“Statements that will hold good for all time are difficult to obtain in archaeology. The most that can be done at any one time is to report on the current state of knowledge.”Jennifer K. McArthur
The purpose and alignment of the standing stones at Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar has been of interest for hundreds of years to those who are seeking to find a meaning to where and how they were placed.
Towards the end of World War 2 service personnel with such an interest and who were stationed in Orkney took some measurements of stones at the Ring of Brodgar.
Lt. Col. Whitehead, stationed in Stromness, borrowed a theodolite from the Orkney County surveyor, J. Robertson, to record measurements from the centre of the Ring of Brodgar along sight lines.
He also tried to take measurements to work out the angle of the sunrise at Maeshowe Neolithic tomb from the Barnhouse stone but it was too cloudy and he was unable to succeed at this endeavour.
Although not a professional archaeologist Lt. Col. Whitehead had experience with ancient cultures in the East. With a small team of men under his command in Orkney he was trying to work out why the stones where erected where they were.
From his experience and recording of the area, Whitehead concluded that Bookan was the earliest feature because it is built on higher ground. Very little of the site remains visible but it is now realised this is all very much part of the whole Neolithic landscape in the area around Brodgar.
Whitehead then considered the Standing Stones of Stenness to be next to be built by Neolithic people. It was still thought at this time, 1945, that Stenness contained a dolmen. We know now that was not the case. New facts bring forward new interpretations.
Reporting for The Orkney Herald, John Cook, in 1945, reflected on the ideas which were prominent at the time that Skara Brae was not connected in any way with the Neolithic sites around the Brodgar area; all of which are now referred to as The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
He quoted Prof Gordon Childe’s version of the people of Skara Brae as ‘a humble, pastoral, non-warlike folk, partly Mediterranean, and partly native’. Of course, we know they were farmers but ‘humble’ and ‘non war-like’ – who knows?
Ideas put forward in the work of physicist Lockyer who worked out measurements on the alignment of stones, in Orkney and at Stonehenge were published in a book on the subject Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments. John Cook considered it ‘one of the most fascinating volumes I have ever read.’
Taking on board Lockyer’s ideas Cook also considered the findings of Magnus Spence on Maeshowe and the Barnhouse Stone. Spence said in his first thoughts of the Barnhouse Stone alignment with Maeshowe that ‘this line projected to the horizon, indicates the sunset point, on the shortest day of the year. ‘ Lockyer said that it was aligned for the summer and for decades views on the alignment swithered between the winter of the summer solstice. Lockyer went further with his interpretation to suggest that Maeshowe was the house of a priest and that its alignment with the Barnhouse stone was some sort of signalling device
Indeed it is at the setting of the sun in winter around the shortest days of the year in Orkney that a stream of light is sent down the passageway into the tomb of Maeshowe.
Using all those calculations it was estimated by Lockyer that Maeshowe was constructed in 700BC, whereas, archaeologist today give it a date of about 2,800 BC, over 5,000 years ago.
Sigurd Towrie has an interesting article on the Barnhouse Stone and the ideas of Lockyer and Spence here: The Barnhouse Stone
Changing views as more facts come to light and re- interpreting ideas is a crucial part of learning about our past, our present and our future.
“archaeology is still the most fun you can have with your pants on.”Kent Flannery