Around the Ness: The Stones of Stenness
By Sigurd Towrie
“At Stennis, where the Loch is narrowest, in the midle, having a Causey of stons over it for a bridge, there is, at the South end of the bridge, a Round set about with big smooth stons or Flaggs (without anie engraving) of about twenty foot high above ground, six foot broad and a foot or two thick.“
Like the Ring of Brodgar, a mile to the north-west, the Stenness circle has been designated a henge monument. Surrounded by a flat-bottomed, rock-cut ditch four metres wide and 2.3 metres deep, the enclosure has an approximate diameter of 44 metres (144 feet) and a single entrance causeway, around eight metres wide (26ft) to the north.
Commonly said to date from around 3100BC, the Stones of Stenness is hailed one of the earliest stone circles in Britain and Ireland.
This date, however, comes from animal remains from the bottom of the ditch, meaning we are once again left pondering which came first – the stones or the ditch. If the ditch was a final addition, dug to enclose the stone circle, then the erection of the megaliths could be much earlier.
Regardless, what the date does show is that at the same time as the nearby Ness of Brodgar complex and Barnhouse Settlement were in use, a stone circle was constructed – or under construction – and an imposing part of the landscape.
Partially excavated in 1973/74, the ditch produced Neolithic pottery sherds and the remains of cattle, sheep and dogs (or, due to the size, wolves were suggested).
These could either indicate that offerings were deposited into it, or that the ditch was used to dump the refuse from the activities inside the ring. At the entrance causeway, a human finger bone and a fragment of femur (possibly also human) were among the deposits.
During excavation, the bottom of the ditch kept filling with water. This, together with archaeobotanical evidence of aquatic plants suggested the ditch contained water, at least some of the time – a fact that prompted the suggestion that a water-filled ditch was a deliberate element of the design.
While the existence of the ditch is not in doubt, the presence of an external bank remains the subject of debate.
Although he did not detail this “mound of earth”, Barry described the Stones of Stenness as a “semi-circle” – an element common in subsequent accounts of the monument. In 1848, a raised “circumscribing ring” was noted outside the ditch, but which only survived for “one third of the circumference”.
On his plan of the stone circle (above), Lieutenant F.W.L. Thomas illustrated this “raised bank” that only survived in the south-western quadrant. An 1851 plan, based on measurements by Dryden and Petrie, also highlighted a “very slight” bank to the south-west.
A 1772 watercolour of the Stones of Stenness (above) seems to corroborate Barry’s 18th century observation and the later 19th century accounts, showing a semi-circular ridge to the south-west of the standing stones. The bank is also clearly visible in the map (below) of the Ness of Brodgar produced around the same time.
If the illustration is reasonably accurate, it suggests that much of the surviving bank must have been obliterated over the following 76 years – by 1848, the bank was said to be the same height as the low, domed mound within the monument. Incidentally, the ridge was behind the idea that the monument was semi-circular – something dismissed by Lieutenant Thomas – and the antiquarian “Temple of the Moon” label assigned to the monument undoubtedly had much to do with this crescent-moon-shaped earthwork.
The 1973/74 excavation saw two trenches opened over the documented bank, concluding it was “completely denuded” and “must have been broken down and scattered by years of ploughing”. All the archaeologists encountered was a thin band of clayey soil and silt that – despite the “tenuous nature” of the surviving evidence was interpreted as the sole remains of a former outer bank .
To Professor Colin Richards, the idea that an external bank – composed of an estimate 1,300 tonnes of material from the ditch – could disappear completely “confounds belief”. He suggests the idea there was a bank owes more to the fact that, typologically, a henge should have one rather than the archaeological evidence. The clay band, he proposes, was a foundation spread for an enclosure wall – much like the one found around Maeshowe in the early 1990s.
Wall or bank? The archaeological evidence for either is inconclusive and the apparent bank visible at the site today is the result of consolidation work carried out in the 1980s.
An incomplete circle
“[In] the case of two holes there is no clear evidence that the hole or space was ever filled.”
The earliest detailed account of the Stones of Stenness dates confirms that only four megaliths were standing in 1760, with a fifth lying prone – a situation that remained unchanged until December 1814, when 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 attention to the Stones of Stenness, toppling one megalith and destroying another before he was stopped. We will return to this unfortunate episode in the second part of this article.
Based on the angle and distance between known stones and stumps, it was long believed that the Stones of Stenness was a circular monument containing twelve, equally spaced megaliths about its circumference. Excavation, however, confirmed the stone circle was laid out in an ellipse and that only ten – or possibly eleven – stones were ever erected on site.
While the missing megaliths were represented by socket holes, stumps or substantial packing stones, the excavators found these were absent from the proposed site of at least one – possibly two – standing stones. One socket (Stone Nine) had been backfilled with soil, with no evidence of packing. If it had ever held a megalith, it must have been very carefully, and totally, removed along with all evidence of its presence – which on evidence from other sites is extremely unlikely. A second (Stone 12) was represented by a very shallow, unused pit.
The apparently unfinished state of the stone circle does not seem to have been important as there is ample evidence the monument was being used. This suggests the erection of the megaliths was in stages and perhaps over a considerable period of time.
