Ancient Orkney artefacts show how "happening" islands influenced Stonehenge

A number of ancient artefacts which are more than 5,000 years ago have left Orkney for the first time to to illustrate how sophisticated ideas forged on the “happening” islands filtered through to the rest of the British Isles.

More than 30 items will go on show at a new British Museum show, The World of Stonehenge, which will show how thinking around monuments, rituals, pottery, art and housing in Neolithic Orkney came to influence those connected to the monument on Salisbury Plain.

The objects, including decorated stones, mace heads and furniture, have been excavated at Ness of Brodgar, a vast ritual site and domestic settlement in the heart of Neolithic Orkney.

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Dr Jennifer Wexler, curator of The World of Stonehenge, said Orkney was the most “happening place” at the time.

The Ness of Brodgar is a long, narrow isthmus of land between Loch Harray and Loch Stenness in Orkney, Scotland. The earliest buildings were constructed around 3,500 BC with ideas forged here going on to influence society across the rest of the country. PIC: Jim Richardson.
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She said: “A lot of the ideas we’re looking at in the exhibition, such as monumental places for people to gather at key times of the year and the development of influential types of pottery or house structures, originated in Orkney over 5,000 years ago.

“These ideas seem to be coalescing in Orkney and they are key to the story of Stonehenge.

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“We are using Stonehenge as a gateway to the wider world, but we want to show there was a level of sophistication and discussion between people that is very broad. It goes to Orkney, it goes to Europe.”

The earliest known structures at Ness of Brodgar were built around 5,500 years ago, with the main circle at Stonehenge built some 1,000 years later, although remnants of an earlier stone circle have been found nearby.

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Stonehenge was built around 1,000 years after the first-known buildings at Ness of Brodgar. PIC: Creative Commons.

A key item sent from Orkney is the Brodgar Butterfly, a piece of highly decorated stone. Similar patterns have been found on a chalk drum in East Yorkshire, which was buried in a grave of three children, with the design emerging around the time Stonehenge was built.

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Curators believe the drum connects communities in Orkney, Yorkshire, Stonehenge, Orkney and Ireland.

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Dr Wexler said: “We are discovering is that this shared artistic language leaves Scotland and moves into England.

A piece of 'butterfly stone' excavated from the Ness of Brodgar, with the design later found across the country. A piece of the decorated stonework will go on show at the World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. PIC: Jim Richardson.
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"Orkney seems to be this cultural hub which is taking ideas from other places and then massively developing them in a new way.”

A piece of stone dresser from a house at Ness of Brodgar will also feature.

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Dr Wexler said: "The Orkney dressers are the finest versions you can get. They show an interesting way of working. These pieces are connected to other important ritual sites, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge.

“We don’t know how many people are moving around, but there is certainly a dialogue going on. These ideas are filtering through and people are using them in a local way.”

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The earliest date for Ness of Brodgar is around 3,500 BC, with the main building, The Temple, deliberately destroyed in a great show and accompanying feast around 2,350BC – around the time Stonehenge was built.

Nick Card, excavation director at Ness of Brodgar, said: “To actually have our material there being exhibited next to some of the most iconic artefacts from the Neolithic era, including the Nebra Sky Disc and the Seahenge monument, is a huge accolade for the Ness and the hard work that all of our team has put in."

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