Resurrecting the Neolithic priesthood…

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

One of the beautifully built, non-domestic structures on the Ness of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Ness of Brodgar discoveries vindicate 35-year-old theory, says prehistorian

The remarkable archaeological discoveries on the Ness of Brodgar are proof that an elite group of astronomer priests once held sway over Orkney.

That’s according to Dr Euan MacKie, an archaeologist and prehistorian, who visited the ongoing excavations on the Ness  last summer.

In 1977, Dr MacKie suggested in a book that Skara Brae might be the home of a privileged, theocratic class of wise men and women who officiated at astronomical and tribal ceremonies in and around the Stenness rings and who were supported by the agricultural population.

At that time, Skara Brae was the only well-preserved site of its type known. Then, when the Barnhouse settlement was excavated by Dr Colin Richards, in the 1980s, the “non-domestic” elements of the village — large, ceremonial-looking buildings — allowed Dr MacKie to claim that his theory was on the way to being verified.

But, as he is the first to admit, his ideas have not been met with much enthusiasm by academics.

He explained: “I get the impression that people who are interested in Neolithic Orkney are still interpreting sites such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse as, basically, the villages of the ordinary population, and certainly there is never any reference to a priesthood or anything like that.

“However, I’ve always thought that the archaeological evidence for Skara Brae being something out of the ordinary stood up on its own.

“A fresh visit to Skara Brae, in August last year, confirmed my view that the site was not a mere farming village at all, but a residence for a community of priests connected with the major ceremonial centres nearby.

“There are three reasons for this conviction — the reconstructed hut, next to the visitor centre, is remarkably evocative, and gives one a clear idea of what the settlement was like. The monumentality of the building is what stands out. It just looks far too solid and sophisticated for an ordinary agricultural dwelling.

“Add to that the fact that there was only one house at Skara Brae used for cooking. It looks like a little settlement with one cookhouse-cum-workshop and several residential buildings.

“This suggests, to me, that the residents had their meals cooked for them, rather like monks in a monastery.

“Extremely evocative, too, were the two visible sections of the main drain. The custodian opened the wooden hatches to give me a good look and the size of the drain is staggering. It is a substantial,  dry-walled channel,  far down below the hut floors and roofed with massive lintels.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this was a planned settlement, the drain of which was presumably built first, no doubt connecting with smaller drains from some of the huts to give an extraordinarily hygienic quality to the settlement. There was nothing like this drainage system in Scotland again until the Romans arrived. Can this really be a settlement of simple farmers?”

He continued: “There’s a huge resistance to this idea. And part of the reason is that, ultimately, the notion that there was a professional priesthood in Neolithic times goes back to a book I wrote in 1977, using the evidence collected by Alexander Thom on the esoteric qualities of scores of British stone circles —  their geometry, the use of units of length used to lay out the shapes, the calendrical alignments incorporated in them — all things which, if genuine, ought to be the products of a skillful professional class of wise men.”

Professor Alexander Thom spent several decades studying stone circles across the UK in an attempt to decipher their meaning.

He discovered that not all were perfect circles — some were egg-shaped, others elliptical — but whatever the shape, they all seemed to show remarkable geometric precision.

As early as 1934, Thom had become interested in prehistoric stone circles and their astronomical associations, thereafter carrying out an ambitious project in which he accurately surveyed and carefully measured a number of megalithic sites throughout Britain.

He published his findings, in 1955, in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, and, after his retirement, published a further two articles that proposed a standard unit of measurement he claimed was employed consistently at prehistoric megalithic sites across the country.

Thom called this unit — measuring 2.72 feet (0.829 metres) — “the megalithic yard”, citing it as proof that the builders of stone circles had an advanced understanding of geometry, mathematics and astronomy.

Dr MacKie continued: “Scepticism about Alexander Thom’s work has grown over the years, and you can’t mention his name now in archaeological circles. I’ve probably been relegated to the fringes for persisting with this, which I do because I think it’s quite wrong to ignore potentially important evidence which is still piling up.

“There is a belief, strongly held by archaeologists who study prehistoric times, that the kind of society that Thom’s work seems to be pointing to — one with detailed knowledge of sophisticated astronomical and measuring techniques — is incompatible with what we know of recent and ancient preliterate societies. Therefore, it’s just easier for some to dismiss this evidence on principle, because if you don’t, then Pandora’s box is opened and out fly these alien notions of the priesthood, the elite, the amazing knowledge of geometry and Pythagorean triangles — ideas which are simply not taught in archaeological degree courses and which people therefore don’t understand.

