The Heart of Neolithic Orkney: The Ring of Brodgar

The stones stood in a ring in the middle of a field. A breeze rustled through the heather and raised the hair on the back of my neck. As I walked towards them, the ancientness of the place pulled me along. I reached out my hands and touched the nearest stone and –

 

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And nothing.

Another beloved novel ruined for me, much like the realization that I was never getting my Hogwarts letter forever changed how I related to Harry Potter. Nevertheless, I bucked up and continued on my way – taking solace in the fact that Orkney isn’t technically in the Highlands, so my Jamie Fraser might still be out there.

 

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Standing in a field overlooking the Loch of Harray, the Ring of Brodgar sticks out in a landscape of rolling hills. In some ways, though, it has been just another part of the Orkney landscape for millennia. No one’s quite sure when the stones were erected, but archaeologists estimate that it was done between 2500 and 2000 BC, making it quite a bit younger than the settlement at Skara Brae. It’s been around for so long that, before historical preservation took on the importance that it has today, the locals didn’t think much of it or the similar sites around. There are stories of farmers getting fed up with having a big rock on their land and pulling it down to get it out of their way – one local got so annoyed by a standing stone on his land that he dynamited it. While only 36 of the original 60 standing stones comprising the Ring of Brodgar survive, their demise was probably more due to the elements than to cantankerous, dynamite-happy farmers.

 

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No one’s quite sure why it was built, either. The best guess, though, comes from the surrounding area. The Ring of Brodgar is situated in the middle of several other important Neolithic sites, such as burial mounds like Maeshowe (pronounces mays-how), and many Bronze-Age tools and relics have been found in the area. Historians and archaeologists suggest that the Ring of Brodgar had some connection to Neolithic ceremonies, and might have been thought to be a place where the living and the dead could commune together. Maybe Diana Gabaldon wasn’t so far off after all.

 

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Since 1884, archaeologists have been prohibited from excavating around the Ring of Brodgar itself, and there is therefore little evidence for how its builders used it or why. However, much excavation has been allowed at nearby sites, supporting theories that the Ring of Brodgar was one of the most important sites in Orkney for its Neolithic inhabitants.

 

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In 1999, the Ring of Brodgar, along with nearby Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Stenness, and Maeshowe, was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status under the title “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney“.

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