The Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar are two of Britain’s best-preserved prehistoric monuments. They were built between 5,400 and 4,500 years ago. Our best guess as to their function is that they were involved in activities and ceremonies celebrating the relationship between living and past communities.
Archaeologists call monuments of this kind ‘henge monuments’. The henge itself was the substantial ditch and outer bank, a considerable physical obstacle around the circle of standing stones. The only way into and out of the circle was via causeways (one in the case of Stenness, two at Brodgar).
The two sites sit in one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in Europe. This was a place of stone circles, villages and burial monuments, where people lived, worshipped and honoured their dead.
Near Stenness and Brodgar are other incredible survivals from that far-off age, including most notably the chambered tomb of Maeshowe
and the village at Skara Brae
. This richness was formally recognised in 1999 when these and other lesser monuments were inscribed upon the World Heritage List as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site
The Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness may be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles, built around 5,400 years ago. The site now lacks its encircling ditch and bank, though excavation has shown the ditch to be 4m wide and 2.3m deep. The four surviving standing stones, stone stumps and concrete markers outline an oval that was around 30m in diameter.
The focus of the interior was a large hearth; it is still visible. That the hearth was significant can be seen from the line of features that marked the approach to it – a paved path, two stone settings, another setting that was apparently a second hearth, and finally the uprights of a three-stone ‘dolmen’. Pottery and animal bones recovered during excavation tell us that Neolithic visitors cooked and ate plenty of food at the site.
The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is one of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments in the British Isles. Thirty-six of up to 60 original stones survive. The Scottish geologist, Hugh Miller, visiting in 1846, wrote of those stones that: ‘they look like an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy’.
In contrast to the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, a near-perfect circle, is one of the largest of all Neolithic henge monuments, measuring 130m in diameter overall (the ring of stones itself is 104m in diameter). Two causeways cross the rock-cut ditch, which was originally 10m wide and 3.4m deep. The interior has not yet been excavated. In the absence of scientific dates, our best guess is that the Ring was constructed between 4,500 and 4,000 years ago. This would make it slightly later than Stenness.
Region – Orkney
About 5m North East of Stromness on the B9055.
Grid reference - HY 306 126.
Tel: 01856 841815 (Skara Brae).
- The landscape – a haven of heritage, built and natural.
- Stenness in context – seeing the Stones ‘cheek-by-jowl’ with the nearby contemporary human settlement at Barnhouse help us to ‘people’ these mysterious places.
- Walking the Ring of Brodgar – a simple enchanting experience