Orkney Museum focuses on World Heritage Site patterns

When confronted by the wealth of archaeological sites within Orkney’s World Heritage Site, it is all too easy to detach the monuments from their human element. In other words, it’s about people as well as stones!

But this summer’s exhibition at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall focuses on an entirely human aspect of Neolithic Orkney – fashioned artefacts and items of decoration related to the period.

Patterns of Stone Age Orkney – The World Heritage Site context, features a wealth of finds from across the World Heritage Site, and beyond, all of which show the artistic side of Neolithic society and remind us that these people didn’t just erect megaliths, farm and die.

From practical objects such as bone pins, to the enigmatic, but beautifully carved, stone “balls” from Skara Brae, the exhibition visitor is treated to an altogether more “personal” glimpse of Orkney’s prehistory.

A number of these items have been returned to Orkney from the National Museums of Scotland – a shame they are not here permanently, but that is another matter.

One such loan item is the Brodgar stone – a large stone slab, decorated on one edge with incised lozenges, chevrons and zig-zags. Along the same lines is a stone fragment found at Pool in Sanday, also heavily-decorated with the familiar zig-zagged pattern.

Instantly recognisable from the Skara Brae artefacts visiting from Edinburgh, are the carved stone “balls”. These ornately carved objects served no no obvious practical purpose so are thought to have a ritual or symbolic purpose.

Although we really have no clear idea as to the purpose of these stone balls, a few other examples have been found in Orkney, the exhibition also featuring a selection of variants found at Pool in Sanday.

The most widely accepted theory regarding these objects is that they were symbols of status, marking the owners as significant within the society. Were they passed around communal events marking the holder as somehow significant? Or perhaps carried in processions or used within religious events.?

Aside from the Skara Brae balls, artefacts such as carved pins and pottery, are featured, along with a personal favourite of mine, a tiny pendant with a star design scratched on the surface. These items, however, are dominated by a massive stone slab removed from the village, and decorated in the now-familiar style – zig-zags, triangles and lozenges.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Natural rock patterns at Skibigeo, Birsay

But were these decorations mere artistic enhancements, or was there another, more symbolic reason? The repeated lozenge, or example. Is this just a pretty pattern? Or, as some would have it, a geometrical representation of the positions of the solstice sunrise and sunsets?

Along the same lines, do the incised triangular shapes have a deeper meaning, or are they merely artistic representations of a pattern found on countless shorelines across Orkney – that of weatherbeaten bedrock?

The exhibition steers away from these speculations, leaving the visitor to investigate further, if inspired.

Perhaps one of the seemingly plainest, but spectacular pieces has to be the necklace of whale beads recovered from the chambered cairn at the Point o’ Cott in Westray.

To view these beads, a transformation in bone, five millennia after their creation, brings the visitor full-circle. Once again we must pose the question whether there was any significance to the creation of the necklace, other than the desire to fashion beauty. A question that could apply to all the artefacts found within the exhibition room.

As a footnote, when visiting the exhibition, don’t forget to take a trip downstairs to see what is arguably the best piece of Neolithic artwork uncovered so far – the Pierowall Stone. I’m sure that were it not for its size, this stone, recovered from the remains of a chambered cairn in a Westray quarry in 1981, would have had pride of place on the first floor, among the highlights of Orcadian artwork from 5,000 years ago.

Patterns of Stone Age Orkney – The World Heritage Site Context runs in the Orkney Museum until September.

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