Art & Archaeology in Orkney

By Bernie Bell

The University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Department is currently running a course entitled ‘Art and Archaeology: Contemporary Theory and Practice.’

I quote from the course booklet……

“This new module explores the relationship between the theory and practice of art and archaeology through a detailed examination of contemporary and historical contexts and case studies. Now in its third year, the module draws upon the expertise of staff in both art and archaeology who are actively researching and publishing on this exciting new interdisciplinary and collaborative research area. Case studies are varied and cover the latest research on a broad range of topics including prehistoric rock art, Modernism, landscape archaeology and contemporary art.”

There is  a Masters module and also an undergraduate one.

This got me thinking about  how archaeology, appears in the art of our times.  There was something of this in previous pieces in ‘The Orkney News’

In fact, I realise that quite a few articles in TON have touched on these ideas, so, if you‘d like to hunt about in the Orkney News archives, you’ll find more!

And now, I’ll embark on my ramblings about where you can find examples of the archaeology of Orkney, appearing in the art–works, of Orkney.

The Hoxa Tapestry Gallery ( ) has wonderful images and interpretations of some of the archaeological sites of Orkney.  There’s one, which we have a print of on our spare bedroom wall (can’t afford the tapestry!), which has an image which is as though, on the lower half, the viewer is looking down on the Ring of Brodgar, whereas the upper half is as though the viewer is below the Ring, looking up, combined with various iconic images of the Orkney landscape.

Hoxa tapestry Ring of Brodgar B Bell

This leads neatly on to Aaron Watson.  Aaron Watson is a well-known and well respected archaeologist – he does a lot of work on the use of sound at ancient sites, and he also produces art work.  He had an exhibition at the Loft Gallery, St. Margaret’s Hope  a good few years ago now (I’m not very good about Time).  One of his images was as though the Ring of Brodgar was a pool, and the viewer was under the pool, looking up, through the Ring.  This image was the first thing the visitor to the gallery saw, on climbing up the stairs to the Loft.  Stunning.  He has many other images of stones and stony places, some on Orkney, some not.  He has a web-site , where you can see his work.

Aaron’s work on the use of sound, leads also neatly on, to Mr A. Appleby & chums, who made a c.d. called ‘Out of the Stones’, in which they used re-creations of ancient instruments, to make music, and some groovy music it is too!!  That’s a different form of artistic interpretation, and also valid. A ‘modern’ interpretation of ancient music, with no score to work from, just working with the sound which each instrument makes. Have a listen………..

There are also Andrew’s experiments with ancient pottery, another art-form.

The ancient people could have just made the pots, in a purely utilitarian way, but they chose to decorate them too, and now people today are re-creating them, and creating ‘new’ designs, based on the originals, but with their own inspiration/interpretation.

Appleby brooch and pot B BellAnd so, on to the art-work of Babette Barthelmess. Babette spent her working life as a micro-biologist and geneticist. On retirement, she let her creative flow – flow, and has produced a book about The Tomb of the Eagles, entitled, ‘A Celebration of Sunrise at The Tomb of the Eagles’.  This is available from the Tankerness House Museum, in Kirkwall   Babette has also produced art-work based on Stonehall, a ‘site’ just  down from Cuween cairn, near Finstown.  She’s also done a lot of art-work based on the Ball of Towie.  Now, this is where I could take off, completely, but I’ll try to confine myself to the subject in hand!  It could be a bit difficult to see Babette’s work.  There’s some at the Eagle Cairn, some in our house!, and that’s the thing, mostly, it’s just been bought by people and is in their houses.   It would be worth visiting the Eagle Cairn, to see her work there.  Her re-creation of the Ball of Towie is there, and I’m sure that, if you asked whoever is giving the tour of the museum, they would let you have a proper look at it.  You can’t see all the carving when it’s in the display case.  As to the Ball of Towie….how I see it is…..that she hasn’t produced a reproduction, she’s made a re-creation.  I feel that, whoever carved the original, had the same inspiration as Babette had when she was carving it.  It’s one thing to  work on artists interpretations or form of expression in relation to the archaeology, but what about if/when the artist has just the same inspiration as the people who originally created the site or artefact?  I think that Andrew has an element of this in his pot re-creations.

There’s the truly inspired art work, producing images, whether as painting/drawing, writing, music, whatever, then there’s the production of  images or artefacts, basically to please people, to sell those images.  But what’s to say that the people who raised the stones and made the artefacts, didn’t also have an eye to pleasing the public?  If Brodgar & Stenness were places of pilgrimage, why not make them as dramatic and appealing/ inspiring as possible?   The actual places themselves would be presented in a way to impress, but there could even have been an element of the ‘Souvenir from Knock’ about it. Knock is a place in Ireland where The Blessed Virgin is said to have appeared.  When I was a child, the family went there every year.  Last time I went there, there was a huge new Basilica, which looks like a space-ship – impressive though – if you like that sorta thing. There are also lots of shops selling tat – Light-Up-At-Night-Jesus and things like that.  But also, a lot of genuine devotion and heart-felt belief.  I’ve wandered off the point there a bit, as is my wont, but not really.

One more digression. Mike has made up a dance, based on the Ball of Towie.   Thing is, I’m sure that dancing mattered a lot at these places, another art form.  Long story short – dancing, they will have danced. I suppose there aren’t any of their dances left, BUT, the Ball of Towie has inspired Mike to make up a dance, which he’s calling ‘The Ball of Towie’ – geddit?  It’s an artefact, producing a dance, which makes even more of a connection if you consider what could be a reason for carving the ball – to pass on information, ideas, a story, mythology, in a way which the people could follow without ‘reading’ as such.  Digression again…………….The person carved the Ball, explained the ideas in it to a group of people, then he/she could either leave them with it and move on to teach another group, or it was there for when he/she was no longer with them ‘in the flesh’, but they still could ‘read’ the ideas.  And this information, ideas, whatever, is actually still active in people who can see it now, and maybe in Mike’s dance too.  It all connects up, by a somewhat circuitous route maybe, but I think it does.

