Thursday, 20 December 2012

When a Stone is not just a Stone

Image taken from
 I have opened today with an image of the truly breathtaking Skara Brae, Orkney.  With Winter Solstice almost upon us today had to focus upon the Neolithic, an era where so much research is focused upon the interaction of people with the Sun, Moon, Stars and Planets.  It is a period I love dearly, but, have rarely been fortunate to study.  So today I will tell you a little bit about the beautiful Skara Brae and then share one of my favourite Skara Brae artefacts.

Today is wet, windy and all together rather bleak, but, nothing like Orkney in the Winter of 1850.  A storm hit Scotland and such was its' strength that some 200 people lost their lives.  It also uncovered one of the World's most well preserved and admired archaeological sites.  The 'village' of Skara Brae was known once more...and William Watt wasted little time in exploring the ruins, quickly setting up an amateur excavation.  By 1868 and after uncovering 4 houses his attentions were no longer upon Skara Brae and the site was once more left to the elements.  This was until 1913 when sadly a group of individuals visited the site looting and plundering an unknown number of artefacts, which by now could be anywhere.  It was again left, then the Winter of 1924 set in and another storm hit Orkney, this time causing part of a house to be swept away, this time it was decided that something had to be done and Skara Brae's future rested with Edinburgh University and more specifically Gordon Childe.

By the 1970's 10 houses were fully excavated and the insight gained into Neolithic life was ever rising.  The houses formed a pattern, 9 having almost identical layouts, with one bucking the trend.  This lone house was quickly interpreted as being an area of crafts, a theory supported by the vast amounts of bone and ivory it contained.  Skara Brae is now listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and excavations and surveys are ongoing.

It is often said that the settlement is small, a village maybe, however it is also often forgotten that Skara Brae was once much further in land and a great deal is likely to be lost to sea.  Surveys have also indicated further dwellings in nearby fields, though excavation is not yet possible.  The wealth of artefacts remaining on the site leads many to suggest that Skara Brae is Britain's Pompeii.  A theory that may not be too far from the truth, well minus the volcano bit!  The preservation is amazing and the cultural remains are unparallelled for a site of its' type.  Why did the inhabitants leave all their belongs behind?  Surely they would need them where ever they moved to?  For us as archaeologists the fact they left everything means we can do far more with the site, but as people if we stop and think about it, it means they left in a hurry.  There was no planning, just up and gone, which means one thing...they were scared.  It is thought that the 'village' was shielded by sand dunes, providing shelter from the Orkney elements.  However, the dunes that kept them safe may well have been what caused them to flee.  If a storm, such as that of 1850, occurred the protector would quickly become the enemy and begin to fill their homes.  Some say it was quickly which caused them to up and leave, others argue it was slowly and leaving was far more controlled and for other unknown reasons.  I am pretty convinced by the storm personally, it is was revealed it after all!

I keep hinting at artefacts and how they were left, but you have yet to see any, so I think it is about time I shared.

Image taken from
They are carved stone balls and have presented archaeologists with yet more mystery.  They appear in their highest numbers in North-East Scotland, but are known in the rest of Scotland, the very North of England and Ireland.  They are all roughly the same size, c6cm in diameter, but their stone type and weight vary dramatically.  This rules out them being used a measurements for traded goods, but does open endless new questions.  Some people think the carvings and bobbly bits are there to make securing a rope to them easier, thus allowing them to be used as weaponry.  Considering geographies and period I am far from convinced by this interpretation. 

Geography plays a part in the second theory.  North-East Scotland and its' islands have many Neolithic standing stone monuments and these carved balls are found in locations close by.  As such it has been suggested that they were used to roll the wooden sleepers that carried some of the stones to their destinations.  It is suggested that is why they are all of similar size, however, would they not be left with the standing stones, why would you take them home again?

Some people have suggested that they are net weights or sinkers, used to assist in fishing.  The number of bones and shells from sea based creatures certainly adds to this theory in the case of Skara Brae.  As does the lack of presence in graves, suggesting that they were not owned or significant in the afterlife.  I would expect to find them on beaches rather than in 'villages', but if they had left in a rush this is possible.

My favourite theory is a bit more in line with the gods and the Solstice.  It states that the carved balls are a form of rune or oracle.  They are thrown, moved, rolled and how they fall tells their users what the gods want from them.  The varied shapes and bobbles have the potential to relate to different gods.  It also explains the conformity in size and styles, if the purpose is cosmological they are made within the boundaries of the belief. 

So there you have the theories, what do you think?  Do you agree with one? Or do you have something different? Don't forget to share!!