“To be preserved over many generations, such bodies of arcane knowledge surely required a group of full-time professionals to study and pass on these subjects. But remember, there wasn’t such a thing as ‘science’ as we understand it in those days. All esoteric knowledge was seen in a religious context, so any of what we now regard as intellectual activities would have been part of religious activities.  I think archaeologists are worried that if you start down that path, where’s it going to lead to?

“The problem lies with the assumptions that underlie our reconstructions of prehistoric societies.

“The leading authorities don’t mind speculation, provided it fits into the general theoretical background. You can speculate till the cows come home if the ideas fit into the accepted framework, or ‘paradigm’ – for example, about summer festivals at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire and winter festivals at nearby Stonehenge. But if an idea doesn’t fit into that framework, then people don’t want to hear.  This is what is known as deductive thinking; the evidence must fit the  accepted ideas.

“I think the reason for the refusal to think about the priesthood is mainly due to the belief that, since the 1970s,  Thom’s ideas have been discredited, mainly through the work of Clive Ruggles. And if those ideas are discarded, where is the need for  priestly residences on Orkney or in Wiltshire?

“Yet one of the arguments in my 1977 book was that the idea of a Neolithic priesthood was supported not just by Thom’s work but by traditional archaeological evidence as well, and not just in Orkney.

“The great ditched henge monument at Durrington Walls was excavated in the 1960s and good evidence was found that it contained huge, inhabited wooden roundhouses with masses of occupation debris;   the site — and also Woodhenge nearby — was eminently suitable for a Neolithic priests’ training college, or something similar. However, despite the fact that it was the excavator himself who offered the original interpretation of roofed roundhouses,  it has become an article of faith since then that the circles of upright posts were open air temples – like wooden stone circles;   the evidence for them having been roofed buildings is rarely discussed.

“But now, it seems to me, the steady pattern of discoveries in Orkney — first at Barnhouse and now, spectacularly, on the Ness of Brodgar — is vindicating my idea of priestly residences.

“The existence of the Ness of Brodgar complex could almost have been predicted from those ideas I put in the book back in 1977, when I suggested that Skara Brae was a special site,  supporting the idea that a professional priesthood, with a body of arcane knowledge, may have existed in the British Isles in the fourth and third millennia BC.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite brave enough make that specific prediction 35 years ago!

“To me, the Ness site is a wonderful confirmation of those original ideas. But one would like some further evidence.

“Alexander Thom believed that accurate long alignments towards the sun at the horizon at important points of the annual solar cycle were marked in Neolithic-times Britain, and that this resulted in the construction of a precise solar calendar, based on a simple sixteen-fold division of the solar year. I still maintain that this is basically correct and that there’s lots of new evidence in support.

“On the Ness of Brodgar, I understand that at least two of the structures probably have solar alignments –  towards midsummer and the equinox.

“That’s very interesting in itself, but it may also give us a direct link to Thom’s solar calendar. But if it was also found, for example, that the buildings were set out according to certain measuring units and in certain proportions, then that would be a wonderful thing, too.

“However, that kind of evidence has to be specifically looked for.”

“I think everyone agrees that the complex on the Ness of Brodgar must have been for some very powerful elite.

“You don’t otherwise get that quality of construction, the elaborate buildings and the enormous amount of work that must have gone into them. You can’t begin to calculate how many man-hours were spent building the encircling wall, for example.  And I challenge anyone to deny that a Neolithic complex that had a building with a slated stone roof  was not something very special indeed.

“You can’t have all that without some individual, or group, with huge prestige organising everybody and commanding a vast labour force.

“So I don’t think there’s any doubt that some kind of elite existed and that the Ness was its centre. I favour a priestly elite — so, to me, the Ness of Brodgar is what you might call the Neolithic equivalent of  a bishop’s palace, or even of an archbishop’s palace. And it goes almost without saying that the existence of so many huge and elegant ritual sites close by — forming the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ — could support this idea.

