Re-evaluating Orkney’s stone circles

The Ring of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

“But what were they for?”

This must surely be one of the most commonly asked questions about Orkney’s ancient stone circles. A question antiquarians and archaeologists have pondered for centuries.

But now, in what is probably the first in-depth study into the construction of Orkney’s stone rings, a leading archaeologist has suggested that it was not necessarily the 5,000-year-old stone circles themselves that were significant but rather the act of constructing them.

The prestige of erecting a fine megalith, he adds, may even have been the driving force behind the development of the monuments.

In his paper Rethinking the great stone circles of northwest Britain, now available on the Daphne Lorimer Tribute website, Dr Colin Richards, of Manchester University, challenges the long-held assumption that the monuments were intended to serve a definite purpose after their construction – a purpose usually assumed to be of ceremonial, ritual or religious significance.

Instead, he suggests that the act of building the monuments, in particular erecting the individual stones, was the ritually significant element and that the entire stone ring had no particular function. This, he suggests, may explain why there is a distinct lack of evidence that sites such as the Ring of Brodgar were actually used.

Following archaeological work in Orkney, the Western Isles and Arran , Dr Richards proposes that it was the individual stones in the circles that were significant – in particular the different types of stones used, where they were sourced and how they were quarried and transported to the final site.

A geological examination of the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, confirmed that the stones were brought from different sources and quarries across Orkney.

These quarries, and the different type of stone obtained from them, may therefore represent the different people or communities involved in the construction of the stone circle.

Dr Richards adds that the act of bringing the stones to the circle site may also have been a “competition” between villages and communities of the time.

He writes: “Thus, rather than being some harmonious joint effort between different communities in late Neolithic Orkney, as suggested by Colin Renfrew, we may be witnessing a ritualised and high risk social strategy to obtain high social status involving the extreme competition embodied in dragging massive monoliths to a partially formed stone circle.”

But were the rings nothing more than a “competition” for social status and prestige?

Probably not.

Although Vestrafiold was an ideal location to quarry the stone, evidence found on the site may suggest that the area was considered “sacred” to the ring-builders.

A standing stone with apparent association with a nearby burial chamber hints at a connection with the dead, and may add weight to another current theory that certain stones represented the dead or the ancestors.

Dr Richards writes: “If monoliths were associated with the dead in terms of commemoration (possibly of named individuals) then we can begin to understand why groups of similar types of stone are present at the Ring of Brodgar.

“By slowly adding to discrete sections of the circle were not social groups composing their own genealogies in stone? Genealogies that could be recalled by simply moving around the stone circle.”

The full paper can be viewed here.

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