The Rising & Setting of Ideas

“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
Ring of Brodgar at the summer solstice

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.

as the sun sets from Bookan (photo B Bell)

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.

Image credit Martin Laird

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?

Skara Brae image credit Bell

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.

Maeshowe Neolithic Tomb Orkney credit: Martin Laird

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
Barnhouse stone Image credit Bell

Fiona Grahame

5 replies »

  1. I have been visiting Orknet since 1986, to carry out theodolite surveys of the orientations of the monuments. The sightline from the centre of Stenness to the former position of the Odin Stone, that was found in 1987 by Colin Richards, has shown that before it was destroyed in 1814, it marked where the northern major standstill moon set about every 19 years. From the Deepdale standing stone, the former position of another stone slightly uphill to the south, was found to have marked the rising southern major standstill moon about every 19 years. The so called Comet Stone, and the stumps of its two companion standing stones, were aligned to the rising and setting midsummer sun, and the the rising and setting moon at a time we call the minor standstill. The two standing stones next to the Ness of Brodgar excavations are aligned to the setting sun in early May and August, some 45 days before and after midsummer. In the opposite dircetion these stones mark the sunrise in early November and February. The entrance to Structure 10, (The Cathedral) is aligned towards the sun rising above Maeshowe at the spring and autumn equinoxes. Some of the later surveys were inspired by the research of Magnus Spence. Spence didn’t get everything right, but he was spot on that from the Barnhouse Stone, the sun would have risen above Maehowe at the summer solstice 5000 years ago. Most of the proposed solar events have been photographed and these, and many other examples of solar and lunar aligned monuments on Orkney and Scotland can be seen in The Stones of The Ancestors.

  2. Howie (Firth) read Fiona’s article, and emailed me. I asked if I could quote him, and he agreed. So here is Howie’s response – all part of the story………

    “I can just remember Colonel Whitehead in Stromness in the early 1950s.There were several families in Stromness who had clearly come from elsewhere and were very much part of the life of the town, and whose names small children were familiar with from hearing them from their parents. I never knew about his interest in the ancient sites and the extent of the surveying that he did on them and the ideas he developed. What a fascinating man he must have been, and I am trying to think if there will be anyone left in Stromness who would have known him. The county surveyor from whom he was able to borrow the theodolite, J. Robertson, would have been the father of the late J. D. M. Robertson who wrote several superb books about Orkney’s past.

    And the mention of John Cook is also very interesting. He was a Latin teacher at Stromness Academy, and I think it was he who wrote the school song that generations of pupils sang at the annual prizegiving after some days of rehearsals!

    The Orkney News comes up with some brilliant articles, and this is treasure indeed. It will be very interesting to see if more can emerge about the story.”

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