Culture

A Broch By Any Other Name?

By Bernie Bell

Reading the UHI Archaeology Department’s blog, I saw an item about a small sliver of glass which has emerged during the processing of soil samples amassed during the last dig season at The Cairns broch, South Ronaldsay…. https://archaeologyorkney.com/2021/03/08/cairns-broch-sliver-may-be-a-fragment-of-roman-glassware/

So far, the glass found at The Cairns has all been in the form of beads  https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/06/17/the-varied-beauty-of-ancient-beads/, so this sliver, possibly from a glass vessel of some kind, is yet another exciting find from The Cairns, and, as site Director Martin Carruthers observed, this could indicate trade and travel between Orkney and the Roman world.

This brought to mind an exchange I had some years ago with a patient archaeologist who was happy to listen to my musings and ramblings about the ancient world.  He had mentioned going to a Conference which included information about Scottish brochs and Sardinian nuraghe but which, as he put it….. “didn’t argue for any connection!”

Sardinia is just off the coast of Italy………..simplest to present what followed…..

I started with……..

“I’d never heard of Sardinian nuraghe, but will now follow that trail, too. I just can’t see why folk are so reluctant to see how many sites link up, so clearly.  Why not?  Those people could travel, they did travel.  They maybe had a slightly different approach to travel as in, they possibly used the water more than we do now, but think of how much travelling can be done just using water?  I don’t have the facts to back it up, but I’m aware that there are lots of facts which can back up the idea that very, very ancient peoples were in contact with each other a lot – exchanging ideas and goods. 

Look at Gobekli Tepe and the Ness of Brodgar – to me, similar – and both were carefully covered over when ‘de-commissioned’. Gobekli Tepe is, I think, older than Brodgar, so, sharing ideas? 

Brochs are an odd sort of thing. In some ways they make sense as what they’re seen as being, and in other ways they’re very odd structures – more to them than is necessary for what is seen as being their function. 

Here’s a piece of ancient clever-ness which I like ……. we went to Shapinsay for a weekend and among other things visited the Broch of Burroughston.  The information board told us how, as there is no fresh water supply, the Broch builders had cleverly constructed a cistern which could collect the water as it percolated through the rocks. 

We could see how this would be so, as, when you look around inside the Broch, you can see little stalactites forming on the rocks as the water trickles through. 

I thought this was clever enough, but then we visited Auskerry, and were at the home of the owner of the island. I asked could I have a drink of water, and he asked me to say what I made of the taste of his water, because………….the island has no spring well either, so he pumps up some of his water, but his drinking water comes from….a cistern which the lighthouse keepers, many years ago, constructed to catch the water as it percolates through the rocks. 

Same method as the Broch builders, so long ago.  I liked that, it tickled me, the same method being used down all those years.  The taste?  I said it wasn’t so much the taste, as the texture, it had a kind-of silky feel to it, which will probably be from the lime in the water.

Isn’t life endlessly interesting?”

And again….

“I had a look at the Sardinian Nuraghe and they look very like Brochs, to me!  Even down to the stairways inside the walls.  The main difference I noticed is where they’re placed.  The Brochs, as you know, are mostly ’round the edges’, along the coastline.  Either for actual defence, or to say “Look at us, we’re big, and powerful”.  The Nuraghe seem to tend to be on alluvial plains, which is quite different, but….still, a structure like that, would stand out a lot on an alluvial plain, and would also say, “Look at us, we’re big, and powerful.” 

The piece I read actually stated that they couldn’t be compared to brochs, because the dates are wrong.  This is something which happens sometimes – not as much now as it used to – but still happens.  The idea that, if similar structures don’t date from just the same time, they can’t be connected.  Again, what about the idea that people travelled, saw new things, came across new ideas, and took them home and/or shared ideas and methods of building, and the ideas associated with the buildings?  The Sardinians could have been in contact with the Orkney folk – why not? 

Here’s a bit of a ramble, as it illustrates this stick-in-the mud attitude to dates……….

The house we lived in, in Suffolk, was said to have been built in about 1870.  We then found that it was likely to have been earlier, as a man came to change a light fitting in the kitchen ceiling and found reeds and horse-hair in the ceiling.  He was a local chap, who told us that people used to use reeds and horsehair as insulation, but this went out of practice before the 1870’s, so, that put the date back a bit. 

So, let’s say, for the sake of it, that the house dated from, maybe the 1850’s.  When Mike started digging the garden, he found a lot of rubbish down at the end.  Presumably, the cottagers used to burn their rubbish – no bin-men, in those days!  We found bits of broken crockery, which we’re pretty sure would date from the 18th Century.  This would probably be because the folk who moved into the cottage when it was new brought Granny’s ( or even Great-granny’s ) best china jug or whatever, with them. 

So, we get 18th century, or older, crockery, in a 19th century house.  I know it’s a bit of a leap from the Brochs and Nuraghe, but, to me, it’s a similar principle. 

I then ‘Googled’ – Sardinian Nuraghe images – and saw lots of pictures of them. They look like brochs, they seem to be built along the same lines as brochs.  A broch, by any other name?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuraghe

Another interesting line to follow, and another link to the idea of folk travelling the world, exchanging, or ‘borrowing’ ideas.  In this case, possibly a straight-forward case of traders, or travellers, picking up ideas along the way. 

But maybe links with the idea of a group of folk with The Knowledge, moving through the world, teaching, then moving on.  Probably using the ‘teaching aids’, which keep being found, now, and which we can learn from, if we choose to.

It’s another case of folk needing to widen their view, to not be so limited in their perception of what is in front of them.”

And the patient archaeologist said…..

“You mentioned Nuraghe in Sardinia.  From the outside they are similar to brochs but they are actually solid stone towers but containing a series of huge corbelled chambers inside, one on top of the other, and linked by a stairway in the solid bit.”

What do you think?  In Scotland we have The Caithness Broch Project  https://www.thebrochproject.co.uk/  I wonder if there is a Sardinian Nuraghe Project?  Maybe they could re-establish links?  A nice trip for Ken & Co!

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