Ring of Brodgar

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The Ring of Brodgar, with Loch of Harray beyond

The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar, or Ring o' Brodgar) is a Neolithic henge and stone circle about 6 miles north-east of Stromness on the Mainland, the largest island in Orkney. It stands on the thin neck of land between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray, which landneck, the Ness of Brodgar, also contains the Standing Stones of Stenness and a wealth of Neolithic finds, all compressed in these narrow confines.

The Ring of Brodgar is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the 'Heart of Neolithic Orkney'.

General information

The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar, or Ring o' Brodgar) is a Neolithic henge and stone circle on Mainland, Orkney. Brodgar ranks with Avebury and Stonehenge among the greatest of such sites.[1] The ring and the Standing Stones of Stenness close by it are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.[2] Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle,[3] but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may have been present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument's age remains uncertain.

It is generally thought that the stones were erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and this was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.[4] A project called The Ring of Brodgar Excavation 2008 was undertaken in the summer of that year in an attempt to settle the age issue and help answer other questions about a site that remains relatively poorly understood.[5] The results of the excavation are still preliminary.

The stone circle is 341 feet in diameter, and the third largest in the British Isles.[4] The ring originally comprised up to 60 stones, of which only 27 remained standing at the end of the 20th century. The tallest stones stand at the south and west of the ring, including the so-called "Comet Stone" to the south-east.[6]:42 The stones are set within a circular ditch up to 10 feet deep, 30 feet wide and 1,247 feet in circumference that was carved out of the solid sandstone bedrock by the ancient residents.[7] Technically, this ditch does not constitute a true henge as there is no sign of an encircling bank of earth and rock. Aubrey Burl classifies the ditch as a 'Class II henge'; one that has two opposing entrances, in this case on the north-west and south-east.[8]

The ditch appears to have been created in sections, possibly by workforces from different parts of Orkney. The stones may have been a later addition, maybe erected over a long period of time.[6]:42

Examination of the immediate environs reveals a concentration of ancient sites, making a significant ritual landscape. Within two square miles there are the two circle-henges, four chambered tombs, groups of standing stones, single stones, barrows, cairns, and mounds.[9] The immediate area has also yielded a number of flint arrowheads and broken stone mace-heads that seem to date from the Bronze Age.[10] Although its exact purpose is not known, the proximity of the Standing Stones of Stenness and its Maeshowe tomb make the Ring of Brodgar a site of major importance. The site is a scheduled ancient monument and has been recognized as part of the "Heart of Neolithic Orkney" World Heritage Site in 1999.

The Ring of Brodgar

World Heritage status

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to the Ring of Brodgar, the site includes Maeshowe, Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose 'Statement of Significance' for the site begins:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation...The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae[11]

The first formal survey of the Ring of Brodgar and surrounding antiquities was performed in 1849 by Captain F W L Thomas of HM Cutter Woodlark.[12] Captain Thomas was in the area drawing up Admiralty Charts in 1848-49, and he and his crew performed archaeological surveys as well resulting in the publication in 1852 of The Celtic Antiquities of Orkney.[13]

Ongoing excavations by Orkney College at the nearby Ness of Brodgar site located roughly midway between the Ring and the Stones of Stenness have uncovered several buildings, both ritual and domestic. Geophysics suggest there are likely to be more in the vicinity. Pottery, bones, stone tools and a polished stone mace head have also been discovered. Perhaps the most important find is the remains of a large stone wall which may have been 350 feet long and up to 20 feet wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on and may have been a symbolic barrier between the ritual landscape of the Ring and the mundane world around it.[14]

Wilder theories: Neolithic geometry, astronomy, and Norse gods

The Ring of Brodgar

Alexander Thom[15] proposed the existence of a "megalithic yard", a common unit of measure in the Neolithic age based on a statistical analysis of Neolithic monuments in the United Kingdom such as Brodgar, and Burl[16] recorded that the diameter of the bank at Brodgar is almost exactly 125 megalithic yards; the same as the inner banks of the Avebury and Newgrange monuments in Wiltshire and Meath respectively.

The so-called "megalithic yard", at 0.9 yard (0.8 m), is considered now mere fantasy. (Heggie stating that his careful analysis uncovered "little evidence for a highly accurate unit" and "little justification for the claim that a highly accurate unit was in use".)[17] Thom, inventor of the megalithic yard, and his father made other controversial contentions, for example, that Brodgar and the burial mounds that surround it were designed specifically as backsights for astronomical observations of the Moon.[18] Graham Ritchie points out that the burial mounds have not been reliably dated, and he casts doubt on the astronomical prowess of the builders.[19]

Euan MacKie suggested that the nearby village of Skara Brae might be the home of a privileged theocratic class of wise men who engaged in astronomical and magical ceremonies at sites like Brodgar and Stenness.[20] Graham and Anna Ritchie cast doubt on this interpretation noting that there is no archaeological evidence for the claim,[21] although a Neolithic "low road" connects Skara Brae with the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, passing near Brodgar and Stenness.[22] Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain.

