Liz Hutchinson

Walking Into Prehistory

Liz Hutchinson
Walking Into Prehistory

Orkney Islands 11 – 18 August, 2012

‘Scratch the ground and it bleeds archaeology’, they say on Orkney.  We scratched the surface, and found that there is far more waiting to be seen on a future visit.

Entering Maeshowe, the chambered cairn dating from 2750BC, we bent double to negotiate the 14.5m-long, 1.4m-high passageway.  Emerging into the central chamber was a wonderful experience: the beautifully crafted stone walls tapering upwards, the side cells where the dead would have been laid, the runes carved by Viking vandals, all described so fascinatingly by our guide.

Remaining behind as the rest of the party left, I was thrilled to see the sunlight reflected off the wet floor of the passageway onto the back wall of the tomb, looking remarkably similar to the illumination of the same spot by the midwinter sunset.

But the tomb at Taversoe Tuick on Rousay was perhaps even more remarkable for the atmosphere it generated.  We entered this two-storey chambered cairn through the upper chamber, then one person at a time was able to descend a metal ladder into the lower one.


The sensation of being buried among the Earth’s roots was overwhelming. The stone slabs forming the sides, floor and roof of the chamber had stood there for around 5000 years, guarding the bones of the ancestors, and looked as if they could be there for another 5000 years.  Returning into the sun and wind was a privilege not granted to the original occupants, but one we appreciated.

And then there were the homes of the living, the evocative Neolithic houses at Skara Brae and at Barnhouse, complete with stone beds, dressers, storage tanks, seats and hearths.

It was so easy to imagine life in one of these homes – fish from the nearby sea, shellfish from the beach, nuts and berries from the land, an early form of beer as well as barley bread, soft skins and furs to wear and to wrap around the babies, and songs and stories around the central fire.

The magnificent stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar, and the earlier Stones of Stenness, rival Stonehenge and Avebury. Even more incredible, the Ness of Brodgar – the astounding ‘temple’ complex now being revealed – is turning our understanding of prehistoric Britain around by 180?!  It was a wonderful privilege to see the work going on at this site.


The free guided tours by the Rangers at Maeshowe, Barnhouse Village and the Ness of Brodgar brought these discoveries alive; they explained the latest findings and theories clearly and concisely with entertaining anecdotes, and emphasised how much more has yet  to be understood.  A veritable feast of archaeology!