Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness form an impressive Neolithic monument on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland. Various traditions associated with the stones survived into the modern era and they form part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. I took this photo during a full moonlit night and I couldn't help but think about the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey as Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" was pounding in my head.  It was awesome to imagine a tribe of neolithic people gathering here some 5000 thousand years ago and planning such an extraordinary and magnificent structure.  What is the most incredible aspect is that these stones are nearly plumb, truly a testament to the skill and ingenuity of "primitive" man.
The stones are thin slabs, approximately 300 mm (1 ft) thick. Four, up to about 5 m (16 ft) high, were originally elements of a stone circle of 12 stones, laid out in an ellipse about 32 m (104 ft) diameter on a levelled platform of 44 m (144 ft) diameter surrounded by a ditch. The ditch is cut into rock by as much as 2 m (7 ft) depth and is 7 m (23 ft) wide, surrounded by an earth bank, with a single entrance causeway on the north side. The entrance faces towards the Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement which has been found adjacent to the Loch of Harray. The Watch Stone stands outside the circle to the north-west and is 5.6 m (18 ft) high. Other smaller stones include a square stone setting in the centre of the circle platform where cremated bone, charcoal and pottery were found, and animal bones were found in the ditch. The pottery links the monument to Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and the site is thought to date from at least 3000 BC.  This is the oldest structure of its kind in the world. 
The Orkney Museum has a great collection of artifacts as well.  There are many unanswered questions about the history of these people that leave much to speculation.  Without empirical evidence, historians can only guess at how they were able to trade ideas and resources across vast distances and oceans.  One thing that is without question, these people were extraordinarily intelligent, adaptive and creative.

While in Orkney, I vsited many of the historic sites on the island, including Maehowe, Skara Brae, the Brough of Birsay and the Broch of Gurness. The Brough of Birsay is a small (21 hectare) uninhabited tidal island off the north west coast of The Mainland of Orkney, Scotland, in the parish of Birsay.
The island is accessible on foot at low tide via this walkway.
It is separated from the mainland by a 240 metre stretch of water at high tide: the Sound of Birsay.  Strangely enough, this island was first thought to have been inhabited around the 5th centtury AD which coincides with the founding of the monastery on Skellig Michael, another remote island 600 miles SW.  Defensively, this site has obvious advantages as it is only accessible for 4 hours every tidal cycle. 

Orkney has a lot to offer and was absolutely worth the visit.  I had the privilege of attending a ghost storytelling at Skaill House that provided a rich cultural experience.  There is nothing like listening to an Orkadian or a Shetlander tell a yarn.  The saga is in fact an oral tradition and one only has to try to follow the intricate plot, colorful imagery, and pagan symbolism to appreciate how complex these stories can be.  It was a great night and an amazing journey "off the beaten path".


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