1823 woodcut; the Ring of Brodgar and surroundings

Local legend also has it that incoming Scandinavian settlers, bringing their gods with them, imposed them on the pre-existing Orcadian monuments: the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness were known as the Temple of the Sun and Moon respectively.[23] Young people supposedly made their vows and prayed to Woden at these "temples" and at the so-called "Odin Stone" that lay between the stone circles until it was destroyed by a farmer in 1814.[23] Others view these fanciful names with scepticism; Sigurd Towrie suggests that "they were simply erroneous terms applied by the antiquarians of the 18th or 19th centuries - romantic additions, in the same vein as the infamous "Druid's Circle" and "Sacrificial Altar"."[24]

At the very least, several of the stones at Brodgar contain runic carvings that were left by Nordic peoples.[25] These include the name "Bjorn" and a small cross as well as an anvil.[6]:42

Outside links

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  1. Ritchie 1985, p. 119
  2. Hawkes 1986, p. 261
  3. Hadingham, 1975, pp.55-56
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Heritage of the Orkney Islands
  5. http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/ringofbrodgar/background.htm The Ring of Brodgar Excavation 2008
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Wickham-Jones, Caroline (2012). Monuments of Orkney. Historic Scotland. ISBN 978-1-84917-073-4. 
  7. Hawkes 1986, p. 262
  8. Burl 1976, p. 101
  9. Laing 1974, p. 84
  10. Childe 1952, p. 35
  11. "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney". Historic Scotland. Retrieved on 5 September 2007
  12. Hedges 1984, p. 22
  13. F W L Thomas (1852) "Account of some of the Celtic antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, etc. with plans" Archaeologia 34. pp. 88–136. Retrieved 31 August 2008.
  14. Ross, John (14 August 2007) "Experts uncover Orkney's new Skara Brae and the great wall that separated living from dead". Edinburgh. The Scotsman.
  15. Thom 1955
  16. Burl 1976, p. 99
  17. Heggie 1981 p. 58
  18. Thom & Thom 1973
  19. Ritchie 1985, p. 127
  20. MacKie 1977
  21. Ritchie 1981, pp. 51-52
  22. Castleden 1987, p. 117
  23. 23.0 23.1 Hedges 1984, p. 13
  24. http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/brodgar/temples.htm/ The Temples of the Sun and Moon: True tradition or romantic addition? Retrieved 26 March 2009
  25. Laing 1974, p. 233
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  • Castleden, Rodney (1987). The Stonehenge People. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.. ISBN 0-7102-0968-1. 
  • Childe, V. Gordon; W. Douglas Simpson (1952). Illustrated History of Ancient Monuments: Vol. VI Scotland. Edinburgh: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. 
  • Hadingham, Evan (1975). Circles and Standing Stones: An Illustrated Exploration of the Megalith Mysteries of Early Britain. New York: Walker and Company. ISBN 0-8027-0463-8. 
  • Hawkes, Jacquetta (1986). The Shell Guide to British Archaeology. London: Michael Joseph. ISBN 0-7181-2448-0. 
  • Hedges, John W. (1984). Tomb of the Eagles: Death and Life in a Stone Age Tribe. New York: New Amsterdam. ISBN 0-941533-05-0. 
  • Heggie, Douglas C. (1981). Megalithic Science: Ancient Mathematics and Astronomy in North-west Europe. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05036-8. 
  • Laing, Lloyd (1974). Orkney and Shetland: An Archaeological Guide. Newton Abbott: David and Charles Ltd.. ISBN 0-7153-6305-0. 
  • MacKie, Euan (1977). Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-70245-0. 
  • Ritchie, Graham & Anna (1981). Scotland: Archaeology and Early History. New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27365-0. 
  • Ritchie, Graham (1985). "Ritual Monuments". in Renfrew, Colin. The Prehistory of Orkney BC 4000-1000 AD. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-85224-456-8. 
  • Thom, A.; Thom A.S. (1973). "A megalithic lunar observatory in Orkney: the Ring of Brodgar and its cairns". Journal of Historical Astronomy 4: 111–123. 
  • Thom, Alexander (1955). "A Statistical Examination of the Megalithic Sites in Britain". Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General) 118 part III (3): 275–295. doi:10.2307/2342494. 
  • Wainwright, G.J. (1969). "A review of henge monuments in the light of recent research". Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 35: 112–133. 
Monuments of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Maeshowe  • Standing Stones of Stenness  • Ring of Brodgar  • Skara Brae

World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom

BathBlaenavon Industrial LandscapeBlenheim PalaceCanterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey & St. Martin's ChurchCastles and Town Walls of King Edward ICornwall and West Devon Mining LandscapeDerwent Valley MillsDurham Castle & CathedralEdinburgh Old Town & New TownForth Bridge • Frontiers of the Roman Empire: Antonine Wall & Hadrian's WallGiant's CausewayIronbridge GorgeJurassic CoastKew GardensLiverpool Maritime Mercantile CityMaritime GreenwichNew LanarkHeart of Neolithic OrkneyPontcysyllte AqueductSt KildaSaltaireStonehenge, Avebury & Associated Sites • Studley Royal Park & Fountains AbbeyTower of LondonPalace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey & St Margaret's Church