The Ball of Towie 1The Ball of Towie 2The Ball of Towie 3The Ball of Towie 4

And, of course, there’s Jeanne Bouza Rose and her varied approaches/interpretations/expressions of what she sees at the archaeological digs of Orkney

At this point, I realised that I have bitten off more than I can chew – there is so much – there are also all those people who make jewellery based on the archaeology, André Artymiuk, Sheila Fleet, Ola Gorie – simplest if I put another link in…………..

I’ll mention another couple of things which occur to me, then leave you to explore the idea, and discover art, inspired by/worked from archaeology, for yourself.

Sometimes, the images produced by the archaeologists, doing their job, could be seen as art……………………….there are Jeanne’s spladonga paintings, and also images of the microscopic sections from the spladongas, wouldn’t look out of place in the Pier Arts Centre.

Jeanne Bouza Rouse B Bell Spladonga

Some year ago, Ingrid Mainland, of UHI gave a talk about the huge accumulation of bones which have been found at the Ness of Brodgar dig , and she used images showing where these bones were placed.  This is what I wrote to Ingrid – best way I can think of to  describe what I was seeing/thinking……

“You know the images you have, of the collections of bones, where the bones are represented as little triangles?  A clumsy way of describing it, but you’ll know what I mean.  When I saw them, I thought that they would make a good exhibition in the Pier Arts Centre.  I know, that they’re images to show the layering of the different kinds of bone, but, they are also very pleasing images, in themselves, and something like art works.  Do you get the idea?  There have been collaborative exhibitions between the archaeologists and artists, at the Pier Arts Centre, before now, and I would, personally, like to see those images, as an exhibition.  It also ‘promotes’ the whole idea of the exploration of what’s being found at the Ness, and of archaeology in Orkney, in general.”

And, finally, here’s a thought regarding companies using images of the stones etc. in their marketing – you can see this everywhere – on glasses (we have a Highland Park glass, with the Ring of Brodgar etched onto it), on mugs, on clothing!  It can get a bit out of control, and be a bit….tacky, but, at its best, a link could be seen between the location of the company using the image as a logo, and a connection with their geographical identity.  That’s seen as one of the reasons the people placed the stones and built the cairns in the first place, to link them, their specific group, with their geographical identity. In a nut-shell, one reason that the people raised the stones and built the cairns, was, possibly, to place themselves, geographically, to say “We are here, this is us “.  Now, modern people are doing the same with art-work, jewellery, etc, based on the ancient ‘place markers’.  I think that’s interesting, a connection and statement of identity and place ,through all that time.  Though, if you see time as contemporaneous, rather than linear, those connections and statements of identity linked to place, are all being made at the same TIME. That’s a whole other area, which I won’t embark on here!

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9 replies »

  1. Or….there’s Northlight. Maybe if the archaeologists with – how shall I describe them? Images which are produced as part of their work, but which really would not look out of place in an art gallery – for example – Ingrid Mainland’s images of the ‘spread’ of the different bones from the Ness of Brodgar dig, or similar ‘spreads’ of objects. Or….the microscopic images such as those of the soil samples from the Spladongas. Or, an example from a different dig………………I printed out an image of a microscopic sample of the wood from the bowl which was found at The Cairns dig, which was taken to find out what kind of wood it’s made from. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original image now, and can’t remember if it was on the UHI blog, or The Cairns dig diary, to give you a reference for where to find it. It’s golden, with little blown flecks – may not sound appealing, but it is – it glows, and is now on the wall of the room we call the office, with other favoured images. Then there are the aerial views and geo-physics images – ghosts emerging from the landscape, some more attractively than others.
    So, what if some of the archaeologists with these kind of images, put on an exhibition in Northlight in Stromness? Wouldn’t that be groovy?
    Cary is looking out for exhibitions for the next season at Northlight, so ……………………….? It’s art & archaeology and, how much more contemporary can you get, than showcasing the most recent technology, used in archaeology, producing, art?

  2. Funny that! I have been illustrating ‘Skara, The Fourth Wave’ this morning. I did an aspect of The Ness of Brodgar bone heap with Auroch shin bones and part of an auroch skull with its horn core holding up the well-organised fuel stack. What is so endearing about it are the two Orkney voles I depicted having a comfy home in the hollow tibia.

    It all brings life to the past.

  3. Hmmmmmm At some point, how would you feel about doing an exhibition of the illustrations from the ‘Skara’ books? Hmmmmmmm. There’s a thought………….

  4. Can I add the name of Gloria Wallington for her artistic interpretations of the geology, archaeology and history of Orkney

  5. “At this point, I realised that I have bitten off more than I can chew – there is so much.”

    Yes, indeed, there’s Gloria’s work – particularly well known for her interpretation of Pictish symbols – available on cards from Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall.

    If anyone else, can think of any more, please do add names, links etc.

  6. Oh dear – I’ve got in a bit of a pickle. In the interest of clarity……….
    Years ago, Gloria sent me an email with images of some of her paintings in it. That particular image, was labelled ‘The Broch Builders’, so, that’s what I think of it as being.
    I now notice that, on the cards which are available to buy with this image on, it’s labelled ‘Building Brodgar’. So, that must be what it’s called, now.
    Apologies all round.
    “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet…..”

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