16 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: Tiny Orkney Yields Its Big Secret

Theories change over time in archaeology as with other disciplines. The 19th century emphasis on the Mediterranean and Egypt as the cradle-of-everything, given that was the region where most early digs occurred, is shifting as more digs are conducted in northern Europe relative to exploration in the 18th and 19th century. Sometimes it is easier to dig in your own back yard, for various reasons beyond the scope of this piece.

A remote corner of Scotland provides the latest major discovery.  First, some background. In the Isles, experts like Cunliffe at Oxford had already emphasized the importance of pre-Roman culture. For example, the Isles' natives knew how to survey and build straight roads between two points, and they had organized settlements with defensive walls, and all happened well before the southern area of Prydain (Britain) was forcefully annexed to Rome's Iron Age empire. It is also accepted that the Newgrange or Bru na Boinne complex in Ireland predates the Pyramids (and Stonehenge).

The Isles were not a cultural backwater waiting for rescue by Rome or anyone. The Neolithic cultures who built great passage tombs had connected very early (well prior to 3000 BCE) by marine trade to many areas of the Continent. Irish gold jewelry set the fashion from ca. 2500 BCE onward as attested by pieces found all over northern Europe. The Isles' early smelting of copper in southwest Ireland radically changed the megalithic culture along the Atlantic coasts. This change is portrayed in Bending The Boyne. With bronze smelting (1 part tin, 9 parts copper) from tin in Wales and Cornwall, the Isles became the innovators in weapons and bronze metallurgy for over a thousand years, roughly 2000 BCE to 600 BCE when iron weapons and tools took over. During this time frame and up to what is considered recorded history* the Isles supplied tin for bronze to the Continent and made superior finished metal goods. Cornish tin may have equipped warriors at Troy with bronze spearhead and helmets, and formed Achilles' famed shield.

Now comes a further, major shift from a massive new dig on Orkney off the northeast corner of Scotland.  Over prior decades, Orkney had yielded the remarkable stone dwellings clustered at Skara Brae, the massive passage tomb of Maes Howe roughly contemporaneous with Bru na Boinne in Ireland, and the Eagles' Tomb burial site along with stone circles like Stennes. All this could be seen, touched, evaluated. Much has been dated to the Neolithic. But the biggest discovery lay buried underneath a long hill, a ceremonial complex that archaeologists literally drove past without giving it a second thought. Then one professional living on Orkney decided to dig at the Ness of Brodgar, a finger of land holding the hill barrow. The size of the complex, the skilled masonry of its walls and flagged paths, and varied artifacts coming to light, are all supporting Orkney as a major cultural center. Bits of painted wall and rock, and a small anthropomorphic statue, are a first in the Isles' Neolithic. The cultural center for Prydain was at Orkney, not Wessex, and lasted around a thousand years.  Its demise is thought to have happened around 2300 BCE ( see Bending The Boyne).  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/oct/06/orkney-temple-centre-ancient-britainalso http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2012/01/orkney-temple-predates-stonehenge-by.html#.U_YsMvldWAk

What has been found overturns the view that Stonehenge represents the cultural apogee for ancient Prydain. A corollary is that the meaning of Orkney's huge sacral landscape must be newly evaluated by archaeologists, then translated for the public in various media of film and books. Must we then endure more recycled, mumbling Druids?  Will Merlin and Arthur be dragged to Orkney? More damsels in distress defying the laws of physics to time travel? This might seem a rant, but not without justification.

Archaeology's theoretical shift over the past decade has yet to be fully explored in historical fiction. Native Gaelic-speaking clans in the Isles, Iberia, and Gaul, are still portrayed in fiction as having less sophistication or intelligence than the militaristic Romans who arrived fairly late on the scene and wearing sandals despite the climate! Any skills the Gaels do exhibit in certain fiction tend unfortunately to be vague or based on occult practices by mythical “Druids” hunting mistletoe who rule over an unskilled, unwashed populace.  This is like using the imagery of Grimm's fairy tales to portray medieval Europe's culture. This is as offensive as calling native Americans Indians.

There's plenty of room for different styles in fiction, yes. But less fantasy, and a lot more accuracy, would greatly benefit readers seeking historical fiction about the ancient Gaels. This is an instance of truth being stranger than fiction, that little Orkney holds the remains of the largest ceremonial center found to date in northern Europe. See also :  http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/news/neolithic-temples-of-the-northern-isles.htm

*Linguist John Koch's work on Tartessian script in southwest Iberia is pushing back the time frame for written Gaelic. See Celtic From The West, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Oxbow Books (2012 and 2014).
About The Author

J.S. Dunn lived in Ireland during the past decade, on 12 lovely acres fronting a salmon river. The author continues to research and travel the Atlantic coasts and is helping to shift the old paradigm of “Celts” with a second novel set at 1600 BCE.