1. the Megalithic Tombs of Orkney
Six thousand years ago, the Orkney Islands were part of a megalithic tomb tradition that was found all along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard (map right). Tomb construction coincides with the earliest appearance of agriculture in the region. Farming originated in the Near East about ten thousand years ago and spread slowly throughout Europe, eventually reaching Britain by about 4000 BC. In part its spread was due to population movement and colonization but mainly it was a matter of the local people adopting a new way of life. Recent research has shown that only about 20% of the genetic makeup of modern Europeans comes from outside the region, specifically from Mesopotamia.
When the first agriculturalists settled in Scotland they found a well-established and very sophisticated economy based on harvesting wild resources. A number of Mesolithic sites have been uncovered along the west coast and the islands offshore. The cliff tops are breeding grounds for millions of seabirds and these have been a mainstay of the local diet in the Hebrides right down to modern times. All manner of molluscs, including scallops, cockles, mussels and limpets, can be found in the intertidal zone or just offshore and huge shell middens have been excavated on the small island of Oronsay. Fish bones were also present in these same middens and 90% of these were saithe, a fairly deepwater fish that would require boats and either nets or lines to catch. Sea mammals, especially seals and otters, provided both meat and fur. There were deer on the hillsides and wild boar in the forests; salmon and trout in the streams.
The reliability of these local resources enabled people to settle down in more or less permanent communities, much as the Haida and Nootka of Canada’s Pacific coast did in more recent times. Like the latter, the early inhabitants of western Scotland would have been skilled boatmen—plying the coastal waters in craft that were probably much like the leather curraghs of western Ireland. They are relatively simple to make, light weight and very sturdy but, unfortunately, they are not the sort of thing that is likely to survive in the archaeological record.
Geographically, the Orkney archipelago is a continuation of Caithness (see map below), cut off by rising waters during the last great glacial meltdown about ten thousand years ago. There are about 70 islands altogether making for a decidedly amphibious environment. The islands are mainly low-lying apart from some steep hills on Hoy and rugged cliffs on the western side of the larger islands. The underlying rock is mainly Old Red Sandstone, represented by well-bedded flagstones—an ideal building material. This is fortunate because the islands are largely devoid of trees and have probably been so since the Neolithic or even earlier.
The distance between Orkney and the rest of Scotland is only a few kilometres but the intervening stretch of water—the Pentland Firth—is among the most treacherous in the world. Violent tidal races flow through from the North Sea and the Atlantic and gale force winds are not infrequent. Transporting cattle in a skin boat can never have been an easy task but it is certainly possible and was clearly done not long after 4000 BC. The earliest farming settlement yet discovered in the Orkneys is Knap of Howar a small farmstead dating to about 3600 BC on the island of Papa Westray. A larger village of seven or eight buildings has been excavated at Skara Brae on the west coast of the Mainland, the largest of the islands, that was built four hundred years later. Populations could be safely reckoned in the dozens at most. Once established, an agricultural economy enabled the inhabitants to increase their exploitation of the landscape by grazing livestock on the low hills and planting stands of wheat and barley along the shore.
A settled lifestyle encourages population growth and it may well have been that in Orkney, as elsewhere, the shift to agriculture may have been the response. Because of the time and effort involved in working the land to make it productive, farming tends to promote strong notions of community and territoriality. The tombs were a visible expression of the group’s ownership of the land, a home for the ancestral spirits who won them that right.
The tomb at Isbister on South Ronaldsay contained the remains of several hundred individuals, representing all age groups and both sexes in roughly the same proportions as you would expect in life. It was in use for about 700 years, from c.3300-2600 BC, and the numbers could easily account for everyone in the community who died during that period. However many of the other tombs contained only a few individuals and either there was some selection process involved to decide whether or not someone was interred or they were cleared out occasionally.
Grave goods are few and undistinguished—broken pottery and stone tools for the most part. Personal ornaments such as pins and beads are rare, so there is little to distinguish one individual from another. For the most part the bones were scattered and most of the skeletons are incomplete. In some cases, only the latest interments are intact. Apparently, the individual was of little importance in the cosmic scheme of things—at least once the flesh had rotted off the bones—as far as these people were concerned. The group was everything.
In all societies there are certain ‘rites of passage’ that mark the stages in a person’s life—puberty and marriage, for example— designed to integrate them into the group. This is of enormous importance because the survival of the group depended on everyone performing their assigned roles. Death was seen as one more such rite, celebrating the union of the spirit of the deceased with those of the ancestors. The evidence suggests that burial was a two-fold process. First the body was exposed until the flesh had rotted away—a process known as excarnation—and then the skeletal remains (or as much of them as could be gathered) were placed in the tomb. The process would have seemed entirely logical to farmers who planted seeds in the ground and watched them sprout into new plants. Broken pottery and animal bones indicate that there was some sort of funeral service—probably involving ritual feasting and food offerings—to ensure that the spirit of the deceased was accepted by the ancestors.
Over 80 Neolithic tombs have been located in the Orkneys and these can be divided into two basic types, broadly corresponding with the two ceramic styles found in the islands during the Neolithic. Stalled Cairns (by far the more numerous) are associated with Unstan Ware while Grooved Ware is more common in Maes Howe Tombs.
The most comprehensive study of the tombs of Orkney is The Chambered Cairns of Orkney (1989) by J.L. Davidson and A.S. Henshall.