What was it used for?
"..a common theory
has been that they had some connection with the religion of
the Druids, and may have been places of sacrifice."
If there is one question that is most commonly-asked regarding the Ring o’ Brodgar, and the neighbouring Standing Stones o’ Stenness it has to be : “But what was it for?”
However, it’s unlikely that the stone circles had a single purpose.
Just as churches today are used for various things – weddings, burials, worship, meeting places, entertainment, etc – it is likely that the stone circles served a number of roles.
Because of the effort involved in their construction, its fairly safe to say that they were important to the widespread community and, as such, these roles probably revolved around religion or ritual.
Theories abound - some plausible, while others verge on the ridiculous.
Were they massive open-air temples? Communal meeting places perhaps? Or constructed purely as a means to map the heavens and measure the passing of time?
It could be all of these, or none. Despite the claims of many, we simply can't say for certain.
An astronomical observatory?
The results of excavations elsewhere
in Britain, together with various finds at similar sites, do seem
to point to a connection with the movement of the sun and the
moon across the sky.
Astronomical alignments certainly
seem exist at a large number of stone circles, perhaps even Brodgar, and this does add weight to the widespread theory that they were in someway
used as astronomical observatories. Again, opinions on this
topic vary, with as many detractors as supporters.
For more details of alleged astronomical
alignments at the Ring of Brodgar, click
Alexander Thom, an expert in the field of archeo-astronomy,
spent several decades studying stone circles 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
long before the Age of Pythagoras.
conclusions were that the stone rings were definitely astronomical observatories.
At Brodgar, he felt
the outlying mounds surrounding the ring were a key to this role - going so far as to say that the mounds were more
important than the standing stones themselves.
From the circle, Thom noted that the
natural features in the surrounding landscape seemed to serve as
distant markers for the rising and setting of the moon.
A sightline to the cliffs of Hellia on Hoy, for example, seemed
to mark the minor southern setting of the moon, while a notch on
Mid Hill, to the south-east, defined the minor southern moonrise.
These facts, he said, proved that
the ancient Orcadians used the monuments to gain a widespread body
of knowledge of the moon's movements.
"The Brodgar site is the most perfect
example of a megalithic lunar observatory that we have left
The ring and ditch were probably placed on
this little hill at first because from here there are four
far-sights marking the approximate position of the rising/setting
moon at the major and minor standstills.
Perhaps a thousand years later the accurate
observatory was built from a cairn of earth, built with such
accuracy that we can today date the observatory by the slowly
changing obliquity of the ecliptic at about 1600BC.
Large mounds were built so that watchers could
be placed on top to warn the people below of the impending
rising of the moon."
However, Professor Thom was of the opinion
that the Ring's 60 stones actually served the community
as a sacred, or magical, ceremonial centre rather than being
directly involved in the site's function as an observatory.
Although there may be an
element of truth in Professor Thom's theories, it must be stressed
that they are not universally accepted. His critics are keen to
point out that the dates he puts forward for the construction of
the ring, based on astronomical alignments, are around 1,000 years
later than the accepted date of the ring's construction.
In 2004, as part of the first in-depth study
into the construction of Orkney's stone rings, archaeologist Dr Colin Richards suggested
it was not necessarily the completed stone circles that were
significant but rather the act of constructing them.
prestige of erecting a fine megalith, he suggested, may have been the driving
force behind the development of the monuments.
paper Rethinking the great stone circles of northwest Britain, Dr Richards, of Manchester University,
challenged the long-held assumption that the monuments were intended to serve
a purpose after their construction – a purpose usually assumed to be
of ceremonial or of ritual or religious significance.
he suggested 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 Brodgar were actually used. Click here for more details.
Honouring the ancestors?
Or were the stone circles constructed
to honour the ancestors?We know that the Neolithic
people participated in some form of ancester veneration, but were the stone circles
part of this?
One theory is that the Ring of Brodgar
represented a symbolic area for the dead, while the Standing Stones of Stenness, with its central hearth, represented life.
The procession from Stenness to Brodgar, therefore, could be seen as a symbolic
journey from life to death.
Others feel the stones themselves
were erected to honour the ancestors, who, being a tangible link
to the farming community's right to the land ratified their place
within the islands' prehistoric society.
A prehistoric meeting place?
The sheer size of the Brodgar ring
prompted the theory that it was designed to house the local
population attending ceremonies or events.
According to Aubrey Burl, the Ring of Brodgar could have held 3,000 people. He went on to suggest that the Brodgar Ring was erected because the Standing Stones of Stenness
grew too small to contain the increasing number of "participants".
We shall probably never know the
real purpose of this enigmatic stone circle, and it's use, like
our modern day churches and temples, was probably very complex.
Human burials, festivals of thanks, animal sacrifice, marriage,
meeting areas or pathways to the gods - all of these are possibilities. The only thing that is certain is that the Ring of Brodgar has captured the
imagination of people for millennia and looks set to continue doing
so for some time to come.