Where are the trees? Gathering and using timber in Neolithic Orkney
“To everyone’s surprise, the primary occupation of Wideford Hill was found to be represented by a series of structures or houses of timber construction.”
By Sigurd Towrie
In 2021, the discovery of wood surviving in two post-holes in Structure Twelve reignited visitors’ questions regarding the availability and use of timber in the Orcadian Neolithic.
This has been a commonly asked question for a long time, particularly given the scale of the Ness of Brodgar buildings and the extent of the complex. Not to mention Orkney’s current, almost treeless, landscape.
Because of Skara Brae, it is also a question that predates the discovery of the Ness of Brodgar by over 150 years.
The answer, however, is relatively simple. The Orkney encountered by the first farmers around 3700BC was very different. Not only did lower sea levels mean more lowland areas, but Orkney was home to wooded areas containing birch, hazel, rowan, willow, oak and pine .
This woodland became a harvested – perhaps even managed – resource and this, together with other environmental factors, saw it all but wiped out over the next two millennia .
Before the advent of palaeoenvironmental analysis, which confirmed the availability of local timber, it was assumed that Neolithic Orcadians built in stone because it was the only material to hand.
Vere Gordon Childe wrote in 1931: “[At Skara Brae] a gigantic sand dune has embalmed a whole complex of huts and lanes, preserving even their walls to a height of eight or nine feet; lack of timber had obliged their builders to translate into stone, and thus perpetuate, articles of furniture usually constructed of perishable wood…” 
“This view of a largely treeless Neolithic has come to dominate the discussion of the period as a whole,” wrote Carey in 2012, “and continues to be taken as a given, even in recent interpretations.” [2a]
Central to this persistent explanation was the predominance of stone-built Neolithic structures in Orkney and the belief that Orkney’s present treeless landscape was the same in prehistory. This was a rather flawed assumption for two reasons:
- Timber structures would not have survived.
- In the late 19th and early 20th centuries nobody was actively looking for the ephemeral traces left by wooden buildings.
As the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In fact, it was not until the 21st century that evidence for timber-built Neolithic structures first saw the light of day. In 2003, a settlement was discovered at the foot of Wideford Hill in the centre of the Orkney Mainland .
Dating to around 3600BC, the earliest houses at this site were wooden, post-built structures. Nothing survived above ground, the only evidence of the circular buildings being the post-holes and a central hearth scooped into the floors. Excavation suggested the lifespan of these wooden houses was relatively short and that they were replaced rather than refurbished at the end of their life.
Where was the wood for these structures coming from? The fact the posts were not being reused suggests there was a reasonably plentiful supply.
For decades driftwood was cited as the major source of timber in Neolithic Orkney.
Following excavations at Skara Brae in 1972/73, the excavator wrote: “A considerable number of pieces of wood were found, a small number of which had been fashioned into objects, including part of a finely made handle, while other fragments show tool-marks. Much of this wood was in the form of twigs which were probably collected locally but other, more substantial pieces are likely to have been acquired as driftwood.” 
We now know that some of this wood came from driftwood.
Elsewhere, in the few instances where wood has survived we can see that driftwood was clearly an exploited resource in the Neolithic – as it still is today.
At the latter, the “two conifers came from outside Orkney, probably the alder did too and perhaps even the same applies to the birch. The most likely explanation is driftwood…” 
This 1976 conclusion was echoed in 1992: “[M]ost, if not all, of the occurrences of foreign coniferous wood in the archaeological layers of the Scottish Islands is driftwood of North American origin.” 
Analysis of charcoal has certainly shown driftwood – spruce and larch, most likely from North America – was being used for fuel. It has also suggested that local woodland (birch, willow, cherry-type and willow) survived until at least 3500BC  – and probably later.
At the Stonehall settlement, a short distance to the west of Wideford Hill, excavation found a much greater diversity of charcoal in the Early Neolithic contexts than the later occupation layers . This suggests that woodland availability was decreasing through the Neolithic and that, in this area at least, timber was becoming scarcer.
The Stonehall charcoal corroborated previous environmental evidence  pointing to a substantial decline in Orkney’s woodland. As a result the conclusion was that, by the Bronze Age, “Orkney was virtually treeless” .
A re-evaluation of palaeoenvironmental data in 2014, together with new samples, painted a slightly different picture. It suggested that although woodland was disappearing in Orkney throughout the Neolithic, the rate of decline was not uniform across the islands. This meant that in some areas wooded areas persisted into the Bronze Age .
Whatever the scenario, timber was clearly becoming harder to source.
Around 3300BC, the timber houses at the Wideford Hill settlement began to be replaced by stone-built dwellings – structures that replicated the architecture of the only stone buildings erected by this time, chambered cairns.
“Even if a decline in available timber in Orkney was a factor in this process (and judging from recent research, it is not) this does not account for the complete change in architecture between the timber and stone houses as witnessed at Wideford Hill.” 
Although the rate and extent of Neolithic woodland declined has been questioned , there is no doubt that timber was a dwindling resource. Clearly wood was still required for the new, more substantial, stone dwellings and it may be that the importance of driftwood increased as woodland disappeared.
