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Human Impacts on Archeological Sites: A View from Orkney

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By Laurie Milne October 25, 2016 - 3:41pm

Over time human cultures through their daily activities have produced archaeological sites of infinite variety.  Sometimes these sites remained in a relatively pristine state due to rapid burial or fortuitous circumstances that favoured preservation, but other times human activities altered or even destroyed them.  These actions constitute cultural formation processes that are discussed in Unit 1.2 of the Anthropology 272 Study Guide.

I recently returned from a week-long tour of archaeological sites in Orkney, a group of islands located immediately north of Scotland.  The rich human history is divided into the following periods: Mesolithic hunter gatherers (7000-4000 BC); Neolithic farmers (4000-2000 BC); Bronze Age/Iron Age/Pictish peoples (2000 BC-AD 900); the Norse (900-1350); Scottish Earls (1350-1653); the Industrial Age (1653-1900); and the 20th century (including WW I and WW II). 

Orkney was first inhabited after the end of the last Ice Age by bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers.  These Mesolithic people arrived by 9000 years ago but left meager evidence.  It appears that they were the descendents of peoples who had inhabited Doggerland, a landmass on the site of the present North Sea (Renfrew and Bahn, Chapter 6) and who had moved north and west to escape increasingly unfavorable climatic conditions.  Sometimes Mesolithic remains are encoutered beneath the archaeological sites of later cultures and other times they have largely been destroyed.

By 7000 years ago, Neolithic farmers were thriving on Orkney and their influence would be profound.  They cleared the native woodland and introduced domestic cattle, sheep and pigs as well as crops such as bere barley.  They constructed permanent homesteads intially of wood but later using slabs of locally available sandstone.  Among the dozens of Neolithic habitations and ceremonial sites are Skara Brae, Maes Howe, Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, plus the nearby Watchstone and the Barnhouse stones which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. 

Orkney is famous for the abundance of massive chambered tombs constructed by Neolithic farmers to house their dead and there is abundant evidence that these tombs were entered, plundered and even used by subsequent cultures.  Maes Howe is a tomb and henge monument in use by 2700 BC.  The Orkneyinga Saga records  that the mound was entered in the 12th century and Norse runes or writings were incised on the walls.  Some inscriptions boast of the exploits of individual warriors, while others are demeaning gossip about local women!  Today we would call these  depictions graffiti!  The stones comprising the Ring of Brodgar also exhibit runic inscriptions including personal names of local folks and those from further afield.  The Odin Stone which stood in a field north of the Stones of Stenness was damaged by an early 19th century farmer who ued dynamite in an attempt to clear the monolith from his field. 

In the first millennium BC Iron Age people arrived and over time built tall stone towers or brochs as a symbol of their wealth and power.  Eleven brochs line the shores  of Mainland and Rousay which converge on Eynhallow Sound.The building stone for the brochs was the same sandstone used for Neolithic villages and tombs.  While available from bedrock exposures on the shore, there is also evidence that Iron Age bulders plundered nearby Neolithic sites to obtain stone which had already been cut and shaped.  After the main tower had fallen from use at the broch of Gurness, the stone was reused to build a series of small dwellings on top of earlier remains.  Later in the 9th century AD a stone- lined grave for a Norse woman was superimposed on the site.

Over the centuries there are many cases of tombs and mounds being dug up or entered by curious locals and antiquarians from abroad.  However, cultural formation processes are not the only factors that have impacted Orkadian archaeological sites.  Incessant winds and rising sea levels have exacted their vengeance on many coastal sites.  While Skara Brae was discovered due to marine and aeolian erosion, it remains under threat to the extent that a concrete barrier has been constructed to preserve the extant remains.  Current global warming and the associated rise in sea level pose future threats. 


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