ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 42, March 1999


Rethinking the Neolithic of Orkney

The old idea of separate cultures in early and late Neolithic Orkney is breaking down, says Colin Richards

The last 15 years have seen some dramatic changes in both the evidence for the Neolithic in Orkney and the way in which the period is conceived. In thinking about these changes it is interesting to note just how durable assumptions and interpretations formulated in the past by archaeologists working on various sites in Orkney have been.

Until recently the Orcadian Neolithic appeared to be firmly split into an earlier and later period, characterised by quite distinct forms of material culture, including architecture and ceramic styles. The early Neolithic was defined by tripartite and stalled cairns together with small-scale settlements, such as Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, with people using the distinctive round-based unstan ware pottery. The later Neolithic was characterised by henge monuments with internal stone circles, passage graves, and villages, such as Skara Brae and Rinyo, with the inhabitants using flat-based grooved ware pottery.

Hence, the overall picture of the Neolithic was of a clearly defined early period of dispersed farmsteads dotted across the Orcadian landscape, perhaps accompanied by their respective chambered cairns, and a later period in which villages, although apparently few in number, dominated the landscape together with magnificent monuments such as the passage grave of Maeshowe and the great stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar.

The basic premise underlying this view can be traced back to VG Childe in the early part of this century, and was essentially that of the presence in Orkney of discrete Neolithic `cultures' defined by the materials they used. In 1979, Colin Renfrew (now Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University) argued on the basis of increasing scales of monumentality for a form of social evolution, from a segmentary society to a chiefdom, occurring in Orkney during the 3rd millennium BC. While this scheme attempted to break away from a culture-historical perspective it did little to resolve the apparent differences seen in material culture, settlement organisation and forms of monument between the early and late Neolithic periods.

Over the last few years a number of excavations have begun to put a new complexion on the Orcadian Neolithic. Equally, alternative views of `culture' have undermined the neat packaging conceived by Childe.

Orkney is composed of a group of islands, each of which is different in terms of its topography and inhabitants. Hence, each has its own unique identity and even today, with easier communications and travel, the visitor can discern very distinctive characters to different islands and their inhabitants.

Rather than expecting some form of overall uniformity and standardisation for the Neolithic of Orkney, we are therefore now beginning to look for differences both between islands and within islands, as the inhabitants did different things to express their varying identities.

The early/late period division is a modern creation, and attempting to package specific assemblages of material culture into clear temporal `blocks' of similarity effectively prohibits any understanding of difference and change.

Actually, evidence has been present since Childe and Walter Grant (the whisky magnate) excavated at Rinyo in Rousay, before and after the Second World War, that indicated that the idea of the uniform `single farmstead' form of settlement organisation typifying the early Neolithic may have been misplaced. Within the Rinyo `village', round-based pottery was discovered at lower levels which clearly indicated a lengthy period of occupation to what was a substantial settlement. Also, a flint and round-based pottery scatter covering an extensive area was discovered by Robert Rendall in the 1930s at the base of Wideford Hill, Mainland.

More recently, excavations at Pool on Sanday by the University of Bradford have revealed a number of house structures associated with the earlier forms of round-based pottery lying below a later `grooved ware village'. From these strands of evidence it seemed quite possible that the view of the earlier Neolithic period being represented by a dispersed and small-scale settlement pattern was at best simplistic and at worst entirely wrong.

In order to examine this problem in detail, a landscape project is currently being undertaken by the Universities of Glasgow and Sheffield in the Cuween/Wideford area of Mainland to examine the changing form of settlement within a single area throughout the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. Apart from the scatter of material located in the 1930s below Wideford Hill, two new sites at Stonehall and Crossiecrown have been discovered.

Although work is still in progress, the Stonehall site appears to comprise at least three (and probably more) earlier Neolithic houses distributed around a later `village'. Hence, although in a more dispersed form, there appears to have been an earlier Neolithic `village' present at Stonehall. At Crossiecrown, a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age settlement seems to consist of a large house structure surrounded by just three or four houses.

Putting the pieces together we are beginning to find a far more complex situation than was previously considered. The neat period packaging of particular forms of settlement pattern, social organisation and material culture is certainly breaking down under renewed exploration. It seems likely that a wide variety of settlement forms ranging from individual `farmsteads' to small `hamlets' to large `villages' characterised the entire Orcadian Neolithic. A further important observation is that the settlements varied considerably in material culture, including architecture and spatial organisation, both within islands and between islands.

When Childe excavated at the settlement of Skara Brae between 1928-30, it was assumed that little differentiation existed between the individual houses. This belief continued to colour people's view of the late Neolithic villages and may account for why Renfrew virtually ignored this amazing site in his discussion of an evolving chiefdom in late Neolithic Orkney. Recent excavation of the late Neolithic village at Barnhouse has produced evidence of clear differences between houses. A large structure, House 2, interpreted as a ceremonial building, clearly dominates the village. Given the later construction around Barnhouse of the impressive stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar, there is surely a possibility that the village is of a different nature to many other settlements, possibly becoming a focus for ritual or religious activity. However, the main point to be stressed is that we should expect such differences within what was clearly a substantial population and number of different communities inhabiting many different locations throughout the island group.

This observation also puts a large question mark over the proposed linkage between chambered cairns and settlements. Renfrew followed Childe in suggesting that each settlement or community was related to a single chambered cairn. In this scheme each chambered cairn would act as the final resting place for people from an individual community. Looking at the evidence again it becomes clear that a very small number of people are actually represented within the chambered cairns. Instead, we find that they contain strange deposits of particular human body parts or even substantial numbers of animal bones - for instance, 22 dog's skulls at Cuween Hill passage grave. Some chambered cairns are completely empty. By breaking away from the expectation of regularity and similarity we can begin to look for variation and inconsistency which testify to people doing things differently for a variety of reasons.

Given our changing understanding of the Orcadian Neolithic the prospects for further research are truly exciting. The breakdown of perspectives that saw static unchanging images of `culture' allows a rethinking of the Orcadian Neolithic. We can now look for differences in material culture between settlements as a way in which Neolithic people expressed and constructed identities of both themselves and their community.

Many of the settlements which have been discovered are relatively small and it is clear that the maintenance of any given community meant that people would have married beyond the local group. It is these subtleties of the social world which may now be explored through the amazing quality of data which the Orcadian Neolithic provides. We are no longer simply looking for new settlement sites as a guide to settlement density and pattern but are beginning to look at the way Neolithic Orcadians defined themselves and understood the world in which they lived.

Dr Colin Richards is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow

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