Like the Ring of Brodgar, the Stenness stones came from different sources – in this case, at least five quarries. Unlike the Ring of Brodgar, permanence was clearly intended at the Stones of Stenness. Erected in deep, well-packed sockets (0.7-1.2 metres), these megaliths were meant to endure.
Although the interior of the Stones of Stenness was partially investigated during the excavations, the archaeologists concluded it “could not be fully interpreted”. A two-metre-square hearth revealed at the centre of the stone circle contained ash, burnt bone, charcoal and broken pottery.
The hearth had “a prolonged history of reconstruction and use” and may have been transplanted from the outskirts of the Barnhouse Settlement (from the site where Structure Eight would later be built) into the centre of the Stones of Stenness. If this were the case, it firmly links the village, 150 metres to the north-east, to the stone circle.
In addition, pottery recovered at the Stones of Stenenss in 1973/74 turned out to be identical to vessels found at Barnhouse and which was associated with the consumption of food. Whatever else was going on within the stone circle, it seems feasting was one element, “perhaps on a lavish scale”.
What lay within?
To the north of the hearth and running parallel to the entrance causeway, excavators found the sockets for a pair of standing stones. Connected to the hearth by a rough stone path, at some point these stones had been removed and the socket holes filled in. Slightly north of the twin megaliths was evidence of what was interpreted as a small, two-metre, wooden structure. Circular depressions at each corner indicated the position of probable corner posts. The eastern and western sides of this feature were in line with the double megaliths, prompting the suggestion that the stones formed a “porch or monumental entrance” to the timber structure and were removed when the timber feature was dismantled.
The presence of the hearth led to comparisons between the spatial organisation of the Stones of Stenness and the typical Late Neolithic house. Amid these was the suggestion that an actual house preceded the stone circle. The excavation of the Barnhouse settlement in the 1980s revealed Structure Eight – a monumental building construction after the village went out of use. The features encountered in the centre of the Stones of Stenness, over a decade before, closely resembled architectural elements of Structure Eight and to Prof Richards, the evidence that a “big house” once stood on the site of the Stones of Stenness was compelling.
This structure, he suggested, was taken out of use, its walls demolished and the exposed hearth enlarged. Removing the walls meant an alternative method of containing the interior was required, so the site was enclosed by towering megaliths. Finally, an “extreme form of physical boundary” was created in the form of a ditch.
South of the central hearth, the excavation revealed five pits containing Iron Age pottery sherds and burnt cereal grains. Charcoal from one of the pits was radiocarbon dated to AD100-1000 confirming activity at the stone circle some three millennia after its erection. The style of the Iron Age pottery narrows the date range down to around 50BC-AD300.
The reuse of Neolithic buildings in the Iron Age is not uncommon in Orkney. We know that Iron Age Orcadians continued to use, and, in many cases, respect earlier prehistoric sites. Over at the Ness of Brodgar excavation site we have Iron Age activity at the top of the huge mound of midden and ash being explored by Trench T and a short distance from the Stones of Stenness is the suspected broch site of Big Howe.
To the people of Iron Age Orkney, the Neolithic remains that covered the landscape were already ancient and clearly something they regarded with a mix of reverence and awe.
Close to the central hearth are two low, angular slabs, standing side by side, with a large prone stone beside them. These are the remains of the so-called dolmen, “rebuilt” in 1906 and something we will cover next time.
-  Until the middle of the 19th century, the “Standing Stones of Stenness” and “Stones of Stenness” were blanket terms that referred to all the megaliths on and around the Ness of Brodgar.
-  Going on traditional classification, the Stones of Stenness is a Class One henge, featuring a single entrance, single bank, and, usually, a single ditch circuit.
-  Ritchie, J.N.G. and Marwick, E.W. (1975) The Stones of Stenness, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 107, pp. 1-60).
-  Richards, C. (1996) Henges and Water: towards an elemental understanding of monumentality and landscape in late Neolithic Britain. Journal of Material Culture, 1(3), pp.313-336.
-  Barry, G. (1805) The History of the Orkney Islands. Edinburgh.
-  Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
-  A watercolour drawing, signed John Frederick Miller, 1775, based on his pen and ink sketch of the Stones of Stennis, 1772. In Lysaght, A.M. (1974) Joseph Banks at Skara Brae and Stennis, Orkney, 1772. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28(2), pp.221-234.
-  A plan of the Circle of Loda in the Parish of Stenhouse, taken from an actual survey by Fred. Herm. Walden. In Lysaght, A.M. (1974) Joseph Banks at Skara Brae and Stennis, Orkney, 1772. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28(2), pp.221-234.
-  Richards, C. (2013) Wrapping the Hearth. In Richards, C. (ed) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Windgather Press, Oxford. Pp. 64–89.
-  Challands, A., Muir, T. and Richards, C. (2005) The great passage grave of Maeshowe. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney, pp.229-248.
-  Challands, A., Edmonds, M. and Richards, C. (2005) Beyond the Village: Barnhouse Odin and the Stones of Stenness. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney.
-  Burl, A. (2000) The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. Yale University Press.
-  https://canmore.org.uk/c14index/2105.
-  Geophysics surveys were carried out over the ditch as part of the ten-year project to survey the World Heritage Site. One interpretation of the results was that there were indications of a second, southern entrance to the interior of the stone circle. Excavation, however, is the only way to confirm whether this was the case. (Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J.  Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.)