National Geographic : 2014 Aug
Before Stonehenge 47 wisdom that anything cultural must have come from the genteel south to improve the barbarian north,” laughs Roy Towers, a Scottish archaeo- logical ceramicist and the site’s pottery specialist. “It seems to have been just the reverse here.” Traders and pilgrims also returned home with recollections of the magnificent temple complex they had seen and notions about celebrating spe- cial places in the landscape the way the Orcadi- ans did—ideas which, centuries later, would find their ultimate expression at Stonehenge. Why Orkney of all places? How did this scat- ter of islands off the northern tip of Scotland come to be such a technological, cultural, and spiritual powerhouse? “For starters, you have to stop thinking of Orkney as remote,” says Caro- line Wickham-Jones, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. “For most of history, from the Neolithic to the Second World War, Orkney was an important maritime hub, a place that was on the way to everywhere.” It was also blessed with some of the richest farming soils in Britain and a surprisingly mild climate, thanks to the effects of the Gulf Stream. Pollen samples reveal that by about 3500 B.C.— around the time of the earliest settlement on Orkney—much of the hazel and birch woodland that originally covered the landscape was gone. “It’s been assumed that the woodland was More than 20 feet tall and 100 feet in diameter, Maes Howe required thousands of man-hours to build and a disciplined society of architects, engineers, and laborers.