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  A Brief History of Orkney

The Bronze Age - 2500-800BC

Towards the end of the third millennium BC, prehistoric society in Orkney saw a number of changes that heralded the arrival of the Bronze Age.

New ideas and concepts were spreading through Britain, the most important of which was the introduction of metal, in particular copper and bronze.

But the changes sweeping southern Britain did not seem to catch on in Orkney, where metal goods remained scarce - probably remaining as objects of prestige and power.

Although copper could be found naturally in Orkney, there is a distinct lack of evidence for copper mining in the county. This could imply that metal objects were still being imported and, as such, remained relatively rare, prestigious goods.

The apparent reluctance to embrace the new technologies has been blamed on the ancient Orcadians, who, it has been suggested, were not keen to move away from their old traditions and accept the new. This idea is debatable, however, and in truth there is much still to be learned about Bronze Age Orkney.

But gradually, changes did occur.

Bronze Age construction moved away from the large monumental structures, such as Maeshowe, and although there remains little evidence of Bronze Age settlements, it appears that clustered designs such as Skara Brae were abandoned in favour of individual stone houses in small, dispersed communities.

Burial practices

As people moved away from communal living, they also shifted away from the traditions of communal burial in chambered cairns.

Instead, the practice of individual burials in stone cists, dug into the ground, became more common.

Initially, the dead were buried within their cists but, over time, the practice of cremation found favour, with the cremated remains placed inside the burial cist.

Stone cairns, or earthen mounds, known as barrows, were erected over these cists, which were usually clustered in small groups in certain areas. Fine examples of Orkney barrow burials can be found around the Ring of Brodgar in Stenness and the Knowes of Trotty in Harray.

As the chambered cairns fell out of use, they were permanently sealed up and filled in, or in some cases, such as Pierowall, in Westray, destroyed.

This shift in emphasis — from community to individual — hints at a rise of a more hierarchical society, where the individual, a leader, for example, was deemed more important.

Climate deterioration

A tenacious explanation for Orkney's apparent Bronze Age decline relates to an apocalyptic scenario in which climatic deterioration left the islands crippled, with a dwindling population and isolated from the rest of the British Isles.

This doomsday vision persisted for decades and although is still sometimes cited today, environmental work around Orkney has shown it to be incorrect.

Although Orkney’s climate did become wetter, there is no evidence for a population drop in the Bronze Age. In fact, there seems to have been a slight increase in human activity.

Burnt mounds

Burnt mounds are typical of Bronze Age Orkney.

They are generally just mounds of blackened earth, usually found near a source of fresh water, mixed with the remains of heated stones and ash. Beneath these mounds lie the remains of paved areas, usually incorporating a hearth and a stone lined pit.

Burnt mounds are generally agreed to be the remains of areas used for heating water. Stones, which had been heated in fires, were placed in a water-filled tank. The hot stones then heated the water. What this hot water, or steam, was used for depends on which theory you follow.

Some favour the idea that the sites were purely domestic and used for cooking, while others suggest a more ritualistic use, perhaps a sweathouse or sauna.

Whatever the purpose, as the stones cooled and cracked, the remains were discarded and built up around the area, along with quantities of ash, to form the burnt mounds that dot the landscape today.

The presence of low stone walls surrounding many of the structures has prompted some experts to suggest that the structure may have been roofed.

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