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Economic and Social History Blog

38. The wonders of the Orkneys (1-5-2020)

The wonders of the Orkneys (1-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

We like to travel to an island. The ferry trip already feels like a transition to another life, to taking off a coat of daily worries and concerns – a flight by plane does not give the same sensation. And nothing beats a start of a holiday consisting of a series of trips to ever smaller islands. So last year we first took the ferry to Newcastle, then from the northern tip of Scotland to Orkney-Mainland (a spectacular birdwatching experience in itself, if you are lucky), next the boat to Westray (a small island with one hotel and spectacular scenery), and finally the day trip to Papa Westray (a tiny island with lots of birds). It is the fastest way to get close to Zen.

I am not going to write about the birds of the Orkneys, but about its archaeological treasures. The entire archipelago is covered with ancient finds from the early Neolithic, from the first farmers. Houses and entire villages, impressive tombs, huge stone circles, ceremonial buildings, it is all there and its most ancient structures are believed to be much older than similar Neolithic monuments in the rest of the UK. The first ‘temple’, in the Ness of Brodgar (a spectacular excavation in the ‘heart’ of Mainland) probably dates back from 3200 BC, shortly after the first farmers set foot on the island. They can date this start of the Neolithic culture there in a variety of ways, the most ingenious of which is the following. On the Orkneys a special sub-species of the vole (a ‘veldmuis’ in Dutch) lives,  which cannot be found in the rest of the UK. It is most closely related to the common vole of  Belgium and Northern France. DNA-research makes it possible to date the moment when the Orkney vole split from the Belgian vole at about 5000 years ago. The theory is that the first settlers of the islands came from Belgium, and accidentally took some voles with them, which also settled there. This is the only explanation for the fact that this vole is not found in the rest of the UK (also not in archaeological finds). So the Orkney vole ‘proofs’ that the first farmers to settle on the British Isles came from Belgium/France, and did not settle at the other side of the Canal, but sailed to the extreme north and started growing their crops there. Why? Perhaps the rest of the isles were covered with forests, which had to be cleared first; due to the climate, there were much less trees in the ultimate north, so farming could start immediately. And the isles may have been uninhabited, and full of rocks with huge bird populations that could easily be harvested as they were not used to humans as predators. A lot to speculate about, but it seems plausible that these specific Belgian farmers went to the north first, and then started to move more to the south (that ‘civilization’ on the British Isles started in Scotland is of course something that requires careful consideration).

One element of their culture, the stone circle, was developed first in France, and then copied by the Neolithic settlers of the British Isles. Most ancient structures can be ‘explained’ as being houses, temples or tombs, but those often extremely large stone circles, still defy a convincing explanation. To follow the seasons – sun and moon – and measure time, is still the most popular story, which may or may not be relevant for the stone circles on the Orkneys. But an alternative interpretation of the Ring of Brodgar, the oldest on the islands, is also interesting. Archaeological research has established that the stones and slabs of the circle are not from a nearby quarry, but from sources at  considerable distance from the circle. They point into the direction from which they originate (so the eastern stone is from a source in the east, etc.). Groups of men and women presumably from local tribes there, must have brought the big stones from their own district or isle. The remains of buildings for accommodating groups – very different from houses for local families – were also found near the Ring. So this has led to speculation about the Ring being a collective project of different tribes who showed their commitment to – perhaps – some kind of peace treaty, or their submission to some kind of central authority (some of the largest ‘palaces’ were nearby), by bringing their stone with them and erecting it as part of the joint project. Or perhaps these communities were competing with each other, each trying to contribute a bigger stone than the other, to add to the prestige of their tribe. The guide who was showing us around there, who had been digging in Orkney soil for his entire career, liked to call it a kind of proto-United Nations – in jest, I think, but with a very serious expression on his face.

Continue reading: Good and evil in economic history (4-5-2020)