Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The First History-a mystery

      You are looking at perhaps the oldest discovered evidence of humankind on the planet.
     Both are on the windswept Orkney Islands, the northern reach of Scotland. Above are the Stones of Stenness. Below is Skara Brae, the site of the oldest archeological find on the planet. Both are shrouded in mystery.
  Skara Brae is at least 5000 years old, putting it before the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, Mayan, Incan, or Aztec temples. 
     A North Atlantic storm in 1890 stripped the dunes and laid bare evidence of a community on what is now the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest of the Orkney's.
   Skara Brae was a community. Individual stone homes, linked by tunnels and passage ways.
  Historical interpreters have fitted one of the homes with artifacts or replicas. Each home featured a kind of center shelf and cabinet.
  There were separate chambers for sleeping.
   The homes were built in a fashion of interlocking stones without the benefit of mortar. 
  The original excavation work was supervised by Gordon Childe of the University of Edinburgh from 1928-1931.
 Study and exhibitions have continued since. Skara Brae is a world heritage site.
  The builders were from what we call the neolithic or stone age. Stone age perhaps, but the people were clever, ingenious and reasoning. 
   I can't speak for the veracity of these images, but they are offered at the interpretive display as a suggestion of how life in the homes may have been conducted.
   This depicts what the homes may have looked like from the top.
   Scholars continue to study and speculate, but little is known about the people who lived here, or their fate.
    It's fascinating to consider that some of our earliest ancestors sketched indelible evidence of social order and intelligent life in an age most regard as a time of "cave men."
    And there is the mystery of from whence they came, the source of their knowledge and learning and where did they go. How much of their DNA may be pulsing through own bodies now?
    And a few miles south is yet more mystery.  
     On the shores of Loch Stenness are the Standing Stones.
   The Standing Stones of Stenness are a companion to the nearby Ring of Brogdar. They are from the era of Skara Brae and older than other standing stones like Stonehenge.

   Scholars think Brogdar was known as the Temple of the Sun and these Stones of Stenness were the Temple of the Moon. No one knows for sure, because they too are a mystery.
    Mystery is a companion to these stones as it is to all standing stones on the planet. How were they milled or cut? How were they transported the distances they were? Why were they placed where and how they were? Where did the knowledge of Astronomy derive?
       There were more Stones of Stenness, but in 1814 a tenant farmer, wary of the scholarly interest began to dynamite them. Scotland intervened and has cared for them since. 
        I find that hardworking farmer's behavior rather symbolic of modernity's lack of regard for the wisdom and knowledge of native and sovereign cultures.
     Some 500-600 miles south in Ireland is another UNESCO World Heritage site, of the approximate age. And the mysteries here are staggering.
Bru na Boinne, or Newgrange, is a marvel in County Meath, in Boyne Valley. It was built some 5,200 years ago and thought to be an ancient transit tomb.
   Newgrange is one of 3 such structures, with nearby by Knowth and Dowth. Each has a different astronomical alignment. 
         The sites are large circular mounds with inner chambers and stone passageways. Some 200 thousand tons of stone were used to build Bru na Boinne. The stones were cantilevered and stacked and no mortar or cement was used. It is nearly 300 feet across, 40 feet high and covers more than an acre.
   The tomb is partially covered with reflective white quartz stone on a base of kerb stones. The kerb stones are each between 1 and 10 tons.
   Some of the stones were from as far away as the distant mountains of Wicklow and Mournes, the tallest in Ireland.
  Human bones and grave offerings were found in the inner chambers. After it's original use it was sealed for several thousand years.
   Newgrange is a pivotal venue in Irish mythology and folklore. It is said to be a place of deities, particularly Dagda and his son Aengus.
   Dagda is regarded a father like king. He has powers of fertility, agriculture, manliness, strength, magic and wisdom and according to the mythology has influence over life and death. 
  Many of the kerb stones are covered with symbols. The site has a commanding view of the Boyne valley.

  There is no understanding of what the site was used for other than some ceremonial or perhaps religious activity.
     The entrance is built in alignment so on the winter solstice, December 21st, the sun enters the passage way via the top, the "roof box." It makes it's way into the inner chamber.

   We were not permitted to photograph the passage or the inner chamber. When the lights are out it is as dark as dark can be. A simulation of the solstice sun begins to illuminate the inner chamber and quite phenomenally the cantilevered and corbelled stones that arch above you begin to assume a soft glow and shapes. It is quite stunning. Magical perhaps.
    I am not fond of tight spaces and so our guide aligned me near the entrance of the inner chamber, my back to the passage way . Because the passageway is built on a slight incline, once you are in the inner chamber one would need to lay on their stomach and inch forward into the passageway to see out. What extraordinary architecture design!
    There is no agreement on the meaning of the megalithic art. Scholars also have differing theories on how long it took to construct.
    Mysteries remain at Bru na Boinne and the other Irish passage tombs. They are similar to sites in Scotland, Wales and Brittany.
    There was in fact a palpable and even physiological response to our experience in the chamber.
     For generations people cue up or enter lotteries for the opportunity to be in Newgrange, especially on solstice day. Many visit the site frequently. Though as our host Kay noted being a world heritage site, eventually the direct human contact with the inner chamber will likely end, so as to preserve it. The affect of human breath is being measured and they've begun to see a slight affect.

    So, I come away from these interactions with "Stone Age" mysteries marveling. Why, How, what did they know, what was the origin of their knowledge for construction, design, logistics, and what does it mean?
    These were fellow human travelers on this blue marble and we know so very little about them, or their intent. But they have left us mysteries and a history to ponder.

     See you down the trail.


  1. The Megalithic Temples in Malta also lay claim to be the oldest free standing
    structures in the world. Whatever; they're old enough.

  2. Very interesting, Tom, Thanks.

  3. Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey, is a temple estimated to be 11,000 years old. Skara Brey is believed to be the oldest archaeological site in Northern Europe.

  4. Great stuff, Tom

    I've got Scot/Irish and Welsh blood, then my Viking ancestors showed up. I should do my DNA.

  5. Oh, so wonder-full and fascinating! I had no idea these places existed. thank you for showing me.

  6. Fascinating, Tom, thanks for your great photos and commentary. I had no idea civilizations first humans built these underground homes, and furnished them so adeptly for a time without manufactured products. We are in Canada, see you soon.

  7. The Orkneys look fascinating, Tom. The achievements of the people are humbling. Your photographs are wonderful.
    Kay and Jack