Solved! The perplexing puzzle of the Stones of Stenness ‘building’

The Standing Stones of Stenness (1906).

The Standing Stones of Stenness (1906).

There’s nothing like finally getting to the bottom of an irksome puzzle. In this case, the puzzle related to an old photograph of the Stones of Stenness (above).

The mystery, however, had nothing to do with the stones themselves but what appeared to be the remains of a building in the background. A building that shouldn’t be there.

The enhanced close-up of the “building” which does indeed show it to be a pile of stones adjacent to at least one of the “dolmen” supports still visible today.

You see, we’d gone over old maps and records to find out more about this building. Nothing. There’s was no sign of it.

There was always something strange about the “building”. The scanned version of the photograph was not very clear but if it did show a ruined croft, the gable end nearest the camera was far too high.

Over to Martin Gray, one of our superb site guides during the summer excavations.

Martin discussed the picture with Pat Long, a font of Stenness – indeed Orcadian – knowledge, who confirmed there was never a building on site.

Instead, Pat suggested that what was visible in the photograph was the pile of stones that would later be re-erected as a dolmen – the “altar stone” – in the centre of the Stones of Stenness.

Back to our archives we went and sure enough, once the original picture was cleaned up in Photoshop it seemed Pat had hit the nail on the head. What had originally looked like the gable was the two supporting stones that still stand today.

And then, the icing on the cake – we found another picture, probably by the same photographer, from almost the same angle but showing the completed dolmen. After superimposing the reconstructed dolmen on the original photograph (see below) we were in no doubt that Pat was completely correct.

The original photograph after some manipulation to bring out the lost detail.

And the original photograph with the dolmen  – from a picture taken a few months later – superimposed.

The dolmen picture also allowed us to roughly date the original photograph, which must have been taken after work began reconstructing the Stones of Stenness in April 1906 but before the dolmen was erected – a task that was completed by August 1906.

But what’s this? Reconstruction work at the Stones of Stenness?

The Standing Stones after the operation to raise the toppled megalith in 1906.

The Standing Stones after the operation to raise the toppled megalith in 1906.

Afraid so. In 1814, a tenant farmer set out to rid his land of the megaliths that were making his life difficult. After destroying the Odin Stone, he turned his attentions to the Stones of Stenness. He toppled one stone and destroyed another before he was stopped.

The miscreant’s actions raised such a public outcry that not only was legal action started, but attempts were made to burn down his house. The court action was dropped after the farmer promised to “desist from his operations”.

In 1906, the Stones of Stenness were taken into state care and between April and August that year the toppled stone was re-erected. While this was being carried out, another, smaller, stone was found under the turf and raised in an existing socket-hole.

The “altar stone” at the Stones of Stenness in 1958, looking out towards the Watchstone and the Brig o’ Brodgar. Incidentally, the mound that now houses Trench T at the Ness excavation is clearly visible in the distance. (https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1873368)

At the same time, the table-like dolmen structure was erected using the stones in the centre of the henge. Although there was no evidence these related to a dolmen, it was tentatively suggested in Barry’s The History of Orkney in 1805 that “the large broad stone now lying on the ground” might have been “raised and supported on pillars”.

By the late 19th century the concept of the Stenness dolmen had become popular. This was no doubt inspired by the musings of Sir Walter Scott, who had visited the Stones of Stenness mere months before the destruction began.

He wrote:

“Mr Rae seems to think the common people have no tradition of the purpose of these stones, but probably he has not enquired particularly. He admits they look upon them with superstitious reverence; and it is evident that those which have fallen down (about half the original number) have been wasted by time, and not demolished.”

With “no tradition of the purpose”, Scott was free to let artistic licence reign when he used the site in his novel, The Pirate:

“[Minna] attained the centre of the circle, on which, in the midst of the tall erect pillars of rude stone that are raised around, lies one flat and prostrate, supported by short stone-pillars, of which some relics are still visible, that had once served, perhaps, the purpose of an altar.”

He took this a step further in his memoirs:

“About the centre of the semi-circle is a broad flat stone, probably once the altar on which human victims were sacrificed.”

Stone setting at the centre of the Stones of Stenness

The remains of the “dolmen” today – two of the supporting “legs” still standing and the “altar” top on the ground. (Sigurd Towrie)

When the time came to “repair” the Stenness stones it seems there was no doubt that there should be a dolmen in the centre. So up it went. Not all agreed, however, with the addition hailed “a modern and wholly fanciful addition” in 1946.

So what happened to the dolmen?

It remained until September 1972, when it was toppled – officially explained away as the result of a drunken prank. Local talk at the time, however, was that the dolmen had no place within the monument.

Stone setting at centre of Stones of Stenness

Stones of Stenness interior. (Sigurd Towrie)

Discussions ensued as to whether the so-called “altar stone” should be replaced because there was no evidence it actually belonged in the ring. An excavation to find out whether there was any proof of the dolmen’s place in prehistory was inconclusive – but did confirm that some form of stone feature had existed.

Because the nature of this feature was unclear it was agreed that the altar’s two upright stones be re-erected and the “tabletop” slab left lying beside them.

Where they remain to this day.

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