At the same time, it is likely that timber became a more valuable resource. This ties in with excavation evidence pointing to a growing reliance on turf as a fuel source with wood perhaps too valuable to burn. At Stonehall, for example, turf was the primary fuel by the Late Neolithic .
This suggests that available wood had become something to be kept and re-used – a situation perhaps seen, for instance, within Structure Twelve at the Ness of Brodgar. When this building was abandoned the deliberate destruction of its stone-tiled roof was perhaps to allow its substantial timber frame to be salvaged .
Compare this to the Early Neolithic wooden structures at Wideford Hill. When they went out of use, excavation showed the substantial timber posts were left in place to rot. Clearly securing trunks suitable for the creation of new posts for the replacement buildings was not an issue.
The archaeological evidence suggests native woodland was diminishing through the Neolithic. With this decline – and depending on the availability of driftwood – suitable timber for construction must have become harder to source.
The inclusion of large, and increasingly rare, timbers in structures perhaps added to their prestige: “…timber was still essential to the building process and may have even become an expression of conspicuous consumption on more elaborate projects.” 
This may go some way to explain the huge wooden frames required for the Ness of Brodgar’s stone-tiled roofs. It may also introduce a new element into the Neolithic construction repertoire in Orkney. Large wooden structures, such as timber circles and halls, are known throughout the rest of Neolithic Britain  but are, so far, absent from Orkney.
It is undoubtedly a stretch to suggest the Orcadian landscape was dotted with timber monuments but could there have been one or two? Remember that the presence of Neolithic timber houses was unknown until 18 years ago.
In a society obsessed with the glory and visual impact of monuments what better material to use than valuable and becoming-rarer timber.
It has been suggested that in the third millennium BC Orcadian society was caught up in the unsustainable, and ultimately self-destructive, pursuit of prestige, social status and influence . This scramble for social standing was manifested, in a highly visual manner, through monument construction. This saw the creation of increasingly large and elaborate stone “tombs” as different groups sought to outdo each other.
The result was a competitive and unstable society  in which rivalries were played out as people invested “time and labour in monuments relating to deities, ancestors and origins that stretched well beyond the shores of Late Neolithic Orkney” .
An element of this highly competitive rivalry was the ability to source and secure the necessary resources. If, as has been suggested , pockets of woodland survived in parts of Orkney until the Bronze Age, timber was presumably a commodity that could be traded between those who had it and those who did not. The acquisition of wood – presumably from multiple sources – must have visibly highlighted the influence, connections and wealth of any group.
We can perhaps see something similar in the historic period, when wood was brought in from Norway. “Flatpacked” timber structures – known as “stock-stove” houses were among the imports and were of such significance that their locations were probably preserved in Orkney’s “Stove” placenames.
A Sanday placename change between 1502 and 1593 saw the farm “Gardemeles” become “Stove”, suggesting “it had acquired on of these prestigious wooden houses, once the status symbol of the wealthier Orkney people.” 
Returning to Late Neolithic Orkney, the act of gathering resources and erecting a monument has been argued to be more important than the finished monument. The more difficult the task, the greater the prestige . If this were the case, accruing suitable timber – perhaps requiring connections and negotiations with areas throughout Orkney – would surely have an effect on the perceived significance and impact of the completed project.
In addition, the rush to raise bigger – but not necessarily architecturally better – monuments led to a situation where appearance, rather than structural stability, was key . With this emphasis on surface grandeur a wooden structure would not only have stood out but its construction a striking and highly visible show of its creators’ influence and power.
Whether this was even possible or just fanciful speculation remains to be seen.
Posts and standing stones
Leaving aside the wood required for the equipment to transport and raise them, another role for timber may have centred on Orkney’s two known stone circles and perhaps the myriad standing stones dotted across the landscape.
At some sites south, timber post settings preceded the stone megaliths erected with the same footprint (e.g Kilmartin , Avebury  and Machrie Moor ). At others the timber and stone circles stood concurrently, the best-known examples being Stonehenge/Woodhenge/Durrington Walls .
Lack of excavation around the stone settings in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site means we cannot say whether the megaliths were preceded by timber posts. However, the excavation between the Stones of Stenness and Barnhouse Settlement that located the site of the fabled Odin Stone also found the sockets for two other megaliths.
At the base of one socket-hole was a circular post-hole, leading to the suggestion that its standing stone was preceded by a timber upright .
To the excavators, the post may have acted as a marker for a future megalith but the depth of the cut, into natural bedrock, was “suggestive of something more permanent and enduring” .
If the socket did originally hold a wooden post, “we may be glimpsing evidence of a longer ritual cycle involving the erection and decay of a wooden post before its replacement by a megalith.” 
Why raise a post? Stone is permanent and durable while wood decays. Just as flesh decays to bone, perhaps rotting wood being replaced by stone was regarded a potent metaphor of transformation. 
Around Stonehenge, Parker Pearson has proposed that stone constructions were for the dead, while timber was for the living .
This symbolism, he suggested, explains why certain timber monuments are transformed into stone in later life – they are “passing from the realm of the living to the realm of the ancestors… [T]he changing of a monument from wood to stone is a marking of the movement of the living through death to ancestorhood, as the ceremonial places which were once associated with the living became places devoid of living people, where the ancestors now reside.” 
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