, by necessity, stay in one place.

You plough, sow, tend and harvest your fields.

To survive a farmer must invest time and effort into improving the land and being fixed to a plot of land perhaps brought the concept of ownership and a need to mark and maintain boundaries.

Land was no longer just something to pass through but something that represented an individual, family or group.

With this forced attachment to the land came permanent settlements and with those came burial places and monuments.

The Stones of Stenness, a henge monument dating from around 3100BC that lies half a mile from the Ness of Brodgar complex. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Early and Late

House One, Skara Brae.
House One, Skara Brae. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The Neolithic in Orkney is usually divided into two general phases — early and late — each characterised by differing styles of pottery and architecture. There is overlap between the two phases and the transition period is generally considered to have occurred around 3100BC.

The earlier phase seems characterised by round-bottomed ceramics like Unstan Ware, the later phase by Grooved Ware. This phasing is also generally reflected in the architecture of chambered cairns.

In simplistic terms, Orkney-Cromarty cairns are assigned to the early phase, while the Maeshowe-type are later. This scheme is, however, complicated by some cairns exhibiting features from both styles of architecture.

The architectural division is also mirrored in the domestic sphere. The organisation of space within the early Neolithic houses of the Knap of Howar is mirrored in Orkney-Cromarty tombs, with chambers being subdivided by upright slabs, while the layout of Maeshowe-type cairns finds parallels in Grooved Ware settlements such as Skara Brae.

Development within the later Neolithic period is evidenced by subtle changes in house design, applied rather than incised decoration on Grooved Ware pottery and the construction of large ceremonial sites and buildings, such as the Ring of Brodgar, Structure Eight at Barnhouse and Structure Ten at the Ness.

Timber and stone

Early Neolithic house at Stonehall, Firth. (Sigurd Towrie)
Early Neolithic house at Stonehall, Firth. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Until the early years of the 21st century, it was widely accepted that the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney built in stone because this was the only material available.

A treeless landscape today led to the assumption that it was the same in prehistory – a belief bolstered by the fact that evidence of Neolithic stone buildings is, quite literally, everywhere.

Then in 2003, an extensive Neolithic settlement was located at the bottom of Wideford Hill, on the Orkney Mainland, that featured both timber and stone structures. Built around 3600BC – the time of the first Orcadian farmers – these wooden houses were succeeded a few centuries later by stone constructions.

More evidence of Neolithic timber architecture was found, a short distance away, at Smerquoy, as well as on the islands of Wyre and Eday. In addition, it has been suggested that the farmstead at the Knap of Howar was perhaps constructed on the site of an earlier timber building.

So where was this wood coming from?

For decades driftwood was cited as the major source of timber in Neolithic Orkney. But charcoal from the Wideford Hill settlement, together with environmental research in Orkney, confirmed that far from being treeless, pockets of woodland survived until at least 3500BC – and probably later.

On current evidence, it seems Neolithic timber architecture continued in Orkney up until around 3300BC, long after the construction of the first stone-built chambered cairns. This is particularly significant because as far back as 1937, these structures were considered “houses for the dead” — mortuary buildings based on the dwellings of the living. It is now clear, however, that the opposite was the case – it was the Neolithic cairns that influenced the architecture of the stone houses.

Neolithic society

Section of the Ring of Brodgar.
Section of the Ring of Brodgar. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Aspects of the life of Orkney’s Neolithic farmers can be gleaned from the remains of their houses and monuments as well as materials such as pottery, tools and refuse.

The monumental chambered cairns provide tantalising glimpses of a complex belief system while excavation of their dwellings give insights into the domestic lives of the first farming communities.

At the Knap of Howar, for example, the bones of domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs were found alongside those of wild deer, whales, birds, fish and seals, and evidence for cereal production

But although our knowledge of the period has advanced greatly in the past three decades, many questions remain, some of which can never be answered fully. We can, however, make suggestions based on the archaeological evidence available.

The nature of Neolithic society is a case in point and has been much debated since the early decades of the 20th century. The similar layout of the Skara Brae houses, for example, prompted an egalitarian vision of life in which no one person or family was more important than another.

Maeshowe. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Another theory, decades later, proposed the emergence of a centralised Orcadian “chiefdom”. It suggested the small farming communities developed into larger units led by a ruling elite with enough authority and resources to bring people together solely to raise monumental constructions such as the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar.

More recently it was suggested that different groups came together and co-operated in the construction of monuments. This idea of disparate communities was expanded upon in 2017 following a major re-evaluation of Orcadian Neolithic radiocarbon dates.

It proposed that Neolithic Orkney was a volatile place in which society was caught up in an unsustainable and ultimately self-destructive quest for prestige, social status and influence.

Key to this theory are the notions of ancestral links and descent, with the scramble for social standing manifested through the construction of highly visible monuments.

This not only saw the creation of increasingly large and elaborate stalled cairns but elements of Irish passage grave architecture imported as communities across Orkney sought to outdo each other.

The result, suggest the authors, was a highly competitive and unstable society – one that eventually collapsed.

On current evidence, it is difficult to dismiss a move away from nucleated settlements around 2500BC, whether due to a societal breakdown or other reasons.

It was around this point that Structure Ten at the Ness saw its last flurry of activity before being consigned to history.

Something had changed in Orkney and that change may be related to the arrival of metalworking in Britain and new networks established that relegated Orkney to a peripheral position.

Skara Brae, Sandwick. (Sigurd Towrie)
Skara Brae, Sandwick. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Further reading