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Neolithic People: Orkney, Scotland

Aerial of modern farmland in Orkney

Aerial of modern farmland in Orkney (Nat Geo)

Paleolithic People get so much publicity in our modern world, so I want to tell you a little bit about the people I study: the first sustainable farmers, the Master Builders, the spiritually connected  Neolithic People of The British Isles. I went to graduate school in Ireland, so the majority of my knowledge and thus “archaeology” posts will focus on The British Isles. Long before the Egyptian Pyramids, and even before Stonehenge, around 3200 B.C.E, the farmers and herdsmen on the Orkney Islands built one of the most complete and comfortable Neolithic villages that remains today. This landscape is as fascinating as it is breathtaking, and surprisingly remote, yet within trade distance of the Scottish mainland, Norway, The Shetlands, and Ireland. Today, sheep graze where multiple Neolithic sites are scattered across a group of islands that once formed the spiritual and cultural center of Neolithic Britain.

The (largely sandstone) sites in Orkney form a larger complex, one that is sophisticated enough to make us seriously question the modern perception that cities began in and grew out of the fertile crescent, what we now call the “Middle East.” Neolithic Orcadians not only had the time to build massive stone monuments and houses, but were also some of the earliest farmers to manure their fields and import cattle and sheep, not native to the islands, but still there today. From what we can tell, archaeologically, these Neolithic people used only stone tools, which might explain why their culture became ‘obsolete’ when bronze  tools (later replaced by iron) reaches the British Isles.  It’s hard to know why, but we can tell that they ceremoniously and permanently abandoned their site at this time. Offerings of the bones of over 400 cattle and unslaughtered red deer lay untouched in the temple for for over 4000 years, and the system of buildings and monuments was covered with rubble. Did these Neolithic people do this to their own site? Did a conquering group do it?

It was hard for me to choose my concentration as an archaeology student because I love all history. I chose prehistory, and eventually the end of prehistory (the Neolithic), because of the mystery that surrounds these people that don’t have documented “histories” or use formal writing. We may never know the exact truth, but we do know that, like all people in history, they DID travel great distances, meet foreigners, and exchange ideas. They DID have incredibly sophisticated art, architecture, and religious and spiritual beliefs, and they DID incorporate sophisticated technologies and herbal medicines into their everyday lives, including those that allowed them to become the master farmers and builders we see left behind in remnants such as these.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands. 1000 years older than Stonehenge.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands. 1000 years older than Stonehenge (Nat Geo)



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