Brogar Stenness and Maes Howe

These three monuments date from about the same period, 3000-2800 b.c. according to Mohen 1990, p. 132; Burl (1976, p. 101) suggests that Stenness and Maes Howe are slightly

18 In 18th-century Ireland and on the Isle of Man, the wren was killed on Christmas Day and was hung by a leg from two hoops crossed at right angles.

19 It was this feature that so impressed Thom and was so critical in the development of modern archaeoastronomy.

Figure 6.26. The (symbolic) killing of the sacred wren on Saint Stephen's Day, just after the winter solstice: It was sometimes depicted as the piercing of the bird with sticks, fastened to make a kind of armillary sphere. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

older than Brogar. The Brogar (sometimes, Brodgar) and Stenness monuments are rings of standing stones; Maes Howe is a tumulus or burial mound. All are located on the main island ("Mainland") of the Orkneys in the extreme north of Scotland. The latitude of these sites is ~59.0°. Stenness and Brogar are about a mile apart on an isthmus separating the Loch of Stenness from the Loch of Harray.

The Brogar stone circle monument (Figure 6.2) has a diameter of 103.6m (125MY), the same diameter as at Avebury (A. and A.S. Thom 1973, p. 122) and of the standing stone circle surrounding the great tumulus at Newgrange in Ireland. These dimensions make it one of the largest of the stone rings. The stone circle at Brogar is surrounded by a circular ditch with a diameter of 142 m. Thom and Thom (1973) argued that the site was used for lunar observations, although the dates assigned to this relatively high-precision activity, ~1560 b.c., suggest a very late refinement of use of an ancient site. The use of natural foresights on the horizon provides much greater accuracy as well as measurement precision, as we have noted (§§3.2.1, 6.2.4).

The "Standing Stones of Stenness" (Figure 6.27) are on a circle 31.1m in diameter, surrounded by a circular bank 61m in diameter. It has an entrance avenue to the NNW, thus, to the setting direction of the midsummer Sun. It originally had 12 stones.

Figure 6.27. A few of the Standing Stones of Stenness on the Mainland island of Orkney: The central rectangle is just visible. Photo by Sharon Hanna.

Burl identifies the Stenness henged ring as older than the other two sites on the basis both of stylistic considerations— he classifies Stenness as a class I henge and Brogar as class II—and 14C dates (timber and uncremated bone gave uncorrected 14C dates of 1730 ± 270bc and 2238 ± 70bc, respectively, and 2356 ± 65 bc was found for an animal bone found in the ditch). Many broken axe heads were found at Stenness.

Seventeenth-century tales (recounted by Burl 1976, p. 15) tell of Sun worship being carried out at Brogar and moon worship at Stenness. Less than a mile east of Stenness is Maes Howe.

Maes Howe is on a raised platform surrounded by an incomplete ditch. It contains a passage grave with a passage 24 m long and lined with flat slab walls and corbelled roof. It terminates in a square chamber adjoined by three square cellular chambers. The tomb is carefully constructed with fine stone workmanship, and it has been cited among Europe's finest megalithic constructs. A door into the chamber was deliberately cut lower so that it did not completely block the entrance, allowing light from the midwinter sunset to enter the tomb (Burl 1993, p. 63). This has an analog in the midwinter sunrise phenomenon at Newgrange, which is roughly contemporary. The Orkneys, formerly the Orcades, were named for the "Pig People." See § for a discussion of similar megalithic alignments on the "Big Pig" and "Little Pig" islands.

In addition to these sites is another, lesser known monument, the Ring of Bookan on a platform surrounded by a ditch about one mile NW of Brogar, which contains a passage grave. Also near Brogar is the Stones of Via passage grave, and a long mound and ~20 cairns. There are also four other passage graves within ~10km of Stenness. A village of stone houses at Skara Brae on the west coast of Mainland, Orkney, was recovered in the mid-19th century. From carbon 14 dating, its true dates of occupation were between 2400 to 1800 b.c. (Mohen 1990, p. 315).

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