There was an amazing story in the Guardian the other day about the discovery of some neolithic remains in Orkney. This is hardly surprising on the face of things- Orkney is covered in neolithic sites like pimples on a teenage face.
However, this site seems to have caused amazement in the archaeological world;
“We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine,” says discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. “In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres of land.”
Once protected by two giant walls, each more than 100m long and 4m high, the complex at Ness contained more than a dozen large temples – one measured almost 25m square – that were linked to outhouses and kitchens by carefully constructed stone pavements. The bones of sacrificed cattle, elegantly made pottery and pieces of painted ceramics lie scattered round the site. The exact purpose of the complex is a mystery, though it is clearly ancient. Some parts were constructed more than 5,000 years ago.
I love this story as it asks so many questions about who we are.
The place where we grew from in these islands appears not to be some southern soft plain. This complex is much older than Stonehenge, and a level of sophistication far beyond.
These people emerged from the background of creation (like Adam and Eve) then learnt how to survive (like Abel) before starting to farm (like Cain) then to trade and commune with one another (like Babel.)
And in the middle of it all, they searched for meaning, for spiritual significance, for connection with the heavens- so much so that they dedicated huge resources and time constructing these temples.
Whatever uses they put the temples (if indeed that is what they were) we will never know- and like any spirituality, it can never be understood in the abstract anyway- only in the immersion.
The temples are also a reminder that whilst we may have so much still in common with these ancient Orcadians, things also change- often in ways we may not expect;
Equally puzzling was the fate of the complex. Around 2,300BC, roughly a thousand years after construction began there, the place was abruptly abandoned. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones suggests that a huge feast ceremony was held, with more than 600 cattle slaughtered, after which the site appears to have been decommissioned. Perhaps a transfer of power took place or a new religion replaced the old one. Whatever the reason, the great temple complex – on which Orcadians had lavished almost a millennium’s effort – was abandoned and forgotten for the next 4,000 years.