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Standing Stones of Orkney

by Steve Nadel


(Frequent RQ photographer Steve Nadel traveled to the Orkney Islands last Fall and brought back these striking images of "stone henges" — relatives of the famed pre-Celtic stone circle near Amesbury, England.)

Orkney is a set of nearly 40 islands, detached from the extreme northeastern edge of Scotland during the ice age 10,000 years ago. Although settled from mainland Scotland during neolithic times, most of today's place-names reflect the widespread Scandinavian/Viking settlements of the 9th Century A.D.

Geologically, the islands are based on red sandstone. The nearly-perfect rectangular slabs (see Photo 1) provide easily-accessible building materials for its many neolithic structures.

The combination of readily available stone and Orkney's relative isolation (resulting in limited development beyond farmland) are responsible for the high level of remains of these ancient structures.

One excavated settlement, at Skara Brae, existed nearly 5000 years ago, between 2500 and 3100 BC. The size of the settlement indicates a small community of approximately 50 people.

Stone Henges

The Stones of Stennis and the Ring of Brodgar

Located 1-2 km apart, these two monuments constitute the ceremonial heart of Orkney. The ceremonial purposes of these rings is not known.

Similar to other henges in Britain, they consist of a circular bank with an outside ditch and one or two entryways, and circular rings of stone or timber. The importance of these two monuments is shown by the number of burial mounds in the immediate area.

The Ring of Brodgar is a perfect circle 104 meters in diameter. Although only 27 stones remain standing, if the stones were originally equally spaced, the complete circle would have contained 60 stones. The remaining stones range in height from 2 to 4.5 meters (6.5 to 15 feet). Three large burial mounds surround the ring, with smaller mounds linking Brodgar to Stennis and other nearby henges.

Out of the 12 Stones of Stennis, which stood in a 30-meter diameter circle, only four remain standing. The tallest is over 5 meters (16 feet).