“It looks as though there was a period of a few centuries when something spectacular happened in Neolithic Orkney in religious and ceremonial terms. This can easily be seen in the standing stones, of which there are two basic kinds.

“There are those that one might call ‘ordinary’ standing stones — of fairly modest size, somewhat irregular in shape and similar to most of the others one sees around Scotland. Then there are the ‘giant stones’ — colossal, symmetrical, thick slabs of sandstone, usually with pointed tops and weighing many tons, which have evidently been carefully quarried and dragged to their sites with a huge communal effort.

“Most of these seem to be concentrated in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The time in the Neolithic age when the giant stones started to go up was surely that of Maeshowe, which incorporates four of them — though that site may have been built at the beginning of this period,  which inaugurated the period of maximum power of the elite in the Ness of Brodgar settlement, around the Neolithic ‘cathedral’ or bishop’s palace, or whatever one wants to call it.

“The fact that Maeshowe has built-in alignments not only to midwinter sunset but also to two other points in the prehistoric solar calendar suggests that this was also the great age of accurate astronomical observation and of the systematic use of that calendar.

“The geography of the place where this extraordinary site was built is interesting for at least two reasons. Firstly, the Ness of Brodgar is a narrow promontory, with water on three sides — assuming the causeway was built in historical times — just the sort of site that early Christian monasteries were constructed on.

“The giant walls to the north-west and south-east of the site seem, to me, to be analogous to the ditches which often surrounded or barred off those monasteries, and also, of course, to the ditch which surrounds Maeshowe and the henge monuments. This surely all points to Ness of Brodgar being a religious site of paramount importance, surrounded by an impressive  boundary to emphasise the sanctity of the enclosed space.

“Secondly, there is the simple fact that the whole promontory is naturally aligned very close to north-west/south-east — the directions of midsummer sunset and midwinter sunrise respectively. This surely cannot be a coincidence.

“The Neolithic religious elite, looking for a site for its headquarters, found there a promontory of the kind ideal for such sites throughout the ages, and also one which seemed tailor-made for their religious activities, which could have focused on sun worship, by being naturally lined upon two of the most important dates in the prehistoric solar calendar.

“Of course, the Ness site may have been chosen, for similar reasons, much earlier than the Late Neolithic, and simply elaborated then.

“The whole scale of the thing suggests a wider influence than in Orkney itself. In the 1980s, Colin Renfrew suggested that Orkney was a sort of pilgrimage centre for people from all over the British Isles, and this idea makes a lot of sense in this case: a religious headquarters which pilgrims came to visit and novices came for training – just like Julius Caesar described the druids in the Iron Age, spending 20 years learning vast quantities of verse, incorporating all their knowledge.

“I always thought it was significant that Caesar said that the druidical order was supposed to have originated in Britain and that those who wished to pursue their studies more deeply usually went there.  That’s only 2,000 years after the period we’re talking about,  and it seems very likely that some similar priestly class existed in Neolithic times.

“There may be an analogy for Ness of Brodgar in a prehistoric site I examined on Loch Fyne, in Argyllshire, some years ago — Brainport Bay, near the village of Minard. It had a fortuitous alignment of natural features pointing north-east to the midsummer sunrise where there was, amazingly, a distant mountain peak.

“This site had been considerably modified by prehistoric man, with artificial platforms, moved rocks to form a notch, and so on,  to make it more like a proper indicated alignment. Brainport Bay was used for many centuries after Neolithic times — down to the Iron Age and perhaps beyond.

“Fortunately, there is a test for this hypothesis about Ness of Brodgar. If it is correct, further examination of the alignments of the structures and of the standing stones round about may well reveal clear signs of their being directed to midwinter sunrise and midsummer sunset. A look at the map suggests that Stenness, Ness of Brodgar and Ring of Brodgar all fall quite close to that line.  I hope to investigate!

“Looking at the Ness, and the amazing complex of standing stones and stone circles which surrounds it, it is clear that there’s a real need to radically rethink our ideas about Neolithic Orkney,  and to come up with a new general explanation of what happened in those islands in the third millennium BC.

“I have offered one scenario,  but alternatives may emerge to be matched against the totality of the evidence.

“The ramifications of  the discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar will probably spread well beyond Orkney,  and it is clear that the traditional assumptions which have guided archaeological theorising about this issue in the past are no longer valid.”

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