For much of my life I have had a conflicted relationship with history. The further back in time I go, the more unwieldly the personalities and events become that have shaped our societies and cultures. Who can (…or would want to) remember all those names and dates? Having said that, as I get older I become aware of my growing interest in history. Is it because I have more years behind me than in front of me? Is it that I have a past myself and, as my senior years are upon me, I now appreciate events of history more than I did as a young man?
When you visit the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, you cannot ignore the past. In fact, it is front and center for all Orkadians to see and touch, no matter how old they are, what career they pursue or how interested they are in history. This is not surprising when you consider how much evidence of their presence former generations have left behind. Unlike most places where you have to dig deep before you find the skeletons of the past, in the Orkneys they are right at the surface for everybody to see.
When I talk about historic evidence it the Orkneys, I am not referring to the almost 1,000 year old St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall or the British warships on the bottom of Scapa Flow. I am talking about a 6,000 year old history. From ancient burial mounds to the standing stones of Neolithic henges to prehistoric villages by the sea, the Orkney Islands are covered with silent witnesses of the past.
I ask myself: for a native Orkadian, what must it be like to grow up in a place so deeply entrenched in history, a land soaked in the memories of hundreds of generations, a landscape much unchanged for millennia? Do Orkadians share a common sense of belonging that we don’t have in our modern societies of North America? Yes, we might be able to trace our family origins to the 17th century or to the arrival of our forefathers at Ellis Island in New York, but what if we could point to the Neolithic villagers who farmed this land in 4,000 B.C. as our ancestors? How would that kind of awareness and deep rooted sense of belonging shape the psyche of young Orkadians? How do they shape a relationship with the landscape and the natural world?
My visit to the Orkney Islands was highlighted by stopovers at Skara Brae (a Neolithic village), the Ring of Brodgar (a ceremonial site) and Maeshowe (a burial mound). All three sites (together with the Stones of Stenness) were collectively designated a World Heritage Site in 1999.
The first question that comes to mind when visiting the village of Skara Brae is this: Why are the 6,000 year old Neolithic sites in the Orkneys so well preserved? The answer can be found in the building material: sandstone. When new settlers arrived around 4,000 B.C., the Orkney Islands had already been cleared of all woodlands. The newcomers took over from the hunters and gatherers as they grew crops, built villages, established community and raised sheep and cattle. Even now, 250 generations later, the houses they built of sandstone can still be seen at the remarkable Skara Brae site near the town of Kirkwall. Skara Brae was a tiny village with 50 to 100 inhabitants. They lived in permanent houses which featured a central hearth, stone-built beds, dressers and small cells built into the wall for jewellery and other treasured belongings. Except for the stone-built beds, their needs and preferences may not have been much different than ours.
Not far from Skara Brae is the burial mound of Maeshowe. Estimated to be 500 years older than the pyramids in Egypt, Maeshowe was a place for the living as well as for the dead. The exact function of the mound is unclear but it is assumed that the Neolithic Orkadians practiced some kind of ancestor worship. When members of the community died, they lay their bodies on raised platforms and allowed the eagles and ravens to remove the soft tissue until only the skeleton was left. The bones were then carried to the mound and stored inside. The mound at Maeshowe contains a spacious room in its center with three crawl spaces built into the interior walls. The bones were laid to rest inside the crawl spaces. It is assumed that only privileged members of the community were allowed inside the mound chamber. The rest of the community would have performed interment rituals outside of the mound entrance.
Curiously, many runes were carved into the sandstone walls of the mound’s interior chamber. It was not too difficult to identify the creators of the ancient graffiti as many engraved their names along with some remarkable artwork. Archeologists and historians agree that the wall writings are the creative work of Norse crusaders (descendants of the Vikings) who sought shelter inside the mound during a severe snow storm. The time was the middle of the 12 century A.D., when the Orkney Islands were under the control of Norway. The wall writings are light hearted and wry. One artist brags to be the “most skilled in runes in the western ocean”, while another proclaims that “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of women.” There also is talk of a treasure which supposedly had been removed from the mound chamber three days before the Norse’s visit.
Whatever your relationship with history may be, you have to admit that it must have been great fun for archeologists to rescue ancient villages at risk to be washed away by the ocean waves, to translate runes in a pre-historic burial chamber or to study the purpose of Neolithic henges with giant standing stones arranged in mysterious circles. I can easily see myself becoming an archeologist in another lifetime. After all, digging for bones with my hands is not that different from digging out dandelions in my front garden.