Letter from Orkney

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - June 22, 2021 - 12:00am

It is 11 o’clock at night on the eve of midsummer night or the summer solstice on the main island of the Orkneys, an island archipelago north of Scotland, which is itself, the north part of Great Britain. It’s still bright enough to look outside my window, far beyond where the sea starts 300 feet away, for miles across the sea harbor to the horizon which is lit by a sun that never really sets at this time of year in far northern parts of the world like this.

In modern times, these islands exist on the edge of human activity. The centers of power, money, arts and culture are inland, in places like Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. But it wasn’t always so. A group of monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic (the last part of the Stone Age) Orkney is so special it was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999 and they’re part of mounting evidence that here was a center of civilization in those times – like London is today.

Three of them stand in a line on a long finger of land between two lochs or lakes, and are known as the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe. These are far older than Stonehenge or the stone circle in Avebury in southern England and were deliberately situated within a vast topographic bowl formed by a series of visually interconnected ridgelines. They are evidence that people have been living here for 5,000 years and were described by UNESCO as “a paradigm of the megalithic culture of north-western Europe that is unparalleled,” because “they provide exceptional evidence of the material and spiritual standards as well as the beliefs and social structures of this dynamic period of prehistory.”

When you come across the four substantial surviving standing stones of the elliptical Stones of Stenness and the surrounding ditch and bank of the henge, the 36 surviving stones of the circular Ring of Brodgar with the 13 Neolithic and Bronze Age mounds that are found around it and the stone setting known as the Comet Stone, and the large stone chambered tomb of Maeshowe, whose passage points close to midwinter sunset, you are encountering mysterious links to a long forgotten past that nevertheless provide people who live here with a strong sense of identity linked to this place.

“It has an extraordinary history. There are very few places that can trace their ancestry back for 5,000 years and where the people actually feel connected with the last 5,000 years,” my host Ian Bell told me. “It’s just the history of the world really: a constant migration of people over long, long periods and in ways that we don’t even understand today, because the way people got here implies an understanding of the way the sea was, and the potential stopping off points along the way as you were coming from Europe. Nobody’s quite sure where the first people who arrived in Orkney came from, but they did come after the last great Ice Age, and some of the influences of the Ice Age are still present in the landscape.”

It is quite unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. There are very few trees, because the wind is so strong in the winter months. Those that have survived have done so because humans have assiduously and meticulously tended them. The main island, known as Mainland, is only 26 miles long with lush grassy plains and fertile farmlands and the surrounding ocean never so far away that you don’t sense it in the air and light. It’s incredibly beautiful; knowing the ancient history of the place gives its beauty a greater depth.

“It doesn’t look or feel like anywhere else in Britain. It has an atmosphere and appearance, a soul all of its own and when the sun shines on it, it’s like the waiting room of heaven itself,” said popular archaeologist Neil Oliver in a podcast describing the Ness of Brodgar, another stunning site, only found in 2003 between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. It is a group of buildings which are too big to be domestic structures and is thought to be a temple complex of some sort.  Built long before the Great Pyramids of Egypt, it is as important in terms of how much it will tell us about how ancient people lived and thought. The evidence shows it had immense importance and was in constant use for a thousand years.

“This was a ceremonial center, and a vast one at that. But the religious beliefs of its builders remain a mystery,” according to archaeologist Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University.

What is clear is that the few thousand farming folk of Orkney had an enormous energy to think about the world and build according to their thoughts that far outstripped those of other civilizations at that time. For many archaeologists, its discovery has revolutionized their understanding of ancient Britain.

“We actually don’t know who the original Orcadians may have been but we do know there were migrations from other areas like Scotland, probably from Northern Europe, and at that time it was shortly after the Ice Age and it was much easier to navigate because the sea levels were lower and there were more promontories, and islands along the way. But nobody’s quite sure about that,” Bell told me.

There’s a theory that because traveling by sea was so much easier than land, the Orkneys were a center of civilization and trade for the lands of what are now Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Ireland and beyond. As such, it may well be that what happened here influenced the way the entire ancient world was to develop.

At the center of the biggest Ness structure, a long thin stone stands apart from all the rest. It was placed in the ground on a straight north to south line; to the east and west it meets the gaze of other neolithic structures on these islands. What is it? What might it represent to us today?

I watch the horizon as the summer solstice approaches and imagine people in ancient times in this same place, watching the sun refusing to set and wondering about their place on these islands and in the universe and how they may have come to understand and live in the world. The same questions remain.

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