Time Travel in Tankerness House

By Bernie Bell

We travelled through time in the corridors of UHI https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/12/26/christmas-spotting-with-a-difference-uhi-archaeology-institutes-christmas-deccies/ , followed by a similar, though more extensive experience, in the corridors,  rooms, up the stairs and down the stairs, of Tankerness House  Museum in Kirkwall


As with the UHI deccies, we start in the Stone Age, with some exceptionally smart late Neolithic mace heads, from Sandwick and Sanday and one of Orkney’s own carved stone balls, from Holm – a very interestingly shaped one too.

The labels for my next pictures say “Containers and vessels made from stone and whalebone”, and  ‘Whale tooth beads’

Bone might have been used as much as stone, for some things, but not as much of it will have survived. The Bone Age?

Moving forward in time, there is a food vessel which was found in a cist grave.  What’s a cist grave?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cist  And a very smart set of a Bronze Age axe-head, knife and spear-head

The Age of Iron, and The Brochs

The Brochs Orkney Museum

Making metal from stone, was, and is, a magical process. I touched on this, in this piece….  https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/07/27/bernie-bell-minehowe/

A small display in the museum shows something of the process involved in metal-working, and we have some Broch Bling in the form of pins and brooches……

Maybe to wear with your Orkney hood?

The Orkney Hood Orkney museum

To explain the Orkney Hood, I’ll turn to the invaluable resource which is Orkneyjar……..  http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/orkneyhood.htm

There are many exceptional ‘finds’ from the Iron Age and Pictish era – one which I particularly like, is an object labelled ‘ Egg shaped amulet’ which was found at the Bu of Burray.

egg amulet Orkney museumImagine walking there, and finding that!  But, I can’t see why it’s called an amulet.  An amulet, to me, is something worn or displayed, to protect or bring good fortune.  It might just be a pleasing object, which is as likely as anything – a person to carve a pleasing object. Here’s a possibility, though……….

A few years ago, it was Fiona-Next-Door’s birthday, and we went round to say ‘Happy Birthday’, and…..Fiona showed me a lovely object which her brother had sent her, for her birthday.  It’s an egg shaped stone, small, speckled like a gull’s egg.  A lovely thing, to hold and play with.  I then asked where I should put it – it didn’t fit in Fiona’s egg cup, so, she said to just leave it, in a bowl she has in her window.  I did, and, when I placed it in the bowl, I span it, clockwise.  It was great, as it span, the speckles made circles in the egg, wide circles, and also, tiny, tight circles in the middle.  Then, when it stopped spinning, it looked like it was still moving – maybe it was still moving.  It wasn’t spinning, just quivering, slightly. It may have been an optical illusion, or not.  I showed Fiona, and she was entranced by it.

This is where I get back to the ‘Egg shaped amulet’ – It came to me, that this object may have been used for divination.  The ‘Egg shaped amulet’ in the museum, or any similar object, such as Fiona’s egg shaped stone.  I wondered if, maybe the object was placed in a bowl, and the idea was  to ask ‘yes’ and ‘no ‘ questions, as with dowsing?  Or, the inside of the bowl could be marked with sections relating to the different things that  you might be asking about.  Or, the object could just be placed on a surface, and the same idea applies.  I’m mainly for the ‘bowl’ idea – that’s what seemed to fit.  I asked Fiona where did her brother get it from, and she doesn’t know.  Probably a shop which sells rocks and that sorta thing, or, if he got it in a junk shop or second-hand shop, I can’t help wondering who last owned it, and what it was used for.

So, in a nutshell – ‘Eggshaped amulet’, or was it a tool for divination?  It could, of course, just be a pleasing object, and that serves a purpose, as much as anything else does.

Another exhibit of stones with interesting markings, is the  mysterious painted pebbles found at Buckquoy, Birsay

painted pebbles Orkney museum

To give some idea of what buildings were like back then, a model of Buckquoy……..

model of Buckquoy Birsay Orkney Museum

Before we leave the Picts to the tender mercies of the Vikings –  there is an Ogham inscribed spindle whorl, on which the inscription is a blessing in Old Irish –

ogham spindle whorl Orkney museum

Ogham? – http://www.ancientscripts.com/ogham.html

The Picts are famous for their symbol stones – though no-one has any real idea of what these symbols represented – there are animals, birds,  mirrors (?) figures, crosses, whirly things………..another ancient mystery…..

Picts stones Orkney museum

The next section, speaks for itself – loudly!!!

Vikings Orkney museum

……..and includes one of the many activity areas which are scattered among the exhibits.  This one is particularly good fun – it shows the elder futhark or runic alphabet, and has paper, stamps and an ink pad, so that you can write your name, or a message – of war or peace!

An amulet  carved from Walrus ivory, which was found at Beachview, Birsay, is possible evidence of North Atlantic trade, long before the Hudson Bay Company and John Rae  https://www.johnraesociety.com/

The bears tooth amulet, and bronze animal-headed mounts, were also found at Beachview, Birsay

Birsay was a busy place back then, and continued to be so…….  https://theorkneynews.scot/?s=Birsay

The Viking era, merges into the time of the Norse Earls………

The Norse Earls Orkney museum

……….who tended to be a waring, disagreeable lot – except for Magnus – after whom the Cathedral is named.  Exhibits from this time include some Medieval seals, and a ‘Family Tree’ of the Earls.

I must admit, I prefer the whimsical intepretation of the Norse Earl’s family tree, presented in the Orkneyinga  Saga Visitor Centre at The Bu  in Orphir  https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/10/29/mooching-about-at-the-bu/

Stepping forward quite a way, to a poignant exhibit labelled  “Huntsgarth Clothing – found in the peat bank grave of a child at Huntsgarth in Harray. Swaddling clothes with a Scotch bonnet laid on top.  Late 18th Century.”

grave goods tartan cloth late 18thC Orkney museum

This presents a window into the lives of the ordinary folk, leading their lives in what were more peaceful times than previously, but, the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t always peaceful, and some of the accoutrements of the fighting times, are exhibited here……….

By the 19th and 20th Centuries, on the Home Front, people could mostly get on with their lives, making and sitting on a traditional Orkney chair, and, if you were of the wealthier classes, dressing in the latest fashions….

I must admit, I find these faceless ladies to be creepy!  They reminded me of the ‘Weeping  Angels’ in Dr. Who https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blink_(Doctor_Who).  The ones which were still when you looked at them, but, as soon as you looked away – they got you!  I wouldn’t like to walk by that display case, on my own!

The 20th Century involved major wars, and ‘Fortress Orkney’ played its part……..

Fortress Orkney museum

The post-war years brought prosperity with the oil boom on Flotta https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flotta, and, at the height of the oil boom for Orkney, someone caught a drop of the precious oil, in Perspex – which is now a real time-piece……..

Flotta oil terminal 1977 Orkney museum

And finally – two aspects of Orkney life which may puzzle non-Orcadians. One, the tradition of dressing children up as ‘horses’ https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/gallery/2015/aug/17/south-ronaldsays-festival-horse-in-pictures

And The Ba’ – that somewhat explosive Yuletide activity, which I’m not sure anyone understands or knows the origin of – the museum has an explanatory display, including Ba’s of the past .  http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/bagame/index.html

And – because some things don’t change –

windy weather cartoon Orkney museum

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