The Neolithic


Ring of Brodgar: Picture Sigurd TowrieThe real evidence of Orkney’s human history begins to appear at some point before the fourth millennium BC.

By this time the bands of hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic had gradually evolved into a agricultural society and small communities of farmers were making their way across the Pentland Firth from Caithness and western Scotland to settle in the fertile northern islands.

As farmers, the nomadic lifestyle of the Mesolithic had to cease as the raising of crops required permanent settlements in areas of good soil. But despite the importance of agriculture, the people of the Neolithic still relied on hunting and fishing to survive.

The daily way of life of these early farmers can be gleaned from the remains of their houses, burial places and monuments, as well as the less grand, but equally important, materials such as pottery, tools and refuse.

Places such as the Knap of Howar, on Papay, and Skara Brae, on the western shores of the Orkney Mainland, give clear insights into the domestic lives of the farming communities. At the Knap o’ Howar, for example, the bones of domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs were found alongside those of wild deer, whales and seals.

Their tradition of elaborate burials within chambered cairns such as Cuween, Wideford and Quanterness also gives tantalising glimpses of these early Orcadians, their beliefs and customs.

Cairns were an essential part of life to the early farmers with men, women and children of all ages buried within the chambered tombs they erected throughout Orkney.

Analysis of the bones found within these tombs tells us of a population in which few people reached the age of 50 and in which those who survived childhood, usually died in their thirties..

Over the years the small farming communities gradually developed into larger tribal units, perhaps with an elite ruling class. These communities were capable of constructing the major tribal monuments such as Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.

From around 2900BC the “heartland” of the Orkney Mainland – the area surrounding the lochs of Stenness and Harray – was a sacred ceremonial meeting place.

This sacred centre remained important to the people of Orkney for 2000 years until the once-common group burials were replaced by the individual interments common of the Bronze Age.